Savoy Brown Interview: Kim Simmonds

The first time that I heard of Savoy Brown was in the Summer of 1969 a couple of months before Woodstock occurred. “Louisiana Blues,” a McKinley Morganfield cover from their new third album Blue Matter was played regularly on WABX, Detroit, Michigan’s underground radio station. I purchased the album and put my stereo record player on repeat mode as I played the side of the 33 rpm disc with “Louisiana Blues” on it until the grooves turned white. Then on Labor Day weekend Savoy Brown headlined the newly re-opened Eastown Theater on Detroit’s Eastside. Two blues legends opened the show before “Savoy Brown,” the headline band that everyone came for played. The first was Albert King and his band, while the second was BB King who just recorded his groundbreaking album featuring “The Thrill is Gone.”

The show was great and Savoy Brown was in one of its early incarnations with Chris Youlden on vocals and Lonesome Dave Peverett on guitar before he formed Foghat. Over the next 51 years, two dozen band members came and went but the one constant was Kim Simmonds, the original founder of the band. While covering the 2007 Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Oregon, Savoy Brown was one of the featured acts, since that year they featured English blues bands from Eric Bourdon and the New Animals to James Hunter. I was impressed by Simmonds’ and Savoy Brown’s performance as a stripped down power trio like what was popular in the late 1960s when bands like Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and even the Steve Miller Blues Band were all power trios.

On August 28, 2020, Savoy Brown will release its 41st album titled Ain’t Done Yet which is an amazing collection of songs. After repeatedly listening to the album a few dozen times I had the opportunity to talk to Kim Simmonds about the new release. After talking with Kim about my experience with Savoy Brown in 1969 we got right to the heart of the matter.

When did you first experience any kind of blues music and who was it?

I grew up in the 1950s and I had an older brother so I grew up right from the beginning really, not so much listening to the blues but artists like Johnny Ray with “Cry” a record that my brother bought and a lot of people consider it a landmark song. So I’d spend hours all day listening to that one song as he played it. Then there was Bill Haley, Elvis Presley they all came along with Little Richard and Fats Domino, so throughout the 50s that was the music I really liked, and of course, it was all related to popular blues. So that was I suppose my introduction because from that point on I just liked honest straight forward simple music. I didn’t want any bridges, middle eights, I didn’t want any key changes, just give me the three chords with a great performance. That crystallized when I was about 13 when I started to listen to Chicago blues and Chicago in the early 60s with the first Buddy Guy records. Muddy Waters band has a huge influence and so it was pretty easy for me to latch onto it because Little Richard and people like that weren’t that far away from Southern blues, you know?

I have a DVD that somebody that I was interviewing 20 years ago sent me about the American Folk-Blues Festival in Britain in the early 60s that featured Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Did you attend any of those?

I didn’t go to those because I was a year too young probably. My brother went, John O’Leary who I formed Savoy Brown with, he went and actually spoke to Little Walter. So I would get the stories that they would come back and tell me. I caught up with the blues guys in person. I saw those shows on TV maybe, I think that they showed them on TV back then. I know that Sonny Boy Williamson was quite popular.

Yeah, he was in that so you might have seen it.

I didn’t see the actual festival that they were on but then they would stay in England and do some television and recording. So I saw those kind of things at home on TV. I saw Sonny Boy Williamson quite a bit with the Chris Barber Band on TV and then I would think about 63 or 64, probably from those tours they would stay in Europe and do some club dates and I saw Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, I saw all them. I went to see those live at the clubs in London. So I was exposed to those, again I was probably the youngest guy on the block compared to all my contemporaries.

You were born December 5, 1947, correct?

