“I went from the cotton field, to the chicken coop, to a star of R&B”
- Joe Simon commenting on the ascent of his career and the corresponding hard work required in establishing that career
Chances are, in discussions of great Soul singers, that Joe Simon’s name is rarely mentioned. That’s both unfortunate and surprising given that, over the course of a career that spanned more than 6 decades:
- he had 3 # 1 hits, 14 top ten hits, 38 top forty R&B hits, 4 Grammy nominations including 1 Grammy win
- he released 20 acclaimed albums
- he’s an R&B Foundation Pioneer Award winner
- he was inducted into the Louisiana Hall Of Fame
- he was inducted into the Gospel Hall Of Fame
- he was the first artist to be inducted into both a religious and secular Hall of Fame
Reasons for his omission in said discussions are left to varied opinions. It could be that the smooth singing Simon wasn’t an attention getting “in your face” screamer. Or the fact that Simon wasn’t on a more noteworthy Soul / R&B label like Stax, or Atlantic, or Motown could conceivably play a role. Or that a good part of his career and subsequent recordings were more in the Country Soul vein rather than straight ahead R&B / Soul / Funk. Also, it can’t be discounted that, although he had a career of over 25 years in secular music, he left “worldly music” for the ministry in the early 80’s for some 40 years when contemporaries were still invested in more high profile R&B recording and performance settings. Running counter to these points is that the line that separate R&B and Gospel gets blurred. Granted the lyrics, subject matter, and performance venues may differ but the commitment remains the same. And, similarly, there’s a thin line of demarcation that separates Country Soul and R&B especially in the rural areas of the deep south as evidenced by the Country Soul that permeates the works of artists like Percy Sledge, Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, and Clarence Carter. And one could also add that legitimacy of Country strains in Soul music was confirmed when Ray Charles, who’s synonymous with Soul, championed the idea of a Black artist singing what has been generally accepted as white Country music.
Whatever the case, while highly regarded by his peers*, Joe Simon remains one of the most underrated of Soul singers, and thereby commanding comparatively less media attention. And, giving credit where credit’s due, regardless of his lack of notoriety, Joe Simon sought to control his own destiny and career. Further, from humble beginnings including a poverty stricken childhood, it shouldn’t be discounted that Simon’s achievements were as a result of hard work.
*A little known associated fact:
Joe Simon was a close personal friend of Otis Redding. Simon sang “Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross” at Otis’ funeral and acted as one of the pallbearers along with Solomon Burke, Don Covay, Sam Moore, Percy Sledge, Johnny Taylor, and Joe Tex.
Joe Simon spent his formative years picking cotton in his birth home of Simmesport Louisiana, a farming community 150 miles north of New Orleans. His father, a Baptist preacher, and mother raised Joe, his brother, and three sisters in a religious household. In search of a better life the family moved to the San Francisco Bay area when Simon was 15. The move suited Simon in that he hated picking cotton and would make it his life long goal to never pick cotton again. Instead, young Joe turned to singing, firstly with his brother in The Town’s Pilgrim Baptist Church choir, before performing with a number of local Gospel groups including The Vallejo Gospel Singers.
In the mid fifties, Simon left home to try his luck at a singing career, and settled near Oakland in Richmond California. He began singing professionally with The Golden West Gospel Singers; and by 1959 – at 23 years of age – Simon was performing as the lead singer of a secular group, The Echo Tones. The Echo Tones played the California chitlin circuit, and although they had no hits, the group, and Joe in particular, was very popular in the Black clubs.
By Joe’s account, the Richmond period of his career was a tough go. He claimed that over the course of the next two years that he lived in a chicken coup and survived on sardines and crackers provided by his best friend, (and future band leader), Roland Williams. In addition to suppling Joe with food, Williams also gave him spending money, and arranged for Simon to borrow clothes and shoes for upcoming performances.
As Joe was still defining his personal sound – and influenced by a divergent group of singers including The Soul Stirrers, The 5 Blind Boys, Brook Benton, and Nancy Wilson – The Echo Tones started to expand geographically to Los Angeles and as far south as Dallas. While in L.A. the group came to the attention of Hush Records and early Simon mentor Gerrie Thompson. It was on the Hush label that that The Echo Tones, (now The Golden Tones), made their recording debut with modest – mostly local – hits “Doretha” (1959) and “You Left Me Here To Cry Alone” (1960). And, in addition, as a solo artist, Joe would record “It’s A Miracle”. The releases demonstrated that Joe was now starting to find his style, one that echoed Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, and Jackie Wilson. He would continue to draw comparisons to the three for the rest of his career – particularly Wilson given his, at times, almost operatic approach.
The local hits showed Hush to have minimal visibility and, as a result, failing in attempts to acquire a noteworthy distribution deal. That being the case, and still looking for a breakthrough hit, Joe moved to Vee-Jay Records in 1964. Vee-Jay, out of Chicago, one of the few Black owned labels, recognized Simon’s talent and purchased his contract from Thompson / Hush. Unlike Hush, Vee-Jay had a national distribution deal with Polydor. Joe’s first Vee-Jay release immediately put him on the map. Featuring a backing band that included Sly Stone and Larry Graham, (Sly was a San Francisco based DJ at the time), Simon cut that much needed step-forward hit, “My Adorable One”. The release was still a minor hit in the grand scheme of things, but Joe Simon was now a known commodity.
