James Harrell McGriff was born on April 3, 1936, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, birthplace of many of jazz's greatest organists. He started playing piano at the age of five and by his teens, was also playing alto sax and upright bass. His first group was a piano trio, which found him playing bass in the band. When he joined the Army, McGriff served as an MP in Korea and settled in on a career as police officer for Philadelphia's finest, a gig which only lasted a little more than two years.
Music kept drawing McGriff's attention away from the police force. His childhood friend, organist Jimmy Smith, had begun earning a substantial reputation in jazz for his Blue Note records (the two played together once in 1967) and McGriff became entranced by the organ sound while Richard "Groove" Holmes played at his sister's wedding. Holmes went on to became McGriff's teacher, friend and, on two occasions in 1973, his sparring partner for two Groove Merchant records.
In April 1960, McGriff made the switch and started playing organ. He was greatly influenced by the energy and dynamics of organist Milt Buckner and the diplomatic aplomb of Count Basie. But such local pianists as Sonny Gatewood, Howard Whaley and Austin Mitchell held his favor too. McGriff formed a combo that played around Philadelphia and often featured upcoming tenor sax player, Charles Earland, who soon switched permanently to organ when he saw how much fun McGriff was having at the organ. During this time, McGriff also accompanied such artists as Don Gardner, Arthur Prysock, Candido and Carmen McRae who came through town for local club dates.
In 1961, McGriff's trio was offered the chance to record an instrumental version of Ray Charles's hit "I've Got A Woman" by Joe Lederman's Jell Records, a small independent label. When the record received substantial local airplay, Juggy Murray's Sue label picked it up and recorded a full album of McGriff's trio, released in 1962. The album also turned out another huge hit in McGriff's "All About My Girl," firmly establishing McGriff's credentials as a fiery blues-based organist, well-versed in gospel soul and fatback groove.
McGriff recorded a series of popular albums for the Sue label between 1962 and 1965, ending with what still stands as one of his finest examples of blues-based jazz: BLUES FOR MISTER JIMMY. When producer Sonny Lester started his Solid State record label in 1966, he recruited Jimmy McGriff to be his star attraction. Lester framed McGriff in many different groups, performing a wide variety of styles and giving the organist nearly unlimited opportunities to record. McGriff was heard everywhere: from an all-star tribute to Count Basie (THE BIG BAND), a series of "Organ And Blues Band" records (of which, 1969's A THING TO COME BY, is the best), pop hits (CHERRY, THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT) and out and out funk classics (ELECTRIC FUNK and such singles as "The Worm" and "Step 1").
During this time, McGriff actively performed at clubs and concert halls worldwide. He settled in Newark, New Jersey, and eventually opened his own supper club, the Golden Slipper - where he recorded BLACK PEARL and a live album with Junior Parker in 1971. Beginning in 1969, he also performed regularly with Buddy Rich's band, though the two were only recorded once together in 1974 (THE LAST BLUES ALBUM VOLUME 1).
McGriff "retired" from the music industry in 1972 to start a horse farm in Connecticut. But Sonny Lester's new record company, Groove Merchant, kept issuing McGriff records at a rate of three or four a year. By 1973, McGriff was back - touring relentlessly and actively recording again. Around this time, disco was gaining a hold in jazz music and McGriff's flexibility proved infallible. He produced some of his best music during this period: STUMP JUICE (1975), RED BEANS (1976) and OUTSIDE LOOKING IN (1978). These records, issued in some form or another on CD, still stand out today as excellent documents of McGriff's organic prowess.
By 1980, McGriff broke away from Sonny Lester and began working actively with producer (and former funk lord) Bob Porter (and recording master Rudy Van Gelder). McGriff began a long relationship with Fantasy's Milestone label, which has caught him in a wide variety of circumstances featuring such headliners as Rusty Bryant, Al Grey, Red Holloway, David "Fathead" Newman, Frank Wess and young gun Eric Alexander.
In 1986, McGriff started a popular partnership with alto sax man Hank Crawford. Their partnership has yielded a few interesting moments (1987's SOUL SURVIVORS and 1997's ROAD TESTED). But it was only during their brief - and not very interesting - period at Telarc in the mid 1990s where McGriff's name headlined the popular club and cruise ship attraction.
Between 1994 and 1998, McGriff also experimented with the Hammond XB-3, a sort of synthesized organ that increased the organ's capabilities with MIDI enhancements. This gave McGriff an unnatural synthesized sound, which probably explains his retreat from the instrument on such recent efforts as 2000's funky McGRIFF'S HOUSE PARTY (featuring fellow organist Lonnie Smith).
Too much of the talk about Hammond B-3 great Jimmy McGriff centers on what kind of player he is. Jazz? Blues? Gospel? R&B? Well, the man considers himself a blues player. But he's a considerable player of many abilities and has managed over four decades to appeal to a diverse audience of listeners.
McGriff's best work probably sits well with the good stuff of Booker T. & The M.G.s, Junior Walker or King Curtis - other talents who've found success reaching peoples' soul, feet (or, worse, for jazz) their wallets.
From my perspective, no other organist can touch the feeling James Harrell McGriff inspires in a blues or gospel groove. He also knows how to dig in and rip apart a funk bag, proving time and again that he's one of the all-time best of the organ groovers.
To this listener, Jimmy McGriff's finest - and most diverse - work was made for Sonny Lester between 1966 and 1978 on such labels as Solid State, Blue Note, United Artists, Capitol, Groove Merchant and LRC. Here, McGriff covered the blues, jazz, easy listening, swing, funk and disco winningly.
Certainly, there are other Jimmy McGriff albums worth checking into. BLUES FOR MISTER JIMMY (1965), THE DREAM TEAM (1996) and McGRIFF'S HOUSE PARTY (1999) come to mind. But there's something much more exciting about so much of the music McGriff made while working with Sonny Lester.
The following discography represents the entirety of organ great Jimmy McGriff's recording career, though. If you see anything inaccurate, incomplete or missing, please let me know. Until then, just enjoy the McGriffin' of Jimmy McGriff