An old face returns to the city’s music scene this evening.
Jim Simpson is one of the longest-serving music promoters in the country. Best known for the Birmingham International Jazz Festival, he began putting on blues at Henry’s, in the recently-closed Crown on Station Street. Tonight sees the latest instalment in the Simpson blues story, with the opening of his latest venture, at the Asylum 2 in Hockley. He told us how he got started.
“We rented upstairs at the Crown with the slogan ‘Tuesday is Bluesday.’ I’d wanted to put on some of the great jazz players that were still around but I couldn’t get work permits for them. The Musicians Union wouldn’t allow them to be granted unless I complied with the reciprocal arrangement they had with the American Federation of Musicians for what were called man days – for every day an American played over here a British musician had to play a day there.
“If I brought a five piece band over for ten days I would have to arrange fifty man days for British guys in America, which was way beyond my capacity. Then someone told me that I could bring bluesmen in under Equity contracts, which meant I could bring them as solo acts with no restrictions, and team these ‘soloists’ up when they got here. And that’s how I got into blues.
“I contacted Lightning Slim, who was working in a car factory in Michigan. He hadn’t gigged for years, so I had to buy him a guitar. I got involved with Ralph Mason, from Paramount Records. He said he’d heard I was bringing in bluesmen, even though I hadn’t brought any in yet. Ralph put me in touch with The King Biscuit Man from Canada, I got him over for seven weeks, paid him a weekly salary of $400, got him sorted with a band and transport and that’s how it all started. I did Eddie Guitar Burns, Lightning Slim finally came over, he was one of the greatest blues men ever, he recorded so much great stuff and he never had to go back to work again. We started some interest in America for him and few others.”
Now you’re back where you started.
“It’s the first time I’ve promoted outside the jazz festival for a long, long time. We’re trying to recapture the spirit of Henry’s again. Bluesers are a clan apart, they cling together. The blues is always there. Whatever direction pop music goes, blues may sink out of sight but it always resurfaces, kept together by loyal fans and really loyal musicians.
“I’ll bet you a decent proportion of the people at the Asylum will be musicians, it’s more than music, it’s a lifestyle. Birmingham’s been great for producing these guys and there are people who haven’t played for years that I’m bringing out of the woodwork.”
You brought some of the top American names over to Henry’s and then the Bear. Will you still be doing that?
“I’d love to, but I can’t find really find them. There are new players coming through but they seem to be suffering from the European disease. You don’t get the big voices, those great Mississippi hollers.”
How about the new generation of British blues musicians?
“They’re fantastic, but I like the roots. The roots are neglected. These new acts are great; Ben Poole, what a great player he is, the Strypes are fantastic, really great. I understand the need to go forward and stamp your own style but it’s nice that someone remembers the roots, the original qualities that kept this music going for so long. Look at the Rolling Stones, they still play the blues.
“The Asylum 2 is a nice stepping stone venue. It holds around 100-150, it’s five pounds whoever’s playing so it’s not going to make any money once you’ve covered the overheads but if we can get 100-120 people there every Tuesday we can get some cracking bands.
“We’ve got a rotating six bands to start with, they’re all up for it. We’re even having band meetings where they turn up and decide the policy, then at the turn of the year if it’s all going well we’ll have visiting bands on. We’ve got to build up a customer base and we’re going to have the commitment of local bands to it. There must be more than six great local blues bands.”
Decent-sized local venues continue to be a problem. The Jam House does some, the Glee Club has the occasional gig of this sort then there’s the Town Hall, but that’s not really a great rock venue. As a result Birmingham seems to have slipped off the blues circuit.
“Exactly. When you talk about someone like Booker T who played the Robin a couple of years ago, Steve Cropper plays there regularly, but I think the last time he played Birmingham was in 1992 when we brought the Blues Brothers band over. The Robin’s a great venue but a city this size should get a chance to hear those legends without having to travel.”
You’ve worked with the city council over the years. How much help do they give you?
“They’ve helped every jazz festival, but they have their own problems. If they’ve got a senior councillor who’s a blues fan he could maybe drive something through, but if you’re a reggae fan or punk or ska fan you could want the same. But the city has to make some cutbacks and it’s hard to square spending money on gigs when 6,000 jobs are going and people aren’t getting their bins emptied.”
Then there’s the traditional Brummie reluctance to part with their money.
“I’ve heard that, and I’ve seen examples of it, but on the other hand Ronnie Scott’s lasted ten years. Up to 1,800 people a week went there, a lot of them were here on business but the week Charles Brown played, they had people coming from Gateshead and Southampton because that was the only place he was playing in the UK. People will travel if the music’s right.”
Nothing but the Blues starts on Tuesday 23rd September at the Asylum 2, Hampton Street, Hockley and first up is the 58 Blues Band. www.theasylumvenue.co.uk