The English Dame and Her Country Boy Son
“The running joke in our house is that my mom is made of asbestos,” humored James E. Simpson about local celebrity Mary Quinn Simpson who has overcome a few health issues over the years. During the late 80s and early 90s, Mary performed in the area’s lounge and stage circles, harkening back to vaudeville with her energetic and amusing numbers and jazzy vocals. Though she had breast cancer at the time, her dedication to the craft proved the old adage “the show must go on.” After a course of chemotherapy, she’d still show up on the same day and perform her part. “I don’t know how I did that when I think about it now,” she remarked, adding, “It never stopped me from doing my theatre for Chris Ringham,” the Strauss Theatre Center director at the time. This local gem and transplant from across the pond has proved, over and over, the pervasive power of music.
written by VANELIS RIVERA | photography by ANDREW BAILEY
Mary hails from Stockton on Tees, a town in Northeast England right on Hadrian’s Wall (a lasting relic from the Roman Empire). <How was your transition to the American South?> “Forty-one years later, she still hasn’t figured it out yet,” chimed James, laughing heartily. “That’s true,” Mary rebutted with a smile, expanding with, “It is a culture shock, still.” <Anything in particular?> “Well, I don’t want to get political,” she answered slyly, and James added the period on that with, “We’ll just leave it at that.” Overall, Mary praises southern food and the warm climate of Louisiana. Though her family didn’t “go out on the road” as musicians, she considers herself part of a musical family. “My father had every record that was ever produced,” she claimed, listing her favorites, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. “That’s how I became so well educated in music.” Mary didn’t hide just how much she adores Lady Day, asking me if I had seen The United States vs. Billie Holiday, which is based on the book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. “I’ve watched it twice,” she said, continuing to educate me, “Andra Day just got the Academy Award nomination. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of her.” <I’ve heard of her, yes.> “Oh, she’s magnificent as Billie.”
In 1980, Mary moved to Monroe permanently with her husband Ervin Simpson who originally was from Union Parish, but worked for British Gas; hence, their paths crossing. Her journey to the local stage was one of mere opportunity. “That all started when my children wanted to be in the Christmas show and I took them down to the theatre.” Specifically, it was her daughter Delia and a friend that wanted to get up and sing, James just went along for the ride. “And they wouldn’t do it. When we got there they were so terrified, and Ringham was pressuring them.” The girls, frustrated and discouraged, asked to go back home, so Mary told them she’d go on stage first, and then they could follow her if they wanted. She went up on stage and sang “The Christmas Song.” “You know, ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.’ And Chris Ringham came down to the front and he said, ‘Where have you been?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m here for my children to audition.’” Not only did her kids get to be in the Christmas show, “including James who never wanted to be in anything,” but Mary got offered her first theatre part, which turned into another, then another, until she “got down with it.”
In her career, she has played Maggie Jones in 42nd Street, Mother Superior in Nunsense, and Princess Puffer from The Mystery of Edwin Drood. “Crime don’t pay… that’s what I tells ‘em,” she sang mid answer. “And then I got into the thing with Todd,” she said referring to Todd Martin, another local celeb best known for his pristine Elvis impersonations. Mary used to warm the crowd up before Todd went on stage in the act they had together, the Todd and Mary Show. The duo performed all over the country and even on some cruise ship lines. One of her favorite songs to do was “She’s Got You” by Patsy Cline. “This is the one where she had everything,” informed James, referring to the handful of objects Mary would hide under her dress and pull out after every other line, much to the crowds’ exhilaration. “I’ve got your picture,” she’d sing, carefully pulling out a picture from her outfit. “I’ve got the records / That we used to share,” and she’d pull a record out. When she got to the lines about memories, she’d pull out a golf club! James recalls Yvette and Enoch Doyle Jeter being in the crowd when she first did that. “The crowd always went crazy, but literally over all the crowd you could hear Yvette Jeter screaming in hysterics,” laughed James.
One of her first solo gigs was in one of Monroe’s “nicest venues,” The Cork Room. “You can’t find rooms like this anymore,” said James. He described it as a dark, smoky room placed behind the restaurant, dimly lit and known for its signature cork ceiling. She called the show Mary Simpson Alone with Friends. At the time, Mary rocked the glorious 60s beehive hairstyle and had stunning “natural” red hair. Unquestionably, one of the local musical influencers of the time, her contribution to music performance is honored in The Hub Music Hall’s colorful mural of regional music talent including Dr. Mabel John, Kenny Bill Stinson, and Doug Duffey.
“One of the reasons that steered me toward getting on stage was growing up in an environment of performers, even from a young age,” revealed James. Being exposed to stories of his mother’s run-ins with famous musicians when she was a young adult working at a club was probably another significant motivator. One of his favorite stories is the time Tom Jones traveled through the north of England when he was just breaking out. Twenty-year-old Mary was working the lights for the stage, and in the middle of his performance, she noticed somebody throw an undergarment on stage. “I’ve never heard of anything so rude,” she said. The club manager decided not to kick anyone out at that point, and of course the next night the place was slam-packed full of people. The questionable situation made the newspaper, and people naturally wanted to see this Tom Jones and whatever it was he was doing that was exciting women.
James ended up taking a handful of guitar lessons when he was 13-years old, though he didn’t stick with it until he asked friend Jessie Grinter, who was a founding member of the band Hardlucy, to give him a few lessons. During a stint in Dallas, where he was “miserable,” he locked himself in his apartment and learned to play about thirty songs. By the time he came back home, he was ready to “start waiting tables again and playing gigs.” With a mother from England who embedded herself in jazz and theatre and a “redneck dad” who was listening to Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, James’ musical background is “all over the place.” Though he gravitated toward roots and alternative country, James’ stage instincts point to Mary. “It just makes you think it’s in the genes,” Mary said, beaming. She has found it thrilling to see her son on stage. Though, she emphasized that she only listens to “good country,” like Steely Dan (which made James laugh). “And then, I love General Patterson,” she finished. “There you go! Yes!” James celebrated, particularly because local musician Patterson along with Monty Russell have significantly influenced his musical career, considering them great voices and guitarists of North Louisiana. James predominantly performed with Vince Chao around the area and at annual events like the Bob Dylan Birthday Jam and John Lennon Birthday Party. “It was great to be a part of that,” he said, adding, “It’s rare to get that many musicians under one roof at a time and when you do it’s so much fun just between drinking and telling stories.” It was around that time that he started putting “pen to paper” and writing a few originals. “I was always kind of scared of what was going to come out of my mouth or what things were gonna sound like. I don’t have a whole lot to say, and when I do, it’s typically pretty raw.” Regardless, he started an album that’s still in the making. “That might be my 2022 comeback.”
The Simpsons’ music represents two starkly different worlds, but the common thread is a deep admiration for the art form and a need to use it as a means of expression. “Jazz is inside of you, and it’s a feeling. It’s expressed with your music,” Mary proclaimed. James nodded, adding, “I feel the same way about country. You know, country music, there’s nothing more impactful than a song that tells the story in a manner that songwriters of country past.” From mother to son is a musical repertoire that spans two continents and a lasting performing legacy that transcends genre, culture, and birthplace.