Born Morris Eugene Simmons, 10 July 1937, Tupelo, Mississippi
To chart statisticians, Gene Simmons was a one-hit wonder. One major hit, "Haunted House" in 1964, and that was it. Few people knew at the time that before that well-deserved success, Gene had already been active in the music business for almost a decade.
Tupelo's second most famous native was born in 1937, not 1933 as has often been alleged. Gene and his brothers, Carl and Leon, worked in the fields and dreamed of appearing on the Gran Ole Opry. As early as 1951, Gene and Carl played on the Tupelo radio station WELO every Saturday morning. In 1953 Simmons got to meet Elvis Presley, who would later recommend him to Sam Phillips. Gene and his four-piece hillbilly band went to Memphis to audition for Sun Records in 1955. "Why don't you take your mandolin and fiddle and wrap 'em around a tree, and come back with a hot guitar" advised Phillips. So they did. Carl Simmons made the transition from mandolin to electric guitar in record time, and he didn't just become competent, he became great. Gene and his buddies recorded regularly at Sun between 1955 and 1958, but just one single hit the market ("Drinkin' Wine"/"I Done Told You", Sun 299). The two tracks had been recorded on January 3, 1957, but were not released until May 1958. The music business had changed a lot in that short period. Rockabilly was past its sell-by date, so, unsurprisingly, Gene's record stiffed in the marketplace. Sun was just too small to accommodate all the worthwhile performers who came through their studio and Phillips concentrated his promotion on Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.
Gene understood that there was no future for him at Sun. After one-off singles for Judd and Sandy (as Morris Simmons), he moved to Memphis in 1959 and was signed to the fledgling Hi label by Ray Harris, another ex-Sun artist. There is an immense difference in sound and style between the Sun sides and the Hi material. The backing was initially provided by Bill Black's combo, with whom he also toured as a vocalist. Gene's first recordings for the label ("Goin' Back To Memphis" among them) were leased to Chess and released on Checker and Argo. His first single on Hi proper coupled Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear" with the Carl Perkins number "Your True Love". Recorded on January 30, 1960, the single did not come out until April 1961, which must have been a case of deja vu for Gene. After a good cover of Jimmy Donley's "The Shape You Left Me In", he cut an obligatory twist single ("Twist Caldonia") in February 1962 and from that point, he doesn't seem to have re-entered the Hi studio until May 1964, when he waxed his big hit.
Gene had just about given up the hope of getting a hit and had set up a little label of his own, Tupelo Records. The man who would later become Sam the Sham, Domingo Samudio, made his first record for that label ("Betty And Dupree", 1963), but he soon started his own label, Dingo, for which he revived "Haunted House" (originally recorded by Johnny Fuller on Specialty in 1959). At 3:11, Sam's version was too long to get much airplay, and Ray Harris wanted Samudio to re-record the song for Hi, but he refused. Harris then asked Simmons to record it. Though the British Invasion was in full force, Gene's "Haunted House" raced up the charts, peaking at # 11 in September of 1964 (just in time for Halloween). The follow-up, "The Dodo", stalled at # 83, probably because it sounded too much like its predecessor. Hi kept releasing unsuccessful singles until late 1966, most of them credited to "Jumpin' Gene Simmons", which was also the title of Gene's first LP, issued in late 1964. After leaving Hi, Gene was disillusioned. Tired of the road, he moved back to Tupelo and started a nightclub, the Haunted House. But he never gave up hoping for another hit and started recording again in 1968. Over the next decade there were releases on Mala, AGP, Epic, Royal American and Deltune (his first single for that label, "Why Didn't I Think Of That", went to # 88 on the country charts in 1977). During this period he started writing songs for the country market and was signed as a songwriter by Chips Moman's publishing company in Nashville, which became Gene's new residence. His persistence finally paid off when his song "Indian Outlaw" (co-written with Tommy Barnes and John D. Loudermilk) became a multi-million selling country hit for Tim McGraw in 1994. Prior to that, Simmons performed at several rockabilly festivals in Europe.
In 2005, Brian Setzer wanted to include an incomplete 1956 recording by Gene, "Peroxide Blonde And A Hopped-up Model Ford" on a Sun tribute CD. Setzer asked Gene to provide the missing lyrics, which he found himself in no position to do almost 50 years later. Gene and Brian got together to write some new lyrics, which they sang together in the studio on what turned out to be his final recording. Simmons succumbed to the effects of a six-month illness at the North Mississippi Medical Centre in Tupelo on August 29, 2006, aged 69.
More info :
Acknowledgements : Hank Davis, Colin Escott, Stuart Colman (NDT obituary), Adriaan Sturm (Rockville interview, 1972).
Discography : http://koti.mbnet.fi/wdd/genesimmons.htm
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