It's said that Bob Dylan once called Red Simpson the forgotten man of the Bakersfield Sound.
But there was no forgetting — only remembering — on what would have been the 83rd birthday of the Bakersfield Sound pioneer Monday, when a bronze plaque was unveiled at Rasmussen Senior Center in Oildale, a venue Simpson played regularly until his death a year ago.
"I'm overwhelmed, if you want to know," said Joyce Simpson, the singer/songwriter's wife of 32 years.
"It's marvelous. I've been traveling and came home special for this."
Her husband, however, would probably have been embarrassed by the fuss, she said, and what a fuss it was. Folding chairs at the outdoor ceremony quickly filled with dozens of early birds among the 250 or so people who showed up. Overflow fans stood in the parking lot, on the steps, in flower beds — anywhere they could to get a look.
"Do you want to sit on my shoulders?" a man gamely asked his companion.
"If I did, you'd be sorry," she cracked.
Glenda Rankin and Di Sharman, the sisters who led the effort to move Merle Haggard's boyhood home to Kern Pioneer Village through their nonprofit, Citizens Preserving History, came up with the idea for the plaque after an attempt to name the street that runs alongside the senior center failed.
"The Lord opened a door and something even better happened," Rankin told the crowd before introducing representatives for state Sen. Jean Fuller and Assemblymen Vince Fong and Rudy Salas. Through their aides, the elected officials offered plaques of their own, to Simpson's family members and Rankin and Sharman.
Bruce Cox and Ed Shelton sang two Simpson numbers before Sharman called up "Bakersfield's forever mayor," Harvey Hall, to wield his giant scissors and snip the sparkly red bow, revealing the plaque concealed under a velvet drape. (Bakersfield's actual mayor, Karen Goh, had another engagement, Sharman said.)
Under a guitar and an autograph from the man himself, the sign reads: "RED SIMPSON: The Bard of Bakersfield" and goes on, in great detail for a sign, to highlight his life and career.
"But now the party just begins," Sharman told the crowd, which moved inside to the bright, newly refurbished octagonal dance hall. Wood beams criss-cross the ceiling and a much larger — and newly handicap-accessible — stage can accommodate a country-band-and-then-some contingent of musicians. Guests at tables scattered around the hall were fueling up on deep pit to break in the wood-finish dance floor that wouldn't stay pristine for long.
Greeter Kaye Lefebvre handed out red Mardi Gras beads and the volunteer manning the Krispy Kreme table said guests had blown through eight boxes, about 100 doughnuts, give or take an Original Glazed. Expecting to serve about 175 deep-pit lunches, the center needed to super-size its list to 195 — with a waiting list, according to Rasmussen employee Gene Thompson.
"We figured, if we can seat 'em, let's take 'em," he said, adding about Simpson, "He donated his time, just for tips, and played here every Tuesday. We were sorry to lose him. He brought a lot of people in."
And still does, by the size of Monday's audience. Many got up to line-dance and two-step to the first song performed on the new stage, Simpson's "Sam's Place," which Buck Owens took to the top of the charts in 1967. On Monday, it was performed by another of Simpson's close friends, Mario Carboni, in fine voice for the occasion.
Among the two-steppers was Barbara Baker, 72, who has been coming to the Oildale senior center five days a week since October. She thought she'd give Rasmussen a try after returning from Oklahoma, where she visited relatives who frequented a similar center there.
"I've been by myself for 12 years since my husband died, and it was lonely. Though I never saw him play, I've heard about Red just about every day since I've been coming."
Dorothy Kuester, 92, frequents the center three times a week "for exercise and card playing and what have you. It's our home away from home here."
For people who knew him personally, like actor/singer Mayf Nutter, the spirit of Red Simpson was inescapable Monday.
But Nutter, like Mrs. Simpson, wonders how his famously self-deprecating — and seriously funny — friend would have handled the attention.
"I think he would have been embarrassed to think somebody was going to do this, but it's well-deserved. If he was sitting here, he would have had a good joke to tell."