If it was a path traveled by his idols, why shouldn’t he choose to go down that path, too?
After all, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker all shook off the constraints of Father Time and continued to play the blues into their sixth decades on this earth (well beyond that in Hooker’s case).
And the way that one of the original architects of the British blues sees it, that plan of action beats the heck out of hanging up the guitar, kicking back in the easy chair and drawing social security.
“Well, I always thought that I’d play into my 80s because all my mentors, that’s what they did,” Kim Simmonds said. “So I thought, why would I want to be any different? And that’s the truth. That’s exactly what I’m going to do. But what I didn’t bargain on was getting older and it getting physically harder. But I decided a long time ago, since I’m in this for the long haul, I’ve got to take care of myself. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve got a health and fitness regimen that I try to keep going. I would like to think – barring ill health or problems – that I can keep playing music until my 80s and then one day just keel over.”
And with the intensity and passion that Simmonds goes about his business on Savoy Brown’s latest album – Voodoo Moon (Ruf Records) – retirement most certainly is the last thing on the mind of the 64-year-old living legend.
Crackling with the same kind of highly-motivated, blues boogie that Simmonds has been responsible for ever since unleashing Savoy Brown on an unsuspecting public back in 1965, Voodoo Moon’s 11 cuts are welcome additions to the Welsh guitarist’s considerable legacy of nearly 50 albums.
“It’s been nothing but positive; I’m still waiting for the first bad review,” he said. “We’ve been working some of the new material into our show for the past 18 months and we saw that people really responded well to it – so it was test-marketed. We knew that it would fit in well with the older material and that was the first inkling we had of how the album would be received. It’s all been a good thing.”
Voodoo Moon is definitely not a paint-by-numbers formulation of 1971’s Street Corner Talking, but the new release does maintain a brotherhood with Savoy Brown’s immense back catalog.
“I’m such a feeling-type of musician, very spontaneous. And it’s hard for me to be analytical – you just do what’s inside of you – but I do think we captured a bit of the old sound,” said Simmonds. “Once I got the song “Natural Man” I really felt that was a strong song, a real Savoy Brown type of song. I went back and listened to all the old Savoy albums to just remind myself of how I played guitar and approached things in the old days. And I don’t normally do that, because it’s difficult to listen to your old material. But I did do a quick retrospect and that kind of helped me in a little way.”
The title track was one that had been packed in mothballs for a while, just waiting for the right burst of inspiration to strike Simmonds so he could assemble the pieces into a finished product.
“Yeah, I had the song “Voodoo Moon” for years and I just couldn’t get it all put together like I wanted it,” he said. “I had a decent lyric, but not a great one and had to work and work at it. You say to yourself, ‘is it a good lyric, or is it too cliché?’ I fought with it and worked with it – played it for friends and got their feedback. Songwriting can be a very difficult process. But in the end, it all kind of came together. It’s enjoyable (songwriting), but it’s also frustrating as all heck.”
Not only a gifted songwriter and guitarist, for the last decade or so Simmonds has emerged as an accomplished painter (one of his original works adorns the cover of his 2008 solo album, Out of the Blue), as well.
And according to Simmonds, there is a direct link between bringing a canvas to life with watercolors and turning a group of random words into a song.
“They both (painting and song-writing) work together. Solving problems is what it is. Painting and song-writing are both very, very hard. And some days, things just don’t work out,” he said. “So you set them aside and maybe come back to them later and then you have a breakthrough. Those breakthroughs can be very exciting. For instance, if I have a breakthrough in painting, I find that can inspire me and also lead to a breakthrough in song-writing, as well. There’s nothing better than success, and having a little success in either of those fields can lead to success in the other. They’re both artistic, problem-solving things. And if you don’t solve the problem, you don’t get a good painting or get a good song.”
Filled as it is with plenty of moments of self-doubt and maddening bits of dead-end ideas, Simmonds offers up that the “work” associated with songwriting is not the same kind of “work” associated with hand-digging a trench on a hot August day.
“The fun part for me is writing new songs and creating things and solving problems in an artistic way – like trying to make a lyric work or find a cool piece of music. That’s a blast,” he said. “That’s the fun part of this. That’s not work. I’ve got a stand-alone studio about 50 yards from my house where I go and work and I love it. I practice every day and try different approaches to things – I mean, you call that work? Are you kidding me? That’s not work. The real drudgery is going on the road and doing something you’ve done for 45 years. Don’t get me wrong, I love the audiences and love being on stage every night playing, but getting to that stage and then getting to the next gig, that’s drudgery.”
To Simmonds’ credit, he’s clearly intent on adding to the body of Savoy Brown’s work by creating new music, instead of simply resting off the laurels of four decades of previous work. And for that, he once again turns to his idols for inspiration.