Right. So I was younger by three years at least from everybody else and at that time three years is quite a big gap but I had the knowledge. More so than the people that were older than me. But there was that gap there, so I think that in many ways that is why things have turned out the way they are for me, the younger guy on the block. I had great role models very early on. Alexis Corner, the Alexis Corner Band you know, Long John Baldry and so forth Cyril Davies. They were a big influence on me and I had their albums. So I was buying albums, how old was I? I don’t know actually, let’s see it was in 62. I can’t quite remember, so let’s say 63. So I was 15, so I was plugged in at 15 and by 16 I was going to the clubs and seeing all the acts. I would see the blues guys and I would see all the great guitar players that were around at the time, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, with Nick Green. All the English guitar players, I would be able to catch shows and see what they were doing and again none of it was that much removed from blues. It was just three chords so it was great. I always wanted to play blues as soon as I heard people like Earl Hooker, Freddie King, and of course BB King because this was the future of guitar, I recognized as a kid, this is the future of guitar music and I wanted to be a part of it. So it didn’t take much of a genius to realize that God these guys are fantastic and I just had the ability to synthesize everything into a simple way so I could learn to play it and put a band together and I realized in the 70s that is an ability of mine to synthesize things and get to the root of it and I think that’s what helped me get off with leaps and bounds straight away.

That was obvious in 1969 and it still is today with your new release Ain’t Done Yet which contains a pretty diverse collection of songs. You said that your favorite song on the album was “All Gone Wrong.” Besides being a rip snorting hard driving infectious tune it tells a story. Was the story about anyone in particular?

No, I just try to write…it’s very timely with the world as it is with the virus and the social upheaval. It’s a very timely lyric but I’m just trying to write. I grew up with Howlin’ Wolf, he’s one of my favorite artists, someone that I saw as well in the clubs and it was really tough lyrics, you know, this was no namby-pamby stuff, so ever since then I try to write some hard lyrics and so “All Gone Wrong” came out and I want to write “All Gone Right,” but it’s supposed to be blues. (Laughter) It’s more like just a person in your life where nothing has worked out for them. We all have those days. I have those days and as you know you can’t put your finger on it, you wake up one day and everything’s right and then you wake up the next day and you’re just not there. You don’t have any energy or something. It’s just one of those days where you don’t want to answer the phone you don’t want to do anything.

I’m getting more of those days lately. My favorite solo guitar song on your new album is “Feel Like A Gypsy. You said that you had it for a while before recording it. Did you perform it or was it just in your notebook?

I actually make demos. Even now I’m writing for next year. I can write a half dozen songs a week. Does that mean that they’re any good? No, or applicable? No, but that’s how I practice. I don’t sit down and play scales or modes, I don’t even know what they are. I don’t play guitar like that, I just go into my studio and I write songs and that’s a way for me to keep my voice going and more to the point keep me in touch with the guitar. Experiment with sound and different instruments and see what they bring out in me, you know creatively. So with “Feel Like A Gypsy” I’d done about 14 demos of it over three or four years. One was a three-four waltz, you know you have an idea for a song for a lyric and sometimes it takes you a while to figure out how you’re going to make it work and how’s it going to be a Savoy Brown song and so I just kept working at it because there was something there in the lyric that was good. I have a friend of mine that helps me with my songs in pre-production of all the stuff and goes over the material with me. He always championed that song but I was never happy with it until one day I thought oh yeah this straight forward with four beats to the bar type thing and I think I could be happy with this and I found the right key. It’s amazing that you can spend six months in the wrong key, so it’s just that experimentation thing and a bunch and bunch of demos until you come to the point where I’m happy with it and that was the case with “Feel Like A Gypsy” which is I think is one of the best songs on the album.

I agree, as I said it was my favorite. So when you write you are just disciplined to sit down and begin working on songs.

Yeah, I can do it that way, but usually, it all comes from other people any way you know. You can’t do this without listening to music, so I’m listening to music all the time and I was listening to a lot of Buddy Holly today and I’ve written a Buddy Holly song. It’s in your DNA, you know I grew up with it since I was a kid, so once you unlock it and you can keep yourself in that mood all the time without getting distracted. Like if I was driving a FedEx truck it would be really difficult because you have to keep yourself in the zone all the time, which I do. So I can sit down like the old songwriters in the Brill building back in the day in New York and I can knock out a song off the top of my head. I’m not saying that because I’m a great songwriter because I’m not a great songwriter in that respect, I just write blues and try to make Savoy Brown music. I just get up early in the morning, I think that’s the freshest I am and I always look forward to getting up in the morning. I always look forward to having some tea. I love the experience of getting up before my wife gets up and it’s quiet and everything and then I start to write lyrics, that’s what usually happens.

