Kim Simmonds, a Key Figure in the British Blues Movement, Dies at 75
Kim Simmonds, a fleet and commanding guitarist who for over 50 years led one of Britain’s seminal blues bands, Savoy Brown, died on Dec. 13 in Syracuse, N.Y. He was 75.
His wife and manager, Debbie (Lyons) Simmonds, confirmed the death, in a hospital. Mr. Simmonds, who lived in nearby Oswego, had announced in August that he had Stage 4 signet ring cell carcinoma, a rare form of colon cancer that is seldom detected early enough to be treated successfully.
Though Savoy Brown never had a hit single, and though only two albums from the group’s vast catalog broke Billboard’s Top 40, it held an important place in the British blues movement of the 1960s alongside bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Ten Years After and the early Fleetwood Mac.
Mr. Simmonds changed the band’s lineup often, bringing to mind a subway turnstile at rush hour, making it difficult to build an audience. The most notable firing happened in 1970, when he got rid of all the other members — who then went on to form a far more commercially successful band, Foghat. In all, more than 60 musicians played under the Savoy Brown banner.
“I don’t want to stand still,” Mr. Simmonds told the website Music Aficionado in 2017. “Once I’ve climbed a mountain, I want to climb another. If a band weren’t willing to do that, I would get another band.”
Throughout all the personnel changes, he maintained a musical vision anchored in the skill of his guitar work, the melodicism of his songwriting and his commitment to American blues.
As a guitarist, he could be stinging or sweet, lithe or robust. He also drew attention for the speed of his playing, and for his ability to spin long solos without losing the melodic thread or breaking a song’s momentum. In addition to the blues, his music drew from jazz and — most notably on Savoy Brown’s highest-charting album (it reached No. 34 in Billboard), “Hellbound Train” (1972) — R&B.
Kim Maiden Simmonds was born on Dec. 5, 1947, in Caerphilly, Wales, to Henry Simmonds, an electrician, and Phyllis (Davies) Simmonds, a homemaker. As a child, he was drawn to the early rock ’n’ roll albums owned by his older brother, Harry, who later worked for Bill Haley’s British fan club.
“My brother took me to see all the rock ’n’ roll movies,” Mr. Simmonds told the magazine Record Collector in 2017. “I grew up with all that: Little Richard, Bill Haley and, of course, Elvis.”
By age 10 he had moved with his family to London, where his brother took him to jazz record stores that sold blues albums. The singer and pianist Memphis Slim — “one of the sophisticated blues guys that could keep one foot in the jazz world and one foot in the blues world,” he told Record Collector — became a favorite.
He bought his first guitar at 13 and began imitating the blues licks on the records he loved. So intent was he on a music career that he never completed high school.
A chance meeting at a record shop in 1965 with the harmonica player John O’Leary led to the formation of what was initially called the Savoy Brown Blues Band. (The first word in the name echoed the name of an important American jazz and R&B label.) The group’s initial lineup featured six players, two of them Black — the singer Brice Portius and the drummer Leo Manning — making them one of the few multiracial bands on the British rock scene of the 1960s.
While playing gigs with Cream and John Lee Hooker, the band developed a reputation for its intense live performances, leading to a contract with Decca Records in 1967. The band’s debut album, “Shake Down,” consisted almost entirely of blues covers. By its second album, “Getting to the Point,” issued in 1968, most of the lineup had changed. The most significant additions were the soulful singer Chris Youlden (who also wrote memorable original songs, often with Mr. Simmonds) and the forceful rhythm guitarist and singer Dave Peverett.
Half of the band’s third album, “Blue Matter,” issued in 1969, was recorded live, highlighted by a revved-up version of Muddy Waters’s “Louisiana Blues,” which became a signature piece. Its 1970 album, “Raw Sienna,” forged a dynamic new direction that reflected the emerging jazz-rock movement, best evidenced by Mr. Simmonds’s Dave Brubeck-like instrumental, “Master Hare.” When Mr. Youlden elected to leave for a solo career, Mr. Peverett stepped up impressively to sing lead on the band’s “Lookin’ In” album later that year.
Mr. Simmonds’s desire to add more R&B influences led to the firings that paved the way for Foghat. The resulting sound on the album “Street Corner Talkin’,” released in 1971, earned heavy play on FM radio in the U.S., where the band enjoyed a larger following than in its native country.
Though Savoy Brown’s subsequent albums weren’t as commercially successful, Mr. Simmonds kept producing them at a steady clip, resulting in a catalog of more than 40. His last releases, both in 2020, were a studio album, “Ain’t Done Yet,” and a set of live performances from the 1990s, “Taking the Blues Back Home.” He also released six solo albums.
In addition to his wife, his survivors include their daughter, Eve Simmonds, and two children from a previous marriage, Tabatha and Justin Simmonds.
Addressing his dedication to Savoy Brown in whatever form it took, Mr. Simmons told Music Aficionado: “A famous poet once said, ‘The deed can never be done without need.’ There’s something in me that’s gotta come out.”
He added: “Throughout it all — the changes, the music, the 50 years — the one tie-in is my guitar playing. That’s what keeps it all going.”