By Pat Prince
There is so much rich history in Savoy Brown; not only the historical influence of the Blues, but in the band itself. Through the years, bandleader, guitarist, and occasional singer, Kim Simmonds, has taken the band in the wake of Swinging London to the modern music world today.
The band achieved more success in the States than they ever did in England, as they promoted their albums with non-stop U.S. tours. But they never strayed from their blues sound for a more commercial appeal.
Kim Simmonds continues to tour with a refreshed line-up of Savoy Brown, which includes new singer Joe Whiting. He also performs the occasional solo gig. And in more recent years, Simmonds has found creative solace as a painter. His van Gogh-ish patterns of guitar "still-life" have attracted the interest of quite a few galleries. And one of his guitar paintings adorns the album cover of his latest solo venture, "Out of The Blue."
We had the chance to catch up with Kim Simmonds this year, during a rare moment when he was not on the road.
When did you first get into painting?
Kim Simmonds: I got into it about fifteen years ago, and just steadily moving along. And the last couple of years I thought, 'I can introduce this to the world, and it can be something I can do in the later part of my life' kind of thing. I have a Web site and a gallery in the Syracuse (NY) area that covers the paintings. See where it can take me. But usually I paint on a daily basis and it goes along with the music, really. I have a lot of creative energy to expel. I have had creative energy all my life, and it's a blessing. I am blessed that I can turn my hand to a number of creative endeavors.
You're a renaissance man of sorts.
Simmonds: Aware that you have a lot of capabilities and use them all to the best of your ability throughout your life. It's a fun thing to do, painting. It's exactly the same process as playing music.
Ron Wood is another musician who turned to painting.
Simmonds: Well, I think he's done it all his life. He went to art school and all that. If I weren't a musician, I'd probably collect musician's artwork. It interests me. (laughs)
History has had its share of popular musicians who started out in art school.
Simmonds: I never want to art school. I never went that route. I was brought up by my older brother who played all sorts of music. By the time I was thirteen, I knew what was going on with music. I think I would have done well in art school. It just never occurred to me. I just wanted to get out of school, fast, you know. Get into the world and really make an impression.
You were always an entrepreneur, too. Once opening up your own blues club.
Simmonds: Well, I guess so. With John O'Leary, the harmonica player I started with. I think from the start that entrepreneurial spirit was always there and I did the same thing when I started a band and rehearsed a band.
Sometimes, in this world, you have to make things happen.
Simmonds: That's very, very true. That's exactly it. The Stones had moved on and a lot of the R&B groups had moved on and the scene was flat by the time we came around. It was probably the worst time to form a blues band, back in that era.
The U.S, seemed to have accepted Savoy Brown more than England over the years. You did a lot of touring in the U.S. back then.
Simmonds: Well, we were initially very successful in England. And then it kind of flattened out and we didn't really see a future there anymore. We came to the States and all of a sudden it became clear that that's where the band was always destined for. I still have ambivalent feelings about the British Isles, you know, because America has been so good to me.
Did it bother you that you've had more success in the U.S.?
Simmonds: It didn't bother me in the least because this is where everybody wants to come, where everybody wants to be successful. If you can be successful everywhere that's great, you know, but …
That's only for The Stones, I guess.
Simmonds: Yeah, you got to be a superstar … exactly. (laughs) But I'll take America any day. And I eventually moved over here, of course.
Do you still find touring enjoyable?
Simmonds: Yes, I mean, it's very demanding. It's exactly the same as it was when I was a teenager but now it's harder to control one's nueroses that you bring to the table. When you were younger, you just did it. The sitting around, the endless waiting, all the traveling, it is obviously more challenging when you get older. The actual playing of the music, and meeting the fans and doing the shows is really important.
I've come to realize that I do have a role to play and I think that it's an important role. I do feel, on a higher level, that I have to go out there and play my role and I do think a lot of people understand the role I play. I do know that I am fulfilling a role. And that is what is really encouraging to me. I wouldn't want to do this and not make it important. Because I always thought blues music was very important when no one else thought it was important. And it turned out to be very important (laughs). I hope the same can be said for my own life and that's the reason I'm doing all the touring. It's more than just paying the bills and going out there and doing the old songs.
Do you still get that buzz and energy onstage?
Simmonds: Oh yeah. It's still there. It's the ultimate artistic place to be, at least for me. Painting's great but it's a very solitary thing. I'm a bit of a loner, so it really appeals to me. I think, looking back, I really would have liked to have been a writer, too, you know.
You still can.
Simmonds: I could do, but for starters, this is how I make my living, playing guitar. I've done it all my life. I do it well. People enjoy it. I don't want to reinvent the wheel here, you know. But, yeah, I think, hypothetically the writing appeals to the loner aspect of me. But with painting and writing, there's nobody clapping their hands, saying we love you (laughs). I have some professional painter friends who are envious because of the kind of feedback you get when you are up onstage, playing, there's nothing like it.
Since you are a fan yourself, is there anybody you've jammed with where you've really cherished the experience?
Simmonds: There's a lot, really. Jammed with Earl Hooker, who was one of the greatest blues guitar players, ever. Albert Collins. Bobby Bland. Of course, John Lee Hooker. I jammed with Buddy Guy, that was a thrill. Hubert Sumlin, who was a great influence on me. A lot of guitarists I particularly like. And there are a lot of stories.
