Today at 7:39 AM
February 2, 2015
Claude’s Commentary No. 49
By Claude Hall
Lee Baby Simms died Jan. 28, 2015, on his back porch with his “maters” at his home overlooking the San Francisco Bay. He was 72. We come, we do, we go. He leaves a daughter, Kim Simms, and a grand daughter Marina Jasmine Simms. He was extremely proud of them. Close friends program director Woody Roberts; Robert Weisbuch, former president of Drew University and author of a book about Lee Baby, and myself can’t understand why he had to go. I think all three of us have cried. I heard Jimmy Rabbitt cried. Lee was a vital part of our lives. He will be missed. I don’t think the tears are over yet.
I sent out a quick notice this past week and received perhaps a hundred responses, many from people who knew him. I will forward these to his daughter Kim.
Lee Simms began his career on WTMA, Charleston, SC, an early Top 40 radio station programmed by George Wilson. Lee Simms and George Wilson remained close friends the rest of their lives. When Lee began work for program director Woody Roberts in San Antonio, he got a middle name of “Baby” and also worked for Woody at WPOP, Hartford. They had renewed their friendship just recently during research by Dr. Robert Weisbuch for a book called “Hitbound.” Lee worked at about 30 stations and, while sometimes fired, took pride that he could always get a job. He also worked on the air at KCBQ, San Diego, and KRLA, Los Angeles.
I never heard him on the air, but have heard several airchecks. His airchecks abound at swapmeets. Lee Baby Simms had a gift. He knew the heart of the listener and could talk to them one on one. And he was an amazing storyteller. There are tales of him talking up a record and taking an hour to do so. He was proud of being a Top 40 disc jockey. I’d written some radio tales for an ebook called “Radio Wars” (Amazon.com/Kindle) and Jimmy Rabbitt mentioned that no matter how outrageous the tales where, they could never really be close to the truth. Rabbitt worked with Lee Baby at KCBQ, San Diego.
The first meeting with Lee was the day he walked into my office with an entourage (remember those days when disc jockeys were like bullfighters?) and wanted to know if I’d give him another beer mug from the convention in San Francisco, 1975). I had a few left in a cardboard box beneath my desk. I said, “Sure,” and handed him one. He reached in his pocket and handed me a tire gage in exchange. I had to laugh? What was he really telling me?
Someone I didn’t know -- I surmise he was a fan of the Baby -- submitted an interview he’d done with Lee. I was keeping those things close because I later intended to use them in books about radio. But I had to buy that one and feature it in Billboard. It seemed to capture very aptly the character that was Lee Baby Simms. And I figured, quite correctly, that I might never catch up with him again.
He invited me and Woody several times recently to come have lunch or dinner with him. Robert Weisbuch made the trip from New Jersey a couple of times and had another trip with wife Candy planned. They were like brothers, this man with a Ph.D. and Baby, who never finished high school.
But now the Baby is gone. And Woody, Robert, and me are left with just tears and memories until we all gather upstairs in Don Sundeen’s Rock and Roll Heaven. Others, too, will miss him until then. I couldn’t print all of the responses to the 500 notices that I sent out, but here are a passing few.
Don Sundeen: “One of the great rock jocks has left the studio, Lee ‘Baby’ Sims. This aircheck is what Top 40 radio sounded like before Bill Drake when it was still fun; it made me tired just listening to him with all that energy in afternoon drive. This is before he started doing the ‘Lee Baby’ schtick, and I found it interesting how many live reads there were on some of the spots and PSA’s. Interesting to hear his distinctive cadence and accent again, and he never stumbled over a word. God bless his soul, hope he loves Rock and Roll Heaven, that’s where all the good jockeys go.”
Aircheck: Lee “Baby” Simms, KTSA, San Antonio, TX, was included.
Woody Roberts: “Thank you. I didn't know a Lee Baby Simms aircheck from those days existed, rare. Actually, the Lee Baby had already developed his one of a kind ‘schtick’ doing 7-mid in San Antonio and Hartford. KTSA for him was shelter in a storm. He was 26 years old and I was 28. I can't recall why Lee called me or where from what city; said he was starting to look for a gig and I said afternoon drive was open but we were doing a ‘version’ of Drake and he said it'd be fun to do it. But only for a while. He lived with me, we had great times and in eight months he says Woody, I've enjoyed it but time to move on. His ratings were #1. In hindsight, I should have moved 6-10 deejay Tim Kelly to afternoons and turned nights over to Lee but Tim had strong ratings and a good fan base. And, I wasn't the KTSA PD (but certainly had input). The night format was a bit looser tho still tight with music sweeps, we both knew it was not the format he enjoyed. It was a waste of Lee's talent; a kind of regression back to his pre-KONO-WPOP days and more like the tape he first sent to me from KRIZ in spring 1965. There may be a major 21st century radio DJ personality that I have not heard, it's possible ... but I have never heard anyone who could better engross a listener in his world or better handle an on-air interaction with a live caller; you had to hear it live and in context of that moment to understand his power.”
