By Anne-Marie Pope
Jim Simpson is an unsung hero of Heavy Metal. Manager during the period of Sabbath’s first three albums, Simpson took the band from Polka Tulk – “they were only Polka Tulk for a few minutes after I met them” -, through blues covers-performing Earth to the Sabbath that recorded the seminal first ‘Black Sabbath’ album, then Paranoid and Master of Reality. Simpson met Sabbath when they became members and regular attenders at his progressive blues club, the first outside of London, Henry’s Blueshouse (The Crown on Station/Hurst St, Birmingham). Other members, supping beer at the bar, included Robert Plant, Jon Bonham, Climax Chicago, Judas Priest and a plethora of others all coming along to see the legendary American Blues artists Simpson programmed.
“Birmingham and the Black Country had a heritage of great bands” says Simpson, “The Midlands was a home of popular music in the fifties and sixties, with easily 150-200 gigs a night to choose from. There was The Metro club on Livery Street, the Flowerpot opposite Digbeth Police Station, The Rainbow, The Carlton Ballroom, the Coach & Horses in West Bromwich, the Elbow Room. And great music stores as well, I remember Cecil Viles at George Clay’s on Broad St, who managed to sell me 3 trumpets in 2 years – no-one does that! The only thing we always lacked were great recording studios. When I stopped touring and playing with Locomotive (Jon Bonham was the drummer) to manage them in Birmingham, we were at the end of the blues boom. The UK was full of young bands wearing denim trousers, denim jackets, denim shirts and denim underpants, staring at their feet, playing seemingly endless guitar solos, looking miserable and smelling pretty bad too. I found myself with time to spare while managing Locomotive, and wanted to do something about the scene, so I opened my own blues club, purely to feature a band I’d met called The Bakerloo Blues Line, because although they were great, I just couldn’t get them any gigs. People had become tired with that Blues Audition thing, and nobody believed me when i insisted that Bakerloo were something special. For starters, the 17 year old guitarist was Dave ‘Clem’ Clempson.
Jim had precipitated a new scene, the next generation going in a different direction. “Planty would come down a lot and sit and drink with anybody decent. And yes, we had some legendary acts there: Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, Curtis Jones, Dr. Ross Harmonica Boss, Jimmy Fast Fingers Dawkins, Lightnin’ Slim, JB Hubb, all those legendary blues guys. And of course, that attracted the Robert Plants out of the woodwork, because here were all those legends who they based their Led Zep on playing in this little pub in Birmingham for 5 shillings.”
And this attracted national attention: “John Peel used to sit in the studio and say ‘as you can all see I’m wearing my Henry’s Blueshouse T-shirt’, which had this wonderful dog on it!” (Simpson’s club was named after a neighbour’s dog), and Led Zep were soon picked up by London based manager with a track record, Peter Grant.
Back at Henry’s in Birmingham, Jim had met the individuals who were to become Sabbath and was regularly programming Bloxwich band Judas Priest as well as Rory Gallagher, Status Quo, Jethro Tull et al: “Ozzy and co were nice guys. There was only one competitor Sabbath had in those days and that was Led Zep. We used to say ‘Black Sabbath – makes Led Zeppelin sound like a kindergarten house band’.” Jim laughs. He clearly remembers those days with great fondness and was delighted when Sabbath asked him to manage them. He remembers Ozzy as ” … one of nature’s good guys, a lovely kid – trusting, generous but very emotional. And always level. They weren’t outrageous in my time, they were serious young musicians. They had one common goal – to be the heaviest band on the planet.” And Simpson, having been a musician, says “it was great to be involved in the music, to talk about the repertoire and direction, to be allowed to contribute.” And so, Polka Tulk/Earth/Sabbath (it was Geezer inspired by Denis Wheatley that gave them their final name, says Simpson) came to Henry’s, listened to Simpson’s blues and records, and created what is one of the greatest albums in recorded history. “If you listen to the first album, you can hear Count Basie in there,Dont laugh, listen. Bill with his hi-hat ride and that full, square bass the greatest riff band in rock influenced by the greatest riff band in jazz – Ozzy even featured Jimmy Rushings ‘Evenin’ We weren’t really political, but we did think JFK was our saviour. I guess we were all fooled – again. On reflection i think were probably all anarchists at heart.”
Jim had given away the publishing rights in order that the publisher pay for the recording of that first album. The album recorded, Sabbath gigged and gigged, playing to sell-out crowds across the country. Simpson was turned down flat by 14 record companies to get a release, Vertigo taking it because a delivery failure in their slate meant they had an opening and a looming deadline. The recording became a hit in the UK, because of their ferocious gigging, then in Europe and it wasn’t long before there was a phone call from the US and a hit there too.
One Friday night, Jim got a call from the drivers of the band saying they needed 200 UK pounds otherwise they couldn’t get to the gig. The next day, Simpson received a letter from the band’s lawyer telling him not to contact Sabbath again. “Looking back, I can understand it now. They’d been scuffling and living badly, they didn’t think the success was true. Here was someone offering them cars, houses, money. I can see why they went.” Black Sabbath and Jim parted company in 1972, Sabbath moving south.
“I don’t think there was much regional economic impact” Jim says “Zep and Sabbath just scooted south and got houses in the home counties. Nationally, yes, but there was nothing to keep them here.” Musically, it’s a different story. The band that Jim nurtured in their very early years had a “massively important impact globally on the music scene.”
“I used to tell people that the music reflected our industrial background” says Jim “On our US promo, we had ‘Black Sabbath – music from the industrial heartland of Birmingham, UK’ written. Birmingham and the Black Country consistently turned out great bands with a sheer, genuine love and understanding of the genre. If we went out into the Black Country tonight, even, we’d certainly find bands directly influenced by Sabbath.”
“It’s our music”, Jim says when asked further about the relationship between metal music and the Midlands, “It’s our music. It’s what we produce here and love.” And amen to that.