(Pittsburgh, PA) Chris Simmons was playing with Leon Russell and we had the great opportunity to speak with him about his music, his CD and working with Leon. Chris is a really great person and he was so kind to give me a copy of his CD. Out of all the CD’s that I have received in the last year, Chris is the one that I listen to the most. I like the feel of his songs and just the little things that he would do with a song like put the crackle of an old record at the beginning of a song. Yeah, Chris is my favorite blues artist to listen to. Let’s see what he had to say.
Monica: So let’s talk about you first. OK?
Chris: One of my favorite subjects.
M: Let’s talk about your blues style. For people who haven’t heard you yet, what would you tell them to expect?
C: I guess if I had to say one guy, I would say Eric Clapton. I don’t necessarily…that’s the first thing I would say…influenced by Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, The Allman Brothers, all the guitar players that’s been with him over the years especially Dicky and Dwayne, Freddie King, Albert King, BB King. If you never heard me and wanted to compare it to something, maybe Eric Clapton. But a little more raw…maybe…the older Cream style.
M: How did you go about developing your style, for those aspiring guitarists. Did you take lessons along the way?
C: When you say develop that jogs my memory of when I first started playing. I wasn’t really into the blues. It was rock and roll. It was AC/DC 24×7. Angus Young was my first introduction to the blues, but I just didn’t know it. I thought it was rock. Listening to him and wanting to play like him made me want to learn where he learned from. Chuck Berry. I like Chuck Berry but it really didn’t crank my tractor as much so I kept looking until I went back and got to Muddy. I really loved Muddy the best but I wanted more so I went further back to Robert Johnson. It all goes back to Robert but you jump around from rock to blues. I didn’t take lessons. I taught myself and it was a pretty slow go for about six or eight months. I got a Mel Bay book at a yard sale that my mother bought. That’s when I decided to learn chords. After I learned chords, I tried to get anybody around that I could meet to show me how to play guitar. I didn’t take formal lessons. But any time I could get anybody to show me anything, I would aggravate the hell out of them.
M: Well who showed you things?
C: My best friend’s guitar teacher would show me stuff. I would duck in there. He was Keith Shields. I haven’t seen him for twenty years. Another guy, Shannon, into heavy metal and rock and roll. He lived across the street. I would go over there and aggravate him and his buddies. They had all the guitar magazines. They had a distortion pedal when I didn’t even know what one was. So I’d go there and beg them to let me play through it. I had a really cheap amp that didn’t have overdrive distortion in it. I learned it a little at a time.
M: What is your guitar of choice right now?
C: I have a Gibson endorsement. A lot of times I play the 07 Gibson Classic Custom Ebony. I like it. But my favorite guitar is my 74 Blue Sparkle Les Paul. It started out life as a deluxe, but now it has hum buckers in it and it’s routed and a lot of vibe with the hum buckers.
M: You play any other instruments?
C: Yeah. I play a little bit of piano. There’s some of that on my blues album. I play drums a little bit. I’m not really what you would say a gigging piano player or a gigging drummer. I can try to get it in the studio, as long as I get a few chances. I play bass. Harmonica. I own a mandolin. But, I don’t spend a lot of time on it. Play a couple of chords in it.
M: Mandolin can be prevalent in the blues.
C: Yeah certain styles. Bluesy Americana Rock like The Band. That’s really the main reason I bought a mandolin because of Levon Helm. Sometimes I want to be like him you know. Play the drums too. I love the way he plays the drums.
M: He’s back at it, huh? So you are a songwriter?
M: Did you write most of the songs on your new CD?
C: Yes. There are eleven tracks. Two of them are gospel and traditional. Amazing Grace and Get On Board Little Children. The other nine I wrote. And one I cowrote with Leon. He’s singing on the album.
M: How did you go about asking him to cowrite?
C: I had my record pretty well mixed, and I asked him if he would listen to it. So I put it on the CD player on the bus. I had one track on there that was just an instrumental. I thought it sounded OK. I really…I wasn’t even going to put it on there, but thought what the heck I’ll put it on there. Eleven tracks are better than ten. He heard it and a few bars in he said, “So it’s an instrumental? Why don’t you let me write a song over it?” So I was really taken aback. I said, “Please, please do!” He said, “All right and the next day he had a song written.”Within a week he went to his guy in Nashville and cut the vocals. I got them and took them to my studio and mixed them, sang a couple of backing vocals, mixed it, and there it was. I was very, very lucky.
M: Yeah, It was just there.
C: It wasn’t like we sat around and said let’s write a song together. He just happened to hear it, and said he would like to write a song to that and would you mind? Hell No. I wouldn‘t mind that Leon Russell writes a song to my music!
M: Was that your first cowrite?
C: No, I’ve written a few songs when I was out in Los Angeles. I met up with a guy and wrote a couple of country songs. Nothing you have heard. But maybe you will.
M: That’s cool.
C: He’s shopping it around trying to get some folks in Nashville to do it. It’s a hard business to break into.
M: That was one of my questions. How hard is it to break into the blues?
C: The blues. I don’t know.
M: Don’t you think you have broken in?
M: I would say you have arrived.
