In June 2016, I was researching children’s entertainer Al Simmons for an article about Winnipeg’s rich, musical heritage. In that story, I cited Simmons’ rendition of I.M.4.U., a novelty song originally recorded in 1955, as one of my 10 favourite local tunes, all-time.
Noticing Simmons had a milestone birthday on the horizon, I made a mental note to get in touch with the Juno Award-winning performer in early 2018, to see if he’d be interested in an in-depth piece toasting his pending status as a septuagenarian. On Jan. 5, a couple days after I emailed him proposing precisely that, the married father of three and grandfather of five got back to me, writing he’d be "honoured to be mentioned in the paper, let alone featured."
Over the course of a few more messages, the two of us made plans to convene in mid-February, which would give me ample opportunity to prepare an article timed for his April 8 show at the Centennial Concert Hall, accompanied by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. On Feb. 18, the day before we were scheduled to meet at the two-storey abode he shares with his wife Barb 10 kilometres east of Anola, I sent him a confirmation email, verifying I’d be there the next morning.
He replied moments later, prefacing his response with, "Yes, I’m expecting you but the story will have a new twist."
By now, you’ve no doubt heard or read about the Feb. 9 fire that destroyed a storage shed on Simmons’ rural, 15-acre property and, along with it, scores of one-of-a-kind, handcrafted props and musical instruments he’d been using to wow audiences, young and old, for close to 50 years.
The evening of the blaze, Simmons was at home, goofing around with his six-year-old granddaughter Clover in a main-level playroom equipped with a pillow pit and fire pole, both of which Simmons installed to make it easier for the grandkids to get downstairs for breakfast when they sleep over. At around 7 p.m., Barb spotted flames leaping out of an exterior structure dubbed the Magic Workshop. First, Simmons assured Clover everything was going to be OK. Next he called 911, instructing the operator to dispatch Anola’s volunteer fire department ASAP. Then he threw on his parka and boots and raced outside.
"I must admit, I wasn’t really thinking," he says, seated on his couch 10 days after the incident, and nine days after he performed at a charity event in St. Boniface, sporting a get-up still reeking of smoke. "I ran back and forth into the shed a couple times, grabbing anything I could find. The third time in, the stuff I came out with was already smouldering and that’s when I told myself, ‘I guess that’s that.’
"I was attached to every last item in there," he continues, advising a reporter not to be "tricked into" throwing a ball to his dog Max because "once you start, he won’t let you stop."
"My dad was a collector, too, and there were a lot of his things in there as well: monocles, antique eyeglasses... probably close to 175 tobacco pipes."
Simmons had no intention of discussing the calamity — blamed on an electrical short — with people outside his immediate circle, let alone members of the media. That plan fell apart when his longtime friend and fellow entertainer Heather Bishop began contacting news outlets to promote a GoFundMe campaign she’d started on his behalf.
"I was in Florida and got an email from Jocelyne Baribeau, who’d played with Al the night before," says Bishop. "He wasn’t telling anybody what happened but she could tell by the look on his face something was amiss and finally managed to get it out of him."
Bishop says it took her seven days to convince Simmons to allow her to go forward with the fundraiser. He argued it was his problem to deal with, imparting "sadness isn’t what I do."
"My answer was that by allowing us to help, he’d be giving us so much joy," says Bishop, a member of the Order of Canada. "I told him he’d given his fans so much of himself through the years it would be a tremendous gift to them if they could finally do something in return." (At last count, more than $51,000 had been raised, eclipsing Bishop’s stated goal of $40,000.)
"It’s not that Barb and I were keeping (the fire) a secret, it’s just that we didn’t want to rain on anybody’s parade," Simmons says, noting the money will be put to good use rebuilding gadgetry and costumes for his inimitable stage show. "Anyways, I don’t know if any of this affects what you were intending to write in the first place, but if you still want to hear my story, I’m more than happy to tell it."
Albert William Simmons was born Sept. 5, 1948. He grew up on Elm Street, "back when there were no nightmares on Elm Street, just happy daydreams." Because his parents both had close to a dozen siblings, family get-togethers were entertaining, to say the least, he says.
All his aunts and uncles were boisterous storytellers — his uncle Nick once eked out a living strumming a ukulele made out of a toilet seat — so there was always a bit of one-upmanship involved, when one relative asked another what was happening in their life, he says.
Simmons’ love of music and "good" puns — "there’s no such thing as a bad pun," he’s quick to point out — comes from his mother Jean. He attributes his playful side to his father, also named Albert Simmons, a career salesman who would do just about anything for a chuckle. Simmons recalls one time in the mid-1960s when his dad volunteered for a charity function at which business owners placed bids to secure participants’ assistance for a day, free of charge. The fellow who "won" the elder Simmons owned a service station and put him to work checking oil levels and cleaning car windows. The catch: when Simmons’ father reported for duty, he was dressed in prisoner’s stripes, with a metal ball-and-chain hitched to his right ankle.
