“I always told people he was my musical husband,” singer Denise Thimes said of Tony Simmons. “We had been working together for 30 years.”
Sadly, Thimes became a musical widow this weekend when her friend and beloved pianist passed away this weekend from a heart attack at the age of 50.
A native of Kansas City, Simmons began his professional career in St. Louis when late local legend Mae Wheeler recruited him as her pianist from the Missouri School of the Blind. He was just 17 years old.
Although he was blind since the age of 7, it was Simmons’ ability on the keys – not his lack of sight – that made him stand out.
“Tony’s disability was never a handicap,” Thimes said.
He would become known for his signature piano riffs.
“I’m gonna miss that sound,” said Thimes. “Tony had a sound that no one else could place on your song. He came from gospel, but he had the jazz, the blues and R&B and all of that rolled into one.”
Although his role was to accompany others, it was hard to shift focus away from him – especially when he was charged with cueing in the singer with an introductory solo. His hands moved across the keys and created notes that wrapped around the selection like a loving embrace.
“As we say in the business, ‘he would put it in the pocket,” Thimes said. “I worked with musicians from all over the world, but no one could lay it down like Tony.”
He had suffered a series of health problems in recent years – kidney failure, triple bypass surgery and even having his leg amputated. As his health continued to forsake him, making music remained a priority.
He even released a solo album, “The Master Key,” in 2006, two years after being diagnosed with kidney failure.
“I’m telling you that this boy bounced back from everything,” Thimes said. “When Tony got out of the hospital after getting his leg amputated, he had a gig the next day.”
Simmons was supposed to play a brunch for the Sigma Gamma Rhos on Saturday morning at the Norwood Hills Country Club with Thimes and several of the singers he had played with over the years, including Kim Massie and Cheryl Brown.
What was to be another great gig for Simmons will now be a tribute to him.
“It was really an honor for Tony to play for all the people that he played for,” Thimes said. “To work with local stars and legends – he really prided himself in that.”
Although he was known for his music, his contemporaries knew and loved him for so much more.
“He had this voice that you couldn’t help but imitate whenever you were telling a story about him or reciting something funny he said,” Thimes said, as she went for a full-on impersonation: “Honey, let me tell ‘ya something.’”
In a hilarious bit of irony, Thimes says that Simmons will also be remembered for his sense of direction and being able to navigate others through the city.
“I remember being lost over on the South Side, and I was trying to call some people to find out where I was,” Thimes said.
“Tony called me while I was trying to call somebody to find my way. He said, ‘Well, where are you?’ I told him. He said, ‘You just need to continue on this way – do you see that Shell station on your right?’ I was floored. ‘Do you see the Hardees on your left?’ Tony got me where I needed to go.”
Simmons will also be remembered for his love of the people he delivered his music to, and his lifelong desire to give back.
“We didn’t know Tony was an organ donor,” Thimes said. “In spite of all of the health challenges that he had, here’s somebody who has gone through dialysis, triple bypass, he’s blind, but yet he still wants to help somebody else. That just speaks volumes to the kind of heart that he had.”
Simmons also always wanted to start a fund for blind musicians. Now Thimes and other musicians hope to collaborate with the Missouri School of the Blind to set up a scholarship in his name.
“Even though he didn’t have that kind of assistance, he wanted to provide it for others,” Thimes said. “If I were to describe Tony in one word, it would be overcomer – because that’s what he was.”
Funeral arrangements for Tony Simmons are currently pending.