I don’t remember when I first met John. I do remember that I first heard of him when he was recording his album, “My Acoustic Soul“, as a friend of mine was playing mandolin on the recording. That may have been 2004 or 2005. Perhaps I was a little late to the party but having heard his name once it seemed that everyone was suddenly talking about this great soul singer, John Simms.
I did eventually see John play a gig at a small bar in central Paris. He was indeed a fantastic singer and I found his guitar playing to be equally impressive. John may have been widely known as a soul singer but to me he was a guitar player who also sang better than most singers. Whatever my abilities are, or ever were, on the guitar, John was way ahead of me on even my best day.
Over the next year or so, John and his partner Mary would sometimes stop in to see a band I was playing in at one of Paris’s biggest Irish pubs. It was a late-night Sunday gig, not far from their home and they’d stop in on their way back from whatever gig John had played that evening, or sometimes just to say hi. We’d chat between sets and that was the real beginning of a wonderful mutual respect and friendship. John and I had a similar sense of humour and he had a big smile and big laugh that I found infectious. For many people, his smile and laugh were unforgettable.
In late October 2006 John called me and asked me to do some gigs with him. Two weeks in a 5-star hotel in Marrakech during the International Film Festival to be held that December. My guitar and mandolin playing and my backing vocals at those Sunday night gigs hadn’t gone unnoticed. After thinking through the options, and taking into account the hotel’s rule that musicians don’t drink on the job, John and Mary decided that the trio would be John, bassist Romain Dru, and myself. I was thrilled and flattered in equal measure.
Those two weeks, playing every single night without a day off, were hard and tiring work but there was a great affinity between the three of us and we laughed all the way through it. And I was never more impressed at what a phenomenal musician he was. He was the best guitar player I have ever shared a stage with.
I clearly remember one evening standing next to John on stage, looking over at him playing yet another incredible solo, that he was singing along to George Benson style, and thinking to myself “how the hell did I end up on stage next to this guy?!”
I learned a lot from John on that trip. I saw how hard he worked, how much effort he put in, how important it was that he put on a good show every night. His voice was an instrument and he treated it seriously and took care of it. During the day he would frequently, almost unconsciously exercise his voice, singing and making strange noises that warmed up his vocal chords and allowed him to sing like he did. Even from the privacy of his shower, those wonderful sounds would escape his hotel room and drift down the hall, prompting funny looks from the hotel cleaning staff.
John made a big effort to dress for the shows too. He worked hard and sweated a lot so he’d have three or four changes of shirt with him. He was always fresh and groomed for the next set and for when he finished the gig too, ready to meet the folks who wanted to thank him and congratulate him on his show. It was an attitude he developed in his earlier years in Baltimore – the folks deserved the effort because they worked hard for a living and their night out was paying his wages.
It was part and parcel of the professionalism that made John Simms the great artist that we knew and loved.