Blues harpist Little Mack Simmons has been playing in Chicago on and off since the mid-50s–recording for Checker, Bea & Baby, Dud Sound, and his own PM and Simmons imprints, among others–and in that time he’s built up a loyal following among south- and west-side club regulars and record collectors. Since the mid-90s he’s released five albums, and with the latest–last year’s The PM/Simmons Collection (Electro-Fi), which compiles 19 previously out-of-print cuts recorded between 1971 and ’82–he may finally earn some recognition from the “mainstream” blues audience. The disc covers his entire range, from rawboned Chicago shuffles reminiscent of Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II to sweet, almost jazzy covers of pop standards like Brook Benton’s “Rainy Night in Georgia.” There are a couple misses: on a cover of the Ohio Players’ “Skin Tight,” for instance, Simmons’s voice sounds thin and flat and his harp strangely frail, and both end up overwhelmed by a ponderous psychedelic soul arrangement. But on several tunes with singer Arelean Brown, much prized by collectors in their original editions, his slippery harmonica slides and voicelike warbles add textural and dramatic depth to Brown’s sensual croon. Simmons’s most recent album of new recordings, 1998’s Somewhere On Down the Line, is a similarly mixed bag. He turns in unimaginative rehashings of warhorses like Muddy Waters’s “I’m Ready” and Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used to Do,” but his jaunty covers of the countryish “Snap Your Fingers” and Willie Mabon’s sardonic “(I’m Just Like) Poison Ivy” showcase him at the height of his powers, drawing both from his down-home roots and his penchant for exotic harmonies and rippling flourishes–a casual combination of primitivism and panache. Simmons has a regular Thursday gig with his own group at Rosa’s; for this weekend show he’ll play with locals Lorenzo Thompson & the Next Generation Blues Band. Saturday, 9:30 PM, Rosa’s Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.