Berks Jazz Fest artist Bennie Sims up close

By Mike Zielinski

Music has been the strongest adhesive in Bennie Sims’ life.

He realized a long time ago that he couldn’t take off his love for music like an overcoat.

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 says. “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 that as much as I could. It still is that way for me.”

That emotion, that passion fueled him to become a highly regarded bassist, performer, music director, bandleader, producer, composer and educator.

Sims has worked with countless A-list artists throughout his career, including Al Jarreau, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, The Spinners, The Temptations, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Tower of Power, Pieces of a Dream, The Three Degrees and Dizzy Gillespie.

Oh, one more thing to add to his glittering resume. A very big thing.

Bennie Sims is the 2020 winner of the Frank Scott Award that is presented annually by the Berks Arts Council, an honor that perpetually shines a light on Sims’ work and ensures that it won’t drift into the mists of yesterday.

The award was founded and is sponsored by the Jerlyn Foundation, led by Carolyn and Jerry Holleran, longtime friends of iconic local jazz musician Frank Scott (1923-1995).

The award honors Scott’s memory and his contribution to the jazz heritage in Berks County. Scott, a renowned saxophonist, opened two nightclubs in the Reading area and played with musicians such as Bing Crosby, Ray Charles and Bill Haley and the Comets.

Sims’ selection as the latest Frank Scott Award winner is marvelously fitting. Frankie Scott to Bennie Sims is like the swoosh to Nike.

“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 play,” Sims continues. “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 incredibly popular stars of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest annual Harold B. Leifer Memorial Kickoff Luncheon.

This year it’s Friday, March 27, at 11:30 a.m. Once again, the Peanut Bar Restaurant promises to be jammed to the rafters with folks sardined in along with the peanut shells.

Sadly, a lot of folks in Berks County know Bennie 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 the man has toured the world playing his trusty bass guitar, was the musical director of The Three Degrees for 28 years prior to retiring from them two years ago when he pulled back on touring, and still writes and produces top-selling jazz albums.

“I’m part of a No. 1 jazz album from Pieces of Dream in 2019,” Sims says. “The album is called On Another Note. I co-wrote a song on it and co-produced a song on it. I’ve done many albums through the years with them. I played with them for years and I never stopped producing and writing with them. Every record I’ve ever done with them has been in the top five or six. Once again there’s a bit of information that nobody knows about me.”

Sims is low profile by design. He’s no strutting peacock. Unlike most musical artists, he has no website and posts limited personal information on Facebook.

That’s because even though music is etched into his body and soul, he has a persona besides the musical artist. He is not one of those musicians who off stage are not so much dull as non-existent.

“I never did talk about what I do, as far as the success I may have had and all that,” he explains. “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.”

Granted, his down time is limited. After all, he has an uproarious appetite for music. Including extending its legacy to ensuing generations.

As an educator to inner-city kids over the years, he knows that those lessons can throttle hope and discipline that transcend music into his students. They absorb the music a chord at a time and little breezes of transformation waft in.

“This past summer I taught a class at a summer school for kids,” Sims says. “I taught quite a few years with the after-school program with Josh Taylor and 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 trestle for his students to cross that chasm between squandering their lives and fulfilling their lives. Which is why he is a passionate advocate for better music programs in schools.

“The powers-to-be in schools are missing the boat on the power and the positive influence music has on children,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling to witness it. I can’t see how 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 they can do it and the sense of accomplishment they get, it’s very powerful, man, it’s powerful.”

Nowadays, Sims finds himself catching rifts of retrospection.

“I love performing, producing and writing,” he says. “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.

“I’m really into the jazz thing and the upright bass thing. Which is more of my roots. I grew up listening to that stuff. 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.”

Bennie’s heart couldn’t have felt any warmer from his mother’s acknowledgement if you had wrapped it in Saran Wrap.

“At my age now I tend to look back and realize the things that I’ve accomplished,” he relates. “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 did what I wanted to do. I wanted to do music. I still want to do music. You don’t retire from music. I’m not going to retire.

“But the transition is that I’ve 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 to I die.”

Bennie Sims is as sharp as a pinprick. And just like a pin, always to the point.

“But it wasn’t about making Frankie Scott or my mother happy,” he says candidly. “It was about me being happy. I worked at Firestone for five years and that was not happy. I knew I couldn’t do that much longer. I felt like an empty vessel. I said to myself, I can’t do this. The only thing that made me happy was the bass.

“When the opportunity presents itself (doing music full-time), I’m going to take the plunge and do this. The bass made me happy.”

And when he took that plunge years ago, he dove deep. And surfaced with a happy life bursting with sunbeams on him and his bass.

“To be able to turn to that whenever you are feeling sad or down or angry and be able to turn to that, it was therapy, man,” he says, his voice growing softer. “It kept me together.

“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.”

Talk about goosebumps.

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