Woody later: “I just listened to the KTSA aircheck and was surprised it was telescoped, must have been made by PD Kahn Hamon. He indeed was driving the format at a ferocious pace but I think the tape [you remember tape?] is running a tad fast thus raising the pitch on voices. Notice The Baby decided to again call himself Lee Simms at that streamlined pace. I thought it a bit excessive, but he and The Mighty Kahn felt it best for quickly boosting ratings. It did raise the numbers impressively and when Lee departed Kahn took the helm of that express train. Thanks again for sharing. PS -- Likely Claude Hall remembers Kahn Hamon.”
Don Sundeen: “I remember Kahn L. Hamon very well, a great jock and PD. In fact he introduced me to Lee at KTSA and we all pumped some beers one night. Sometimes there were great memorable nights, and that was one of them. The stories, the connections (‘did you know ... just got blown out in Fresno, you won't believe what he said’), the laughter, and Lee's love for the business and his pure humanity made beautiful memories. Btw, the aircheck was passed on by the great Scooter B. Segraves, who also lived the journeyman disc jockey life.”
Jack Casey, Emerson College, Boston: “What sad news. The world is a little less funny with Lee gone. Sincere condolences on the loss of your friend. Please extend my sympathies to Lee’s daughter. I only met Lee Baby once, during a visit to WPOP with my Emerson classmate and friend Eric Marenghi. Lee was appropriately distant yet charming to a couple of newbies in the business. During my sophomore year I spent every evening trying to pull in WPOP’s 5 kw. signal at my student apartment on Beacon Street in Boston. The signal would fade in and out and my roommate Dave Thomson (now mornings at 98.9 FM in Fresno) thought I was nuts because he was a big Joey Reynolds fan (Lee’s competition at WDRC) and couldn’t understand why I was expending all this effort to listen to The Lee Baby.” But Dave was eventually won over by Lee’s quirky talent. For those who never heard him, Lee was like a cross between Jean Shepherd and Jerry Blavat with a little bit of Howard Stern thrown in for good measure. Forgive the lame comparisons because LaMar ‘Lee’ Simms was a truly unique talent and one of the most creative story-tellers to ever grace the airwaves. Dave Thomson, Russ Oasis, Beau Raines and I spent time reminiscing about Lee yesterday. When he did mornings for Beau at LUV94 in Miami Lee told his listeners about the time previously when he had interviewed a famous WWII flying ace. The pilot supposedly told Lee ‘there were Fokkers at 11 o’clock, Fokkers at 2 o’clock and Fokkers all around’. Lee said he asked, ‘Fokker is a kind of German plane, right?’ And the pilot replied, ‘Yeah … but these Fokkers were Messerschmitts’. Classic Lee Baby. RIP, Lee. You will be missed.”
Marcia Fox Winters: “Art Wander gave me your email address ... of course, all my old radio friends had messaged me to tell me of Lee's passing. I met Lee when I went to work at WPOP in Hartford, in 1966. Lee had recently joined the WPOP airstaff, with Woody Roberts as PD. I was on the morning show with Woody, as Miss Fox, his secretary. Lee was our evening guy on from 7 pm. He used to come into the station later in the afternoon, so I used to see him only briefly. At that time, he was kind of shy, always a gentleman, though he was a wild man on the air! Not much to say, except RIP, Lee ... let's hear the Mighty Stones once again!”
Larry Woodside: “Hi, Claude ... I have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Lee helped me get into radio. Although we have been out of touch for many years I've never forgot him. I wish I would have reached out to him sooner since I'm a 5 x cancer survivor. He and China Smith were my two favorite people. I will miss him very much and pray for his family. If there is a service I'd like to pay my respects … please let me know.”
