By Thomas S. Orwat Jr.
Kim Simmonds may not be the most famous musician in rock music, but he is definitely one of the most influential- either directly, or indirectly. The 66-year-old Welch guitarist was a British blues/rock music pioneer, starting in 1966, when he formed the band, Savoy Brown. The band relentlessly toured the USA during the late 60’s and 70’s, and along the way, survived many line-up changes. But, even though the band had developed a great reputation for an outstanding live show, they never had the big mega hit that took them to the superstar level of popularity.
For decades, Simmonds continued touring and recording, never once giving in to any of the current music trends. He stubbornly stuck to his guns, and never compromised his musical integrity to make a quick buck.
Currently, Simmonds is back on tour with Savoy Brown, in support of a brand new, classic blues-style record, entitled, ‘Goin’ to the Delta.’
What follows is an exclusive RMS interview with the legendary musician, Kim Simmonds. During this interview, we discussed the ‘Goin’ to the Delta’ record, his outlook on touring, and much more.
Rock Music Star: It’s the eve of your upcoming tour. How do you usually feel when you’re about to go on tour?
Kim Simmonds: I think there’s a lot of excitement, nerves, anticipation; I think that it’s all the usual stuff that you always have when you travel. I think there’s a lot of good expectations. You always feel good about things. I’ve never lost that travel bug, where you’re excited about an adventure kind of thing.
RMS: So, even though you’ve done this a million times before, it still excites you to go out and hit the road?
KS: Oh, absolutely. I think the one thing, of course, we have to remember is, I get paid to do this. So, it’s one thing if you’re travelling for the sake of it- that might get tiresome. But, any time someone is paying you to have an adventure- then, really, how tired can you get of that? It’s just like, “I’m going to go away and party in Detroit on Thursday.” Like I said, someone is paying me to go and be a professional musician. I get to live out my dream, and that’s fantastic.
RMS: You just recently released the new record called, ‘Goin’ to the Delta.’ It’s kind of a back-to-basic blues record.
KS: Right. It’s all original material, which is extremely difficult to write (laughs).
RMS: Exactly. That was my point. There’s so much you can do with the blues, as far as songwriting goes. There’s so many blues songs. How challenging was it, to come up with original material?
KS: It was very challenging. It’s been a process in my head for years. All these things- it just doesn’t come out of nowhere. I’ve always had a desire to do an album like this. But, it was right at the back of my head. To tell you the truth, even though I’ve been writing a lot of blues rock songs, I always write in the blues format. So, I’ve always written in the blues format, but then I will embellish the lyrics, or embellish the music. And, as soon as you do that, you’re not playing blues. Now, you’re playing rock. So, the process wasn’t that difficult, because I always write in the blues stanza kind of form. I think, even Bob Dylan writes like that. But, then you can take that lyric and do what you want with it. In this case, I really, really had to stop myself from embellishing. I know the blues inside and out, because it’s something I grew up with as a kid. This wasn’t something that I learned to play; it was something that I ingested from when I was eight or nine years old, back in the late 50’s. It was something that was in my bones. It was a question of having to use discipline and say, “I’m going to stay on focus here, and make it an all blues record, and not embellish the chords or embellish the lyrics.” As soon as you do that, it’s not blues. The hard thing is to not do the embellishment, but still keep it interesting. I think there’s a tendency, as a songwriter, to make it interesting and embellish it. The hardest thing to do is embellish, but still stay simple and don’t get complicated. Does that make sense? (Laughs)
RMS: It does make a lot of sense. I’ve been reading some of the reviews, and it seems like your fans, and the critics really enjoy this release a lot.
KS: I think that it’s a little different from the other offerings out there, in that, it is very straightforward. I think the style is appealing to a lot of people. I think that it allows me to show off my guitar playing, because I’m a blues player even if I’m playing rock n’ roll. I think it reminds people of the past, which, with Savoy Brown, it’s rung a number of bells. I think it shows off my guitar playing, reminds people about the band’s history, and I think that it’s so straightforward, that it stands apart from a lot of other releases.
RMS: Now, over your 50-year career, you’ve played with a ton of musicians. I just wanted to go over the list of some of the musicians that are some of my favorite musicians, and I was just wondering if you could give me some input and insight into what it was like working with these individuals. The first one is going to be Lonesome Dave, from Foghat.
KS: Fantastic guy. He was a wonderful team player. Lonesome Dave was the rhythm guitar player, and then singer with Savoy Brown in the 60’s, to about 1970. After he left and formed Foghat. Dave gave me my first opportunity to play when he had his own band in the 60’s, and I was just starting out playing. He was a good friend; someone I admire. I could go on forever (laughs).
RMS: How about Dave Walker?
KS: Dave Walker came in and sang on ‘Hellbound Train’ and ‘Street Corner Talking,’ which are the band’s most commercially successful records. And then, he left to join Fleetwood Mac, and then he came back in the 80’s.
