Former band members from Sylacauga High School will gather on October 25 to recognize their band directors. For 75 years, one family supplied all the band directors – Fess Simpkins, Buddy Simpkins and David Simpkins.
Records at the school show that over 2,100 SHS graduates were in the high school band during the three-quarters of a century of the Simpkins era.
In honor of the Simpkins, the Sylacauga Schools Foundation will endow a Chair on Wednesday, October 25, in a 4 p.m. ceremony at Sylacauga High School. It is open to the public, and no ticket is required. The Chair was initiated, and funds were raised by the Sylacauga Alumni Band, all playing under the Simpkins' direction.
The grandfather, the son and the grandson — all with the same name and the same job at the same school – will receive the Simpkins Family Legacy Chair.
George Lewis "Fess" Simpkins, the grandfather, started as band director at SHS in 1940 – before World War II, before Pearl Harbor, during the last of the Great Depression, and during the second of President Franklin Roosevelt's four terms. He had graduated from the esteemed Vandercook School of Music.
Fess had been offered the band director's job with the University of Alabama's Million Dollar Band earlier. He turned it down, leading to the long tenure of legendary Alabama band director Col. Carleton K. Butler. Butler was an old-school military-style band director, contrasted with Fess Simpkins' jazz style.
Fess' decision to go to Sylacauga from Pell City changed the history of Sylacauga for the next 75 years. He named the high school band "The Half-Million Dollar Band," a take-off on Alabama's Million Dollar Band. The name signified a lot of money in those days. Fess and the band maintained close ties to the University of Alabama.
Fess was a trumpeter and played in his own jazz band, playing at events through the 1970s. He also put together and conducted a unique and popular all-ladies jazz band.
George "Buddy" Simpkins, the son, took over where Fess left off. He played multiple instruments, including in a jazz band as a drummer or trumpeter. He came to Sylacauga from Holt High School in Tuscaloosa.
David Simpkins, the grandson, took over where Buddy left off. David plays multiple instruments, including keyboards, in two rock groups that appear across east Alabama many nights a month – Highway 77 and Amber Lee+Trio. David is the Chorale and Worship Leader of Cornerstone First Global Methodist Church in Alexander City.
Fess died in 1981 at age 72. Buddy, now 86, and David, now 59, call themselves retired, but the number of events they attend, including many where they furnish the music, make it an active and community-oriented retirement.
The influence of the three Simpkins band directors extended beyond the band members. The high school cheerleaders even cheered for the band directors. The cheerleaders wrote lyrics to the school cheers about the band directors. How unusual is that?
"Simpkins swings it red, hot, and blue."
"Do the Big Apple and the Suzy Q."
The cheer was accompanied by dance steps of the popular dances of the swing era, the Fess Simpkins era.
The Art Department of Sylacauga High School developed a graphic about the Simpkins era:
Buddy and David Simpkins teamed up with three other musicians to form a jazz band for a graveside service of Sylacauga businessman Jim Clinton on October 6. They played "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Jim Zeigler is a retired Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].
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