Carleton Gholz: Good afternoon. This is Carleton Gholz from the Detroit Sound Conservancy. It’s February 19th, 2015 and I’m at Simpsons Records on Six Mile, McNichols Road East of I-75 on Detroit’s East side. And I’m here with Dorothy Simpson and we’re here to do a short little interview that she’s agreed to do today. Mrs. Simpson, “Mrs.” Simpson? Mrs. Simpson. Can you briefly describe who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music? Sure. Okay. I think we’re good. Yes.
Simpson: Okay. And the question, was…?
Gholz: Who are you and what is your relationship to Detroit?
Simpson: Okay. I’m Dorothy Simpson and I am the proprietor of Simpsons Record Shop located on Six Mile near (inaudible). And I’ve been in one little –
Gholz: Yeah, absolutely. (laughs)
Simpson: And we’d been in the business since 1966.
It was a family business.
Gholz: Okay. And can you say a little bit about why 1966? Can you talk just a little bit about why that time to start the record store?
Simpson: Well, that’s when I decided during that period of time that I wanted to get into a business. Was something that my children and I could work comfortably, I could teach them the business and whatever. And I thought it would be something, a good field, it was to get in. Well, (quietly) and you know what I am missing the – here’s what happened. (Louder) But it, well it – cause I wanted to say that – okay, well I’ll just start there because – shift a little bit more of before, but we thought that that would be a good thing for us to do. And that’s what we did.
Simpson: And we – and it just happened to be 1966 and we decided that we were going to open. The business started out like December 3rd, 1966 was going to be our opening date and that’s what we did.
Gholz: And was the original shop here or somewhere else?
Simpson: No, originally we was around the corner on Joseph Campau, 14034 Joseph Campau near Six Mile, which was just around the corner and about 1993 or so and we moved around to this particular area.
Gholz: Okay. When you say we, who was the original group of people. Was it just you?
Simpson: The original was just me and my husband and my children. I have six children and of course five of them was really involved. One was too young to do it, but it was five involved with it.
Gholz: It was so it was a family business.
Simpson: It was a family business. That’s what it is.
Gholz: Yep. What do you remember, well first question, did you grow up in the Detroit area or did you come to Detroit?
Simpson: I came to Detroit.
Gholz: Can you say from where, or – where and when, broadly?
Simpson: Okay, yes. I came to Detroit in 1953 and I came from Birmingham, Alabama in 1953.
Gholz: Okay. And I asked you that to find out when – do you remember first – I mean, you worked, you have a record store. So the assumption is you could have purchased your own records, I guess, that you sold. But what do you remember – what was the first Detroit record you remember hearing? A record made by a Detroit musician? Do you remember?
Simpson: Oh. I can’t remember the first one I heard. I guess when I really started paying them attention, it was like Motown days, Smokey and…..
Gholz: It’s his 75th birthday today. Smokey Robinson, today.
Simpson: Oh is it? I even didn’t notice that. Okay, 75th. You know, he doesn’t look like it. (both laugh)
Gholz: No, he doesn’t.
Simpson: Yeah, but he had one, who was that? “Mama told me to shop around..”
Gholz: Mm hmm… “Shop Around.”
Simpson: Yeah, “Shop Around” and some of the Supremes and Aretha Franklin.
Simpson: “Precious Lord.”
Gholz: “Precious Lord.”
Simpson: It was one of her first – that I really remember.
Gholz: And you remember playing that at home, or…
Simpson: “Precious Lord” I played at home, some. A little, before I came into the business.
Gholz: Okay. So before you came into business, you were aware that Detroit musicians were singing and making music?
Simpson: Yeah, well, before I came into the business, I was aware of it.
Gholz: Yeah. And,normally I ask question – I ask a question about, what live performance you’ve ever seen with Detroit music? Live performance, great live performances.