RMS: Paul Raymond, who went on to fame and fortune in UFO. What was is like playing with him?
KS: With Paul, it was a good combination, because he had much more melodic type of music, whereas I was a much more straightforward, basic blues guy. When we both got together, we were able to write some good songs, because I was the basic blues guy, and he added a lot of melody. So, we wrote some good songs together.
RMS: How about Ralph Morman, who went on with the Joe Perry Project?
KS: A fantastic singer. It was going through a period in the 80’s, where I was trying to adapt to the changing music business, and trying to figure out where my career was going. It was a very difficult time for me, the whole of the 1980’s. Ralph was a fantastic singer and helped keep the band, Savoy Brown, going.
RMS: During the 80’s, when glam metal and new wave was popular, did you consider changing formats at all?
KS: Well, sure. Like everybody, you have these moments in your career, where people around you are saying, “Well, you better do this,” “You’ve gotta do that,” “You’ve gotta monopolize.” And you do. And, of course, it never works (laughs). I think everybody has done that, from Tony Bennett to the Rolling Stones. You feel obligated to change with the times, and it’s always a terrible mistake. But, we all do it.
RMS: So, you don’t feel that pressure anymore? You’re at the point in your career where you’re doing what you want to do, and you’re not really influenced by others?
KS: Well, no. Exactly what happens is that you take control of your own career, which I did many years ago. Usually, at some point, they realize that they know what to do more than anyone else. And I think that, I’ve taken control of my career 20 odd years ago. So, that doesn’t apply to me anymore. That doesn’t say that I do everything right; of course not. But, you have to figure it out yourself. You have to figure out your career and yourself. A lot of us start off very, very young, and you have half a dozen people thinking for you. It can become quite complicated. But, what I did was, I got rid of all of that around me, and life got simpler. Really, I just tried to keep life, and music, as simple as possible from that point on. It’s still extremely difficult. It isn’t easy to stay relevant. I think that’s what we’re talking about when you say, “Did you try to go heavy metal back in those days?” The whole idea is, you’re trying to stay relevant, and that’s very hard to do, no matter who is calling the shots. At least, if you’re trying- you really don’t know if you’re relevant or not. Only the public and time says that. I might say to you right now, “Well, it’d be a terrible mistake if I listen to, or had done that. But obviously, something went right, because I’m 50 years later, and I have people that really support me. So, amongst it all, I think, and I’m presuming what has come across is, it is best to remain somewhat true to your calling. Even if you go off track a bit, you come back.
RMS: I definitely agree. I think you’re one of the few artists that has been- as far as integrity goes- you’re a classic example of an artist that doesn’t compromise their integrity.
KS: You know, that’s so nice to hear. I think that that sort of dogs me around a little bit, too, in the sense that it can be difficult. I don’t think one walks around with a bull’s eye on your chest (laughs). That is something that is so nice for you to say to me, because that is, perhaps, the whole point of my career, and I didn’t know it (laughs).
RMS: Throughout your career, you’ve opened for many bands; many bands have opened for you- have you ever had an opportunity to play with the late Johnny Winter?
KS: Oh, many, many, many times, we have done shows together over the years, right from the 60’s on forward. We’ve been on the same bill together through all of the decades. So, I’d been able to see him throughout his career. I saw his very first appearance at the Fillmore East in ’69. And then, two years ago, we did the blues-rock tour together, and we became friends. There’s a lot of water under the bridge with him, and of course, now that he’s passed away, it’s a real terrible shame.
RMS: Yeah. It’s kind of sad to see all of the people coming out of the woodwork, saying how great he was, but nobody seemed to care for the past 20 years about him.
KS: That’s very, very true. It’s a shame, and I agree. I think he got the short end of the shift when he did the Madison Square Garden show for the Dylan Tribute. I think one of the best Dylan Tributes has been “Highway 61” by Johnny Winter, and I think the media ignored it. It’s very, very typical. We all suffer from it slightly, because what happened with Johnny Winter; he started his latter day career for the past 20 years doing Alligator Records and blues records. I think, at that point, it marginalizes you. Because, I think, the media and people, they’re just interested in the big hits, and I think that’s why Johnny refused to play the big hits. He never played them, because he showed a lot of integrity, himself, by playing what his deep love was- the blues with Alligator Records. But, as I said, at that point, I think it missed a lot of people. It certainly missed the mainstream media. It’s odd. He’s one of the finest bluesman we’ve ever seen.
RMS: I agree. It seems like some of these blues guitarists, or rock guitarists, do these concept records where they bring on guest vocalists to do songs. Have you ever considered doing something like that?
