Smith was born into a musical family; his father was a member of Richmond Gospel music group The Harmonizing Four, and Lonnie remembered groups such as the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers (then featuring a young Sam Cooke) as regular visitors to the house when he was a child. He learned piano, tuba and trumpet in high school and college, graduating from Morgan State University, Baltimore with a Bachelor of Science degree in music education. He has since cited Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis as major influences on his youth. While still a teenager at college, Smith became well known locally as a backing vocalist as well as pianist, and played in the Baltimore area with a number of his contemporaries, including Gary Bartz (alto), Grachan Moncur (trombone), and Mickey Bass (bass). He also backed a number of jazz singers such as Betty Carter and Ethel Ennis when, soon after graduating, he began playing live with the house band at the Royal Theater, Baltimore.
Late in 1965, Smith joined Art Blakey's sextet, the Jazz Messengers, sharing the piano position with Mike Nock and Keith Jarrett. The Jazz Messengers, together with Miles Davis' group, were one of the main proving grounds for young up-and-coming jazz musicians, experimentally edgy and musically stretching, and both were an ever-revolving door of young modern jazz musicians as modes and moods rapidly changed during a fresh period of experimentation. Beginning with a live session at The Five Spot, New York City, November 9, 1965, Smith's time as a Jazz Messenger was fairly short-term, only lasting until a 3-gig engagement at The Village Vanguard 26–28 April 1966; by May 1966 his position was filled by Chick Corea. No recordings exist of this period.
Having guested on Gato Barbieri's 1969 album The Third World (Philips, 1969), Smith joined Barbieri's band from 1971-73. Barbieri had by then begun to temper his free jazz excursions of the 1960s with softer Afro-Cuban and South American textures in his music, which would influence Smith's playing into new directions in the following years. Smith played on a number of albums marking this transition, Fenix (Philips, 1971), the live album El Pampero (Flying Dutchman, 1972), Bolivia (Flying Dutchman, 1973) and Under Fire (Flying Dutchman, 1973). One further recording, El Gato (Flying Dutchman, 1975), was released after Smith had again moved on; from 1972 he had also taken up the invitation to join Miles Davis band on electric keyboards. Over the next year, during an intense period of studio recording by Davis, various line-ups laid down a considerable number of sessions, which were later inter-cut and remixed for final release. Miles Davis insisted that Smith learn to play the organ for the sessions: "Miles gave me two nights to learn how to make music on the thing. Miles liked to introduce new sounds in a surprising way — that's how he produced such innovative, fresh music." Smith's contributions appeared on "On The Corner" (Columbia, 1973) and the track "Ife" on "Big Fun" (Columbia, 1974).
While passing through Miles Davis' ever-changing line-up, Smith had finally formed his own group, 'Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes' in 1973, together with his partner in Pharoah Sanders group, Cecil McBee, on bass, George Barron (soprano and tenor sax), Joe Beck (guitar), David Lee, Jr. (drums), James Mtume(percussion), Sonny Morgan (percussion), Badal Roy (tabla drums), and Geeta Vashi (tamboura). Blending atmospheric fusion, soul and funk, Smith was encouraged by Bob Thiele, the owner of Flying Dutchman Records, who had produced both Pharaoh Sanders' and Gato Barbieri's output while Smith had been in their bands, the latter for Thiele's newly formed label. For his debut album, Astral Traveling (Flying Dutchman, 1973), Smith re-recorded the title song he had composed and played on with the Pharoah Sanders band two years previous.
After the crossover success of the 1970s, and continuing interest in and discovery of his earlier work by fans of the new 'Quiet Storm' late night radio/smooth jazz format, Smith moved to Bob Thiele's new label, Doctor Jazz, and had a minor hit in 1983 with "Never Too Late". He also appeared in Marvin Gaye's backing band at the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival, which has since been released on both CD and DVD (Eagle Vision, 2003). However, public interest slowly waned in his newer material as the decade wore on, and the Cosmic Echoes eventually dissipated during the mid-1980s after releasing a further three albums, Dreams of Tomorrow(Doctor Jazz, 1983), Silhouettes (Doctor Jazz, 1984) and Rejuvenation (Doctor Jazz, 1985).
In October 1986, he moved closer to his musical roots with "Make Someone Happy" (Doctor Jazz, 1986), an acoustic session that included new recordings of several jazz standards by the trio of Smith, Cecil McBee and Al Foster, produced by Bob Thiele. However, despite critical acclaim for this work, Smith found himself without a recording contract until the turn of the decade, when the small Startrak label released Love Goddess (Startrak, 1990) and Magic Lady (Startrak, 1991). "I had a lot of idealistic concepts about music, and about the spiritual message I was trying to get across. But most record companies only care about demographics and bottom line sales." Both of the Startrak albums marked an about turn to the smooth jazz mode of the Cosmic Echoes period, "Love Goddess" featuring vocalist Phyllis Hyman and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.
Around this time, the emerging hip-hop movement took an interest in Smith's earlier work, and he found himself working with rapper Guru, who was mixing hip-hop with jazz in an innovative way. "Guru and the other rappers would tell me how their uncles used to make them listen to me and Miles and Donald Byrd and how they got the message" Smith told Australia's Daily Telegraph Mirror newspaper in 1995. Smith appeared on Guru's groundbreaking "Jazzmatazz, Vol 1" album (Chrysalis, 1993), once again finding a new audience for his earlier work as a result. He had also toured Europe in 1991, but after this short period of activity Smith produced little further work in the 1990s. Despite extensive radio play, appearing on a number of compilation albums and being name-checked and sampled by an increasing number of younger musicians discovering his Cosmic Echoes output, he spent the next few years mainly involved in setting up his own label, Loveland, and it was not until 1998 that Sony International took advantage of his new found audience by reissuing Exotic Mysteries and Loveland as a double CD. The same year, he recordedTransformation (Loveland, 1998), once again revisiting the genre he had been most successful in and reuniting with his brother Donald's vocals. For this release he re-recorded "A Chance For Peace (Give Peace a Chance)" (both as vocal and instrumental versions) and "Expansions" as well as "Space Princess".
Since then he has not recorded, although he has performed live and toured on a number of occasions, especially in Europe and Japan, where he remains popular with new generations of listeners. He has also spent much of his time teaching at various workshops. In 2002, Sony issued a double album retrospective of his Columbia output, Explorations: The Columbia Years, and his compositions remain a feature of jazz fusion orientated radio and CD compilations. The Cosmic Echoes track, "Expansions" has been featured in two videogames: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Driver: Parallel Lines, while "A Chance for Peace" featured in Grand Theft Auto 4. He most recently appearing on the Jazz World Stage at the Glastonbury Festival in June 2009. - wikipedia