By Bob Marovich
Few gospel artists can claim to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only one, to my knowledge, can also boast that a major prop from his former band is now on display in the Smithsonian.
Calvin Simon can lay claim to both. As a founding member of the popular funk group Parliament Funkadelic, Simon is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. The P Funk Mothership, an iconic stage prop, is part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
Although Simon has laid those days to the side and now sings only for the Lord, his latest CD, I Believe, contains musical residue from his P Funk days. It’s a project bound to move the body as well as the spirit.
Gospel music was part of Calvin Simon’s life from birth. He was born in Beckley, West Virginia, and raised in Welcome Baptist Church. While in grammar school, he became the lead singer of the church choir, which sang on Welcome Baptist’s half-hour radio broadcast over a local AM station.
As a singer, Simon drew early encouragement from two of the era’s top quartet leads: Sam Cooke of the Soul Stirrers and Archie Brownlee of the Original Five Blind Boys. “There was something inspirational in seeing them,” he told the Journal of Gospel Music.
But by his teenage years, Simon had moved to Newark, New Jersey, and was no longer active in the church. “It wasn’t a real good family situation,” he said about those days, “and at fourteen, you think you know more than you actually do.”
While in Newark, Simon sang with a vocal harmony group called the Crystals. “In New Jersey, just about every corner you went on, there was a singing group or somebody trying to sing!” he recalled. “You get under that streetlight at night and you just start singing. We were singing Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels, Shep and the Limelights. I had a falsetto and a natural voice.”
It was in New Jersey where Simon met the men who would join him in the Parliaments. In 1958, the Parliaments’ cut their first vocal harmony single, “Poor Willie,” for APT Records. The song gave the group a measure of regional fame. “We could go to different cities in New Jersey and the girls would be there,” Simon said, “and wherever the girls go, you know the hardheads are going to follow!”
The excitement of singing and the adulation of the female audience whetted Simon’s appetite for the music business. Around 1965 or 1966, Simon and the Parliaments moved to Detroit and cut tracks for Trans World Records, including “(I Wanna) Testify,” “I Can Feel the Ice Melting,” and “Heart Trouble.” It was with Revilot Records, however, that they had their first major success with “I Wanna Testify.”
Simon’s tenure with the Parliaments was halted abruptly when he was drafted into the Vietnam War. After a two-year tour of duty, Simon returned to Detroit and resumed work with the Parliaments. “That was rough,” he reflected. “Come back out of that war, after killing and almost being killed, and then everything’s changed. The whole world had changed. When I left, we had processed hair and pin curls and suits and ties. When I came back, it was dashikis and beards and hippies and free love. It was quite a change.”
By the 1970s, Parliament Funkadelic was part of the vanguard in changing the sound of black music to hard-hitting theatrical R&B. For Simon, the group’s massive success had its drawbacks. “You find yourself experiencing all of the fame, and the money, and the girls, and the drugs, and the wine, and the whiskey, and cigarettes,” he said. “And then you realize there is a longing in your heart that isn’t being fulfilled anymore, because you saw what money would do to people and what they would do to obtain it.”
Making matters worse, Simon’s PTSD, an unfortunate souvenir from his Vietnam experience, was exacerbated by people in the music business who tried to take advantage of him. “Guns were a natural thing for me because I was a soldier,” he reflected. “I thank God for friends and family that kinda kept me on the straight and narrow and kept me from doing something stupid that would have been really regrettable.”
At this point, Simon said, he was “a broken person.” His salvation came from returning to the gospel music that sustained him in his early youth. “Gospel music brought me back to the church,” he said. “I was baptized and filled with the Holy Ghost.” Not only did Simon return to the church, but he and his family organized Sky Baptist Church on South Fayette Street in Beckley. “Coming back home after all of those years and everything I experienced,” he said, “and to have that freedom of being welcomed into the house of the Lord—it was an amazing feeling. There’s nothing like it.”
Simon also started a music production company around that time, though there was one drawback. “I had never written a gospel song,” he admitted. “All my writing, singing, and producing had been out in the world. But once God has touched your life and you recognize Him for being what He is—that’s what healed my heart.”
He recorded his first gospel CD, the independently-produced Share the News, in 2004, and was surprised to see it make the Billboard Top Gospel Albums chart. But one day, he was at church singing songs from the album for his congregation and found he couldn’t reach the notes normally within his vocal range. He was also getting hoarse for no reason. The doctors found a lump on his neck, performed two biopsies, and discovered he had thyroid cancer.“
I didn’t think I would ever sing again,” he said.
The operation to remove his thyroid revealed that his cancer had not spread, so he was spared radiation and chemotherapy treatments. On the other hand, his wife of 44 years was not as fortunate. She developed bone cancer and, despite the aid of the medical profession, she succumbed to the illness in 2013.
Her loss was devastating to Simon, but it also strengthened his faith. He poured his emotions into his second sacred CD, It’s Not Too Late, in 2016.
His third solo Christian CD, I Believe, was released this past October. As he had done on his previous works, Simon wrote or co-wrote all of the songs. Not surprisingly, they tend to the autobiographical, especially “Been Down this Road Before” and the title track (and first single). “Share the News” is a reprise from his first CD. “Passing Time” is the current single.
The message of I Believe, Simon explained, is that “Jesus Christ is real. If you don’t extend an invitation for him to come into your life, he will not come. But if you extend that invitation, that will guarantee you eternal life. There’s no greater feeling than knowing you will have everlasting life and be able to sing in that hallelujah choir.”
In addition to lead vocals, Simon plays piano and drums on I Believe. The other musicians on the project, he said, “are guys that have been with me and my band for like forty years. Ben Powell, the bass player, was our drummer. When I left [Parliament Funkadelic], I told him I would be doing some gospel and wanted him to play bass.” The guitarist is Michael Melvin. “We believe in what we’re doing and something magic happens when we get together.”
Simon added: “I used a lot of the theory I learned being part of Parliament Funkadelic. We used to have the vocal harmonies, the screaming guitar solos, the horn harmonies – all that is missing in music today. But the combination that we have come up with is just so unique that I call it “feel good” music. The music is the same. A D chord is a D chord, but it’s the lyrics that you put on top of those that matters to me now.”
Turns out the background singers are none other than former members of the popular Detroit gospel group Witness, once considered the female counterpart to Fred Hammond’s Commissioned.
Simon still suffers from PTSD, but he handles it as best he can. “I have trouble keeping the genie in the bottle some days, but I have learned that if [the genie] gets too strong, I call on my heavenly father to help me.”
Indeed, faith has brought him safe thus far. “The same feeling I had [as a child] I have now,” he said. “Even today, I get a chill thinking how lucky I am to have someone to love me as much as he did. Can’t nobody do you like Doctor Jesus!”
For more information, visit www.calvinsimon.com.