Legendary president was a musician first
While it’s true that Dr. James “Jimmy” Simmons made history by becoming Lamar’s first president emeritus, his true passion has always been music, according to those who know him best.
When Simmons arrived in 1970 at what was then known as Lamar State College of Technology, there wasn’t much available when it came to the arts. Just 10 years prior to his taking over as band director, the music department was housed in military barracks. Simmons, who is stepping down after more than 14 years as president of Lamar and more than 42 years of employment at the university, had plans to change the perception of Lamar when it came to music and the arts and it started with his directing the “Grandest Band in the Land,” the LU marching band from 1970-78. He made his presence known immediately.
“I think that (the band) is what set him up to be successful at Lamar,” said Kurt Killion, co-owner of Swicegood Music Company and former Nederland band director who played in the band and studied saxophone under Simmons. “It was between 300 and 350 (members). A lot of people took notice of how big and good the band was.”
“The unit was filled with some great kids,” Simmons said in an interview with The Examiner. “Some of the students ultimately became some of my best friends.” Simmons recounted some of his fondest memories of the band. “We marched for the Dallas Cowboy halftime show and in the Mardi Gras parade,” he said. The band also marched in the New Orleans Saints halftime show, Simmons said. “One of my greatest memories was when they were playing the Washington Redskins,” Simmons said. “We did the halftime show and you’re not allowed, as the halftime show band, to take your instruments into the stands with you. We got back in the stands, and in the third quarter, the fans wanted us to play ‘When the Saints’ again. They made so much racket that the referees had to stop the game, allow us to get our horns, bring them back up in the stands and play ‘When the Saints.’”
Killion said that recruiting new members for the already enormous Lamar band was instrumental to Simmons.
“The first words out of his mouth at the first marching rehearsal in the summer were, ‘Your job is to bring a friend back tomorrow to join.’” he said.
“Jimmy would go out to the high schools and talk to the seniors (about) playing in the band,” said Richard Cantu, director of the adult and continuing education programs at the Beaumont Independent School District, who played saxophone in Simmons’ band. “It was a requirement then that the music majors had to play in the marching band, but we would have been in it anyway.”
Cantu said that Simmons was an organized and strict band director.
“He expected you to know your part, and if you didn’t, you knew that he knew you didn’t know your part,” he said. “He would call you out. He was the reason that the band was so good.”
Simmons knew how to make an entrance at away games as well, Killion said.
“He would park the buses as far away from the stadium as he could, and we would march in single file,” he said. “With 350 people marching in single file, there were always oohs and ahhs and people were trying to figure out how long that line was going to last.”
According to Killion, Simmons took his job as band director extremely seriously.
“He was a master of psychology,” said Killion. “He hated to lose.”
Killion said Simmons always had an angle and a few tricks up his sleeve.
“I remember Long Beach State brought their band one year from California,” he said. “(Simmons) was just all beside himself that they were going to have a great band and show us up. The South Texas State Fair was in town at that point, and one of the popular things was a little bird whistle that you filled with water. You blew in it, and it chirped like a bird. He went and bought 300 of those and did a Cardinal fanfare to welcome our guests from Long Beach. He had Big Red (the mascot) get on the podium and conduct. He would conduct one side of the band, and everybody would blow their whistle on that side of the band. He always had an edge.”
Killion recounted a game in which University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana-Lafayette) attempted to intimidate Simmons’ band. “They were carrying a black orchid wreath,” he said. “The wreath said, ‘We will bury you, LU band.’ (Simmons) got on the P.A. and told us they were bringing the wreath over. We were all pumped up to do well. As it turns out, that wreath was originally sent from Beaumont to Lafayette and said, ‘We will bury you, signed LU band.’ And they were bringing it with them. I have a sneaking suspicion that he was the one who had sent it to them.”
Chris Coleman, a Beaumont native and Lamar alumnus, started out playing tuba in Simmons’s marching band. Coleman said he was greatly influenced by Simmons and credits him with helping in the decision to switch from tuba to bass.
“(I benefited) more than I even imagined,” Coleman said. “(He was) one of the main reasons I even started with bass. I mostly wanted to be a symphony tuba player, and I reconsidered because there is only one tuba player in every major symphony. I went into his office one day and said, ‘There’s something else I want to do as far as instrument playing wise.’ He said, “You should be playing bass. When he said that, I respected him so much. I said, ‘You got it.’”
Coleman has been playing bass ever since — more than 20 years, in fact. He is music director and bassist for the Earl Turner Band, a showroom act which features front man Earl Turner, who entertains audiences by playing several instruments, singing, dancing and delivering humorous antics at Las Vegas and New Orleans casinos.
“Chris was a fabulous musician,” Simmons said. “He ended up being one of the most sought-after bass players in Vegas.”
Another former student of Simmons, Vidor native Don Rollins, famous for writing “It’s Five o’Clock Somewhere,” said he met Simmons at a jazz show at Carlo’s Italian restaurant in Beaumont.
“There was a jazz quartet there every Wednesday night, and I used to go there when I was a high school kid,” Rollins said. “I’d sit around and hope that they’d let me play one song, and once in a while they would. I used to listen to him play all the time.”
Rollins said Simmons was the perfect music instructor.
“Jimmy was one of those guys that would let you drive yourself if you were going somewhere,” he said. “After looking back at what I ended up doing for a living, I was really lucky to have Jimmy. He gave me a lot of freedom and he expected me to take charge of my life.”
One of Rollins’ fondest memories of Simmons was when he approached him for an advising session.
