Considering he’s a veteran guitarist, singer, and bandleader who has been plying his craft at bars, theaters, and festivals since 1966 — and led dozens of versions of his group, Savoy Brown — Kim Simmonds comes across as especially humble. Savoy Brown was one of the first of the British blues groups to record in his adopted hometown of London. His family moved there from his native Wales in his youth.
In the 1960s, a new form of the blues emerged, and it came back across the pond to U.S. audiences who greeted the genre with great enthusiasm. Blues-rock music was performed by groups like Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Cream, the Rolling Stones, Blind Faith, and by the late ’60s, Led Zeppelin, who set the world on fire with their unique brand of blues-rock, who in turn influenced early heavy metal groups like Black Sabbath.
Simmonds moved to the U.S. permanently from London in 1980 and settled upstate New York, near Syracuse. In comparison to the band’s hard-touring reputation in the ’70s, “we’re not out on the road 150 nights a year anymore,” Simmonds says in a phone interview. “These days, we have a schedule that is more like 100 nights a year.
“In our early days, we were known as one of the hardest working bands in the USA, and we became popular not only in one particular area, but nationwide,” Simmonds says. “We found other acts would want to get on the Savoy Brown tour as we moved to all corners of the country. Sometimes we’d do three month tours just in America.”
Like many of his countrymen in England, Simmonds fell in love with America: the scenery, the music, the sub-cultures, the food, the sports, the attitudes here. “In the early days of the band,” he says, referring to U.S. tours in the late ’60s and early ’70s, “I always felt like one day I’d move here; it just made perfect sense. The country appealed to me: it’s a very optimistic country, it’s a very enthusiastic country, and it’s a relatively new country, and that’s what I’m all about. I’m Welsh, and I just feel at home here,” he says.
Simmons and his family moved from Wales to the big city of London when he was just 10. His mother was a housewife and his father worked his way up to a high rank in the Royal Navy, and then took a job with the British Foreign Service, which prompted the family’s move to London. “Once you’ve been displaced like that, it isn’t hard to move anywhere,” he says.
Simmonds says his earliest awareness of American blues came about because of his older brother’s record collection. By the time he was 15, Simmonds been playing guitar for four years and knew what he wanted to do. “When I was about 15, in 1963, I said to myself, I want to play Chicago blues, and up to that point I was listening to all sorts of stuff, from the Isley Brothers to Elvis Presley to everything else. I learned there were all different types of blues, but the blues I liked best was Chicago blues.
“By the time were starting off with Savoy Brown, we had the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds and Eric Burdon and the Animals, so I was able to go to the local blues clubs and hear these bands. And in no time, I was a participant myself.”
Simmonds says he got his artistic side from his mother, who liked to dance and was fond of the sound of the harmonica. He played his guitar secretly for the first few years, “because I was kind of embarrassed to tell my folks I was playing guitar.”
At his live shows, Simmonds alternates between his own unique guitar stylings and piano, which he returned to after a long absence. “I think it was my calling to play guitar and my calling to tour as much as we have,” Simmonds says. “When I get it right, my guitar playing can be poetic and sublime, but you don’t always get it to that point.”
Although Simmonds has been criticized by some critics for not being able to keep a band together, the way he sees it, it’s all part of keeping the music fresh and exciting for whatever group of musicians he’s working with. “Every time the band changed the music would change, and I like to change the music and sometimes people can’t move along fast enough,” he says, noting many different musicians have been part of Savoy Brown since 1966-’67, and many of them have gone on to brilliant solo careers.
Among the key players in the British blues-rock scene who came through Savoy Brown were the late Dave Peverett and Rod Price, both of whom left to form their own band, Foghat. Both moved to America along with the other members of Foghat, and the band has a new album out and is touring, led by original drummer Roger Earl.
“Dave and I were very close. While they went on to form Foghat, whenever I’d play Orlando, Dave would always come out to my shows,” he says of Peverett, who died in 2000 after a long battle with cancer. Guitarist Rod Price died a few years later.
“Too Much of a Good Thing,” an album designed to be a 15-year retrospective, is Savoy Brown’s current release. The album includes the current lineup of the band, who will perform on Saturday, September 4, at the Stockton Inn Blues Festival with Simmonds on guitar, keyboards, and vocals; Joe Whiting as lead singer and rhythm guitarist; Pat DeSalvo on bass; and Garnett Grimm on drums.
While the band has never had a hit, and never caught on in England quite the way they did in the States, Savoy Brown’s discography is impressive and amounts to about 40 albums, including reissued material. “If you have the 30-odd Savoy Brown records, I would say you have the essential Savoy Brown records, and there are countless recordings, I can’t even keep track of them all,” Simmonds says. “And I don’t say that egotistically or anything, it’s just there’s a lot of reissues that have been done.”
Among circles of musicians in New York and New Jersey, “Needle and Spoon” was a hit that first appeared on the Savoy Brown album, “Raw Sienna.” It’s actually an anti-drug song, but unfortunately, it wasn’t interpreted that way by legions of fans around America, so Simmonds stopped performing it for a long time. “It’s one of those underground hit songs, “ Simmonds says, acknowledging that many people still request “Needle and Spoon” at the band’s live shows.
“We didn’t realize it would be thought to be promoting drug use,” Simmonds says .”As soon as we realized people were thinking other things about it, we stopped playing it.” Today, when the band plays “Needle and Spoon,” Simmonds always precedes it with an introductory disclaimer, “because in reality, it’s an anti-drug song, but nobody ever seems to listen to the last verse!”
These days, Savoy Brown issues records on Simmond’s own Panache label, distributed through a small label in Syracuse, Blue Wave Records. Simmonds says he’s looking forward to the next year’s release of the band’s first studio album in five years, as yet untitled, with all new original songs.
At the Stockton Inn Blues Festival on September 4, fans unfamiliar with the band who like blues will get a jolt out of their live show, which includes songs the band hasn’t performed in three decades as well as five or six tunes from the forthcoming Savoy Brown studio album. Their set will include originals as well as souped-up versions of songs by great, departed bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Little Milton Campbell, and John Lee Hooker.
“People unfamiliar with Savoy Brown are going to see a band that is one of the earliest practitioners of blues-rock. I mean, Elvis Presley wasn’t blues-rock. It wasn’t until later on, when the British came across the ocean, that they began calling it blues-rock here in the States, and we made it apparent.”
Savoy Brown with Kim Simmonds, Stockton Inn Blues Festival, 1 Main Street, Stockton. Saturday, September 4, 12:30 p.m. Opening bands include Kal David and the Read Deal, J.B. Kline Band, Don Mayer Band, Paul Plumeri, David Sancious and Jim Weider, and Joe Zook. A portion of proceeds benefits Network of Victim Assistance of Bucks County And SAFE, Hunterdon County $35 and $40. 609-397-1250 or www.stocktoninn.com.