For instance, the Buddy Holly type song I’ve just written, in my head I’m singing Buddy Holly, but obviously, that’s not going to work for me and so I may just let that lyric go for now for maybe who knows how long. Then maybe I get an idea again by listening to other music. You know I think that is a pretty cool groove maybe I can do something for Savoy Brown like that and then I go through my lyrics and suddenly the Buddy Holly lyric will come back. I’ll completely forget the Buddy Holly connection and I’ll be looking at it simply as a lyric. Now that I’ve spoken to you, I’ll never forget that connection. So it all starts from listening to other people I think and you synthesize it again and it comes out reflecting your own personality. So every morning I’m writing and I go through phases where I go into the studio and I’ll practice, other times you have to wait for the inspiration to come but when it does come it’s great, you know because it usually comes in a flood to me and I’ll write four or five songs that are really good all at once. So in the meantime, I sort of bang away at the songs and they work all right and so forth and they would be acceptable but I just keep working at it until that moment when that flood of inspiration comes, usually from listening to other people, like, I might suddenly listen to Buddy Holly and it suddenly opens up all the doors and suddenly you capture three or four songs. So it’s great fun for me and I really, really like it and its pretty scary at the same time, like, anything you do over and over like writing and playing. Once you’ve done it, it’s scary, unless you’re Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney. Sometimes you look at it and say wow did I do that, can I repeat that? We all have that feeling where we ask, can I repeat that? That’s one of the reasons I keep working at it because I want to repeat it.

A theme that keeps repeating itself in blues and pop music is the subject of cars. You included “Jaguar Car” on the album as a John Lee Hooker styled boogie and I thought to myself that cars have been a dominant theme in rock and blues since the beginning with Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88,” about the Oldsmobile that they drove back in 1951.

You know that’s true and I’d completely forgotten about that connection, yeah, so I mean the car thing has been an image in blues since day one, probably. I’m a big Ike Turner fan and of course “Rocket 88” was an iconic song, “Cry” by Johnny Ray was an iconic song, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley was an iconic song. I consider all those songs as iconic and when I say that I write and play a lot and practice a lot some of it is pretty horrible. I might have started “Jaguar Car” as “Red Cadillac” or something. Again, Bob Dylan I’m sure could write about a “Red Cadillac” and I’d be willing to listen to it, but what can you really say about it. I’m sure it started with some like that and then bit by bit I honed it down and got a bit of sense on my shoulders it was becoming something else and oh yeah a Jaguar car. My brother used to have an “E Type” in the 60s and yeah that’s a pretty cool way to go.

Back in 2004, I interviewed a former Savoy Brown member, Dave Walker when he released a tribute album to Sonny Boy Williamson called Mostly Sonny.

Yeah, I heard that album it was pretty good.

Dave told me some pretty crazy stories and seemed to be a pretty adventurous guy.

I was pretty wild in my day. Not wild in a negative way but more brave by taking things on, do things I guess. I wasn’t afraid to do things or make things happen. I think that one thing about getting older is that you learn a lot about yourself but most of it you don’t want to know.

Without getting anyone in trouble, is there an interesting incident that you can think of. Over your 55 year career you must have had a number of interesting experiences. So what is one that really stands out?

