Posted August, 2012
As the story goes, a thirteen year old Kim Simmonds secretly ordered a guitar through a mail order company. The guitar had to be assembled, which the young Welsh man immediately did. He began listing to various rock ‘n roll and blues bands and started imitating their sound on his cheap guitar.
That was in 1961. Four years later, young Kim started a band called Savoy Brown. One year later, the band was one of the first British blues bands to record. In the forty-seven years since the band formed, it has enjoyed a roster of musicians that has included three of the four original members of Foghat as well as members of Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, U.F.O., Robert Cray and other great acts.
Over the years, the band also has had the distinction of jamming with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and opened for such acts as Cream and went on to have bands such as KISS, Jethro Tull and AC/DC open for them.
Kim Simmonds has single handedly managed to keep Savoy Brown alive and rockin’ to this very day. he band enjoys quite an active tour schedule as well as Kim hitting off on his own solo shows. In fact, Simmonds is part of this summer’s Rock N’ Blues Fest, joining Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer, and Mountain’s Leslie West for what promises to be a memorable and historic tour.
With that tour coming up, I had the privilege of calling Kim at his home in upstate New York to discuss the tour as well as his view of the current state of the blues and the music business. Immediately gracious, I knew that I was in for a real treat speaking with such an iconic blues man – especially one with such a classy accent!
With the aforementioned stellar line up for the Rock ‘n’Blues Fest Tour, I asked Simmonds if he had ever worked with any of those gentlemen before.
“Interesting. Let me think. Years ago, when Leslie was starting out, I invited him up on stage to jam with Savoy Brown and I think that he remembers that as a pivotal point for him. That was on Long Island. In the last few years, I guested on one of Leslie’s albums and we’ve done lots of dates together over the years.
“Rick Derringer, we’ve done dates together – all the artists! The Winter brothers, we’ve done dates together from the sixties on. Leslie’s probably the only one that I’ve actually played with, so to speak. But all the artists I’ve done shows with throughout their respective careers so I’m very familiar with them as artists. I’m a fan of music, as well, and follow everybody.”
As for how each show is going to be staged and staffed, band wise, Kim shared, “We’re going to share Edgar Winter’s band. From what I gather, they’re going to be like the ‘house band’. I’ll go on and do my piece, which will be a selection of Savoy Brown classics and I’m sure that everybody will do a selection of their hits.”
When I asked if they were going to do their own blues work or blues covers, Simmonds said, “To tell the truth, I find it a little tiresome when I see artists do blues covers that we’re all familiar with – unless you can do them in a fresh way. I enjoy the challenge of a classic blues tune and doing it in a fresh way but there’s so much Savoy Brown material. The reason that I’m doing it is that I’m hoping, perhaps, to play to people who are not particularly familiar with me.
“If you come to a Savoy Brown show and see me play, I’ll take a lot of chances because I’m playing to an audience that know who I am. If I go out on a limb, they understand that. But, in an audience like this, I’m hoping to play to some fresh faces but they’re not ready to be taking out on that limb. So, I’ll just try to pitch it right down the middle, I guess.
“I’ll do some improvisation, there’s no doubt about that. But, I’ll often play acoustic stuff, for instance, in a Savoy Brown show. I’ll improvise with an acoustic. That can be challenging, even for my fans. I just think that this kind of tour, where I have a limited amount of time and exposure, I better make sure that I play songs that are readily identifiable with me.”
I couldn’t chat with one of the statesmen of the blues without asking his learned opinion about the state of the blues today from his vantage point.
“It’s very important when you play, period – whether you’re playing blues or any kind of music – that the music is the most important thing and that the audience is the most important thing. If you put yourself as the most important thing, then you’re not doing the music any service – especially with blues. It’s a very small genre. It’s the music that’s the important thing. On top of that, you’ve got to try to break through and have hits with what you’re doing.
“One thing Savoy Brown did in the sixties – and I think it was very important and I think that I can speak like this even though it’s not acknowledged in the mainstream – I know for certain that Savoy Brown had a huge impact on people with blues because we had hits. People said, ‘What is this song?’ Perhaps we covered a Muddy Waters song. Who is McKinley Morganfield? Lots and lots of people have said that, through Savoy Brown, they discovered McKinley Morganfield was Muddy Waters. When we came over here, all we were interested in doing was saying, ‘Hey! There’s such a guy as B.B. King playing!’ In the sixties that wasn’t common knowledge. The music we were playing was certainly more important than us. And, then, we had hits playing the music. They weren’t number one hits, of course, but they were hits. Suddenly, people were hearing on FM radio these songs that were really, essentially, blues songs. There was blues guitar and blues vocals.
“One thing we’re lacking today is, a) people having a tendency to be more focused on themselves and not enough on the music and, also, we are not getting breakthrough artists having hits – getting into the charts. And that was the case through the fifties. Jimmy Reed would have R&B hits. The artists would have hits. Some of them would cross over into the pop charts.
“I’m hoping that we would have some younger artists who are able to do this – to focus on the music, put themselves aside, and try to develop songs that will really grow the music. The only way to broaden out is for artist – and I would presume up and coming artists – and I don’t me to commercialize or sell out or anything like that – I mean really focus in and really get things so that your appeal is broad. Nowadays, I think it’s quite obvious that people aren’t having hits with blues songs so, therefore, the music is not broadening. And, throughout the years there’s been people who were playing blues and were having hits. The last that I can think of off the top of my head – and I wouldn’t say that they were a solid blues band – but Blues Traveler had some hits there. You had this harmonica driven band and it was rootsy and so forth.
