August 9, 2020

We had a very American sound, and when we came over, bang, it just fitted…

A common theme with articles about classic European bands is their failure to ‘crack America’. It seems strange that bands that are household names over here, or even part of the British or European psyche, are virtually unknown to our allies on the other side of the pond – how is it that they have never heard of Status Quo, or thrilled to the Gaelic phrasings of Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy? Sometimes though, it works the other way around. Formed in 1965, the Savoy Brown Blues Band had success for sure in Britain, but when the name coalesced around founder member Kim Simmonds on guitar and eccentrically-hatted front man Chris Youlden and they hit American shores, the band took off in a big way. Now settled in north-central New York State, Simmonds fronts a power trio and records under the name Savoy Brown to this day – and their current offering Ain’t Done Yet makes it clear that he is still as passionate about his art as he was 55 years ago. Musing on the glory days in gentle, grandfatherly and ever-so-slightly Welsh tones, he has a stab at explaining their stateside appeal.

Kim Simmonds (photo by Arnie Goodman)

“I mean the band was very, very popular when we came out, but I think we just always had a very American sound. I remember people criticising us because they felt we were faking it or something, making up this sound, rather than it just being how we played. In fact some of the labels in America when we were shopping later on, didn’t realise we were British; they thought we were an American band from the south. You can go on and on about the whys and wherefores, but the band had a real, authentic American blues sound and then the audiences would see me, a young, skinny British guy with a Flying V guitar, and they could identify with it – and Chris was a character, so for Americans, the whole band was – what shall I say? A wonderful hybrid. My playing was very dark, and the songs we were singing were a little bit different. So that’s how I’m interpreting it today; we had a very American sound, and when we came over, bang, it just fitted.”

Many classic bands have seen members come and go in large numbers, but none perhaps so large as Savoy Brown. Simmonds started the band in London with his harmonica-playing mate John O’Leary at the height of the British Blues Boom, and drafted in Brice Portius on vocals, one of the first black singers to front a British band. O’Leary recorded some singles with the group, but left before they cut their first album. Like all blues bands of the era, Savoy Brown also featured stints from Bob Brunning on bass and Hughie Flint on drums, but unexpected names crop up too – jazz and prog wizard Bill Bruford for instance, occupied the drum stool for a while, before being replaced by the lavishly-moustachioed Roger Earl and wending his way towards Yes. Paul Raymond served a tour of duty on keyboards, before going on to join UFO and subsequently the Michael Schenker Group. One thing the band always had in those days was a specialist singer, and although it was becoming apparent that the name Savoy Brown was squarely identified with Simmonds, he was content to sling his axe and concede the glory to a front man.

“It sounds like it’s all me,” he confesses, “but I don’t think so at all, because I gave everybody the spotlight. I wanted them to be the best they can be. I was trying to make the best Savoy Brown I could make, and that’s what I’m doing now. So I would bring in other people and give them the spotlight. It wasn’t like you see in some bands, where I would say, it’s my band and you’re back there…”

Of course, the musical emphasis has shifted over the years, and the sound evolves with every change of personnel. There were proggy elements in those early, psychedelic days, but the direction has condensed into pure, straight-ahead, electric blues rock – what we would probably have called pub rock in the early days of Dr. Feelgood and Nine Below Zero. I wonder whether stripped-down blues has always been his favoured direction?

“Yeah, very much so, especially in the beginning, in the mid-60s. Growing up in the early ‘60s I was very much a purist. It was going to America in ‘69 that changed it all, because really we were a blues band, but when we got to the States everyone was calling it a rock band, which was really weird – so suddenly we were rock. But I’ve had people involved in the production walk out of the studio during the early albums because they thought I was going too rock. I have walked out of the studio myself over one thing or another! So there has always been a strong feeling with us all about what blues is and where it should go and what to do. Yes, I was a purist and I still am. I still prefer Freddie King from 1959 rather than 1969! It’s a question of what you grow up with and get used to. I continually play the old blues I grew up with; the more straightforward stuff I have been doing suits my voice – I have to find a vehicle for my voice, which is limited – and I’ve got enough material to make traditional blues albums till the cows come home. But I haven’t pulled the trigger on that one because I’ve been going in a nice direction lately with the more straightforward blues rock stuff.”