I don’t know why this popped right into my head, I’m writing a book and it’s in the book, this story, I elaborate on it. I was doing a date in Georgia in the 60s with Little Richard. We were the opening act, special guest or I don’t know what we were but after the show which ended fairly early that night in a theater, Little Richard was going to see BB King. He had an entourage with him and everything and it was great so I went along with the entourage, with Lonesome Dave Peverett. We went to a black blues club somewhere in Georgia. Maybe it was in Macon, Georgia where he’s from. I can’t remember the town but BB King was playing and it was an all black audience. So we sat down at the back at a sort of long flat table and throughout the whole night it was very interesting because there was a dance floor. There was a huge big dance crowd, like in an old ballroom with a wooden floor. People were slow dancing, step dancing, it was a great experience and people would come up to the table where I was sitting next to Little Richard or just a couple of people away from him maybe and he was signing autographs all night once people realized that he was there. At one point someone told him that we were in the crowd, Savoy Brown, this English band, this new English band that’s happening and he announces us from the stage. He says we’re so glad to have this group from England in the audience tonight, Savoy Brown, they’re England’s answer to the Supremes. (Laughter) He had no idea who we were and it was hilarious and I said okay, that kind of stuff brings you back down to earth. (Laughter)

(Laughter) On a more somber note, it’s too bad about Peter Green’s passing. Did you know him very well?

Yeah, I knew him through all his periods. Through his best periods in the 60s, through his in-between period through the 70s and then we played together in a band called The British Blues Allstars maybe eight to ten years ago. We just did festivals through Europe and I’ve known him through all the periods. We weren’t close but we knew each other very well and we’d talk a lot when we would do the dates. We talked earlier about the Grande or the Eastown in Detroit and I think that the old Fleetwood Mac opened for Savoy Brown or we might have opened for them but then they may have opened for us even though it doesn’t make sense.

I saw some weird shows that combined completely different types of bands together like when the Eastown had Black Sabbath opening for Fleetwood Mac in 1971 when Peter Green returned and Christine (Love) McVie first joined the band.

Oh wow. So yeah, it dates to back then in England, he got me up on stage in London one time at the club in London where I started that I moved away from and promoters still used the room and when they came on they were fabulous. So I got on stage with him and he was very, very nice and he came to see one of my shows and he said that he wanted to see what the new guys were all about because I was young. I think about that time he was playing with Mayall. So when I came out with Savoy Brown it would be 66, 67. So then we would talk about things and then when he was in The British Blues Allstars also. I think that they officially said when he passed away, a couple of weeks ago in Wikipedia that he suffered from schizophrenia. I know the whole thing very, very well from when he was this authoritative person in the 60s to when he went off the rails in the 70s. So it was very difficult for me. I was very naïve and young while he was my age but street smart and confident. There were times that other contemporaries who were older than me by four or five years would let me down through no fault of their own, like Peter, through no fault of his own. Peter was somebody that I admired from a distance. He guided me in terms of guitar playing and how he would do things and he was inspirational. Let me put it that way, very inspirational to me. When he left Fleetwood Mac and that whole thing came down I spent time with him then. He jammed with me at a college in Connecticut where he stayed for a while when he was going through that whole deal here. It was so difficult. You need other people around you, at least I do and did, that show you the guide posts in music and life and stuff. I always remember regretting Peter going off the rails a little bit because I lost somebody that was one of those guide posts for me. For instance, Buddy Guy has been a guide post for me since I was a kid of 13 and he’s still out there playing as a guide post. I think that it’s very essential to have if you’re a musician or artist to have people that you can follow and don’t let you down. Again sometimes as in Peter’s case it has nothing to do with, it is a condition that took him down. He had nothing to do with it if he didn’t have that condition he’d still be doing great.

Another song from the album that I really liked called “Soho Girl.” Was that about one of your girlfriends?

(Laughter) Well, interestingly because people have been asking about reminiscences of Peter Green. One of the last times that we spoke together, and again he was in and out, but he remembered my girlfriend from 68 and he started talking about it like it was yesterday and I go damn I can hardly remember her but “Soho Girl,” no I’ve never been with a girl who carries a gun. (Laughter) I think that I think a lot about the past and I was thinking about Soho, London and that’s always on my mind and you know those great old days and then of course I elaborated and there’s a Soho in New York City. Really the initial idea for the song was for a call girl in Soho, London because that is what it was known for in many ways. It was a red light district back in those days, the late 50s, the early 60s. I never got over the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus and Soho and I’d hang around Soho a lot. It would be raining and you’d go into a doorway for shelter and you read the signs on the doors to the apartments and it would be “come up sweet Mary will see you now.” It was all this stuff, it was a real red light district area. When I started “Soho Girl” it was to be about a call girl and then it sort of developed. All of a sudden I’m in Soho, New York and she’s carrying a gun. You know, you’re just having fun. You throw in a little bit of biography into every song, you know a little bit of your own experience but in the end it’s about an imaginary “Soho Girl.”

