Jumpin Gene Simmons

No, not that Gene Simmons, the real Gene Simmons, the one who's about as dyed-in-the-wool Memphis as Mid-South wrestling, Dewey Phillips, Eddie Bond and Tops' Barbeque. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, Simmons began picking the guitar in the early '50s and a chance meeting with pre-Sun homeboy Elvis Presley led to his band backing the Hillbilly Cat in their hometown just after the release of Presley's first platter. After Simmons inquired as to what it would take to get involved in "this record deal," Presley arranged an audition with Sam Phillips that resulted in more than a dozen songs being cut but only one single release. Well, if there had to be just one, the unbelievably swingin' "Drinkin' Wine" was most certainly it, complete with snapshot-worthy lyrics that found the listener riding shot gun with a steamed Simmons: "I sit in the booth real close to you, sippin' along slow on my bottle of brew, jukebox is playin' a sad, sad song, entitled 'Baby, You're Doin' Me Wrong,' I left the joint walkin' slowly home, I heard a voice say, 'A gal's done wrong,' here she comes a-knockin' on my door, she'll find me reachin' for my old forty-four, yeah! Drinkin' wine, a little bourbon too, runnin' 'round, that's all you ever do!" It was just too good to ever be a hit. Phillips left other killers like "Juicy Fruit" and "Peroxide Blonde and A Hopped-Up Model Ford" in the can to be discovered by future generations while Simmons—like many a Memphis rockabilly artist—began trading in that distinctly greasy thread of white Bluff City R&B that was being popularized by the Bill Black Combo, for whom he became vocalist. He waxed sides for Chess/Argo (the great "Goin' Back To Memphis"), Judd and Sandy before fellow Sun alumnus Ray Harris signed him to his fledgling Hi label, which was doing brisk business with the likes of Ace Cannon, Carl McVoy, Jay B. Lloyd and Charlie Rich.

When 1963 rolled around with still no hits, Simmons was, in his own words, "Ready to hang it up." Then, mirroring the earlier experience with Presley that led to his first session at Sun, he met another star on the rise, Domingo Samudio, soon to become known as Sam the Sham. After cutting Samudio's first record—a cover of Chuck Willis's "Betty and Dupree"—Simmons attempted to get him over to Hi to record one of his live staples, Johnny Fuller's "Haunted House." Sam refused, saying he was gonna cut the song on his own. Urged on by Harris and his cohorts, Gene gave it a shot himself. "Haunted House" rose to number eleven on the national Hot 100 charts and Simmons followed it with bluesy takes on "Teenage Letter," "Just A Little Bit" (both cut the same year by Texan Roy Head), "Green Door" and later, the fabulously titled "Keep That Meat In The Pan," spreading that greasy Memphis sound worldwide.

« Artists