Classics: April 2023

Kim Simmons’ 1973 Gibson Les Paul
Classics: April 2023
Buckle rash on its back testifies to the guitar’s years of use onstage.

For Gio da Silva and several million others in Generation X, the mid ’90s were an exciting time. Young adults when music was experiencing a blues revival spirit-guided by Stevie Ray Vaughan and grunge rock was peaking with its Sabbath/Zeppelin/Who bedrock, the mélange inspired many – da Silva included – to pick up a guitar.

Though he daydreamed of playing with a band on stages worldwide, da Silva recalls how commercial radio, MTV, and record companies turned grunge into a sonic homogenization that shoved art aside in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

“If your singer didn’t sound like Eddie Vedder, odds were against you,” he said. “I was frustrated, and even at 16, I knew there had to be more.”

Searching for inspiration, one day he dug into a stack of vinyl belonging to the father of his then-girlfriend, Heidi – albums by Rory Gallagher, ZZ Top, Johnny Winter, Robin Trower, and others.

“I discovered sounds that fit with my punk-rock attitude,” he said. “None of my friends were going down that road, so even though those bands were already ‘classic rock,’ to me they were unique and rebellious.”

Tucked midway through the pile were two discs by an unfamiliar band called Savoy Brown.

“I dropped the needle on Looking In, and from the first notes of ‘Gypsy,’ I was hooked,” he said. “Then, Raw Sienna had a mix of blues, swinging horns, great vocals, and Kim Simmonds’ guitar. I’d read plenty about the Beano record, Peter Green, and Jeff Beck, but Kim was different. There was something urgent yet composed, brooding but not depressing, mysterious yet obvious, classy yet guttural. It had Chicago blues, it had a rock edge, it had a jazz refinement. I immediately became a fan.”

After a bit of digging (in the days before websites), he was pleasantly surprised to learn the band was still recording and touring. In 1995, they were booked to play Skipper’s Smokehouse, in North Tampa, Florida, just across the bridge from da Silva’s hometown of St. Petersburg.

“A venue I love was hosting my new favorite band,” he says, recalling his excitement. “At the time, they were a trio with Nathaniel Peterson on bass and vocals. I was mesmerized by Kim’s Les Paul Custom running through a Marshall, and reverb that seemed to surround me.”

Gio da Silva with the Les Paul.

Skipper’s is an intimate venue, da Silva notes, the type where if you want to meet the band, it’s not difficult.

“After the show, Heidi asked if I wanted to talk to Kim, but I thought, ‘What would I say to him?’ I didn’t want to bother him, so we headed home with our happy memories.”

In the 20 years that followed, he caught Savoy Brown live several more times. Life took him away from Florida, but, in April of 2016, he was back in St. Pete to visit his now wife, Alexis. On a Saturday morning, they went for a stroll through downtown and happened past Stevie B’s music shop.

“Alexis suggested we go in,” he said. “I wasn’t looking to buy a guitar, so I was only mildly interested as I scanned guitars on the wall. Only one really caught my eye – a Les Paul Custom hanging out of reach, with an autographed pickguard. I’m not one to bother a store’s staff unless I’m serious about buying something, and I’m not into memorabilia, so I didn’t think much of it. But then, Alexis said, ‘Hey isn’t that Kim Simmonds’ autograph?’ I looked closer and told her, ‘Yeah, looks like it…’ The shop owner, Stevie, happened to walk past and I started to casually ask about the Les Paul; he told me it was a ’73 and had been Kim’s main instrument from 1988 until late ’95. At first, I didn’t make the connection after all those years, but I had watched Kim play it live.”

Curious but skeptical until Stevie whipped out a letter written by Simmonds and an old publicity photo with him playing the guitar, da Silva then texted photos of it to his fellow-guitarhead/Savoy Brown-fan brother, John, in Seattle. After chatting a bit more with Stevie about their mutual love for Simmonds, the couple left the store. But…

“I could not stop thinking about the Les Paul,” said da Silva. “I didn’t bring it up, but first thing the next morning, Alexis asked, ‘You’re thinking about the guitar, aren’t you?” I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m not a collector. If I buy a guitar, I have to use it.’

Still, he was compelled to call the store.

“They weren’t open on Sundays, so I left a voicemail and went about preparing to go home to Houston the next day, resigned to the fact it wasn’t meant to be.”

Fifteen minutes later, though, Stevie rang back to say he could meet at the store; 30 minutes after that, da Silva was privately auditioning the guitar through a Deluxe Reverb – and living “a sonic dream.”

da Silva and Kim Simmonds in 2016.

“I tried to control my nerves, but I could barely play,” he laughed. “Still, its tone was just so beefy and dynamic. Within a couple minutes, I knew I had to have it.”

In July of 2016, Savoy Brown’s tour included a Seattle stop at The Triple Door, and John scored front-row tickets. Shedding that inherent shyness and “strongly encouraged” by John, da Silva sent a message to the band’s management via social media, letting them know that he would have the Les Paul at the venue. The note earned them an extended post-show hang.

“Kim, Pat DeSalvo, and Garnett Grimm were so cool, and it was fun reuniting Kim with the guitar. He encouraged me to check the pickups when I got home, because he changed them often in his Les Pauls and used PAFs whenever he could. I had installed a different pickguard and Kim signed it for me, so I gifted the original to John.

Kim Simmonds’ letter confirming his ownership (and use) of the guitar, and the publicity photo of him playing it.

“It turned out the pickups are from 1980, the Tim Shaw era. They sound stellar; the neck is clean and bell-like, the bridge is mid-pushed and honky, the way I like it!”

The top is a single piece of maple, and the guitar shows the wear of a well-traveled instrument. Simmonds replaced the tuners with Grovers, upgraded to an ABR-1 bridge with brass saddles, and because it was his workhorse, the pots and caps are non-original.

“I own a handful of early-’60s Gibsons and vintage Fenders that I’ve played on a lot of live shows and recordings with two bands, and anyone who hears this guitar agrees its tone is better than anything else. I really love that I can hear it on Savoy’s Kings of Boogie, Live and Kickin’, Let it Ride, and Bring it Home, and watch Kim playing it in several videos online.

“I name my guitars, and this one is lovingly called ‘Mamma’ because it has the mother of all tones, and of course it’s an homage to Savoy Brown’s ‘Tell Mamma.’”

On his way to spend the holidays with his parents in Brazil, de Silva had just boarded a plane when he got word that Simmonds had passed away. He almost disembarked.

“I just wanted to go home and play Mamma,” he said. “I’d lost my hero – one of the last representatives of the British-blues wave and one of the blues’ greatest advocates. Luckily, his legacy lives on.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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