Bill Sims has a rock-steady reputation as a blues artist these days.
He has a pretty good rap as a family man, too.
And while the two concepts don't necessarily go together in the minds of many folks, they fit just fine in his life at the start of his second half-century.
So it's not surprising that the Bill Sims Blues Band will be performing on St. Thomas and St. John this weekend with Sims in the spotlight and his wife, Karen Wilson, in the audience. And their daughter Chaney would be sharing the mike with Dad on vocals except that "she's in college and can't get away," he said in a phone call Wednesday from New York.
The blues band opens the 4th annual Tillett Garden Series of non-classical concerts on Friday night on St. Thomas and moves Saturday night to the Westin Resort ballroom for a St. John School of the Arts performance.
Blues buffs can look forward to an evening of smooth city and kickin' country sounds, balanced out with some jazz, soothing soul and raspy R&B, plus a little Cajun spice and a hint of hip hop mixed in.
It's all to be heard on Sims' first album, titled simply "Bill Sims," released last year by Warner Bros./PBS Records. It came out at the same time that PBS yes, that's the Public Broadcasting System put out another CD also featuring Sims' music. That one was the soundtrack from a nine-hour PBS television series built around Bill Sims and his family.
The series, "An American Love Story," aired Sept. 12-16, 1999. Even though it wasn't on a commercial network, it generated a lot of interest because of its subject matter: the daily life of a loving interracial family. PBS publicity described it as the story of "a black man and a white woman who have struggled for 30 years against the racial stereotypes and societal prejudices that have tried sometimes viciously to divide them."
Independent film producer Jennifer Fox developed the idea for the series and did most of the work of making it happen. She went looking for a "role model" interracial family and, through a blues musician friend, found Bill Sims, Karen Wilson and their two daughters, then ages 12 and 19.
They were a "nuclear family" a married couple providing for their children at home but by no means a typical one in ways other than racial. After the birth of their second daughter, Sims, a blues musician with solid credentials but a career that had never quite taken off, opted to give it up to work as a househusband while Wilson pursued a corporate career.
Later, he took jobs as a carpenter and a postman and then began easing back into the business after taking some fellow workers to hear Dizzy Gillespie one night. "I convinced Dizzy that I could play, and he let me between sets," Sims told The Washington Post. His pals "were blown away and urged me to get back into the music," he recalled.
By the time Fox took up residence on the living room sofa of their Queens, N.Y., apartment in 1992, Sims was playing regularly again in New York clubs.
Fox spent a year and a half with the family, racking up more than a thousand hours of videotaped verité footage. It was the summer of 1999 before the project was finally edited just weeks before it aired.
Sims grew up in a mostly white central Ohio town. His romance with Wilson generated racial hostility even after they moved to urban Columbus, where he studied music for a while at Ohio State University, then played piano with a group called the Four Mints in the 1970s. The couple ultimately decided to relocate to New York.
He says he agreed to the television project because it seemed to him at the time that the more people talked about family values, they were talking about "a particular race or a particular class or a particular political party. This was a way to show that family values are present in all families. . . to show that even though we're an interracial couple, that we're doing the same thing with our lives that everyone else is doing."
So they invited America to watch them do what they did cope with illness, juggle finances, share the wrenching experiences of a college student on a study trip to Africa and of a junior high girl starting to date.
Fast forward to 2000: "Bill Sims" has helped put Bill Sims on the blues map.
The only "Popcorn Music Review" terms the CD "a terrific blues collection" and says Sims' "soothing voice is part Bill Withers, part Aaron Neville." And "Blues Bytes" on the bluenight.com website calls it "an excellent example of modern blues by a modern bluesman."
On the PBS series soundtrack, Sims performs his own "Dark Moon Risin'," "I Want to See You Again," "Just Like You" and "Lovin' Friends." The album also features Otis Redding, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin and others.
Backing Sims for the Virgin Islands concerts are George Mitchell on bass and Tony Mason, who appears on the "Bill Sims" CD, on drums.
Rhoda Tillett, who has been on the mainland for two months recuperating from a broken knee, will fly home Thursday to be back in her accustomed role of hostess Friday night. She says she's looking forward to "seeing all the devoted blues fans come out for this show, because it's going to be one to remember."
Noting that the garden complex was the scene of three robberies in the past week, Tillett, speaking by telephone from her sister's home in Florida, said she couldn't remember the last time a robbery occurred there. It's been "10 years? Maybe more," she said.
She emphasized that for all concerts, Tillett Gardens provides "security in both the parking lot and the garden." And, she added, "It will be beefed up now so that people will feel comfortable on Friday."
Polli's Restaurant owner Donna Smith noted that she is using "the same security that we have always had" in the garden off-duty V.I. Housing Authority police. "We have never had any problems during any of our concerts," she said, noting that even while off duty, the officers "are armed and they can arrest."
Friday night, seating will be cabaret style in the garden. Polli's, which will be open only to concertgoers, will have regular menu service until 10 p.m. for patrons seated at restaurant tables. The bar will be open throughout the evening, with limited menu service available to those seated in the garden. The concert starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance or at the door, with seating reserved. For reservations, telephone (941) 775-1929, fax to 775-9482, or e-mail to email@example.com.
The concert Saturday at the Westin is also at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 for general admission and $25 for students with I.D. They may be purchased in advance at Connections of the Westin front desk. Seating is open. For further information, call 779-4322 or 776-6777.
BILL SIMS BRINGING FAMILY-MAN BLUES TO V.I.
Bill Sims has a rock-steady reputation as a blues artist these days.
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