He grins from ear to ear when the topic switches to his school years. Unconvinced he graduated — Simmons has a strong suspicion he still needs Grade 12 French — he was always more interested in spending time in his basement workshop building doo-dads out of "treasures" he turned up on his daily strolls, than paying attention to what his instructors at Grant Park High School had to say.
"There were teachers in the middle of class who would yell out, ‘Albert! Listen up!’ to snap me out of whatever it was I was musing about. Later, I’d think that wasn’t fair; I was thinking of some profound stuff there."
Following Grade 12, Simmons got hired first as a gas jockey at Clark’s B/A, near what is now Grant Park Shopping Centre, and later, as a steel worker at Dominion Bridge. He was also heavily involved with the Royal Canadian Air Cadets program, so when his shifts at the latter locale changed from days to nights, he quit and caught on at Manitoba Hydro instead, keeping his evenings open for cadets.
One of his tasks at the provincial Crown corporation was to go from desk to desk, delivering and collecting material to and from his co-workers. Invariably, when he’d arrive at somebody’s station they’d remark, "Hey, Al, how’s it going?" at which point he’d respond by telling a story. His yarns got progressively longer as he continued his rounds. Sometimes he’d throw in a dance move or two. On other occasions he’d whip out a harmonica and play a few bars. Soon, so many of his fellow employees were telling him he should seriously consider a career in showbiz, he decided to heed their advice.
"You know that saying ‘Don’t quit your day job?’ Nobody ever told me that," he deadpans, "boasting" he woke up the morning after tendering his resignation an "unemployed entertainer."
Simmons’ father died in May 1969. Since he was out of work at the time, Simmons informed his mother he was going to hop in his blue Datsun 510 station wagon and journey to Chicago, Detroit and New York — cities his dad always spoke glowingly about. He returned home with a new look: at some point in his travels, he had shaved his head bald, a grooming decision that led to a pivotal moment in his life weeks later.
Simmons, by then a second-lieutenant, spent July and August 1969 at air cadet camp in Penhold, Alta. Every second Friday, one set of recruits would leave and a new one would arrive. To mark each group’s departure, officers threw a themed costume party and dance, with a live band providing the soundtrack. Because the 1969 Apollo mission that saw man walk on the moon for the first time was still fresh on everybody’s mind, one of the shindigs carried a moon-man motif, which Simmons attended painted green from bald head to toe.
"That night, the first thing one of the guys in the band said was their lead singer hadn’t shown up, but that they were still going to do their best to make sure everybody has a good time," he says. "They were incredible, playing all the current hits, and I was dancing and acting like a goof near the front of the stage. I guess somebody in the band noticed me singing along, because at some point the guitarist motioned to me with a microphone, inviting me to join them."
Buck naked except for a thin strip of aluminum foil covering his private parts, Simmons spent the remainder of the night belting out whatever song the band behind him played. If he wasn’t familiar with the lyrics, he made up his own, recalling the advice of an uncle who once instructed his nephew, "If you don’t know the key, sing louder. And if you don’t know the words, stand on a chair and sing louder, still." By the end of the final set, he was more convinced than ever what he wanted to do with his life.
Back in Winnipeg, Simmons spent the next 12 months entering amateur talent competitions that were all the rage in watering holes across the city. While he remembers bringing the house down night after night singing the Jewish folk song Hava Nagila, during which he’d break into a frenzied, Russian Cossack dance, it was a performance at the Norwood Hotel that has stuck with him most.
"The Norwood had this amazing organist, Agnes Forsythe, who would accompany those of us on stage," he says. "One Saturday afternoon I did a show there where I impersonated Tiny Tim as a dirty old man, singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips and telling really vulgar jokes. When I was done, Agnes took me aside and scolded me something fierce, saying, ‘You have talent, you have charisma... there’s no reason on earth for you to stoop to these depths.’ That bit of advice has stayed with me ever since."
In 1971, Simmons placed an ad in the newspaper reading "vocalist looking for band." He was contacted by Bob Peters, lead guitarist of the rock outfit Just Us Three. Shortly after landing the job, Simmons made his debut with "Just Us Three and Me" at the Champs Plaza Hotel on Osborne Street (later the Zoo — the Osborne Village Inn), when Dianne Heatherington and the Merry-Go-Round — the most popular bar band in Winnipeg at the time — pulled out at the last minute.
Given the vast experience Simmons gained during the year he was winning one talent contest after another, the gig was a runaway success, right? Wrong.
"The crowd hated us, and when I say ‘us,’ I mean me, in particular," he says, pointing out while his bandmates had long hair and dressed "like hippies," his own coif was still demonstrably short. Also, because he didn’t possess any "cool clothes," he stepped on stage wearing the same suit he donned during his days at Manitoba Hydro.