Bob Sherwood: “Claude, I’m so very sorry to learn that Lee ‘Baby’ is gone. I never knew him but certainly knew of him. I heard him a lot in San Diego and when he was ‘on’ he was one of the most creative people I’ve ever heard. I spend time in neighboring Ridgefield (Connecticut) and his name still comes up occasionally from people who heard him in Hartford. And that was 30 or 35 years ago! My late close friend and fellow jock Rob’t. L. Collins used to relate anecdotes from their time together at KBCQ that just proved that Lee was one of the few who absolutely deserved the title ‘a Legend’. He seemed so vital when he was writing to you that to be told that he took his own life is shocking beyond measure. One has to feel very bad speculating on what would drive him to do such a thing. I certainly don’t want to be ‘flip’ about this tragedy but as a believer in the ‘here-after’ I’m going to surmise that there’s already a Helluva radio station someplace -- perhaps that should be heckuva -- that features Rob’t. W. Morgan, Scott Muni, Don Sherwood, Don McKinnon, Alan Freed, Rob’t. L. Collins, Rosko, Jack Carney, Hal Jackson and other notables and they’re going to have to give up some mike time for Lee ‘Baby’. My sincerest sympathies to you for the loss of your good friend and please pass along condolences to any of his family with whom you might speak.
And there’ll be a lot of candles lighting up St. Mary’s Church tomorrow morning.”
Shadoe Stevens: “Wow. I am so sorry to hear this. It doesn't seem possible. I haven't been in touch with Lee Baby since we worked together in the 70s but always admired his extraordinarily creative mind and cherish the memory of his work and friendship. We were pretty close during the KRLA days. And who could forget ‘Old Doc Frail?’ Who does something like that? No one. He was fearless and funny as hell. Thank you for the note. And thanks for your ongoing notes and updates on all the radio greats. My heart goes out to his family and friends.”
Allan Shaw: “My condolences to you, Lee's family and all of his friends. I know how close you were to Lee and how difficult this must be for you. To me, Lee Baby Simms was every American disc jockey. His life typified the lives of so many of his fellow DJs. So many of us could identify with him. Old age and diseases like cancer can kill our spirit and, in some cases, our will to even go on living. I'm sorry Lee was overwhelmed by his circumstances. He is not alone and may he rest in peace.”
Also heard from Robert Davi, Lyn Stanley, Ted Scott, Jeff Velline, Ken Levine, Bob Levinson, Scott St. James, Rich Robbins, Mel Phillips, Russ Regan, and many others.
It was Art Wander who connected me with Marcia Fox Winters, above, and I had this note from Art: “Marcia was so much a part of WPOP as anyone of the great personalities that trooped through the doors of Amaturo. I also was pleased to have hired Bill Winters as PD of WCAO in Baltimore when I was national PD for Plough. I imagine that Marcia probably knows as much of the history of WPOP in its Top 40 days as anyone. Glad to see her daughter doing so well in radio in Hartford. Stay well … and keep the commentaries coming, they are so welcome every Monday.”
Morris I. Diamond: “Back in the mid 50s & 60s when I was on the road constantly getting airplay for my variety of clients, I made friends with a gent from Detroit, Frank Sims at WKMH in Dearborn. Same station as Robin Seymour. Frank was a DJ, but also very involved in sports. He also had an afternoon sports show from a local restaurant where he commented on the various sports events in the area. On a number of visits, he would organize a card game with Spikes Briggs, who's family owned the Detroit Tigers, and, as well as Briggs Stadium and the game would be at Spike's apartment. After a few years, Frank quit being a disc jockey and found a new career as sports play-by-play announcer for the Detroit Tigers – then on to the Philadelphia Phillies – and San Diego Padres for a few years. Then, for the following 16 years, he was hired by the California Angels as their travelling secretary. That was a good payoff for me, personally. We had never lost touch with each other and now he was working in my neck of the woods. He had full control of tickets for each game … basically for the players and their friends and families … and for 16 years I had access to as many games as I wanted to attend as well as the amount of guests I cared to bring. For the past 6 or 7 years, Frank retired … and sadly, he passed away yesterday. He was living in Orange County and just a couple of months ago, his son, Scott, drove him to my home in Palm Desert for a visit. R I P, Franklin J. Sims.”
Earlier from Morris: “Hey, Claude … if there's anyway I can make your passion to write to us weekly easier, you can count on me for $100. I thank Robert Richer for coming in first with the story of Joe Franklin's passing. Basically, Joe was a New York City personality and I am so pleased at the TV coverage he's receiving from cities far and wide about his passing. I knew him well and felt that we lost a favorite relative. I've attached a picture taken a little over a year ago in Joe's office with my lady, Alice Harnell and Joey Reynolds … and Joe insisted on holding my book for the picture. I sold quite a few copies in New York City, thanks to Joe's pitching. In the meantime, Joey showed his affection by schlepping Alice and I around New York City. We had great times together when he and Morton Downey Jr. were young up and coming prominent DJs … as a matter of fact, Joey and I attended Downey's wedding where I was best man … and years later, we spoke at Downey's funeral. I can't wait to read your Joey Reynolds stories. Love to you and your guiding light, Barbara.”