Suddenly, Savoy Brown was a solo act…

In fact, the desire to stay in the blues groove has caused friction in the past with band members who wanted to head in a rather more commercial rock direction. One of the most famous, or possibly infamous, episodes happened early in the band’s history. The charismatic ‘Lonesome Dave’ Peverett had joined the crew on second guitar and backing vocals before the first album , and when Roger Earl replaced Bill Bruford on the drum stool, he and Dave hit it off musically and personally. Bassist Tony ‘Tone’ Stevens joined in time for the third album and this lineup remained constant through their classic fifth album Raw Sienna in 1970, before Chris Youlden left to embark on a solo career. Peverett took over the lead vocals and the band for the first time was reduced to four members, in which guise they recorded the highly successful Looking In later the same year. Tensions over the band’s musical direction led to Peverett, Earl and Stevens leaving en masse to form the hugely successful boogie rock band Foghat in 1971, and suddenly Savoy Brown was a solo act. I wonder if this period is a little too raw to cover in conversation with Simmonds, so I approach it warily, but he dismisses all objections with an airy wave.

Read Velvet Thunder’s review of Savoy Brown’s new album Ain’t Done Yet

“Well it just wasn’t going in the right direction. The guys wanted to continue in the direction that Foghat became. And as usual, I was just like, well I’ve done that, when we were doing Louisiana Blues and all that kind of stuff. I’ve done that, I don’t want to do it anymore, and I started writing what became the 1972 Street Corner Talking album. I tried a song out in the studio – and I don’t think anybody remembers this, ‘cos I did mention it to Dave later and I don’t think it rang any bells, but I did try the song Street Corner Talking – but it just somehow wasn’t working and so in my mind, I wanted to go somewhere else and grow the music, and I’m not sure I felt that the band could. The three guys really liked the rock’n’roll and I wanted to go more R’n’B, so I think the seeds were already planted when the breakup came. Then the way it happened, I think Street Corner Talking was my favourite Savoy album ever, it did really, really well, and Foghat went on to have even greater success, so I was very happy for them. Dave and myself were very, very tight years afterwards, and Roger and I really have a close relationship. So it all worked out, but at the time there was a lot of acrimony.”

Simmonds was back with an all-new lineup for the following year’s album, with Idle Race singer Dave Walker at the front and two former members of Chicken Shack, Dave Bidwell on drums and the aforementioned Paul Raymond on rhythm guitar and keys. Andy Pyle was drafted in briefly to play bass until replaced by Andy Sylvester, also from Chicken Shack, leaving only front man Stan Webb to carry the Chicken Shack name. Slightly confusingly, Chicken Shack reformed with Pip Pyle on drums, no relation to Andy, at about the same time. Even more confusingly, the Shack’s main man Stan Webb ended up joining Simmonds for a one-off Savoy Brown album with a temporary lineup, Boogie Brothers, in 1974.

It was after this that Simmonds started dabbling with doing the lead vocals himself, something he had steadfastly resisted doing up to this point, and the band even reduced to a trio for a while. Real life reasserted itself with the conscription of Ralph Mormon as front man in the late ‘70s; a handful of others trod the boards in front of the microphone; Dave Walker also dropped in and out of the band at intervals. Eventually it became just that bit too much, as Simmonds describes in reminiscent tones: “It was the ‘90s and I was rehearsing a singer at the time to replace Nathaniel Peterson who had left to go in a more rock direction and it was like – do I really want to do this again? And the guitar player at the time suggested I do it instead. So I took over the singing and I did that for a while and then this 3-piece came about with Pat and Garnet.”