“So, what I’d like to see is some of the younger blues artists break through. I think we need that and I’m really crossing my fingers that some of them will cross over and reinvigorate the music. It doesn’t matter how good of a guitar player you are; it doesn’t how good of a singer you are; can you put it into a musical form? Can you put it into a song that will resonate with people? Guitar playing doesn’t necessarily resonate with a lot of people. It does but it only resonates if it’s within the context of music that resonates with them.”
Then, putting a nice bow on his view about the blues, Simmonds concluded, “There’s no doubt about it, it’s a genre that will never go out of fashion. I still love to hear blues guitar, blues singing. It’s soulful where a lot of music isn’t soulful. And I think it’s an antidote to music that gets too syrupy and sugary. So the blues definitely has a place. But it’s very important that we all realize that it’s the music and not ourselves and that we all realize that we’ve got to try further the music and that it’s not necessarily about furthering ourselves.”
With a career that spans seven decades, I asked the blues icon what saw as the biggest changes, positive and negative, in the music business.
“I think the most negative is the technology that has – while it’s very, very good and makes our life better as musicians, it also can be counter-productive. I would take guitar effects away from every blues guitar player. I don’t understand why a blues guitar or a jazz guitar player or a roots guitar player – and I talk about guitar players because I’m a guitar player – why do you need effects? It’s all about transposing your feelings through an instrument. Blues is a very, very direct, plain, simple music. The more you complicate it and the more you let technology take over – and believe me, I’m talking as someone who has made all the mistakes! – it’s a dead end. I think a lot of blues and roots artists are in it for that reason.
“I’ve seen a lot of them who are terrific musicians but will be playing with too many effects and letting that get into the way. It destroys your personality. It’s like that in all genres. Like in movies, we all know the movies we watch ten years later and somehow it’s all terribly dated. It has too many effects that pertain to that particular period. The great thing about blues, it had no effects! You can play a Howlin’ Wolf song now, it sounds AMAZING! Amazing! It’s like, wow! And it’s because it had no effects – and don’t forget that there were effects around in the past – and they had none of those effects.
“So, one of the failings is the way that technology has dominated the music scene. I don’t know how you deal with that. Can you take a little bit of it and leave the rest? One would like to think so, but it’s such beguiling, technological world we live in. We see everybody with a telephone and all the modern conveniences. That’s seeped into music. And that’s fine for certain kinds of music but I wouldn’t think that it would be appropriate for blues and roots music.
“What’s the ‘ups’ of the music business? The ups are that the world really hasn’t changed at all. People still pick up a guitar, pick up an amp, go into a garage with three other people and start making a band. That hasn’t changed since Presley came around. So that’s the good thing. People are still doing exactly the same with the same instruments and the same equipment that people did fifty years ago.”
And what would Kim do to fix the music business if he were made the music czar?
With just the slightest of hesitation, Kim replied, “I would take foot pedals away from every guitar player! I’d ban them! Of course, there’d be little speakeasy’s with the technology in them!”
What haven’t you done or accomplished yet that you would still like to do? You’ve jammed with some of the biggest names in music history. Is there anyone who you haven’t jammed with who you wish to?
“Yeah, I think that I’ve so satisfied myself in the fact that I’ve met my heroes. I’ve played with my heroes. I missed the opportunity to play with some of them. I think if you asked me who I would like to jam with, there are some people have now passed away. I wish I had taken the opportunity when I had it to introduce myself. Perhaps I was too shy or intimidated and I let an opportunity go by. Sometimes, you don’t really understand who’s really important to you until you get older. Sometimes YOU think you’re the most important thing and as you get older you realize that you’re far from being the most important thing.
“The most important thing are the people who’ve influenced you and, sometimes, you bury those. Sometimes, you don’t want to admit, perhaps, that somebody was a big influence on you because you think that it’s not cool to say that. But the older you get, you go, ‘Man! This person was so important to me. I had the opportunity and I didn’t take it!’
“So, there are some regrets like that. One of my regrets is with the guitar player, Billy Butler, who played with Bill Doggett and was a huge influence on me. I have a story where I jammed with Charles Brown in New York City and I borrowed the guitar player’s guitar and played with Charles Brown and had a good time. I came off stage and sat the guitar down and looked over and the guitar player looked like he might not have been in the best of moods. Normally, I would go up and say, ‘Thank you for letting me use your guitar.’
“Well, I felt a bit intimidated so I didn’t. Of course, it was Billy Butler and it was my opportunity there to say hi and converse with who I think is one of the greatest guitar players ever. I didn’t. So, there’s a regret there.
After you’ve stepped off the tour bus of life for the final time and walked up to that great stage in the sky, how do you want to be remembered and what do you hope your legacy will be?
“Well, I think I would simply like to be remembered as one of the architects of the British blues movement of the sixties. Hopefully, I’d like to think that I was one of the finest exponents of it. But, you know, that’s for others to decide. But, simply that, really. I’d like to be remembered for the contributions I’ve made to British blues and the blues scene from the British standpoint. And the band! More than me, I’ve used the band to try and create the music that is really special to people.”