Ron Jacobs: “Sometime before we are both vaporized, it would be good to be in synch with this modern email and Internet stuff. Both of us, raised on Rolodex, are now in an altogether different world than the one into which we were plunked. And between us more than 150-years-old. Praise Jesus! After two failed attempts to land this in your Monday Hall of Fame, let’s see if we can get this URL link thing right, OK? Here is a tribute to you that I posted in July 2008. So kindly amplify out mutual adoration society by including this:
As ever, warmest aloha, Tex, to you and Barbara. I figure we are like the cliche about fine wine: We become more textured, our taste refined, reputations solidified. I didn’t have no where the challenges you had growing up, in one sense, but being a Caucasian Jew in Hawaii during the 1940s had its challenges. That’s why I dropped out of high school and began in radio. I want to make this oldish column available to those who read da Commentary, since many of them are from the Least Coast and/or are too young to know how it was during the truly Good old days. Just want to let your amigo readers know that you and I ain’t strangers … and that I’m not a total asshole, an image of me held by others I ain’t met or even heard of. Please outlast me so you can do my obit, OK? :) Hang in there my friend, and the usual aloha.”
Ron, I appreciate. I will never forget the day I interviewed you in a bungalow near the ocean. Baby crying. Wonder how much that house would go for today? It certainly seemed like a good place to be at the time … just a two-minute stroll on the sidewalk down to the ocean. I think you were programming KGB in San Diego in those days.
Barry O’Neil: “Diane Kirkland just sent me your email newsletter. Is there any chance you could put me on your list? After Billboard, I worked for Casablanca Records for a couple of years with Cecil Holmes, Renny Roker and Jheryl Busby. Then went over to Motown for 17 years, working with Miller London, Skip Miller and James Cochran, making the transition from Berry Gordy's Motown to when he sold it and Jheryl Busby took over. Then transitioned with Jheryl to Dreamworks Records. Finally in 2007 I had to get a real job in the real world, but had so much fun before that. Hopefully this will greet you with a Healthy Happy New Year.”
Ed Silvers: “Thanks for forwarding my request to contact Sam Riddle. When he drops a note to me, I will fill you in on a music guy turned Caribbean sailor. Life is good with reggae! Kindest regards.”
Just received a book “The Story of KPEN” by Gary M. Geilow, courtesy of James Gabbert. Great book. If interested, you might contact Chris at P.O. Box 94131, San Francisco, CA 94131. I do not know what the price might be. I go back with KPEN to its early days. It was first with this and first with that. This book details those early days up until about the time it became K101. Photos, newspaper stories. Thank you, Jim.
Woody Roberts: “I think Dr. Bob has spoken with Sandy Beach recently. Perhaps Sandy will be in Hartford for their Day the Music Died event. He was on WDRC during the Battle for Connecticut. And, Claude, I read the Commentary because it's YOU … perhaps the answer is biweekly or a monthly roundup.”
Ynah! You will love the new blog when it arrives. I’m looking forward to it myself, come April or thereabouts. And I’ll be around as long as the new editor will let me.
Joey Reynolds sent me an item about the industry building non-tipable TV sets: “See, Claude … You didn't know after all of this high tech crap that you have a state of the art secured TV that won't tip over and break the bowl with your beer nuts in it.”
Joey also sent an item about Barry Farber … “Fine memories of a man in the league of Bill Randle.”
I didn’t know Barry. Wish I’d known Joe Franklin; my fault. I did know Bill Randle and Bill Stewart and Gordon McLendon and I’m grateful for that.
Dick Summer: “I do a weekly podcast, Claude. It's my way of staying in touch with some people who used to listen. Only people who have been on the air will understand why this email that came in about the podcast today is so special to me. My childhood radio Idol was William B. Williams at WNEW. When this came in, I swear I could hear him saying "Sounding good kid" just like he did my first day on the air at WNEW-FM a lot of years ago ... when I was still a kid.” Dick included a note from Carole to Dick: “Dick – Lo those several decades ago when you were on WNEW – I seriously don’t know what I would have done without you. You helped me keep my sanity (although there are those who might take issue with that statement). I would lie on the rug in my living room with not much light on, and listen to you. Yes, I did feel as though you were speaking just to me – and it got me through some really tough nights. So thanks, again, for those times (and these)!”
Barbara and I attended a birthday party for Willie at the Rainbow Grill. Frank Sinatra Jr. played piano for the evening. Gifts? I recall a magnum of champagne and a foldup motor scooter. William B. Williams was indeed a radio god.
Freddy Snakeskin: “Hi, Claude, I’d like to read your Joey Reynolds story, too!”
I may have messed up on one or two requests regarding the story about Joey. Hope not.
