Joey DeFrancesco, Who Helped Revitalize the Hammond B-3 Organ, Dies at 51


​DeFrancesco recorded his first album and toured Europe as a member of Miles Davis’ band at age 17.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

The music world is mourning the unexpected passing of Joey DeFrancesco, who died Aug. 25 from a massive heart attack, according to a statement released by Hammond Organ World. The noted organist and multi-instrumentalist was 51.

A generational talent, DeFrancesco was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania on April 10, 1971, to “Papa” John, a railroad electrician and organist/vocalist, and Laurene DeFrancesco. He began playing organ when he was 4 years old and had memorized Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon” in six months when he was 5, according to a 1992 DownBeat profile.

After studying classical music from ages 10 to 14 at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, he enrolled in the city’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). His classmates there included drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, bassist Christian McBride and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. “I came into school one day at 8 a.m. to find Joey and Christian McBride burning through ‘Giant Steps’ at an impossibly fast tempo, rollicking and laughing the whole way,” Rosenwinkel wrote on his Facebook page in memoriam.

In 1987, DeFrancesco placed fourth in the inaugural Thelonious Monk Piano Competition (Marcus Roberts won that year). He toured Europe as a member of Miles Davis’ band at 17 and also recorded All Of Me, his first of five albums for Columbia, with Houston Person guesting on two tracks. His final side for Columbia, 1993’s Live At The Five Spot, featured Person again as well as fellow tenor men Illinois Jacquet, Grover Washington Jr. and Kirk Whalum. A year later he was playing trumpet, inspired in part by his time with Davis, and by his mid-twenties he was drumming and singing, too.

Subsequent recordings on labels such as HighNote and Big Mo Records, Concord Jazz and Mack Avenue established him as the most notable organist of his generation. He also did high-profile recordings with Van Morrison, Bette Midler and Joe Pesci (ak.a. Joe Doggs). Highlights in his recorded career include Goodfellas (Concord, 1999) an Italian American cultural celebration with guitarist Frank Vignola and drummer Joe Ascione; Incredible (Concord, 2000), which was recorded at live at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco and features two medleys with his mentor Smith; and For Jimmy, Wes And Oliver (Mack Avenue, 2020), the Christian McBride Big Band album that reunited the “best friends,” according to the bandleader, and other CAPA alumni.

“I’ve never had a problem saying that Joey DeFrancesco was hands-down the most creative and influential organist since Jimmy Smith,” McBride wrote in an official statement. “In terms of taking the organ to the next level and making it popular again for a younger generation, no one did it like Joey. He truly set a new bar and his legacy will live on as such.”

“The resurgence of the organ has a lot to do with myself,” DeFrancesco said in a 1996 interview for the San Jose Mercury News. “I was 17 when my first record came out, and I was on a major label. And for a while there was really no new face. … I feel very responsible for the resurgence.”

Late in his career, DeFrancesco added saxophone to his arsenal. “You know, my grandfather was a saxophone player, and played with the Dorsey Brothers,” he explained in a November 2021 DownBeat cover story by J.D. Considine. “Joseph, who I’m named after. So there was always some saxophone history in the family. My father kept his horns, and thank goodness he did, because those were there when I wanted to dabble with the instrument.”

“I always used to say that God gave Joey enough talent for 10 musicians,” remarked Pete Fallico, a Hammond B-3 evangelist. The Silicon Valley resident met DeFrancesco in San Francisco back in the early ’90s and had collaborated with him on and off ever since. “Mind, body and soul, he’s probably one of the most gifted musicians we’ll ever see.”

DeFrancesco is survived by his wife, Gloria; his daughter, Ashley; his son, Donny; his parents; and his siblings John and Cheryle. DB

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