Saxophonist Sonny Simmons | KNKX public radio
Huey “Sonny” Simmons was born on the island of Sicily, Louisiana, in 1933.
Simmons’ father was a traveling Baptist preacher who also practiced voodoo. Her father drummed and gave Sonny, then 6, an accordion to play. It was the only instrument he had as a child and he played it in church every Sunday.
No music lessons for young Sonny, but thanks to the radio he found his love: the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and also classical music.
When he was 14, the family moved to Oakland, Calif., Where Simmons says he was influenced by Black Panthers and Black Power politics. He said he wanted to be in the group at these gatherings.
When you hear the avant-garde sound of Simmons, you can almost understand the pain and soreness some people feel in these movements. What may seem cacophonous and off-putting to some can be an artist’s way of expressing himself.
Simmons co-wrote a song called “Prelude to Bird” with one of his collaborators, Prince Lasha.
Simmons was quoted in an interview as saying, “I had a lot of idols but all of them are fading except one – Charlie Parker. He was the only one who really stayed heavy on me. … It’s like he’s God.
McCoy Tyner’s recording “Oriental Flower” introduced Simmons to the world. On “Oriental Flower”, he plays the English horn, which he considered his main instrument.
After years on the West Coast experimenting with the psychedelic counterculture, Simmons’ life came to a standstill. He became exhausted on heroin and was homeless, but he continued to gamble on the streets of San Francisco for almost 15 years.
Eventually, a French club owner hired him, and from there he got a recording contract to do a few albums, including “American Jungle”.
Simmons’ rich and busy life ended in New York City, where he spent nearly two decades playing concerts and continuing to grow his chops. He described himself as “a brother who is still alive … who walked with the giants … played music and recorded with them”.