Time to bring another great photographer out of the dust of obscurity and racism. Once known as "The Man Who Never Sleeps" Samuel "Lonnie" Simmons was an African-American jazzman (more than anything else) in his younger days playing with no less than American treasure Fats Waller, Hot Lips Page, Chick Webb and more. Many more. He recorded under his own name as well, including "I Can't Get Started" on the Parrot label (in which he played both organ and saxophone, probably at the same time.) If you are not yet impressed with Lonnie's musical chops, his Jet Magazine obit reports he also played with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. Parrot was a label which lasted only three years in the early 1950s, but some of the recordings were reissued later on Chess Records.
Photographer too? I'm getting a little tired of learning about astounding talented people no one taught me about in school.
So Lonnie, or Samuel, is called "a free-lance photographer" in passing in the few places you might find information about him.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina Actually, in Mt. Pleasant, an isolated pocket in the low-country coast, yet another of those plantation- era places near where slaves landed. A bridge to Mount Pleasant was built in 1928. Wiki lists one Darius Rucker as coming from the city, he being "Hootie" of the Blowfish… but they omit Mr. Simmons.
Lonnie's father was a blacksmith who went back nearly to slave days, passing at the age of 82 in 1955. Lonnie's father was just one notable blacksmith named Simmons from the Charleston area. On his father's passing, Lonnie went back to Mt. Pleasant to bring his mother back to Chicago with him, and it was her first plane airplane ride. His appearance at the funeral was notable enough for the local paper to interview him, where Simmons is reported to have "gradually drifted into take pictures for newspapers and magazines" and that he maintains his own darkroom in his Chicago home. The headline reads "Mt. Pleasant Negro Musician Becomes Press Photographer" and adds a few more musical giants among his playing partners.
It was not unusual for Mr. Simmons to leap from the bandstand with his camera to capture events, including crimes. A one-man forerunner of the surveillance camera, his pictures were used by the Chicago Police for evidence and he earned honorary membership in the Chicago Patrolman's Association. Much of his photography was taken at the legendary Chicago Club De Lisa (which I wrote about earlier) and I now believe the photograph below was taken by Mr. Simmons in his "spare time" as picture maker who roamed the club supporting his income with snapshots.
The extraordinary dance photos shown here were Lonnie's. Scarce not only because they show the "Black and Tan" nightclub era (an era not generally regarded as worthy of documentation at the time by most photographers) but also because, I assume, most of Mr. Simmons photographs have not been exhibited. It would be pretty safe to guess the originals are lost. We can hope a relative finds this post, digs them out and produces the coffee-table book he earned but no one made.
Somebody has some, as Mr. Simmon's photographs were apparently used in the 1995 documentary PROMISED LAND narrated by Morgan Freeman for the History Channel which while acclaimed was forgotten. You can read about it HERE where people keep asking why it isn't available on DVD…one of whom writes "It is a shame that this great work of truth has been overlooked." Par for the course. The documentary is about the migration of southern African-Americans to Chicago. Lonnie Simmons was one of them, and fortunately he was around with his camera.
Samuel "Lonnie" Simmons photographs appear in Ebony, Jet, The Chicago Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier, The Crusader and Cabaret (a magazine which documented burlesque in the 1950s and from where the photographs above were taken) and I suspect others once considered unsavory race and pinup magazines from the 1950s on. The portrait of the young musician is from the Charleston Jazz Initiative at the School of the Arts, College of Charleston, South Carolina. Jet Magazine recognized Lonnie's talents and skills…as well as using his photographs (including the astounding picture of a dancer flying above a drummer, which I have cribbed but credited) they also reported on his adventures, including being bitten by an eel and having his instruments stolen HERE.
PHOTOGRAPH OF SAMUEL LONNIE SIMMONS Charleston Jazz Initiative Archives
PARROT RECORD LABEL HERE
Original Club DeLisa Photograph and Sleeve collection Jim Linderman
UNSUNG HEROES OF PHOTOGRAPHY is a series on Vintage Sleaze the Blog by Jim Linderman. Previous profiles include Art Messick George Boardman Danny Rouzer Russ Meyer Wil Blanche Benno Friedman and Bunny Yeager
JIM LINDERMAN BOOKS AND AFFORDABLE EBOOKS ARE AVAILABLE HERE ON BLURB