By Jeff Moses
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Most parents chart their child's growth from notches on the wall. Diane and Chuck Simo can follow their son Jeff's progress from the career memorabilia hanging in the family's rec room.
There's his first guitar, a toddler-size Stratocaster called the Synsonics Junior Pro. Next, the folks show a photo of 13-year-old Jeff and a real Strat, jamming onstage with surf-guitar legend Dick Dale. Then, they give you a glimpse at John Lee Hooker's autograph and a program from his funeral in San Francisco. Next to that are autographed concert posters and laminated passes from shows Jeff opened for Santana, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Buddy Guy, B.B. King and Slash. The latter, Jeff nonchalantly informs, is "usually liquored up but always a great guy."
And there's the J.D. Simo discography, an EP called Burnin' Live, which sold some 5,000 copies, followed by the new One Night Stand, which features a mature, more confident J.D. looking over his shoulder, backed with national distribution by 101 Sony.
For anyone who saw that damned Crossroads movie with Ralph Macchio and thinks it's implausible that a kid barely through puberty can master blues guitar without the mentorship of a Robert Johnson doppelgänger, guess again. Jonny Lang and Chris Duarte did it in the '90s, and J.D. Simo is doing it now with nothing more supernatural than good old-fashioned parental support. Yes, parental guidance, the ingredient missing in scores of blues and rock sagas. There's nothing in young Jeff's history that even approximates pain and sorrow. For Chrissakes, he was a batboy for the San Francisco Giants!
"I happened to grow up on Halsted Street on the north side of Chicago," Simo begins. "There's two famous blues clubs, one that's just called Blues and one across the street called Kingston Mines. On a Friday or Saturday night you can just open up your window and hear music from both sides. That was my first exposure to blues. And I can remember my sister Diane used to work out to a Best of Chess Records collection when I was 2 or 3. Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Chuck Berry. So that's the first music I heard."
But nothing made Simo want to be a performer until his sister introduced him to the movie The Blues Brothers. "I played harmonica before I even knew the guitar existed. I wanted to be a Blues Brother," he says. "Then a year later, we went to Laughlin, Nevada, and I saw the Elvis impersonator show. I'm still a friend with the guy, Pete Winlock, and as a 3-year-old seeing a guy in a big white suit -- it made a big impression on me. I wanted to be Elvis so bad. I'm the type of person, I study until there's nothing left to study and then move on."
During his accelerated childhood, he'd also had a KISS phase and a Beatle phase. "You don't ever jump off the Elvis ship," Simo says. "But when I was 12 I went as far as I wanted to go with it and dedicated myself to the blues." While ambling onstage for jam nights raised his profile, he needed a permanent band to take it to the next level. But acquiring and maintaining accomplished players is tough if all you have to offer are two gigs a month. Although bassist Tom Feigenbaum has been in and out of the band for two or three years, he hadn't been able to commit fully to Simo until last year, as has drummer Todd Jewell. This meant Simo has had to sift through some less than inspiring interim players before settling on a band like his Dirty Pool that could, as he puts it, "give Double Trouble a run for their money."
"I feel blessed that I have a band I don't have to worry about. The groove is so there," Simo says, beaming. "Playing all these shows and doing tours as the three of us has been an unbelievable growing experience and made us a very tight unit. I'd be nothing without them."
At this point, Diane Simo checks in like any other mom or co-manager would when her son has guests or interviewers over. She and husband Chuck originally had plans of retiring in Arizona before Jeff came along. Chuck did eventually retire from his sports memorabilia business here, but now both parents are devoted full-time to their son's extraordinary career as an 18-year-old blues journeyman. After gently chiding said bluesman for not serving tea with a saucer, she gives props to Dirty Pool's professionalism and offers insight into the simple economics of maintaining a band with the best players.
"While we're in a position where Jeff doesn't have a house payment or car insurance, we can make the pay as equal as possible," she says, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, with one eye on the defroster. "That's the reason why we've never played for shit money because Jeff's always gotten paid the same as them and I want them all paid good. When we get to a level where there's tons of money, then yeah, he can be paid back because he has to do all the extra work like doing the phone calls and packing the trailer. That's why [the band members] respect Chuck and I as management. When the tip jar goes around, if there's 180 dollars, it's divided evenly."