"At one point I asked if anybody had any requests. You know how your Free Press colleague Doug Speirs writes, ‘insert bad word here’ instead of spelling out cuss words? Well, that’s all it was: a whole bunch of ‘insert bad word heres’ being directed squarely back at me, from members of the audience."
Despite that inauspicious start, Simmons continued as the band’s lead singer — they eventually changed their name to Out to Lunch — for close to a year. Soon, he was introducing props to his repertoire, brandishing an umbrella, for example, whenever he broke into the line "And I believe I’m going to rain," while covering Paul McCartney’s smash hit, Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey.
In December of that year, Out to Lunch was performing at the Black Knight, a hard rock bar near the airport. One of the people in attendance that night was Walter Swanson, a guy Simmons had become close with through air cadets. By then, one of his shticks was performing a few numbers dressed in a grass hula dress and coconut brassiere. When that part of the show rolled around, he ventured into the crowd, climbing on top of the table occupied by Swanson’s party, which included a young woman named Barbara Freundl.
"Between sets, I went back to that table to say hi to Walter. He began introducing me to everybody he was sitting with and when he got to Barbara, it was as if we’d met before.
To make a long story short, she came up to me after the show and basically picked me up," he says with a wink, replying "real, of course" when Barb pokes her head in the room to ask if he’s recanting the "the real or fake version" of how the two met.
"We went out for Chinese food that very night, after which I drove her home. We’ve been together ever since."
Gord Osland was the drummer for Mood Jga Jga, a legendary Winnipeg band fronted by Greg Leskiw and Bill "Red River" Merritt. Osland, the former executive director of the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival, figures he was staying at the Hudson Hotel in Churchill in 1973 when he saw Kornstock, the musical-comedy troupe Simmons helped form following the demise of Out to Lunch, for the first time.
"Those guys were playing the same bars Mood Jga Jga played, and we’d usually run into each other as we were moving in and they were moving out, or vice versa," Osland says over the phone from his home in Penticton, B.C. "They were a pretty remarkable band — so outrageous — that wasn’t going by anybody else’s rules. They just did tunes they thought might be fun."
Know how so-called "supergroups" such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Emerson, Lake & Palmer were all the rage in the 1970s? Well, you can add Kornstock, whose lineup combined the talents of Simmons, Bob King and Fred Penner, all three of whom went on to enjoy illustrious careers as children’s entertainers, to that list.
"The first time I met Fred, I thought that’s probably the nicest man I’ve ever met, my whole life," Simmons says, crediting Penner for giving him the confidence to play guitar and banjo in front of a crowd, in addition to handling his regular singing duties.
Kornstock performed everything from Christmas carols to rock and roll covers to ditties the guys heard on Sesame Street, and stayed together for close to four years, attracting sell-out crowds to some of the largest bars and halls in Canada. After the band called it a day in 1977, Simmons and Barb, who got married the year before, moved to her parents’ property in the country, setting up shop in a converted train car with "no electricity, no water and no plumbing."
While Barb left for work bright and early every morning, Simmons stayed behind, gathering wood and preparing their "train-car home" for winter, rather than seeking work in another band.
One year later, Bart Bourne, a friend of Simmons, paid the couple a visit. Armed with a cloth tape measure, he told Simmons he had an idea, and spent the next hour taking down his chum’s precise measurements, "as if he was outfitting me for a coffin," Simmons says. A week later, Bourne returned with a self-enclosed contraption he branded the Human Jukebox, instructing Simmons to "figure out what you’re going to do with this thing." In the spring of 1978, "Al Simmons, the Human Jukebox" made his (its?) official world premiere at a farmer’s market in Old Market Square.
"I’m pretty sure the first time I ever saw Al perform live was when he was doing his crazy jukebox thing at the folk festival, a year or two after he’d begun doing it around the city," says Bishop, referring to the weighty, orange-and-yellow unit Simmons would "hide" inside, until such time as somebody dropped a quarter in the change slot, causing him to reveal himself and break into song. "My initial thought was, ‘This guy is absolutely amazing’ and, of course, he started developing his stage show shortly after that."
Two years after reinventing himself as the Human Jukebox, Simmons spent most of 1980 on the road, appearing in such remote locales as the Plus 2 Motor Inn in Esterhazy, Sask., and Jeckell Junior High School in Whitehorse, Yukon. (In February of that year, he also found time to run in the federal election under the Rhinocerous Party of Canada banner, garnering just over 600 votes in the riding of Winnipeg-St. James.)
In July 1983, at the urging of Winnipeg Folk Festival founder Mitch Podolak, Simmons put together a vaudeville-style revue called Chautauqua, a word the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as "any of various travelling shows and local assemblies that flourished in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries."
