Red Simpson moved a little slower than he once did as he made his way through the crowd of more than 500 at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace on Thursday night. Not that anyone could pass quickly through the capacity audience of festive well-wishers who gathered to honor Simpson on his 80th birthday. The celebrated musician and songwriter was stopped frequently by those who wanted to get an autograph, a hug, or an opportunity to swap stories about the days when the Bakersfield country music legend was a fixture on the then-thriving local honky-tonk scene.
"There's not as many clubs as there used to be," Simpson reflected wistfully. "But, then again, we never had a place as nice as this."
Known to country music audiences for his blacktopped-themed odes to big-rigs, including the 1972 Top 5 hit "I'm a Truck," Simpson began his career by carving out a reputation as a skilled multi-instrumentalist and accomplished songwriter. Those who've recorded his music over the years include Dwight Yoakam, Alan Jackson, Roseanne Cash, The Byrds and Johnny Paycheck. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard recorded nearly 40 of Simpson's songs, including standards like "Close Up the Honky Tonks" and "You Don't Have Very Far to Go."
Surrounded by his children, grandchildren and other relatives who came from Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, Colorado, Oregon and Texas, Simpson soaked up the tributes Thursday as performers including Tommy Hays, Theresa Spanke, Kim McAbee, and Barbara Cheatwood serenaded him from the stage.
"When I came in here and saw all these people," Simpson trailed off for a moment. "Well, it just about made me cry, man."
The large rotating cast of musicians featured former Merle Haggard sideman Mark Yeary, local favorite Larry Petree, pedal steel guitarist JayDee Maness (of the Desert Rose Band), rockabilly hero Deke Dickerson, renowned guitarist Brian Lonbeck, and drummer Jimmy Phillips, who played with Simpson on many of the singer's Capitol recordings in the 1960s.
Buck's youngest son, Johnny Dale Owens, sang "Sam's Place," a song credited to Buck and Red that became a No. 1 hit for the elder Owens in 1967. Other musical friends cheering Red on from the audience included Sonny Anglin, Mayf Nutter, Lawton Jiles, James Intveld, Jerri Arnold and Sue Smart, who, with her husband Del, was a popular performer in Bakersfield in the 1960s. The pair recorded many of Simpson's songs. Smart, who now lives in North Hollywood, hadn't seen Red in many years.
"I just think the world of him," she enthused.
Simpson himself took to the stage to sing a few selections, including his hits "I'm a Truck" and "Highway Patrol." Ray Rush, who co-wrote the latter song, was in the audience cheering on his friend.
Simpson joked and told stories, laughing about the early days in Bakersfield when he ran around with Merle Haggard and got phone calls from Buck Owens to cover shifts for the pre-fame guitarist at the storied Blackboard nightclub.
The room fell silent when Simpson and his daughter, Missy, dueted on a beautiful Simpson original called "Stay Close to Me." "It feels like just yesterday, but I guess it's been 22 years since we sang together," Simpson reflected.
Watching from the audience was Simpson's sister, Minnie Robertson.
"We were from a family of 12 kids," Robertson explained, "but we're the last two of the family now. The highlight of this evening was for me to get to share this with Joe. Everyone calls him Red, but I know him as my baby brother, Joe."
Born Joseph Cecil Simpson in Higley, Ariz., Simpson came to California with his large family of migrant workers in 1937. He formed an early friendship with prominent Bakersfield musician Bill Woods. After a stint in the Navy, Simpson began playing guitar or piano with various bands within the thriving country music community that gave birth to what's come to be known as the Bakersfield Sound. In 1957, a Capitol Records act from the San Joaquin Valley known as the Farmer Boys recorded "Someone to Love," a song co-written by Simpson and Buck Owens.
"That's when I threw my cotton sack away for good," Simpson laughed.
Within a few years, Simpson had released seven albums of his own for the famed record label, and eventually placed seven singles on Billboard magazine's country chart.
More than half a century has now transpired since Simpson began his professional music career. Bill Woods and Buck Owens have passed away, and Simpson is one of a very small cadre of pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound who remain. Though his body might be failing him -- Simpson isn't able to play guitar as frequently these days -- the prankster with the ever-ready one-liner still has a strong baritone voice and a mischievous glint in his eye.
Indeed, the music community's devotion to Simpson has only deepened with the years.
Nashville guitarist Eugene Moles was on hand to back Simpson. "Red's part of our family," Moles smiled. "My dad played on almost all his sessions for Capitol Records, and now I love to play that guitar style. And I like to hear Red's jokes!"
Mayor Harvey Hall was on hand to present Simpson with a key to the city, and state senators Jean Fuller and Andy Vidak were there to honor him with a framed resolution acknowledging his musical contributions to the cultural enrichment of California. "Take that, Merle," Red good-naturedly quipped as Vince Fong, a representative for U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, presented him with a flag that was flown over the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
The event was organized by Simpson's friend Gene Thome.
"I lost my parents six or seven years ago," Thome explained. "Red has been like a second dad to me. He doesn't have a bad thing to say about anyone, and it's wonderful to see all these people here from all over the country who came to let him know how much they love him."
For the guest of honor, the feeling was mutual:
"I've seen so many old, old friends tonight," Simpson smiled. "It's good to see these folks again."