Blackie Simmons and the Blue Jackets was an early western swing band organized under the leadership of Fort Worth fiddle player Tumpie Lee "Blackie" Simmons. The band was short-lived but played an important role in the development of several prominent musical careers, as well as provided entertainment at the historic Fort Worth Frontier Centennial exposition alongside such notables as Billy Rose, Paul Whiteman, and Sally Rand.
The band's membership was fluid, but the primary lineup included Blackie Simmons, his brother Luther Wayne "Brownie" Simmons on standup bass, Jesse Ashlock on fiddle, John W. "Knocky" Parker on piano, Bruce Pierce on guitar, Sam Graves on tenor banjo, and Albert Brant on bass. From time to time, the band may have also included another banjo player and a saxophonist. Ashlock was a future member of Bob Wills's Texas Playboys, and Knocky Parker was a future member of the Light Crust Doughboys.
Tumpie Lee Simmons was the oldest of five children, born to Henry R. and Elizabeth Cornelia Simmons in 1901. The exact date of his birth is unknown, even to his family members. Wayne Luther "Brownie" Simmons, Blackie's partner and also a member of the Blue Jackets, was born February 12, 1909. Other siblings include brother Thomas Edison Simmons and sisters Ruth Simmons Hooten and Gertrude "Gertie" Simmons Stewart Whittier. Blackie Simmons's mother and his maternal aunt, Edna (maiden name unknown), married two brothers. Blackie's father, Henry R. Simmons, was involved in moonshining and other illicit activities and was killed by a county sheriff's deputy when the children were very young. The family grew up in the Fort Worth area, primarily in Burleson, Everman, and Fort Worth proper.
Tumpie Lee and Luther Wayne Simmons's musical careers began with singing "medicine shows" and a black-faced minstrel show. It was during this time period that the brothers adopted their peculiar nicknames, Blackie and Brownie, taken as stage names as a part of their minstrel act. Blackie Simmons became so enamored of his nickname that he used it formally for his entire life, even having it engraved on his tombstone in place of his real name.
Luther Wayne Simmons was not a full-time musician, but a sign painter and neon sculptor by trade. However, his talent on the fiddle, upright bass, and guitar enabled him to supplement his income by working with his older brother, who was a professional performer by trade. Little is known about the brothers' early musical development, only that they were musicians from childhood. By the mid-1930s, Blackie was making his living playing dances. By December 1935 he and his brother were performing the first radio show of the morning (5:45 to 6:15 A.M.) on KRLD radio in Dallas and appeared under the name Uncle Ezra and the Boys.
At the time, KRLD radio (an abbreviation for Radio Laboratories of Dallas) broadcast from the Adolphus Hotel on Commerce Street. Initially, Wayne Simmons refused to perform the radio show because he feared riding on the hotel's elevators to reach the broadcasting room. While the morning show was airing, a chance encounter between Blackie Simmons and Marvin A. "Smokey" Montgomery helped to mold the future of Texas music. In an oft-told tale, Montgomery later credited this encounter with Simmons as his reason for staying in Texas. After playing throughout Texas in a tent show, Montgomery had become homesick and ready to return to his native Iowa. He had saved enough money to take him as far as Dallas. On his arrival in Dallas at 4 A.M., he went to the Adolphus Hotel, where he knew Simmons was playing, hoping to land a job. Simmons got Montgomery a job playing a gig that night at a country club, along with the band's piano player (most likely Knocky Parker). Montgomery later recounted, "That night the piano player picked me up, and we went out to the Dallas Country Club, of all places. It was a stag party, and I'd never seen a stag party. This gal took off things she didn't even have on. We played the music, and I was crosseyed looking at the girl." From that point on, Montgomery chose to stay in Texas. He had a long and distinguished career as one of the pillars of Texas music, remaining a part of the Light Crust Doughboys for more than sixty-five years.
On December 30, 1935, Blackie Simmons and his band began appearing on KRLD as Uncle Tumpie and the Boys. On February 12, 1936, the band appeared for the first time as Blackie's Blue Jackets. Simmons took the band's name from the blue coats he had his sidemen wear while playing dances. At this time, other notable western swing bands of the era were also appearing on Dallas radio, most prominent of which was Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, who came on at 1:15 P.M. On April 16, 1936, the Blue Jackets gave their last known radio performance.
That year, the state of Texas was engaged in festivities celebrating one hundred years of independence from Mexico. The official Centennial celebration, dubbed the Texas Centennial Exposition, was set to take place in Dallas. However, Fort Worth city leaders, chief among them Amon G. Carter, planned their own rival celebration, dubbed the Texas Frontier Centennial. A large exposition ground was set aside for the celebration, and a theater-in-the-round, called the Casa Mañana or "House of Tomorrow," was constructed to accommodate stage performances. Famed New York promoter Billy Rose was hired to coordinate the event. Rose brought a version of his Broadway production Jumbo to the Casa Mañana. Other events included a midway, restaurant, and Sally Rand's "Nude Ranch," a risqué burlesque theatre.
The Frontier Centennial was highly controversial. The nude performances, as well as bawdy advertising, stirred a wealth of indignation against the Centennial by local residents, as is evidenced by newspaper editorials of the day. However, the celebration was popular and enjoyable. Amon Carter said of the celebration, "Go to Dallas for education; come to Fort Worth for entertainment."
A central part of the Frontier Centennial was the performance of Texas music. Newspaper articles of the era highlight Rose's insistence on giving the music a Texas flare. As a result, he wanted the "best fiddle band in the business" to play the Pioneer Palace, one of the attractions at the Centennial. Initially Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies were to be the Pioneer Palace Band, but Rose did not hire them because they cost too much. Consequently, Blackie Simmons and the Blue Jackets provided the musical entertainment at the Frontier Centennial.
By 1937 band members Parker and Ashlock had moved on to other projects. From 1937 to 1939 Parker was piano player for the Light Crust Doughboys. Before his death on September 3, 1986, he had recorded numerous albums and made a strong contribution to jazz. He also earned a Ph.D. in English and spent much of his life as a university professor. Jesse Ashlock had come to the Blue Jackets by way of Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. He was already playing with Bob Wills as early as 1935, and work with the Blue Jackets appears to have only been a brief interlude. Ashlock went on to build a stellar career under Wills. He died on August 9, 1976.
Following the Frontier Centennial, Blackie Simmons continued to perform dances and shows. He moved to California for some time. In addition to his musical career, he was involved in the ownership of several clubs around Fort Worth, as well as a drapery shop run by his wife, Alvena. Simmons finally retired to a ranch near Coppell, Texas, where he spent his last years raising horses and cattle and playing the fiddle. He passed away on December 21, 1966, and is buried in Bluebonnet Hills Memorial Park in Colleyville. Wayne Luther "Brownie" Simmons continued to perform music for the rest of his life, playing in a band at a cafeteria near his home in Haltom City until his death, on August 31, 1981; he is buried at Prairie Springs Cemetery in Burleson.