Osland was the act’s drummer. He has fond memories of travelling the province by bus that summer, bringing Chautauqua, "a crazy show where you never knew what was going to happen next," to almost every community in Manitoba.
"I remember one show in particular, when we were playing the Morden Corn and Apple Festival," Osland says. "Not far from the stage was this long row of garbage cans that everybody would throw their corn cobs into when they were done eating. Sure enough, in the middle of our set, a garbage truck rolls up and starts banging and clanging away, as the garbage guys start emptying the cans."
Osland, who also played with Graham Shaw & the Sincere Serenaders and Rocki Rolletti, says what occurred next was "typical Al." First, Simmons raced over to where the garbage truck was parked, banjo in hand. Then, after interviewing the sanitation workers one by one, he asked them to take a bow, telling the audience he hoped they enjoyed the impromptu "garbage truck solo." Seconds later, he rejoined the band onstage, without missing a beat.
"Here, the rest of us were thinking ‘My god, this is the worst thing possible,’ when we heard the (garbage) truck roll up. But not Al. To him, it was the best thing that could have happened. But that’s his genius... his ability to improvise on the spot and turn everything he sees into a musical instrument, even a set of garbage cans."
Sunday will mark the 30th anniversary of Simmons’ first headline appearance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Jean-Francois Phaneuf, the WSO’s vice-president of artistic operations, was a member of the orchestra’s brass section in 1988. He vividly recalls the afternoon when he and his fellow musicians initially backed Simmons.
"I don’t know if you want to print this or not, but the actual performance of the orchestra was not that good because we were laughing too hard," Phaneuf says, seated behind his 21st-floor desk in the Richardson Building. "Seriously... we could not catch our breath. By now, everybody’s seen the crazy instruments he makes out of turkey basters, garden hoses and whatever else, but the first time we saw them, we were all in complete disbelief."
Phaneuf says while Simmons is undoubtedly a world-class performer, that’s not the main reason he enlists his services for the symphony’s kids’ series, year after year.
"Al is such a genuine person it’s very refreshing," he says. "I don’t know if people realize this — they might know it intuitively — but there is no ‘different’ Al. He doesn’t just talk to the conductor or concertmaster; he talks to the stagehands, the caretakers... he’s just an all-around good guy. Even in difficult times, like when we were locked out by administration (in December 2001 WSO musicians experienced a month-long labour lockout), Al was the first guy who stepped up and said ‘Let’s do a show,’ donating all the proceeds to the musicians’ families, so they could enjoy Christmas. All of us remember things like that."
Bishop says what may get lost in translation as audiences marvel at how Simmons can perform a tune such as Singing in the Bathtub while wearing a tub built out of Ethafoam is just how accomplished a vocalist he is.
"Early in my career I decided if I was going to make a living as a singer, I needed to train my voice," she says. "Al was aware of what I was doing and one time said, ‘I know you take singing lessons; who do you work with?’ and started going to my teacher, too. People tend to overlook this because they see him on stage being all humorous with his eyecharts and horses made out of bicycles, but what they’re overlooking is the amount of dedication he has paid to his craft. Al’s not just a singer, he is an excellent singer."
Osland, who played drums on Something’s Fishy at Camp Wiganishie and Celery Stalks at Midnight, two of Simmons’ three studio albums, says the first thing that came to mind when he heard about the fire was one of his pal’s favourite puns, namely, "Don’t take life for granite."
"Al is a wonderful hero of mine, and here’s the deal about the fire: not only is Al going to rebound, he’s going to come back stronger with some brand new material. Personally, I can’t wait to see what he’s got up his sleeve because I know it’s going to be mind-boggling and inventive. Bottom line, it’s going to be wonderful fun."
Simmons readily admits he found it hard to believe when a woman he guesses was 20 years old approached him a few years ago saying, "Hey, my grandma used to watch you." For a few seconds he wondered how that was possible but as he began doing the math, he thought, yeah, if she’d seen him in a bar singing Proud Mary or Spinning Wheel in the early ‘70s then for sure, it was entirely likely.
Given he’ll soon be 70, Simmons acknowledges he was tossing around the idea of hanging up his hockey stick xylophone and soda straw saxophone prior to the fire. That’s when he posed a question to himself: if he retired in order to have more time to do what he enjoyed, what would that entail, specifically?
His answer: first, early every morning he would probably head into his workshop to build outlandish objects. Second, he would fetch his banjo or trombone and write silly songs. And third, he’d get up on stage every chance he could, hoping onlookers would get a kick out of his shenanigans.
"I guess what I’ve come to realize these last few weeks is there’s no way I could replace the joy I receive from singing songs, showing off my contraptions and hearing how audiences react to them," he says, polishing off what’s left in his coffee mug.
"That’s what I’ve always lived for. That’s my life force."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.