Tribute to a great show

Late on Saturday afternoons in our family home in Harlow New Town, I’d sit down to do my Geography homework for what seemed like a whole school year starting in late 1972.

Our teacher, Miss Theaker, would always set us the same task : make a summary of the chapter we had studied in class, then hand this in for correction so she could see we’d done the chapter. Welcome to O-level Geography.

How long she actually took to read all these notes through, with occasional ticks in the margin and spelling slips to correct, was beyond me. This was the way of things. It was a fairly mindless task, from which I remember little or no content except that it was all about North America.

I worked with the radio tuned to the Dave Simmons R&B Show every Saturday from 5.00 to 6.30 pm, just before the evening In Concert programme, which was also a great source of surprises.

Simmons did not broadcast anything from the normal BBC Radio 1 playlist – so no problems with songs which would irritatingly lodge in your musical memory, and play on an unwanted mental loop for hours, and sometimes days. His show was different, playing and reviewing mainly new releases by soul, rhythm and blues, blues, reggae and African artists.

At this point, black music was a niche genre, unrecognized for its greatness, even though all the ingredients were clearly there, so a lot of what Simmons played and said went over my head, for a while at least. He was talking to adults, many of them soul fans getting ready for their Saturday night out, who wanted to know what was new. Among the artists, there were names I knew from the pop charts, but many I didn’t. James Brown was in the latter category, never having featured on any UK pop charts I’d seen. That seems hard to believe now, but this was where I heard him first.

Over the weeks, other names became familiar. Simmons not only played new single releases and album tracks, he also gave a careful statement of information concerning labels and sometimes catalogue numbers. What was that? I visualized people writing all this down, then going into record shops and asking for these records. I was impressed. He also made it clear that much of his material came directly from the US, opening up the idea of import records to me for the first time. I learnt that Al Green was on Hi Records in the US and distributed by London Records in the UK; that Little Richard wasn’t just a rock n roll artist and that he recorded on Specialty which had been a key label to the growth of black music; that the Philly Sound wasn’t just a marketing term, as the daytime Radio 1 DJs used it, but a whole new black sound created by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

The O-Jays performing a Philly Sound classic on the mythical Soul Train programme

I didn’t need to know all this, of course. It didn’t help with my Geography homework. However, it came into my personal space at a time when music was becoming a secret garden that I was exploring more and more. At school, a group of us had started reading the music papers, and while reading them often told us lots about the rock and pop artists we already knew, Simmons was helping me to create completely new connections. We were principally rock fans, and rarely missed a gig at Harlow Technical College. Going to see Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack play live at the Tech, we laughed together about stuff like Donnie Elbert‘s falsetto on Little Piece Of Leather.

Donnie Elbert, A Little Piece of Leather

But, in my secret life, I knew that this 1972 UK chart hit was a re-release from 1965 which Northern Soul fans loved. I also knew that with that combination of piano, hand clapping and Donnie’s voice, the song had a groove all its own.

There were two regular features that particularly caught my ear on the show. The first of these was Back To The Roots, where Simmons would play a blues or a gospel song, explaining that these were the roots of today’s soul music, thereby revealing that all music was somehow connected to what went before it. This was a thrilling way to learn new things. I could believe the soul connection, but also hear the rock connection, as I was introduced to Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters and many more over the weeks. This alerted me to previously unseen elements in music, so when I saw the cassette of The Story of the Blues Volume 1 in the WH Smith sale bin, rather than just sifting past, I bought it before somebody else did.

Memphis Minnie, Me and My Chauffeur Blues

I also studied it closely, discovering Robert Johnson, The Memphis Jug Band, Elmore James, Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith in the process. Not to mention the Fra-Fra Tribesmen from Ghana.

The second regular feature on the show I loved was Meanwhile Back In The States. This was a weekly spot where DJs at US-based independent radio stations who would give us their top 10 tunes. Suddenly, we were even further from the national BBC playlist, and entered the world of what local record sales somewhere in the USA enabled the DJ at an independent station to rate as good.

As I rambled through my Geography homework, I visualized lights coming on all over the map of the USA, as radio towers sent this music out to innumerable listeners. And those station names full of Ws, Ks and acronyms were attached to the name of the town or city. Simmons never explained at the time that stations east of the Mississippi River had to start their station call signs with ‘W’, and those west of the Mississippi with ‘K’, but it was like learning a new language. Simmons would either chat with the DJ, some of whom were obviously pals, or just give them the mike across the waters so they could tell us about their favourites.

From such sources came my first contact with Joe Tex, Candi Staton, The Spinners, The Delfonics, and The Chi Lites, while underlining the status of James Brown who was reverently referred to as the Godfather of Soul. Most of these names would break into mainstream music in Britain at some point, of course, but I always remembered where I’d heard them first – and where I would hear them last, when their UK hits were over and done with. Simmons followed artists like Ann Peebles who had no UK hits after I Can’t Stand The Rain but who kept on composing and recording.

Ann Peebles, I Can’t Stand The Rain

At the age of 16, Dave Simmons had given me the key to a door which opened onto a new world. It took me while to realize that Charlie Gillett‘s Honky Tonk programme on Radio London was doing similar work in connection with rock n roll. And I would have to wait until Alexis Korner’s Blues and Soul Show on Radio 1 in the late seventies for anything as far-reaching in terms of unknown source material as Korner explored what would be later known as World Music.

Of course, all of the above experience was where I discovered how music and musicians, just like songs and styles, are interlinked. This is the debt I owe to the Dave Simmons R&B Show. It also gave me the tools for my exploration of tango from 1995 onwards, when I would progressively listen away from the music I grew up with. I knew that, if I wanted to understand how a musical genre worked, I had to observe and remember song titles, composers, band leaders, while also paying attention to dates and the way a musical genre evolved at specific times. I will be writing about tango more extensively soon.

45 minutes from the Dave Simmons R & B Show

To finish, I’d like to give a shout for a YouTube channel called Getting Mighty Crowded which has posted a whole series of recordings of the Dave Simmons R&B Show from 1974 on line so you can experience it for yourself. Here’s a playlist of the shows in chronological order to enhance your listening. The last two elements on the playlist are of the final show from December 1974 when the show was taken down by Radio 1. It’s a very relaxed farewell and quietly moving, because Simmons was clearly sad to leave, but rightly proud of his legacy. This article is modest proof that his message lives on.

For your Geography homework, you’ll have to ask Miss Theaker.

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