Bakersfield Sound pioneer Red Simpson passed away on Jan. 8 following a heart attack.
Simpson, who was 81, made his mark as a songwriter, a session musician and a country hitmaker who specialized in truck-driver songs. He performed right up to the end of his life. He headlined the opening concert of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Bakersfield Sound exhibit in 2012. He was on tour in the Pacific Northwest when he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized on Dec. 18, 2015. He returned to Bakersfield to recuperate at home. He went into cardiac arrest last Friday and was rushed to the local hospital, but could not be revived.
Born in 1934 in Higley, Arizona, Joseph “Red” Simpson was raised in Bakersfield as the youngest of 13 children. He began his musical career in the nightclubs of the city as a sideman on both guitar and piano.
He helped to create the bright, twanging, Telecaster-heavy Bakersfield Sound that characterized the recordings of such better known adherents of the style as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Simpson played on Haggard’s signature 1969 hit, “Okie From Muskogee.”
He also wrote songs recorded by both Owens and Haggard. Owens recorded more than 30 Red Simpson songs, including the hits “Gonna Have Love” (1965), “Sam’s Place” (1967) and “The Kansas City Song” (1970). Haggard placed eight Simpson songs on various albums, including 1988’s “Lucky Old Colorado.”
More than 200 other artists have recorded Red Simpson songs. Among the standouts in his catalog is “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” which as been recorded by Haggard, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Suzy Bogguss, Johnny Paycheck, Connie Smith, Bonnie Owens, Jeannie Seely and The Grascals, among others.
Charlie Walker had a 1964 hit with Simpson’s “Close Up the Honky Tonks” (a.k.a. “Close All the Honky Tonks”), and this song has also been popularized by Owens, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Byrds, Dwight Yoakam, Dawn Sears, Radney Foster, Tony Booth, Chris Hillman and more. “I Bought the Shoes That Just Walked Out on Me” has also been recorded by multiple artists.
As a recording artist, Red Simpson first made the charts in 1966 with the Tommy Collins song “Roll Truck Roll,” followed by his own composition “Highway Patrol.” Junior Brown revived “Highway Patrol” in 1995.
Simpson’s biggest hit was 1971’s “I’m a Truck,” a Capitol single that rose to No. 4 on the Billboard chart. He also charted with “Country Western Truck Drivin’ Singer” (1972), “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” (1967), “Awful Lot to Learn About Truck Drivin’” (1973), “Truck Driver’s Heaven” (1976) and “The Flying Saucer Man and the Truck Driver” (1979).
Later in his career, Simpson recorded two duets with Junior Brown, 1995’s “Semi Crazy” and “Nitro Express.” He also sang duets with singer Lorraine Walden in 1977.
Simpson released nine albums. Two of them were Top 10 hits: 1966’s Roll Truck Roll and 1972’s I’m a Truck.
He performed frequently in Bakersfield, including a longstanding Monday night gig at Trout’s in nearby Oildale. In 2013, he participated in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Poets and Prophets series. His most recent singles were “Hey Bin Laden” and 2015’s “It’s a Bakersfield Thing.”
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