Interview – Jim Simpson – Photography Retrospective


That this exhibition has come to fruition is in no small part due to the friendly but persistent encouragement from co-gallery owner, Dave Travis – himself a seasoned photographer who also once bathed in the dark-room heady vapours of developer/fixer and washing trays. The mid Eighties saw Dave and others working with Jim as contributors to Brum Beat, the must-read inky news and reviews monthly publication. So, he knows a thing or two. And it shows gloriously.

For many, Jim, continues to be lauded for his production of the highly respected Birmingham International Jazz Festival. However, his Frankenstein moment of inspired management genius must certainly be taking on the fledgling bat-biting Black Sabbath and securing that record deal with Vertigo. The rest, just so you know Ozzy, is history. And just for contrast, Jim was behind the Birmingham SuperPrix.

Jim’s creative cv not only celebrates a magical mix of intimate photography of 1960’s acts on the cusp of going stellar — and poignantly for some, being rapidly discarded in to obscurity’s black hole. He also maintains a prolific memory and his various collections document an informed, exciting and creative era of new bands in their formative years. Indeed, it is the detailed captions that accompany the twenty-one portraits that embrace the viewer by way of inclusive, intimate and anecdotal contexts. Jim concedes that they gave him more pleasure in the writing that the onerous task of paring down the short-list of exhibition photographs from one thousand to the final twenty-one. Some short-list!

In the early 1960s, Jim divided his time between playing trumpet with his band The Locomotive [who later hit with the Ska single “Rudi’s In Love”] and taking photographs of Rock and Roll and blues musicians. By the end of the decade he had stopped playing, formed Big Bear Records, was managing Black Sabbath and photography had taken a back seat. Jim’s work includes photography of The Rolling Stones, Little Richard, Black Sabbath, Nina Simone, Marianne Faithfull, Ginger Baker to name only a few.


For those interested in music of that era and the local music history of Birmingham this exhibition really should not be missed. It is to Havill & Travis’ evolving kudos that the exhibition space encourages intimacy and inclusion. Jim’s nuanced, often pithy, closing anecdotes in the captions lend a salient, historical and cultural context that, whilst firmly eschewing glib retro-kitsch, never shies from the binding narrative of nostalgic sincerity. Whilst the exhibition was still in its final flurry of hammering in picture-hooks and spirit-levels close to becoming weapons of combat, Brum Live sneaked an exclusively warts n’ all gossip with the lens maestro of monochrome cool himself whose captured visionary moments have become timeless treasures.

BL. Jim, this exhibition – and about time too — a matter of what’s been stashed in the attic for the past forty/fifty years and now time to indulge in a senior moment of nostalgia? Time to show these digi-whipper-snappers how it was really done? In no more that as many words as you want —discuss.

JS. It wasn’t that way. Dave Travis helped us celebrate [if that’s the right word] 45 years of Big Bear Records in October 2013. As a backdrop we had around 100 of the archive photographs digitised and rolling on an electronic display system and Dave thought that they deserved to be seen more widely. When he and Gerv Havill were planning to open their gallery, Dave came over to talk. So it’s Dave and Gerv who are to blame for all this. I had always intended to properly get the collection into circulation, but the business of cataloguing some 2500 1 ¼ square negatives, and deciding which to digitize takes a lot longer than I had imagined. I had made a couple of stabs at putting them into something approaching order, but there just wasn’t enough time. There’s always something new going on at Big Bear which demands time and consideration, so without thinking it out, I find myself working on current projects and shelving work on the photography and recorded music archives — which actually would be a lot of fun to develop.

BL. Moving swiftly on from that last snappy pun Jim, can you throw some tech-spec bones to the specialists?

JS. The photography archive we’re looking at right now runs from 1962 to 1968, 2 ¼ square black and white negatives as well as some 2 ¼ square colour transparencies. Shot mostly in and around Birmingham on a Mamiyaflex C2 Professional camera. The subject matter is musicians, local and visiting. Some of the work is early publicity shots of Brum bands [Moody Blues, Move, Spencer Davis Group plus a bunch who sadly didn’t make it], as well as visiting jazz, blues and rock bands and musicians, plus just a few mainstream pop folk such as Petula Clarke, Helen Shapiro et al.

BL. And then?

JS. I then seemed to stop shooting, for no obvious reason other than lack of time, until the mid 70s, and I’ve continued in an occasional manner up until now, converting to digital about seven years ago. But digital’s not so much fun and it’s surely not so creative, but it’s very convenient.

BL. What processes and criteria did you have to adopt in order to pare down the final images?

JS. This was probably the toughest part. I found myself going for shots of my favourite artists, musically, while Dave and Gerv took a wider view. So I more or less backed off as I felt that I was far too close and I respected their opinions. It’s nice actually, having other folk look at your work and discuss it seriously. Dave did coin, and somewhat over-use, the catchphrase, “So ,what do you think, Jim?”.

