Little Mack Simmons (Malcolm Simmons), a man whose 47-year career made him eponymous with the term "Chicago blues," died Oct. 24, 2000 at the age of 67 after a long battle with colon cancer. The vocalist and harmonica player extraordinaire touched the Chicago scene as a creator, participator and mentor, melding a classic 1950s style with his own interpretations of the blues. "He's the link," says musician and part owner of Rosa's Lounge Tony Mangiullo, who regularly accompanied Simmons at his regular Thursday night gig there. "Without Little Mack there wouldn't be the connection between the blues and classic moments of the 50s. The way he played, the way he generated sound, the way he felt -- it's pretty much considered the standard of classic Chicago blues. His contribution of keeping that style is priceless."
Born in rural Twist, Ark, Simmons was a boyhood friend of James Cotton, who apprenticed under blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II. The boys often traded books for harmonicas, playing hooky so Cotton could teach Simmons the harmonica techniques he was picking up from the master. Simmons later gave up school completely, working farm jobs until, at the age of 18, he moved to St. Louis. It was in St. Louis that Simmons met up with Robert Nighthawk, debuting on Nighthawk's stage.
Simmons broke into the Chicago scene in 1954, landing a five-year gig at Cadillac Baby's. Backed by a full band, he was a regular at joints like Pepper's Lounge and Sylvio's. Simmons began his recording career in 1959, cutting tracks for Cadillac Baby, Chess Records, Palos, Bea & Baby and New Breed labels.
Simmons was making tracks in more than the literal sense though. By the late 1960s, he had created a fusion of gospel, funk, country and western, soul and rock, mixed with a heavy dose of his signature blues style.
Simmons went on to showcase the talent of others as well. He owned and ran Chicago's Zodiac Lounge from the mid- to late-1960s. In addition, Simmons owned a studio and recorded on his labels PM Records and Simmons Records. Simmons recorded several more CDs throughout the 1990s, most notably Little Mack Is Back, an album that did more than garner much attention -- it reaffirmed Simmons' place as a founder, leader and shaper of the Chicago blues scene.
As a leader, Simmons took his mentoring opportunity seriously. For the past five years, Simmons played every Thursday night at Rosa's Lounge. But he didn't keep the spotlight to himself. "He would always have a younger harmonica player take the stage with him," says Mangiullo. "Rosa's Lounge is holding a benefit/tribute to him -- a gathering of musicians and people affected by him. He had lots of personal contact with musicians. Some of the first songs Lonnie Brooks performed were with Little Mack. I had a real personal connection with Little Mack as a musician, not just a relationship as a club owner. I think a lot of people felt the same." (Kate Schwartz)
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