Pat DeSalvo (photo by Arnie Goodman)

Simmonds is here referring to bassist Pat DeSalvo and wonderfully-named drummer Garnet Grimm. These two musicians have formed Simmonds’ backing band for a record-breaking ten years right up to the present moment – but there was still one more twist left in the story. “We started playing together and it was a terrific chemistry. I didn’t quite realise at the time; I was singing and starting to write the kind of songs we’re listening to now; an album called Voodoo Moon. I sang for a little while, then I got my energy back and I thought you know, I’m going to have another go at bringing a singer in. I knew Joe Whiting very well, we were friends, he’s a great singer, and I thought I’m going to do it again; this is something I know how to do!”

So Whiting was drafted in, the band was back to being a 4-piece, Simmonds was back to being the guitarist behind a dedicated front man and all was well. But somehow it was just … just … well, Simmonds again takes up the story: “I brought Joe in and it was great; it was fun to be just the guitar player again, which I had been in all the early decades. But it broke up that chemistry with the 3-piece, so when Joe went back to his solo career, I continued on with the 3-piece and then we realised, yeah, wow, we really do have this chemistry. So from that point on I decided to dedicate myself a little bit more to the art of singing, and that’s the way it has worked since then.”

Savoy Brown have even enjoyed something a resurgence in popularity with the current trio of Simmonds, DeSalvo and Grimm. The albums had been coming more or less annually for years, but without much fanfare or publicity. They switched labels a couple of years ago though, and whether for that reason or others, have regained a bit of visibility. “We did an album last year, City Nights. Quarto Valley Records is a relatively new Californian company, and we’ve just done the new one, Ain’t Done Yet. It’s a very nice home for me; it’s run by Bruce Quarto who is the owner. He’s terrific, and it makes me feel very good to be with the label and they do a good job. I was with Thomas Roof at Roof Records for years, and that could have carried on, but it is convenient to be on an American label.”

Simmonds is quite sensitive to the feelings of their audience, and though there is more to his musical makeup than basic electric blues, he is careful to segregate these other leanings from the core Savoy Brown set. “I just write songs, pretty much on a weekly basis; it’s a way of practicing for me. There’s no point me going out and playing scales in the studio – I mean I’ve never played a scale in my life anyway – but writing songs is a way of practicing singing and playing the guitar. Often I will play traditional blues songs because I enjoy that, experimenting with my guitar sound; getting a West Coast sound, a clean sound, an old-fashioned or a modern sound, just having fun with the guitar, and composing at the same time. Then it starts building up, week after week, month after month. It’s important that the songs I use are all ‘Savoy Brown songs’ – just because I’m writing them doesn’t mean they’re all Savoy Brown songs! If it’s a little on the light side, I would think it’s more solo type stuff. It could be a bit too rock, which doesn’t fit into either. Right now it’s coming out more sort of laid back, so I start thinking maybe this will be the direction of the new album next year. I have done three albums now that have been a bit of a renaissance for me, pretty hard-hitting blues rock. I would imagine I would head in that same direction, but you never know. There are all sorts of aspects to the band. So I keep writing the material and see where it’s leading me.

Garnet Grimm (photo by Arnie Goodman)

“The solo stuff was an antidote to the same old routine really. It was never a solo career, it was just to do some solo shows, get away from running a band and to give myself a break. But then I found out the solo shows were just as stressful as doing a band thing! So I haven’t done a lot of those for a while now, but I found that although it was incredibly challenging, I could do them, and I also honed my ability to communicate with an audience. So it was all very beneficial, but I really stuck my neck out because it’s not something that’s natural to me; it’s much more natural to get on stage with an electric guitar and a band. Now I find I’m writing material that sounds like solo songs rather than band songs; just a little softer and lighter, which is a big side of me. Whether I will ever do anything with it, probably not, there’s just not enough time! I kept the solo thing acoustic all the time just so there’s no – no contamination or something, I don’t know – so I think my focus will be the band; the older I get, especially with Pat and Garnet, with that chemistry, I can just walk on stage and it’s magic; I can just play and it’s fantastic; no pressure except what I put on myself. It’s very comfortable.”