Billy Butler was one of my all-time favorite guitar players. He was the guitar player in the 1950s with the Bill Doggett band. He did a lot of classic songs every guitar player has copied and I don't think half of them know it's Billy Butler. And I certainly copied his licks. And I think he's one of the most influential guitar players in the world because everybody's copied his licks. In fact, the very first thing I ever recorded was "True Blue" which was a Billy Butler instrumental.
One night, I jammed with Charles Brown in New York City, when he was playing a weekly gig. His guitar player was there, and I borrowed the guitar player's guitar and played. I didn't say anything to the guitar player because he looked like he got up on the wrong side of the bed that day. I played, stepped back down and that was it. I'd left. Found out, the guitar player was Billy Butler! I missed my opportunity to make a fool of myself and say "Hey, I'm your biggest fan!" And, of course, I didn't even know it was him. So there you go, you talk about jamming with your heroes … there's one missed opportunity. I can say I played Billy's guitar, but it would have been much better if I were able to sit down with him and tell him just how much I thought of him.
Many generations have gotten to know the blues through bands like Savoy Brown. In its own way it educated many.
Simmonds: Well, yeah, when we first came over here, every interview we did we just talked about all the people who influenced us. A lot of people didn't even know who B.B.King was. And I couldn't believe that myself.
Of course, we were fans. I don't think I still gotten over the fact that I'm a fan even though I've met many of the people I've really admired, and have become a name guitar player myself. I still haven't gotten over the romance of being a fan and listening to blues when it was a mystery. Now all the mysteries have been unlocked but it really was a mystery at one time. And to learn some of those guitar chords, there was really no one around to show you. You just had to find them yourself. As a group of guitar players of that age, we unlocked the mysteries.
And I think the Blues scene has slowed down a bit. There's not as much going on as there was.
Are there other forms of music you listen to, outside the Blues?
Simmonds: Tons of things. I like a lot of modern rock. I like a lot of smooth jazz. I like all sorts of genres. I like guitar playing, so I like U2 because The Edge is a pretty cool guitar player. Over the years I've liked some of the English rock bands.
There seems to be a turning back to guitar players playing a bit more. After the punks came along there was a negative thing about playing guitar properly. So I think a lot of rock bands don't do long guitar solos. They don't want to be virtuosos. And I like to think we intended to be virtuosos on the instrument. It's the same with painting or any other artistic endeavor, you know. It's very daunting to actually do it properly and to try to compete on that level. But that's what my generation did. I would hear Wes Montgomery and I say, 'Hey, that's the greatest guitar player in the world. I want to be the greatest guitar player in the world.' Well, you don't get there but you actually try to compete with those people which is somewhat foolhardy but you end up better than saying, 'I'll just play a few chords because I'm not gonna be that good.'
I think there was a backlash where people thought they didn't want to play those cliches, didn't want to play those same solos, and I think consequently we haven't heard those type of guitar players for years.
Musicians now worry about being too self-indulgent.
Simmonds: I know they do, which is ridiculous because that is exactly what you have to be. You know what I mean?! You're doing this for yourself and it just so happens that other people enjoy it. (laughs)
What made you stop fronting the band as the singer last year?
Simmonds: It was getting very hard for me. Playing the guitar and singing, at that emotional level, and giving it 100%, was really starting to tire me out. I think I would have continued, cause I don't think getting a singer is exactly something I've relished. I've put up with a lot of singers and sometimes there is that sort of push and tug between guitar players and singers. I wasn't sure I was up for the battle.
But Joe Whiting was a friend of mine, for years we've worked together, and I had a feeling that he was looking for something fresh. I was physically tired from the playing and singing, so I asked if he would come in and sing and it's been great. As I said, I know him, he's a good guy, and I can deal with the push and pull with him, because we're friends.
It was as simple as that. And the bonus is, I'm playing way better guitar. Now I can go to my old role at the side of the stage, hand the reigns to Joe, and definitely my guitar playing has improved and it's a lot of fun working with a great singer, And with blues, that's what the whole thing is: the interplay between vocal and guitar, whether it was in the cotton fields or whether it's now. It's that interplay that is so intriguing.
Do you miss singing at times?
Simmonds: Well, I still do a couple songs every night. And I still got my solo career. I sing to my acoustic set. I enjoy that. But one of the other reasons is that one problem I see with a lot of artists is that try to do everything … guitar players. They play guitar, they try to sing, they write the songs, they format the band, they are the band, really. It's an awful lot to do. When I started out with Savoy, there was no point in doing that. I had the proper singer. I was in a band and I played my role, and it showed me off rather nicely at the same time. And if I didn't write songs, you had someone else who wrote songs. And that really kicked the music along and got Savoy Brown in the charts. Now my criticism of some of the younger guitar players is that they try to do everything, and I think the music can sometimes be hurt by that.
Anyway, I took my own advice, because I was doing everything, you know. My excuse, was 'Hey, I've done it all,' and I was at the stage of life where it didn't apply to me. But really I took my own advice one day when I got Joe in, and put the band together where all the elements are there, as best as possible. If you don't have the elements, bring a person in, if he or she is better.
What's next up music-wise?
Simmonds: I have freshened up Savoy Brown. I look forward to doing solo shows. I'm still hacking away at that. Still trying to find my voice at the solo/acoustic thing but I enjoy the challenge. And I want to continue to show that the band (savoy Brown) has something to offer in the music world.
To view Savoy Brown's Web site and Kim Simmonds solo Web site.
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