BL. We’re all grown-ups now so — you feeling inclined towards any inappropriate anecdotal, scandalous, historical and heinously libelous backstory gossip? Discretion possibly guaranteed.

JS. There’s a lot of that in the captions, funnily enough. They gave me my head on those, and the toughest part was in deciding what to leave out, there was so much that I wanted to write, but I more-or-less kept within my self-imposed limit of 180 words per photograph.

BL. Has the process of assembling the exhibition taken you on a rose-tinted ramble down amnesia lane? You got up to quite a few things. For instance, every Spring, the grassy knoll along Bristol Street still bursts in to crocus coloured splendor bearing the SuperPrix legend. (I still have my marshal T-Shirt!).

JS. You know, I’m staggered but delighted to have you mention Superprix. I think that from a standing start of knowing nothing about such an event, for instance, precisely how loud those cars were [affecting stage placement, bands booked and more] to deliver five years of great street entertainment was an achievement that nobody but you, me, and the staff here remember and of which I’m still proud.

BL. The gigs Jim, the gigs? (Brum Live now proudly allows Jim a rightful cool riff retrospection – pay attention at the back — there will be questions.)

JS. Yes, it brings back some great memories, as well as a sadness that the world will never again be stopped in its tracks by the likes of The Count Basie Band in full flight. Ozzy and The Sabs rocking as only they could an upstairs pub room crammed with 180 people. The thrill of having Howlin’ Wolf coming at you on full throttle. Being five feet away from a young, emerging Rolling Stones, then spending a couple of hours with them in the bar. Being totally ignored for an hour by America’s greatest ever wordsmith. Chuck Berry, seeing Charles Brown hold an audience in the palm of his hand for six consecutive nights. Seeing on stage and meeting Muddy Waters, BB King, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Buddy Guy. (Well, we did ask!)

BL. Since it’s your party — any chance you might share some snippets regarding your association with Black Sabbath and other legendary Birmingham bands? (I have a confession to make: I used to sneak past you at Tamworth gigs by helping to carry Laney PA stacks — I was fifteen and thought the name-change from Earth to BS was career suicide!).

(I just had to keep in this following opening paragraph because one, it just further proves what an accommodatingly good egg Jim is — and two, it lends the writer a last desperate grasp at terminal cool.)

JS. I will be delighted to share snippets as you say, whenever you wish. Great to hear mention of Superprix, Laney stacks, Tamworth gigs. You clearly have a handle on what we’re about. The Earth to BS name-change was not easy. I had never liked the Earth name, but they were all happy with it, so my nagging went pretty much unheeded. Until, Eureka! I found not one but two London bands with that name, so they grumpily agreed to name-change. But, to what? No one had any ideas until Geezer (Butler, bassist and co-lyricist — Yes! Sabbath did have lyrics! BL) came up with Black Sabbath — to instant, unanimous approval from the rest of us.

BL. So, being the sprightly chap you are — what’s your next project? The coffee-table glossy book, the tour, the media-frenzy?

JS. A book certainly, but the first stage is to find the wherewithal to properly catalogue then digitize the entire collection. And then we come onto the recorded music archive that goes back to 1970. Then there’s British Jazz Awards this month. The 31st Birmingham International Jazz & Blues Festival in July 2015. King Pleasure & the Biscuit Boys. Tipitina, a year long celebration of Billie Holiday’s Centenary [2015] and stuff I can’t even find time to think about. And somehow I have to find time to worry about Halesowen Town FC.

Somewhere in a dusty attic there must be a youthful portrait of Jim begging himself to slow down just a tad!

A subtle touch to the exhibition comes from Dave Travis who contrived to have Jim’s trusted Mamiyaflex C2 positioned in a ceiling niche overlooking events. An affectionate, totemic irony much appreciated by those who got — the picture! Be it the frame-bursting, mustachioed beaming grin of Little Richard or the spiv-suited, leering grin of Jerry Lee Lewis pimping his bling in what might be the anteroom to Kray twins’ Hell — there’s so much to enjoy. Or maybe both Jack Bruce and  Ginger Baker playing at The Swan, Yardley — really? The pub that later boasted the longest bar in Britain with each hi-tech beer-engine dispensing uniformly pressurized cat-piss. But, just perhaps, the defining image is the enigmatic Egyptian goddess like over-shoulder profile of Nina Simone caught momentarily off-guard.  A portrait that combines both a troubled, empathic majesty and reluctant soul-diva vulnerability.

The ever modest Jim Simpson, ladies and gentlemen. His Mamiyaflex C2 capturing and encapsulating the instamatic magic of the people about to give the 60s a seismic shakin’ all over.


Jim Simpson’s Photographic Retrospection @ Havill & Travis

Many thanks to Jim Simpson, Vanessa @ Havill & Travis, and Big Bear Music.


Inteview: John Kennedy

Photographs: Ian Dunn

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