KS: It’s not really me. I’m not a joiner. I’m not a very sociable person. Whilst I really enjoy my fellow musicians an awful lot- I’m a fan of a lot of people. We just spoke about Johnny Winter; I’m a big fan of his- I don’t particularly like those records that are made with friends- I’ve got a lot of those records. I don’t often play them. For instance, B.B. King- I don’t play ‘B.B. King & Friends,’ even though there’s some fantastic tracks on there. But, again, those kinds of records are really promotional albums, and not necessarily the most artistic statement the artist could make. I think it never really appealed to me because that side of the music business doesn’t appeal to me. I understand the promotion aspect of it, but I’ve always been more interested in the art. So, I think it comes down to anybody’s album. The last album I would buy would be a conglomeration with guest artists. But, I understand that, for me, I won’t take that route because I wouldn’t be true to what I think.
RMS: Again, we get back to the integrity issue, where you’re not willing to sacrifice that in order to maybe make a couple extra dollars.
KS: Well, exactly. I think- and believe me, no one is saintly in this- but, it comes to a point where too much stuff is done for money. Why should an artist do that? Let other people grub around for the money (laughs).
RMS: At your shows, are you noticing younger people showing up and discovering the blues for the first time?
KS: Yes, I do see a few younger people show up, which is nice, and I think that it will, perhaps grow over time. But, I’m still somebody that’s fairly unknown to a lot of people. So, my audience is still an older audience. I haven’t had that awakening, where a younger audience suddenly discovers who you are. I’m still getting lots of people discovering who I am, but it would be musicians in their 30s, and people like that. The general audience hasn’t caught on to the history of Savoy Brown, and the immense influence we’ve had on people, and the fact that I’m still going. I don’t think that has quite clicked in, as it has with some other people in the past. So, it’s something that I’m not sure that I could handle if it did (laughs). Because, you get comfortable with understanding who your audience is, and understanding that is extremely important for someone like myself. You have to understand the audience and who you’re playing to. You’re not just playing to a collection of faces and strangers. You’re playing to people. It’s a two-way street with me. It’s always nice to collect new fans. Every show, someone will come up to me and say, “How come I’ve never heard of you?” “I go to all of the blues festivals, how come I’ve never heard of you?” I met a musician a couple of weeks ago- they just discovered Savoy Brown a couple of years ago. We’ve got 40 albums. It does go on, but it’s not on a huge level. It’s very exciting, when somebody says that, because I’m a fan, too, and there are people you miss- the artists that slide by you for some reason or another. One of the problems with Savoy Brown is, of course, history hasn’t been particularly kind to the band, and I’ve shunned publicity. There’s a whammy there. I rather like the fact that one person discovers the band on their own, over 20 people discovering it because they are told to.
RMS: I agree. In the late 60’s, Johnny Winter signed one of the biggest record contract ever, it was a $600,000 contract. At the time, where you at all disappointed that Savoy Brown didn’t get that deal?
KS: I don’t think so, because I don’t think I, or the band were ever aiming for mega success. I don’t think the band’s music- if you listen to the 1960’s album, ‘Raw Sienna;’ I don’t think you could listen to that album and say, “Wow, this band is aiming for superstardom.” No, we were very much interested, and I was, in creating serious music. I’m not going to say that Johnny Winter wasn’t, but Johnny Winter was on another level; his image, the Savoy Brown image, the whole approach was very different. I don’t think you could have made Savoy Brown into a household name. The band was just too heavy. I mean, we were singing about God knows what in ’67. And, we weren’t singing it in a pop way, we were singing it in a heavy blues way, and I don’t think that that’s going to get you into the mainstream.
RMS: At any point, during the early part of your career, were you ever approached by an established band to join them?
KS: I seem to recall some people making overtures, but I would have been too naïve to actually thing they were asking me to join. I won’t mention names. I feel famous bands approached me, but it didn’t even cross my mind. First of all, I had my own band. I think, even if the Rolling Stones said, “Come and join,” I’m not sure I would have, because I had my own thing, and I enjoyed playing my own music. And, even though I bring other singers in, and other songwriters in, I would arrange everything myself, so that it was Savoy Brown music, and my music. That’s another factor, too- I’m not comfortable playing anyone else’s music.
RMS: The last question I have for you, Kim: When all is said and done, how would you like to be remembered?
KS: Damn. I hate to say this, because it sounds very immodest, but you mentioned the word, “integrity,” and I think that, perhaps- people do ask me that quite often, and I usually say the obvious things as a premiere 1960’s British blues guitar player- that’s the obvious thing. But, there’s more than that. I think, at this point, the “integrity” thing seems to be something that I can’t get away from; it’s a part of my personality, for better or for worse. I think that, apparently, it’s getting through to people- no one’s ever put an advert out for me in that regard. So, I think that it’s just something that must be coming from the way I have handled things. And that, actually, is something that really thrills me- when I’m dead and gone, to think that, perhaps, I’ve stood for something.
For more on Savoy Brown, please go to www.savoybrown.com
Special thanks to Debbie Lyons for setting up this interview and Dana Kaiser for transcribing it.