“Back in those days, when you were a music major, whoever your major professor was was also your faculty adviser. This was when your schedule was on a punch card; it was very prehistoric,” Rollins explained. “As a saxophone major, Jimmy was supposed to be my adviser. I handed him my schedule and said, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be my adviser, so here’s my schedule.’”
“Back then the catalog had everything lined out for you,” Simmons said. “Don always went a separate direction. No matter what I asked him to take, he had ideas of his own.”
“He looked at me like I just crawled out from under a rock,” Rollins said. “He said, ‘Can you read the catalog?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘OK.’ I think, basically, the inference was that if you can’t read the catalog, you’re too dumb to graduate anyway. That was the last time we talked about what classes we were going to take. That kind of freedom, I’ve since discovered, is pretty rare — and I needed that.”
Simmons said that it’s been rewarding for him to witness the success of his former students.
“It’s terrific,” he said. “That’s why you teach. You hope that you’ve had some small impact on their ability to be successful when they leave. One of the finest saxophone players in Memphis is Mike Krepper. I had Mike Krepper in high school when I taught at Beaumont High. He followed me to Memphis and then when I came to Lamar, he followed me to Lamar. He has become one of the finest lead alto saxophone players in the city (of Memphis).”
Simmons said there were many other students that went on to success as well, including John Calderón, the guitar player for Al Jarreau, and Sharon Montgomery, a famous Houston jazz singer who has toured the world.
Cantu said that Simmons was a big influence on his career decision to become an educator instead of pursuing a career in music.
“He’s the reason I got my Bachelor of Science degree instead of my Bachelor of Arts degree,” Cantu said. “I was going to go off in the world and become a famous saxophone player, and I guess he knew I wasn’t that good. He insisted I take the Bachelor of Science courses and get certified to teach. I can’t tell you what kind of influence he has been on my life — all positive. He did everything right. He taught me as much as I could learn.”
Cantu said Simmons continues to influence him, even today. “I’ve played in bands since I was 14,” he said. “In fact, I still play in a band, the core group of people I went to college with, and I still call on Jimmy for advice and run ideas by him.” “I’m 60 years old and still playing,” Cantu said. “Jimmy is a lot of the reason for that. He brought out all he could bring out in us and saw to it that we had the tools to go on.”
“Cantu was the first saxophone student I had when I came here to teach in ’70,” Simmons said. “He invited Susan and me to his home to have dinner, and his mother was a fabulous cook. What a wonderful relationship we have with Richard and his family.”
Simmons was not only a band director and music instructor; he was also a great musician, Rollins said.
“He’s a really fine musician,” he said. “He’s not limited to one style. Jimmy was a fine classically trained clarinet player, and he was a fine piano player and obviously a really excellent saxophone player.”
Simmons, who earned his Master’s of Music at the University of Houston, got his bachelor’s degree from Memphis State.
“While he was in Memphis, he was in the Memphis Symphony,” Rollins said. “He played on Beale Street in those blues clubs. He was really versatile.”
“He had a big band, the Jimmy Simmons Orchestra, that played most of the social events and all the high-profile weddings,” Killion said. “For 15 years, we would gig with him.”
Killion said that Simmons is a consummate professional and an outstanding saxophone and clarinet player.
“He performed for the Texas Music Educators Association Convention,” he said. “Not too long after he took the president’s job, Dr. (Barry) Johnson had already taken the job as the vice president of student affairs. So you had the vice president of student affairs and the president of the university performing for the music educators convention.”
Simmons has backed up and performed with some of the biggest names in entertainment over several decades, according to the website of Phi Beta Mu, the music fraternity that inducted Simmons into its Texas Bandmasters Hall of Fame in 2012. The list includes Steve Allen, Bert Bacharach, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Natalie Cole, Helen Forrest, The Four Tops, Robert Goulet, Marvin Hamlisch, Bob Hope, Jack Jones, Steve Lawrence, Jerry Lewis, Johnny Mathis, Helen O’Connell, Donald O’Connor, Martha Rae, Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra, Frank Sinatra Jr., Kay Starr, The Temptations, B.J. Thomas, Danny Thomas, Marlo Thomas, Dinah Shore, Jerry Vale, Dionne Warwick, Barry White, Chicago and Joe Williams.
Simmons also played with George Jones, the longtime country music legend from Vidor.
“I’m on one of his records — ‘She Thinks I Still Care’,” Simmons said. “I played the vocal part and sang on it. I did the same thing with Dickie Lee’s ‘Patches.’ Those are both million sellers. I also played with Johnny Preston.”
Simmons said that he knew music would be a major part of his life at a young age.
“I grew up listening to Benny Goodman,” he said. “My father and mother were very much the music enthusiasts. Jazz has always been a strong part of my life and career. I saw my dad performing at a little theater production when I was very young, and he was pantomiming a clarinet player. And I thought he played the clarinet. He actually played the trumpet. So in my mind, I wanted to play the clarinet.”
Simmons said he got his first clarinet at the age of 10.
“Loved it,” he said. “I began playing saxophone when I was in high school.”
In 1990, Simmons founded Lamarissimo!, a concert series that showcases Lamar University’s music and talent and served as an outlet for the band when the university dropped football back in 1989. It has since become a part of an LU tradition, according to Simmons.
“The marching band was such a great window into the university for the arts,” Simmons said. “When we lost football, we lost that organization. We thought about what we could do to open a new window into the university, and this Lamarissimo! really served that purpose.”
Simmons will never give up music, Killion said. And perhaps he’s right. After Simmons retires as president, he said he plans to return to the Mary Morgan Moore Department of Music to teach once again. Except this time the building where he will teach will be named the James M. Jimmy Simmons Music Building, and it’s is a far cry from a military barracks.