|Gene Simmons, Still Haunting The House|
When Gene Simmons was a teenager in Tupelo, Mississippi, in the early 1950s, his two sisters brought home an old guitar. He could not stop smacking its strings. In a few months, he was strumming them sweetly and performing on the radio and at dances with his brother in the Simmons Brothers band. Simmons' career has taken him from Tupelo to the world, from obscurity to fame, and from fame to relative obscurity again. Yet the man who started recording for Sun Records as a rockabilly artist in the '50s finally succeeded with "Haunted House" on Hi Records in 1964. "One day, I guess it was about 1954," Simmons recalled, "I was visiting a cousin of Elvis Presley. I didn't know who this Elvis fellow was at the time, but everybody said he played the guitar, so I handed him one. He just smiled. He was real shy. He said, 'I only play by myself.' Personally, I thought the guy looked weird. Greased back hair, tight pants, all that. Yeah, this guy was 'weird' all right; hipper than we country boys. Well, one day a short time later I had the opportunity to hear his first record on the radio. I said to my brother, 'Hey, is that the guy I met? I'd sure like to hear more about this record deal'.
So a few weeks later a guy named Bob Neal called and said he wanted to book Elvis back in his old hometown of Tupelo. Neal asked our band to play with Elvis on his date. That's really how my career got started". Eventually, Simmons approached Presley about getting in to see Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun, about a contract. "I can arrange an audition", Presley told Simmons, "but I'm afraid that's all I can do for you boys. The rest is up to you". Phillips apparently liked what he heard, for he took Simmons into the little Memphis studio to record eight sides. But Sun was too involved with other artists and projects at the time, and Jumpin' Gene Simmons - called that because of his antics on stage - got only one release. "So I just left to go on tour all over the country", he recalled. "In Canada I met a woman who later became my wife. When I brought her to Memphis with me, vocalist Ray Harris got me on the Hi label. At the time, in the early '60s, Bill Black's group needed a vocalist, so I started singing for him. In all, I had releases on Hi in '61, '62, '63 - but no hits. I looked around and saw my buddies having hits, and I started to think that maybe this was just not meant to be for me. By '63, I was ready to hang it up.
Then I found a guy named Domingo Samudio - you'd probably know him better as Sam The Sham - playing in the clubs with me. All the pickers laughed at me for saying so, but I thought Sam had such a different stage presence. I cut the first record on him on a Tupelo label, a record called 'Betty Ann Dupree', but nothing happened. About that time Sam was singing a song that had been recorded unsuccessfully before called 'Haunted House'. I liked it. Sam got a wild reaction when he played it in the clubs. Well, the folks over at Hi asked me to ask Sam if he would record it for them. Sam didn't like Hi for some reason, and he said to tell them that he would make the record on his own. Anyhow, the man over at Hi said, 'Look, Gene, we're gonna make that record anyway. Would you like to cut it?' I said, 'Hey, why not?' My contract with Hi had already expired, though, and they had to make arrangements for me to record again. But what Sam turned down I had a hit on. It was all so unlikely". Simmons said the session was not like his others in that everyone involved had fun. The label president called his distributor in New York City and said Hi was putting out a new Gene Simmons record. "Man", the distributor complained, "we've got that guy's records stacked up to the ceiling now, and they aren't doing a thing", "Well, get ready for a stone smash", the president said. By August, 1964, "Haunted House" had rested at number eleven on the Hot 100, and the Hi executive seemed to be a teller of fortunes.
In a time when disc jockeys seemed obsessed with English bands, "long" hair, and a new sophistication in music, a Memphis label came along with a novelty record about a man who refuses to leave his new house just because it's haunted. "Actually, the English thing helped me", Simmons said. "The DJs were sort of tired of all that stuff, I think, and my record was a refreshing one because it had a funky beat that you could dance to. I was just happy to be on the charts. Later, I got tagged as a novelty act. I couldn't find anything nearly as good as 'Haunted House' and I never had another big national hit". He didn't mind all that much, however, for he had always wanted to be a country singer. Yet Simmons was not like his contemporaries in country or rockabilly because he could sing a variety of music and sing with soul. He was an excellent vocalist in an era when many singers were mediocre. "I started out singing country and I was happy with it", he said. In recent years Simmons has been performing as a country-rockabilly artist and producing, writing and publishing music, He even recorded a less frenetic version of "Haunted House" on a local label called Deltune Records. But the big national hits have stopped coming for now, and Simmons has moved from Tupelo to the Nashville area to work for a music publishing company. He said he will keep singing country music as long as somebody wants to hear him. "That's where my heart is", he said.
Tupelo, Mississippi; February, 1987