Ken Dowe: “Love all the Paul Harvey anecdotes. He was such a great news interpreter and writer. Once, I sent him an opinion to which he replied: ‘You have hit the nail with your head, Ken’. Wonderful! (I stole it.) I believe Johnny Carson was TV's all-time best host, too. A renaissance man. With regard to all the great jocks, let me submit the name of my personal favorite. Bob Crane. I was a 20-year-old (barely adequate) morning personality in San Diego who could not wait to get off the air at 9 AM so I could listen to Bob Crane's show from LA. He doesn't get much play anymore because by all accounts he was totally screwed up. But, as a radio entertainer, I thought he was the best I ever heard. Still do. Witty. Sardonic. Incredible timing. Terrific interviewer. Check him out as a jock on YouTube. Your opinion about Reagan as a marvelous speaker is spot on, too. Clear and convincing. He was an actor. I love actors on air. For all the (deserved) hoopla given radio guys with booming voices I was always a super fan of ... actors. Gordon (McLendon) was heavily invested in the film and theater business. At one time he owned most of the shares of Columbia Pictures as well as a huge number of movie theaters. His dad (Mr. Mac) once told me quite sternly (vociferously?) that I was never to forget that the film business was our (his) principal interest, inferring that all the radio stations were merely ancillary holdings. I, of course, congratulated him on his typically astute judgment ... and agreed wholeheartedly. (‘Love your bow tie, too ... Mr. Mac!’)
“As a result, Gordon's movie pals regularly frequented us at the McLendon Executive offices. Clint Eastwood. Chill Wills. John Wayne. Etc. On lower floors we had multiple screens and on another the birthing rooms of DFW's first #1 FM station ... the vaunted cult classic ... KNUS. While wandering through the station one day with Glenn Corbett (are you old enough to remember ROUTE 66?), I saw one of the jocks was having a terrible time voicing a commercial. I offered a suggestion: ‘Hey, Glenn. Would you mind trying this?’ One read. Silky smooth. Perfect interpretation. Selling the sizzle. Outstanding. Actors! Best recent example: Liev Schreiber. His HBO reads are textbook! One of my favorite compliments from my wife was not intentional. She said one of her friends had met me. Dottie thought that was great. ‘How'd y'all get along?’ The friend stammered that I was nothing like she expected. ‘He was nice. Didn't say much. A gentleman. Nice suit. More like a business executive ... or, a lawyer’. ‘That's him. That's Ken!’ ‘But, on the air ... he's wild! Kinda crazy! Nothing like in person!’ ‘Oh ... that. He's not like THAT! He's an actor!’ What a nice compliment. Radio. It WAS a wonderful life. Every day ... sprinkling stardust.”
Chuck Dunaway: “The extra powerful zaps of steroids in the rehab hospital over a month had really clouded my brain … please ignore any emails I’ve sent in the last few days ... I’m just now coming out of the fog ... Thank you. I hope you and Barbara are doing great. Among the people who I consider a ‘best friend’ is the man who is loved by all ... Don Whittemore. He is a real friend forever. Also, I hope you know how much you helped enhance my legacy with the three-issue interview we had in the 70s. Claude, I do appreciate you. Thank you.”
Agree with you, Chuck, about Don Whittemore. An amazingly nice person.
Michael C. Gwynne (Mike Sheppard at KDIA and WWRL): “Oops. Guess I missed it. Thanks for running it as it was mentioned by one of your readers. Naming me as Michael Gwinne I was surprised and delighted but I must have missed your citing my screenplay. Is it possible you could resend it to me? I know you're busy and appreciate your time and am thrilled you considered running it amid such legendary radio names.”
Don Whittemore: “Claude, You are the epoxy -- it is the 21st centurythat keeps us together. My plan is to write longer and stronger after a wily mind rests from the rush of memories Hall has brought forth again. The Billboard Forum at the Plaza was so monumental just for the fact that John Lennon was there sitting on a panel next to Rick Sklar. Where did they go? The dreams and schemes that created the smoke and mirrors that are still achingly real in our hearts and memories. Time for another glass of Sunshine prune juice. Godfrey! Can you imagine the number of one time boozers that are now non-drinkers? Strange, but true. So many formerly lovers of the wild life are now lamenting, ‘If I knew I was gonna live this long -- I'da taken better care of my self’. Too late smart I think he said.”
Ken Levine sent me an item about Lee Baby Simms, which I will forward to Lee’s daughter Kim. Then Woody Roberts sent me the link to Ken Levine’s website. This is beautiful material, a fine tribute to Lee, and you owe it to yourself to read itl
Death is just a passing fancy.