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While New York and Los Angeles have long been the centers of studio music, Chicago had its own small but thriving scene in the 1950s and 1960s, and Mike Simpson was one of its leading figures. Although Simpson only released a few albums under his own name, most notably Discussion in Percussion, he provided many of the arrangements and numerous original compositions for percussionist Dick Schory and for Mercury's Chicago A&R director, David Carroll.
Simpson grew up around music. His father was a fiddler and Simpson's first major investment was in a $35 clarinet at the age of 12. By his later teens, he was working in Doc Ross's dance band, one of the groups that toured the Midwest and mid South, playing a hybrid of Dixieland, jazz, and western music, that became known as the "territory bands." After playing with several other territory bands, he was hired by Art Kassel, who'd recently abandoned swing for the more financially rewarding sweet band sound typified by Guy Lombardo.
Simpson endured the sweet band circuit for four years, then began studying music composition in earnest, working with the demanding teacher, Joseph Schillinger, in New York. He briefly tried to return to touring with drummer Gene Krupa's band, but he soon quit to focus on his studies. He moved to Chicago and played with several of the Chicago-school Dixieland bands such as Jimmy McPartland's.
He spent three years in the Navy Air Corps in World War Two, then returned to Chicago. He attempted to quit music and become a farmer, but after a few years, went back to music full time. He worked whatever jobs the Chicago music scene had to offer: arranging a nightclub floor show, playing in a radio studio orchestra, performing at the Chicago Theater, touring in the pit band of several Broadway musicals, and composing and arranging for trumpeter and bandleader Ralph Marterie.
He settled down as a member of the studio band at radio and television station WBBM, but that gig dried up with the death of live radio in the late 1950s. Simpson then formed his own company and began to work for the advertising business, composing and recording TV and radio commercials. As described in the liner notes for Discussion in Percussion,
The recording of a one-minute spot announcement can be more demanding than a half-hour TV show, Simpson has discovered. Major advertisers often utilize large bands--occasionally more than 30 pieces in size. The companies involved are hyper-critical; they demand precise projetion. And, to complicate matters, some firms cut as many as 20 different versions of the same spot--for various regions of the country. But these sessions, which lost from one to eighteen hours (some begin in the morning and continue to late evening completion) are lucrative for the musicians who can meet the rigid requirements involved.Simpson brought something of the spirit of commercials to his work for Mercury, first for David Carroll and later for Dick Schory. He enjoyed playing around with novel sounds and was more than willing to indulge in a little experimentation to create material for the wave of percussion recordings. In fact, Carroll's Percussion in Hi-Fi, one of the earliest percussion showcase albums, is clearly the work of Simpson more than anyone else.
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