An avenue that Simmonds has pursued to release other creative juices is art; he paints for pleasure and enjoys the variety it adds to life. An observant fan may register the fact that the band’s album covers have almost always featured a painting as opposed to band photos, moody landscapes or digital images. More recently, Simmonds has sometimes contributed the cover art himself, such as on last year’s City Night. “Yeah, I paint!” he enthuses. “That’s not like the guitar though, where I can just pick it up and play without having to wait for inspiration; the painting is a lot more difficult. I really have to be in the mood! But I enjoy doing that; I started doing it when I began to have a lot more spare time, when the career started naturally slowing down a bit as you get older and so forth. But the creative energy is still there, so I tried to find some way to express that. I started a new family in my forties, and I started painting as a way of getting some of the excess energy out. I’m very interested in other people’s art too; it’s the same as playing an instrument really; I wish everybody would play a little bit of guitar, because it’s such fun!”

Savoy Brown’s back catalogue amounts to over 40 albums; in fact the press release touts Ain’t Done Yet as the 41st. A quick, sneaky check of Wikipedia agrees with the figure, so I approach him confidently with that number. Simmonds laughs. “Well that’s the number that everybody’s landed on,” he quips, “it’s as good as any! It’s probably more. If you throw in my solo things it’s 47 I think, I don’t know – but when they asked me to start this whole thing off, I just looked at Wikipedia, and thought, oh OK, looks like we’ve made 41!”

Hopefully, we’ll both still be around and kicking…

I have to return to the origins of the band though. Savoy Brown has had more members than they have made albums, and that’s a tidy sum. But it started off with Simmonds the Welsh lad and a bloke he met in London. John O’Leary went on to become a member of the John Dummer Blues Band amongst other things, and his thick thatch of snowy-white hair and soulful voice still grace stages wherever blues is played. I wonder if there has ever been any chance of a reunion, and once again am surprised by Simmonds’ genuine fellow-feeling for his former bandmates. “No, but I’d be up for it! I love john, and one of my big regrets is when he left the band. Because then I was put on my path and I always wonder what kind of guitar player I would have been had he stayed! I became this particular guitar player, but if John had stayed, I would have gone a different path and I’ll never know that. So it’s a big sadness when I look back. We did the singles together, then John quit the band. I have seen him a few times over the years when I’ve been playing in the UK; the last time was this past January, and it was just beautiful, but we’ve never gone much further than that. We did speak this last time about getting together, and he could take me round to the old haunts and we’d do whatever nostalgic trips back in time, but that’s been blown out of the water with the Coronavirus. But hopefully we’ll both still be around and kicking afterwards and I’ll take him up on it. We’ve never had an in-depth talk, and I’d love to do that; I’ve got my own idea why he left the band, but there are other things I didn’t know about. So I might be wrong, and it would be great to have an in-depth conversation with John and go over those things; you know, I loved that first band.”

I offer the observation that, with all the water under the bridge and all the people that have come and gone, Simmonds doesn’t seem to harbour any hard feelings. His natural modesty surfaces once again, and lest we think too well of him, he gently puts me straight on that score. “I think there are hard feelings, and various people that I don’t particularly like that have been in the band, that’s for certain. But I don’t dwell on those aspects; I wish everybody the best. And the problem is that we sometimes have hard feelings for certain people and it turns out there’s no reason for it! I have noticed one thing over such a long career, which is that you get the past completely wrong. You walk around with something in your head about how it was and what they think of you and you think of them, and it’s completely wrong, it’s just something that you’ve built up in your mind. I’ve been wrong so many times, and it’s just not worth carrying that stuff around. But having said that, you can’t help but like some people and some situations better than others.”

Wise words from the old stager. Two things seem certain though – as long as there is a Kim Simmonds, there will be a Savoy Brown, and as long as there is a Savoy Brown, there will be new music. And paintings to go with them of course.

Looks like the boys mean business… (photo by Juan Junco)