C: As far as I’m concerned, I’m in the blues. I haven’t done a lot of blues shows, but when I play with Leon there is some blues. There’s some honky tonk, country, and classic rock all mixed in. It‘s not really a blues show. There’s some blues in there. At one time I did have a little blues band together, but mostly throughout my playing career I did rock and roll or cover stuff playing with Leon. In the future I’d like to put a band together. I don’t even have a blues band together yet. I do solo work. I’m in the blues. I don’t have to break into it. I’m going to play the blues. Maybe folks will listen.
M: How did you get to be Leon’s guitarist?
C: One of my best friends is Leon’s booking agent. That’s another luck
y stroke. But Zack, Leon’s agent, is from Alabama. I’m from Alabama. I moved to Austin, TX and had a band out there. We needed a guitar player so I asked Zack to move out there. We played for three or four years. We broke up. I moved back to Alabama after LA. In the meantime Zack got a job at the booking agency. He booked Leon. One afternoon when I wasn’t doing anything, the phone rang and he said, “Hey Leon needs a guitar player and I told him that you might be good. Would you like to audition?” I said that I certainly would. And, I recorded myself playing guitar according to what Leon wanted. Leon said just have him record himself playing some guitar. MP3 emailed him, and a few moments later Zack called back and said Leon likes it and if you want the job you got it.
C: I met Leon the day before the first show I played with him.
M: I’d say you are on your life’s path. Do you know what I mean?
C: I definitely think that. I never imagined that I would play with Leon Russell. When I was 20 years old, I got my first paying gig with an acoustic guy. We were an acoustic duo. At 20 I still wasn’t well versed on a lot of the classic songwriters and songs. But, he was, the guy I was playing with. He gave me a tape full of all these songs I never heard. Hit after hit after hit. Songs everybody knows. But at my age at that time, I didn’t know. There were a few Leon Russell songs on there I had to learn. That was my first introduction to Leon. It never crossed my mind at that time that I would ever be on stage with him.
M: That’s really cool. How did your project come about of your own CD? What inspired you to move from Leon’s guitarist to your own project?
C: I’ve always done blues, but have always done something else with my time. I’ve always played in rock bands, cover bands, modern rock bands. I’ve done a little of that. As I got a little bit older, I kept hearing voices like that guy that gave me my first paying gig. He said, you just need to play the blues. Forget all that other stuff. Just play the blues. That’s what you are good at. That’s what you really need to do. I heard a few voices like that over the years. Finally I decided that that’s what I’m best at. I’m going to quit trying everything else except for songwriting. I’ll write some country songs. I’m not going to box myself in. I’m going to focus on the blues as far as performing and releasing a solo. When I moved back to Alabama, I made sure to tell my wife to look for a house that she liked, but it also had to have either a big garage that I could build a studio in or maybe some kind of out building. She found this perfect place that had a shed. I tore all the walls and shelves out of it, insulated it, and started to build my own studio filling it up with drums and basses and guitars.
M: She didn’t help you decorate?
C: Nope. That’s off limits! The house is hers. The studio is mine.
M: What do recommend for those rock guitarists that want to go to the blues? Is it heartfelt or is it a different playing?
C: Yeah, it is more heartfelt; it is different. I went to the blues because I wanted to go to the blues. I don’t suggest that everybody goes to the blues. But everybody should. But some people just don’t like the blues. Some people just don’t understand it. Some people thinks that it all sounds the same. I don’t know how to recommend how to get to the blues. If I had to take it step by step, let’s say if you like rock and roll and AD/DC, just go back a decade at a time.
M: That’s what you did.
C: Yeah. Pretty much. I guess. Clapton, Cream, Allman Brothers, Muddy Waters-the electric stuff. That’s what I really like about Muddy Waters. Then Robert Johnson. Mix the three Kings. Free. Bad Company. That’s rock and roll with a lot of blues. A lot of raw blues. I love the way Paul Rogers sings. I guess a little factoid that I would like everyone to know is that one of my guitars that I don’t play on the road right now is a 68 Gibson ES345 that was given to me by Leon, that he got from Freddie King. It’s got a lot of mojo. It’s a stereo guitar and I don’t want to mod it. So, I’m working on getting a couple of smaller lower wattage amps so I can run it in stereo. But I don’t want to touch it or make anything different with it. I like it the way it is and play it like it is.
M: Sounds like you and Leon are good friends.
C: I’d say so. You’d just about have to be to give someone a guitar like that.
M: Yeah. I would say. What are your next steps?
C: Look around home and put together a decent blues band. Jam a bit and do some one off gigs around the house and see how it goes. Then in between time play with Leon. Try to take a step further. Maybe get an agent or company that would handle me on a part time basis. Half of the time I’m out on the road with Leon and I don’t want to jump out of that. Eventually I would like to do my own thing full time. But right now I’m playing with a legend and I’m not going to take that lightly. In between times I would like to start playing and promoting my record and just get out there and play the blues. The blues for me, I like to play it all the time. If I play rock for a while…this has happened to me…when I played rock in LA, I picked up the guitar to play blues and it takes me a week or two to get back into it. Get the heart connected with the hands. Rock and Roll comes from a different place. Blues comes from your heart.
M: Thank you.
C: Thank you.
If you enjoyed this interview of Chris, you may enjoy these pictures of Leon.
Copyright © 2010 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved.
Photograph Copyright © 2010 Maureen Ceidro. All Rights Reserved.