“All the people I’ve admired throughout my life did that (continued to make new music). B.B. King did that, John Lee Hooker did that and Buddy Guy still does that … they put out fresh, new albums every couple of years,” Simmonds said. “And with John Lee, he was a major influence on me and still made records right until he passed a few years ago. So I was a 13-year-old buying his records and then I was a 60-year-old buying his records, so it seems normal for me to keep making records, just like those guys. There has to be a love to do it and a need to do it (release new music) and I have both. Some of the older, traditional blues artists that I like, I want to hear new material from them. I don’t want to hear retreads of “Sweet Home Chicago,” no matter how good the artist is.”
Thanks to a household filled with all kinds of long-players as a youngster, it didn’t take Simmonds long before he was bitten by the music bug.
It did, however, take him a little while before he came to the understanding that not all music was the same.
“I was brought up listening to all the music – gospel, R&B, blues, jazz and rock-n-roll. All the 50’s music,” he said. “And as a kid of 9- or 10-years-old, it was all the same to me. It was music I liked. I didn’t know the difference between James Brown and Little Richard and Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Smith – it was all the same to me. But when I got to age 13, I heard Muddy Waters and that’s when I realized there were stylistic differences that I hadn’t heard before. I realized that there was a style called Chicago blues and it centered around Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, and they all lived in Chicago. At that point, I realized out of all the music that I listened to – which was everything – that what I wanted to play was the Chicago blues. That’s what I wanted to specialize in. That sound really spoke to me.”
And with that, Kim Simmonds was off and running, forming Savoy Brown in 1965, a time that was fertile with all kinds of bands that were mixing the blues with good, ole rock-n-roll.
Groups like Ten Years After, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, The Animals, The Yardbirds … all groups that were taking Chicago blues and cranking up the volume to 10.
“There were so many of us doing the same kind of thing. But I think that I probably had a better grasp of the blues idiom than most of my contemporaries because of my upbringing. I didn’t just play one album and say I knew the blues. I played a million albums. I knew all the blues artists. I was an aficionado of the blues because of the people who brought me up listening to it,” said Simmonds. “I was very lucky to have an older brother that was a ‘tastemaker’ back in England in those days. So I had a solid ground in the blues. And you could hear that in the music. But there was so many of us blending styles together back then. In my case, I was trying to be as completely true to traditional blues as I could, but how could I be, when I’m a Welshman? So what came out was this hybrid. Yes, it sounded like traditional blues, but there was something else going on there that the listener could hear, as well. That was accidental, because all I wanted to be was B.B. King or Freddie King. But I couldn’t stop my own personality, and my own limitations, from making it slightly different.”
Savoy Brown has had a few members come and go over the course of nearly five decades. Some of those went on to find success on their own terms, most notably guitarist “Lonesome” Dave Peverett, bass player Tony Stevens and drummer Roger Earl, who went on to form Foghat.
But regardless of who lines up next to Simmonds – the only member to appear on Savoy Brown’s entire catalog of albums – the mission statement remains the same now as did then.
Create new music and spread the word of the blues.
And Savoy Brown has done just that, despite such storms as disco, punk, new wave, glitter and any other musical fad one can think of, popping up on the horizon.
But the question is, just how has Savoy Brown done that?
“You have to a real sense of commitment, obviously. You have to have a serious, hard-work ethic. You have to take risks and chances. And above all, you have to do what other people won’t do,” said Simmonds. “You have to be fearless and jump into the deep end. And when I was young, I was fearless. When I changed the band at the end of a tour, I wouldn’t play any of the old material. And I did that for years. When I look back, I think how the heck did I have the nerve to do that? The older you get, the more you lose your nerve. However, you’ve still got a bit of it. You can’t just wish to have this kind of life. You have to work at it. You’ve got to be able to adapt and survive.”
His band may never have scaled the golden heights, or raked in the countless riches that some groups have managed to, but Simmonds is anything but bitter about his fortunes.
“I think in my case, it probably helps that I’ve not had huge success. Because I think if you have huge success, it can probably dampen the fire,” he said. “And I’ve deliberately not sought that kind of profile. And that’s what helps keep me artistically free and able to create by having things my way. If you get too successful, you’re not so free.”
To be involved in any business for 45 years is a remarkable thing, but when you’re faced with the challenges and fickle tastes that dominate the music industry, well, that’s a whole separate ball of wax.
“I used to love everything about a life of playing music – the good parts and the bad parts – I loved it all,” Simmonds said. “But now, I don’t love the bad parts. But you do change and all of a sudden the way you think about things changes. It’s all part of the survival process.”
And hopefully, that process will last another 20-plus years for Simmonds.
Photographs by Arnie Goodman © 2012