Remembering Mike Simpkins

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

My philosophy is be kind to your loved ones and friends and treat everyone the way you want to be treated, especially because you never know if the next time you see them will be the last.

When I returned from my vacation from New Orleans about a week ago, I never realized that someone who worked with me during a difficult kind of reporting that I had once here at the paper, was so ill.


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When I was assigned to the newsroom as a staff writer in January 1997, I did mostly club and church news reporting and soft news until 1999 when the editor at that time opened up a whole new world for me – an experience in police news reporting. I was nervous about it at first, that is until I met Mike Simpkins.

Simpkins reassured me that he would help me all that he could and was patient with me when he sometimes called an accident report in on the telephone. Sometimes he would speak a little fast, and I would tell him to slow down so that I could type everything that he was saying into the computer. Of course, I shared this beat with another reporter at that time; but sometimes when Simpkins called with his report and I had to take it, he would say, &uot;Oh, I got you again. Is there anybody else? No, I was just kidding.&uot; Then he would go on to the business but his sense of humor relaxed me a little. When I first started doing this work, and he was through giving me the report, he would then say that he would bring a written one if I needed it to make sure that got everything right.

About three years ago – and I can’t remember where – Gail Hinton-Copeland and I attended a club function where he was doing his next favorite thing, spinning records as a DJ. I was surprised to see him doing this because I didn’t know that he had this talent. However, he was really doing a good job. He played the music to that famous line dance, &uot;The Electric Slide&uot; and when I asked him if he had the music to Janet Jackson’s &uot;Together Again&uot; where Gail and I do another more complicated line dance with more steps, he did. He then commented that he had many soul selections that he could play or could get them if he needed.

I then joked with Simpkins and told him that I was going to submit his name to my school so that we could use him during one of our class or school reunions.

Getting back to police reports, I was glad when Barbara Allen came back to the fold in 2001 and was equally happy when she took on the police beat. I think Simpkins was too, even though he was kind enough never to mention it. I will also think of that brief time that I did police reports as a blessing since it gave me an opportunity to know a person that many admired a little better.

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After I returned from my vacation and wrote a column about the educational aspect of the trip, a few people approached me about their interest in learning more about Louis &uot;Sachmo&uot; Armstrong.

Armstrong was born on Aug. 4, 1901, in the Storyville District of New Orleans which, was a rough and tumble neighborhood populated by street toughs and so crowded that one could barely find standing room. His father was a laborer who abandoned the family soon after his birth and his mother was a part-time prostitute.

Let me correct an earlier comment from last week. In 1913 at the age of 12, not 17 as first reported, he fired a borrowed pistol into the air to celebrate the New Year. He was soon arrested and sent to the New Orleans Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys. While there, he came under the influence of Peter Davis, the facility’s musical instructor, and he recognized Armstrong’s talent and taught him singing, percussion and the trumpet.

He had been quite poor and he was determined to wiggle from the grasp of poverty. Louis was released from the boy’s home at the age of 14 and worked at any honest job that would provide food on the table.

By the age of 17, Armstrong and his trumpet sat with several of the numerous bands that played in New Orleans.

In 1919 he moved to St. Louis to join Fate Marable’s band because the bank played on paddlewheelers owned by the Stekfus Mississippi Boat Lines. He spent most of his time playing to riverboat passengers.

By the middle 1920s his stardom was rapidly rising. He formed a band called the &uot;Hot Five&uot; and cut his first records for Okeh in 1925, including the famous rendition of &uot;St. Louis Blues&uot; with Bessie Smith.

By 1929 he was becoming a very big jazz star and had his own performance group – Louis Armstrong and the Stompers.

In the 1930s Armstrong moved to Los Angeles and organized a group called Louis Armstrong and his Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra. Armstrong also organized a touring band which was an immense success. Not only did he tour the U.S. but also Europe as well. When he returned in 1935, he hired Joe Glaser as his manager, who remained so until Armstrong’s death in 1971.

In the 1950s, Armstrong teamed up with other singers to make recordings with Bing Crosby, Louis Jordan and Gary Crosby. In 1957, he made tracks with Ella Fitzgerald backed up by the Oscar Peterson Trio. While working with Peterson, Armstrong took the opportunity to record his first big hit, &uot;Mack the Knife.&uot;

His popularity had now reached an all-time high with other hits such as &uot;Hello Dolly&uot; and &uot;What A Wonderful World.&uot; He soon toured the world as an unofficial goodwill ambassador for America. Then his health began to fail him. On July 6, 1971, he died in his sleep at home in Queens, N.Y. Because of his roots to New Orleans, the Louis Armstrong Airport is named in his honor.

Evelyn Wall is a staff writer and regular News-Herald columnist.