Kim Simmonds, Founder of the Seminal Savoy Brown Blues Band, Passes at 75
OSWEGO, NY – Kim Simmonds, founder of the seminal blues band Savoy Brown, has died. For 57 years, Simmonds was the cornerstone of the last British blues rock bands to ride to success on the coattails of The Beatles beginning in 1966. He had been battling stage 4 signet cell colon cancer, a very rare form that accounts for no more than 1% of cases.
Savoy Brown was a late entry in the British Invasion blues rock surge that changed rock ‘n’ roll from fundamentally being built around a singer with a support band, like Elvis and Roy Orbison, to being billed as an entire band like the Rolling Stones and the Animals.
Like the Stones, Savoy Brown realized the necessity of supplementing their American blues covers with originals but the band was a disparate collection of individuals who could not stay together. This left Kim Simmonds, like Eric Burdon of the Animals, as the glue that kept an ever-changing cadre of support artists together for more than half a century.
Simmonds eventually became a solo artist in reality if not in name, supported by his backup band of the moment, and actually played the Chenango Blues Fest as a solo act. And, also like Burdon, he moved to the United States – in his case New York’s Southern Tier some 30 years ago, married Syracuse native Debby Lyons who handled his business affairs, and filled out an ever-changing band lineup with regional musicians.
I followed the band from its beginnings and interviewed Simmonds many times. In those many conversations, he told me his life story:
2004: “(Hooker) was the greatest. It was listening to Earl Hooker that was the defining point for me. As soon as I heard the first notes that Earl Hooker played, those were the defining notes that said to me, ‘That is the future of music. That is the future of guitar. That’s what I want to play.’ I was 13 years old. Nobody has ever beat it to this day. It’s right from the plantation. It’s this moaning, crying voice, but it was played on the guitar. It was unbelievable. His notes? That was it. That was it!”
“Of course, there’s the Freddie Kings of the world. Then, I wanted energy. I wanted energy in my blues, and I still want energy in my blues. I’m that kind of person. Freddie King had that kind of rock energy.”
“(Hubert Sumlin) was a sensitive, expressive guitar player with this very sort of laidback interesting tone that would get you in a slightly different way. I would say from my style of playing that it was the sensitivity of Hubert Sumlin and the forceful rock of Freddie. Then, it was the poetry of Earl Hooker. Those were the three guys that got me going.”
1990: “I was a terrible purist. As Savoy Brown developed, it was like pulling teeth. In America, rock and roll was the catchall that brings all music together. You can be Willie Nelson and be called a rock and roll artist. Paul Anka could be called a rock and roll artist. In England there are no divisions. Rock and roll was ’50s music. Then there was jazz, blues and folk. Whereas in America everything was rock and roll. Bob Dylan was rock and roll. Of course, we were blues, very serious blues.”
1990: “Savoy Brown made its first recordings in ’66. By that time the scene had changed quite radically, as it does in England. It’s a year-by-year thing. It’s very trendy, very faddish. Really to start a blues band at that time in London was quite against the grain because all the club acts were doing soul music which was the big thing. We had to go right against the grain.”
1990: “Some of those arrangements on those early ’60s records are pretty iffy. I was getting more sophisticated and wanted to improve along those lines where Foghat continued on the plain of just rocking out.”
1990 “Now, at my age (56,) I’m trying to paint a different role. I’m trying to do the singing and the playing and trying to put myself in a different role. It’s not so easy for me now to use my imagination, but I always excuse myself by saying, ‘Oh, I’ve done it. Let the younger guys do it now,’ but my next record is something I’m really thinking about.”
2004: “I pick the songs I can sing and not get too tricky with and let the guitar do the talking. That’s where I’m at right now, and hoping that will see me through.”
2004: “I (always) thought blues was symphonic. I thought you used your imagination. I didn’t think you copied somebody. I thought you tried to bring as much of your creativity to the music as possible, and that’s always been my case.”
2004: “I’m starting to stick up for myself in terms of history with Savoy Brown and saying, ‘Hey!’ Especially when I’m in (the U.K.) and some people don’t understand the role the band played because we didn’t have hits (in England), and the people who came after us – Fleetwood Mac, for instance – had huge hits in that country. So, Savoy Brown got eclipsed.”
2012: “I wouldn’t be able to sit down and say to you, ‘What’s going to happen in two years’ time.’ And I’m not afraid to make whatever changes are absolutely necessary to enable myself to survive. So, I’m a survivor, but I’m certainly not a businessman. I’m a big-picture guy. I have no idea about the details.”
2012: “I think that there’s undoubtedly forces working within me that are contradictory. And I’d rather not have in me, but the fact they’re in me, the fact that I’m at once completely confident and at the other completely vulnerable…I think that helps my guitar playing.”
2012: “I think as a performer you’re constantly walking that line between what you want to do and what the audience what to hear.”
2012: “We just throw everything up in the air and where it falls is what we do.”
2012: “I think if you can leave the past behind, which is very difficult, you can stay fresh and youthful, because the past I believe will kill you in a hurry.”
In my 2019 review of a show Savoy Brown did in Albany at the Skyloft, I wrote that Simmonds’ current songwriting was inspired more by his rock half than the blues. And that hard driving songs, like his signature “Hellhound Train,” were rousing banner-waving bows to an era when the Brits reminded us Americans that the Bobby Rydells and Fabians of Dick Clark’s South Philadelphia sound of the early ’60s weren’t getting our rocks off like Lonnie Mack, Link Wray and The Ventures had done just a few years earlier. At 72, Simmonds still looked like a young to middle-aged rock star, and at least one fan charged up by the show shouted through Crossgates Mall as he left Skyloft, “Old folks rock!!”
Also from that 2019 review: “For most of his set, he flipped back and forth between classic Savoy Brown songs like ‘Train to Nowhere’ and ‘Savoy Brown Boogie’ on his Flying V guitar and newer material like ‘Conjure Rhythm’ and ‘Walking on Hot Stones’ from the group’s energetic new LP City Night played on a Gibson solid body guitar. He told an audience of about 100 that he bought his Flying V with loaned money in 1968, one of the few to play the instrument that Ray Davies of The Kinks introduced in England.”
“It wasn’t until the last song of the set and the encore that he really let his hair down, calling out the names of both Brits and American inspirations: Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, Rory Gallagher, Long John Baldry, and Willie Dixon. “I gotta boogie for myself,” he cried. “We try to keep this going as long as we can.”
Before opening for Johnny Winter at The Egg in 2012 he told me, “I love everything about the ’60s and being in the British blues, but I don’t live there.”