Evelyn Simms, local jazz singer, 71

Posted: July 23, 2002

Evelyn Simms, 71, a jazz singer who entertained in local clubs for half a century, died of complications from asthma Saturday in her South Philadelphia home.

Critics compared her sly, seductive, style to Bessie Smith's and Billie Holiday's, but Ms. Simms never got the exposure to become famous.

After her marriage to saxophone player Lonnie Shaw in 1954, five babies kept her from traveling with Erskine Hawkins, Cat Anderson and other bands.

Ms. Simms, who devoted herself to her family, didn't need national recognition to feel appreciated.

"The folks coming to hear the music, they're important - wouldn't be any music without them," she told The Inquirer in a 1999 interview. "When I see them stop what they're doing, turn to me, give me that little smile, then I know we're onto something."

She had been onto something for more than 50 years. Born in Georgia and raised in South Philadelphia, she began singing as a child at Mount Hebron Baptist Church at 15th and Wharton Streets.

Planning to become a commercial artist, she attended Bok Vocational School but dropped out at 16 to sing in the Mercantile Hall in Philadelphia with Benny Field's band and musicians John Coltrane, Bill Doggett and Benny Golson.

Over the years, she performed locally at the Clef Club, Ortlieb's Jazzhaus, the Bainbridge Club and Mellon Jazz Festival with her own trio and with the Philadelphia Legends of Jazz Orchestra, which billed itself as "sixteen cats swinging and one chick singing."

Her friend Jim Miller, a drummer and owner of Philadelphia-based Dreambox Media, said: "Evelyn seemed to know every tune ever written; she'd rarely repeat tunes during any two, three, or even four consecutive nights."

In 1982, she was honored as performer of the year by the Jazz Society of Philadelphia, and in 1990 she won the Philadelphia Music Award for best jazz recording for her album, On My Own.

She stopped performing in January 2001, when her asthma got the better of her. And although a retirement party was held for her at the Clef Club, she hadn't completely given up on her music.

Just two weeks ago she spoke about making another recording, said singer Suzanne Cloud, a friend of hers.

"With her talent, she should have gotten breaks," said Cloud.

Ms. Simms is survived by daughters Evelyn Jeanette Shaw and Kim Shaw; sons Gregory Shaw and Gary Shaw; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another son, Barry Shaw, died in 1991. Her husband died in 1990.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at First Colored Wesley Methodist Church, 17th and Fitzwater Streets, Philadelphia. Friends may call from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Burial is private.

Contact Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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