Simon now had enough of a profile that he caught the eye of Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. Wexler, an R&B power broker, in the hopes of signing Simon to his label, suggested that Joe try recording at one of his affiliated studios, FAME, in Muscle Shoals Alabama. Simon did just that and delivered his first hit, 1965’s “Let’s Do It Over” (# 13 R&B). The Dan Penn – Spooner Oldham co-write was cut in Muscle Shoals with the R&B defining resident studio band.
Around this time Simon happened to be passing through Nashville where he made the acquaintance of John Richbourg. Better known as John R, Richbourg was a renowned WLAC DJ who also promoted shows and produced records. When Vee-Jay folded later that year Simon joined forces with Richbourg; who became Simon’s manager, producer, and mentor. Although pursued by both Motown and Atlantic, Simon chose to forge a partnership with John R based on a non exclusivity arrangement. That is, Simon would work with Richbourg but was free to capitalize on any outside opportunities that might present themselves. Simply, Simon would explain “Joe Simon always controlled Joe Simon’s career”.
Over the course of the next four years John R would help establish Simon as one of the definitive Country Soul singers of his day, (or any day). Richbourg brought Simon to the Monument subsidiary Sound Stage 7 where Joe would record a string of hits including:
“Teenager’s Prayer” (1966) # 11 R&B
“(You Keep Me) Hangin’ On” (1968) # 11 R&B
“Chokin’ Kind” (1969) # 1 R&B # 20 Pop, Grammy award winner
“Farther On Down The Road” (1970) # 7 R&B
In addition to producing the hits John R also assembled an all-star backing band of Country players that played on virtually all the sessions; and usually consisted of: Kenny Buttrey – drums, Tim Drummond – bass, Mac Gayton and Troy Seals – guitar, and Charlie McCoy – harmonica.
In 1970 Richbourg, who continued to maintain ties with Joe for another couple of years, engineered a move to Spring Records, (with Simon eventually becoming a minority owner of the label). Simon had a million seller right out of the gate with “Your Time To Cry” (# 3 R&B) before working with Philly Soul pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The Gamble & Huff alliance would introduce Simon to a whole new Uptown R&B audience and take his career to yet another level. The success was measured not only in sell-out appearances but also in radio play and record sales of such notable hits as:
“Drowning In A Sea Of Love” (1971) # 3 R7B # 11 Pop
“Power Of Love” (1972) # 1 R&B # 11 Pop
“Theme From Cleopatra Jones” (1973) # 3 R&B
“Get Down, Get Down” (1975) # 1 R&B # 8 Pop
“Music In My Bones” (1875) # 7 R&B
“I Need You, You Need Me” (1975) # 5 R&B
Simon continued touring and recording but was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the R&B lifestyle; and in 1980, without declaring his future plans, started publicizing that he was retiring after 20 years in the business. In 1983 Joe Simon gave up “worldly music” to become an ordained minister. He did so following a dramatic on-stage moment at a concert in New Orleans when he couldn’t remember the lyrics to songs that he’s sung for over 20 years. Simon described the setting as follows:
“I said to the people, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like for everyone to sit down. I want you to know that I’m not able to sing these songs tonight…I want everyone to go to the front door to the office and get your money back. Because I’m going to church’. And 10,000 people said Hallelujah”.
He would go on to explain that he only sang R&B to make a living, and that the expected behaviour, given his religious upbringing, was diametrically opposed to the life he should have been living. Accordingly, after joining the ministry, Simon was quoted as saying ”To sing R&B you had to act the fool…you had to be arrogant”. He went on to say that he was “serving Satan when he should have been serving God”. And, finally, that his true job was to teach because “That’s what the ministry is all about”.
Joe Simon would go on to preach and sing Gospel for the next 38 years. He also continued to record with the release of 2 Gospel albums: The Story Must Be Told (1998) and Time To Change (2007).
When he passed at 85 on December 13, 2021, he was remembered not only as extremely talented but also as a kind and gentle man. Summing up perfectly the regard held by those that knew him, songstress Bettye LaVette on his passing said “We lost another one of the good guys. RIP Rhythm & Blues legend, Joe Simon. One of the nicest men that I ever met in show business.”
It could be added that Joe Simon spoke and sang straight from the heart. Nothing more needs to be said.
Joe Simon Playlist
- Doreetha (w / The Golden Tones)
- You Left Me Here To Cry Alone (w / The Golden Tones)
- It’s A Miracle
- My Adorable One
- Let’s Do It Over
- When I’m Gone
- Teenager’s Prayer
- Trouble In My Home
- In The Ghetto
- (You Keep Me) Hangin’ On
- I’m Too Far Gone To Turn Around
- Chokin’ Kind
- Rainbow Road
- Looking Back
- Farther On Down The Road
- My Special Prayer
- Your Time To Cry
- Drowning In A Sea Of Love
- Power Of Love
- You’re The One For Me
- Theme From Cleopatra Jones
- Get Down, Get Down
- Music In My Bones
- I Need You, You Need Me
- Time To Change (Bishop Joe Simon)
- Rico Ferrara April 2022