By Mike Zielinski
Music has been the strongest adhesive in Bennie Sims’ life.
He and his bass, upright or guitar, are tethered to each other. For him, going through life without a bass makes as much sense as going to the hunt without a gun.
“When I first remember hearing music, it wasn’t good enough to just listen to it,” he said. “I had to do it. I was just intrigued by the feeling that playing music gave me; the joy that it brought. It was funny how the notes would speak to you—whichever musical phrase you played, the emotion it would evoke. It moved me in a way that I wanted to experience as much as I could. It still is that way for me.”
That passion fueled him to become a highly regarded bassist, performer, music director, bandleader, producer, composer, and educator.
Sims is being honored this year as the 2020 winner of the Frank Scott Award, presented annually by Berks Arts. The award was founded and is sponsored by the Jerlyn Foundation, led by Carolyn and Jerry Holleran, who were longtime friends of the well-known local jazz saxophonist, Frank Scott (1923-1995).
The award honors Scott’s memory and his contribution to Berks County’s jazz heritage.
Scott opened two nightclubs in the Reading area and played with musicians such as Bing Crosby, Ray Charles and Bill Haley and the Comets.
Like Scott, Sims, a Wyomissing resident, has worked with countless A-list artists throughout his career, including Al Jarreau, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Dizzy Gillespie, The Spinners, The Temptations, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Tower of Power, Pieces of a Dream, and The Three Degrees.
“Frankie was a big influence on me as a youngster,” Sims explains. “The first time he heard me play he held me in high regard. He encouraged me to keep getting better, to move forward and improve. Later I played on one of Frankie’s albums, Never Too Old To Dream.
“I’m playing upright bass now. I didn’t play upright bass when Frankie was alive. He always wanted me to play upright. At that time I was working so much and so busy traveling that I didn’t have the time to learn the instrument. But now I’ve been playing the upright for about nine years. If Frankie could see that now, I think he’d be pretty proud of that.
“This will be my 29th year at Berks Jazz Fest. The first year (pianist/vocalist) Cliff (Starkey) and I were in Japan with The Three Degrees. Frankie did the first year of the festival. The next two years Cliff and I did it with Frankie. Frankie was the attraction at the time.
“At the time, my playing had evolved, I was playing well, and he really was enthusiastic about my playing. He would say, ‘You cats have the feel, man. It’s hard to find ‘em, man.’ It was great to hear him play and his deliberate jazz approach to playing ballads was amazing to me. He played beautifully. I remember thinking that someday I will own the music like he owned it.
“I hope he’s looking down and he sees what I’m doing now with a big smile on his face. He encouraged me all the time. It’s pretty cool.”
The Groovemasters, featuring Sims, Starkey and saxophonist/vocalist Erich Cawalla, are the popular stars of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest annual Harold B. Leifer Memorial Kickoff Luncheon. This year it will be held Friday, Aug. 13, at 11:30 a.m.
Sadly, a lot of folks in Berks County know Sims’ work only by his performances with The Groovemasters or with Starkey and/or Cawalla and others in various gigs.
They have no idea that he has toured the world as a performing artist and was the music director of The Three Degrees for 28 years prior to retiring from them three years ago, when he pulled back on touring. He still writes and produces top-selling jazz albums.
Sims was part of the number-one jazz album by Pieces of a Dream, On Another Note (2019). He co-wrote one of the songs, and co-produced one. He has worked on many albums with them over the years, as a performer, writer and producer. All the records on which he collaborated with them were in the top five or six on the jazz charts.
Sims is low profile by design. Unlike most musical artists, he has no website, and posts limited personal information on Facebook.
“I never did talk about what I do, as far as the success I may have had and all that,” he said. “If I’m not doing music, I’m not talking about it a lot. I’m not pushing it on people. I just become regular old Bennie then. One of the reasons is because I didn’t start playing at an early age. I still know how to be a guy who is not totally consumed by music. It’s not all I know. I was an athlete and things like that.
“I was about 16 when I started playing music. I had wanted to play ever since I was 3 or 4 years old. My mother was not for it. She didn’t want me to do it. My mom is a religious woman and she didn’t see it as a good direction for me to go in.
“I totally disagreed with her. Once I got a job, I bought my first bass guitar on my own. She is very accepting of it now. But she wasn’t. Because it started so late, maybe it was a blessing that she didn’t. I can see the pros and cons of starting earlier for sure. But the one thing it has allowed me to be is just a regular guy when I’m not on stage or doing other things in the musical world.
“My mother’s funny. As much as my mother didn’t want me to be a musician, she loved music tremendously. The exposure to jazz that she gave me was awesome.
“The first time she ever saw me perform I opened for Dizzy Gillespie. And she turned me onto Dizzy Gillespie when I was a kid. That was quite a moment for me. And I didn’t even know she was there. She was extremely proud. That was the moment she realized that it was OK that I was in music.”
Now that he has pulled back a bit from touring, Sims has more time to reflect on his career and the new direction it has taken.
“I love performing, producing and writing,” he said. “I love my Groovemasters and I love my funky feeling and my funky music. I’ll always want to do that. But I don’t want to do that every time I walk out the door.
“At my age now I tend to look back and realize the things that I’ve accomplished. When you’re doing it you don’t really realize it. You do what you do. What I was doing was a natural progression of things. I did what I wanted to do. To me that was the most important thing. . . I wanted to do music. I still want to do music. You don’t retire from music.
“But the transition is that I’m becoming more of a producer and engineer now. So that part of my musicality is getting into more focus because I have a lot more to learn there. And I’m getting too old for lugging around equipment now. I’m into producing, composing and engineering it. I love it. It’s like learning a new instrument. I’m going to do this till I die.
“If I die today, I know I did my thing, man. I did it. I lived the way I wanted to live. And no one can take that from me now. That’s really important. At my age, I can look back and go, that’s my life. You can really see it. Look at what I’ve left behind. The blood, sweat and tears of it all. I’m feeling pretty good.”
Sims’ appetite for music includes extending his legacy to ensuing generations.
“This past summer (2019) I taught a class at a summer school for kids,” Sims says. “I taught quite a few years with the after-school program with (guitarist) Josh Taylor and (pianist) Cliff Starkey.
“The best thing I ever did was a PAL program we did with Reggie Brown. We did a summer program where we taught the kids Broadway. That probably was the most rewarding … nothing touched my heart like that gig did. By the end of summer we had those kids singing songs from Rent and everything and dancing.
“Those inner-city kids had no idea what this music was and what this Broadway stuff was. To see the light come on in their eyes and the performance that they gave at the end of the program and see the reaction by their peers—all their brothers, sisters, cousins and friends who were there. Those kids were running up afterward asking for the performers’ autographs. Those kids went to school the following year and they all did much better in school.
“When people ask me what was the favorite gig I ever did, that summer program was my favorite. I will never forget it as long as I live. That was the moment I knew how great and powerful music was—the impression it made on those children and how far away it was from their culture.”
Sims knows only too well that music erects a bridge for students to cross the chasm between squandering their lives and finding fulfillment. This is why he is a passionate advocate for better music programs in schools.
“The powers-that-be in schools are missing the boat on the power and the positive influence music has on children,” he said. “It’s mind-boggling to witness it. I can’t see why we aren’t doing more as a society to bring music into their lives. It’s stunning to see the effect it has on these kids.
“Especially with inner-city kids and knowing the demons they are going to run across. To be able to show them something else and that they can do it, and the sense of accomplishment they get, it’s very powerful, man, it’s powerful.”