It’s still a great song.

I hope I’m not taking anything away from the song by telling you all that but that’s a song that I recorded on the last album and it didn’t make it because I didn’t have the right feel. That’s a song I’ve done 15 demos of for sure until I suddenly hit upon what you heard on this new album. It was in that form for the last album but I was really, I overplayed my hand with it so it’s in the vault somewhere but I couldn’t put it on the album because I just overplayed my hand and I was able to make it work on this album by just putting a little restraint in it. I mean it’s a balls to the wall kind of thing but I was able to put in enough restraint in the lead guitar to get a kind of tone that was really kept kind of anchored down and we had the song. It was quite a circular way for that song to finally make an album, so I’m glad that you like it.

Where did the name Savoy Brown come from?

A lot of it is lost in the midst of time. I even had John O’Leary who played harp in the first Savoy Brown. He was on the very first single but he never made any albums, he left before then but John’s wife at the time when I met with her a number of years ago said do you remember that I thought up the name Savoy Brown? I always thought the name was, even if Valerie did come up with the completed name a composite. We were looking for a blues name and I couldn’t call it the Kim Simmonds Band or John O’Leary Band. It would be ridiculous at the time names didn’t count for anything so we were looking for a romantic fictitious blues name. There was Charles Brown, Nappy Brown, James Brown, Gatemouth Brown, there were tons of Browns. Savoy was always connected to the jazz and popular world in America with the Savoy theater, Savoy records was a label. Savoy was like an old time American name but there was also a Savoy hotel in England so you know it really had a touch or history to the name Savoy in England and Brown with all the people. So it was Savoy Brown, the Savoy Brown Blues Band, so it was a fictitious blues person and eventually, we dropped the Blues Band and instead of Savoy Brown Blues Band, it just became Savoy Brown. I think that is the historical context. We had other names. I remember putting names in a hat and drawing names out trying to do it that way. Trying to be serendipity about choosing a name but it could have been Valerie that put all the pieces together, I really don’t know. Either way, I’m happy that we thought of the name.

It’s stood the test of time.

There you have it.

I have one last item that I wanted to ask. 50 ago this month you were listed as a headliner at the Goose Lake Music Festival in Michigan and Savoy Brown is listed in bold letters on the top of the poster. However, I was at the festival for the entire three days and I don’t remember Savoy Brown playing.

Several bands did not play. I don’t remember details but there was an official announcement saying there were “contractual issues”.

Thanks for talking to us. We hope Ain’t Done Yet does well and when concerts resume we look forward to covering an appearance.

Interview by Bob Gersztyn

Savoy Brown’s new album Ain’t Done Yet is released by Quarto Valley Records on August 28th and is available for pre-order.

Bob Gersztyn

Bob Gersztyn began attending concerts and musical performances as a teenager in Detroit, Michigan, when Motown was beginning and the by the end of the 1960’s he was attending multiple shows every week of everyone from Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels to the Four Tops, along with Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and hundreds of other artists. In 1971 Bob’s musical direction changed and he became involved in promoting gospel rock music, also known as Jesus rock and witnessed and photographed hundreds of performances by everyone from Andrae` Crouch and the Disciples to Larry Norman. In the 1990’s Bob began to cover concerts for music magazines like “Duprees Diamond News,” “Guitar Player” and LIVE. By the 21st century Bob was writing, interviewing and photographing everyone from performers and producers to other photographers and painters. He has published 2 books and lives in Salem, Oregon with his wife of 46 years and teaches photography at the local community college part time. He has 7 children and 6 grandchildren.

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