Red Simpson, Pioneer of the Bakersfield Sound, Dies at 81

Red Simpson, who helped serve as an architect to the Bakersfield Sound, has died. He was 81.

Simpson was on a tour in the Pacific Northwest recently when he suffered a heart attack. After being released, he fell ill again on Friday (Jan. 8) and was rushed to a Bakersfield, Calif., hospital, where he passed.

Born March 6, 1934, in Hailey, Arizona, Simpson was raised in Bakersfield as the youngest of a dozen children. By his teenage years, Simpson was hooked on music, penning his first song. The youngster began playing in many of the local clubs throughout the area, eventually being noticed by Fuzzy Owen at the Wagon Wheel in Lamont.

He played a huge part in the Bakersfield sound and was a dear friend of mine for over 50 years. One of the original musicians on "okie from Muskogee" RIP Red Simpson.

Posted by Merle Haggard on Friday, January 8, 2016

Owen invited Simpson to begin playing at his Clover Club as a piano player. The exposure he received there would lead to him becoming a regular at the historic Blackboard Club on weekends, where he replaced Buck Owens, who had struck out on his own history making career.

Simpson and the singer developed a strong friendship and working relationship, writing several songs together, including “Gonna Have Love,” which (as a B-side to “Only You (Can Break My Heart),” peaked at No. 10 for Owens in 1965.

By that point, Simpson had earned a place on the Capitol roster alongside such Kern County stalwarts as Owens and Merle Haggard. Label executive and producer Ken Nelson was looking for an artist on the label to record some of the “Truck Driving” songs that were quickly becoming a part of the genre. Simpson stepped up to the plate with his version of Tommy Collins’ “Roll Truck Roll,” which peaked at No. 38 on the Billboard Country charts in 1966.

Future singles would include “The Highway Patrol,” “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” and “Mini-Skirt Minnie.” However, it would take until 1971 before Simpson would taste his first big-time success with “I’m A Truck.” Hitting No. 4 on the singles chart, the record remains a popular song on truck-driving shows after four decades. It would prove to be his only release to hit the top 10 on the airplay lists, though Simpson would continue to release singles through the end of the decade.

His final charted single was 1979’s "The Flyin' Saucer Man and the Truck Driver,” which barely dented the charts at No.99.

Simpson would only periodically record from the 1980s forward, collaborating with alt-country artist Junior Brown for a couple of tracks in the mid 1990s -- “Semi-Crazy” and “Nitro Express.” In 1988, Simpson was diagnosed with skin cancer, but would make a full recovery.

Though his chart success was limited, as historians began to document the rich and varied musical history of the Bakersfield area, Simpson’s name was frequently mentioned as one of the pioneers of the high-octane sound, along with Owens and Haggard, the latter of whom noted on his Facebook page that Simpson was one of the musicians on his 1970 classic “Okie From Muskogee.”

Simpson also wrote the Haggard classic “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go,” which has been recorded by artists like Rosanne Cash. Even into his 80s, Simpson could still be found performing regularly in the area at Trout’s in Oildale. His final to-be recording was “It’s A Bakersfield Thing,” which was issued in 2015.