Simpson: Well, I’ve seen Smokey Robinson. I’ve seen, Stevie Wonder, (pause) The Dramatics, (pause) Mesa. You want Detroit groups?
Gholz: Well that’s what I was asking, but it could be a great performance you saw here locally that wasn’t a Detroit group. I mean, so many good artists have come through town and they…
Simpson: B.B. King, Bobby Bland…
Gholz: Uh-huh. And where would you see these folks locally?
Simpson: Some of them, I saw them at The Fox or I’ve seen them at some of the clubs, like the Twenty Grand, Phelps Lounge or (whispers) I can’t think of all these…
Gholz: (laugh) Now the Phelps Lounge is in, was in the North End, not very far from where we are. Relatively close. What would you call this neighborhood that we’re in right here? What would you call this?
Simpson: Well, it’s, actually, the Northeast Section, but there is another word for it, I’m trying to…
Gholz: I mean, Hamtramck is nearby.
Simpson: Near, Hamtramck is nearby.
Gholz: Conant Gardens is…
Simpson: Conant Gardens. There we go. I’m sorry.
Gholz: Okay, so you would call this Conant Gardens.
Simpson: Yeah. It’s close to Conant Gardens.
Gholz: Yeah. I see you had a Slum Village CD on the wall. They were from, some of them were from that area. So they were local. They would have been local kids.
Gholz: Was it always primarily a gospel store or was it…?
Simpson: No, never was, no.
Gholz: Okay. What did it start off as? What kind of music were you selling?
Simpson: Actually we started out with basically Motown, basically Motown. And as time went on, then you know, and you could get a request for other things, then we sold whatever the request was, and whatever we could get for them.
We sold mostly 45s from the beginning.
Gholz: You, we were talking a little earlier and you said that you used to take your kids to the Graystone Ballroom and my group does some work with some of the preservation around the Graystone. Did you go and dance there as well, or do you know…?
Simpson: No, I didn’t dance. I’m not a dancer.
Gholz: Not a dancer.
Simpson: I’m not a dancer. I love, I love to watch others, but I’m not a…
Gholz: But you yourself. Okay.
Simpson: I love music, but I’m not a dancer.
Gholz: And, so we were talking about the beginning of the shop and it was primarily just, it was for pop music – for pop and music of that time. Motown. Did you sell mostly 45s, or…
Simpson: Yeah, we sold mostly 45s from the beginning.
Gholz: And people could come in and listen to them?
Simpson: Yes, yes. We had, we set up through a record player, and it was not much, it were $20 a box, but we did and they could listen to them and buy them, you know.
Gholz: And was it mainly a youth audience that was buying at that time?
Simpson: Yes. Basically.
Gholz: Yeah. Young people.
Simpson: Yeah. Right, absolutely.
Gholz: So kids coming from school or…
Yeah, they loved to come in and just hang out because I had kids myself, you know. And they would come in and then – they just wanted to hear it sometimes they didn’t want to buy them, but they just wanted to hear it.
Simpson: Yes. Yeah, they loved to come in and just hang out because I had kids myself, you know. And they would come in and then – they just wanted to hear it sometimes they didn’t want to buy them, but they just wanted to hear it. You have to do that, too. (laughs)
Gholz: Now, have you always had the candy too?
Simpson: Not always. I suppose maybe early, hmm. I would say maybe early, maybe about 15 years after we started, we took on the candy deal.
Gholz: Just for another thing to sell, or…
Simpson: Yeah, to try and keep an, attractive floor, you know, because just selling records a lot of times don’t bring in quite enough so we have to do other things. And you bring in to kind of fill in. So…
Gholz: This neighborhood specifically, did you used to get, I mean especially even around the corner, did you get a lot of walking traffic?
Simpson: Oh yeah.
Gholz: When you first opened up?
Simpson: Yeah. Yes we did.
Gholz: Now, do you get much walking through?
Simpson: Not a lot. Not a lot now.
Gholz: Yeah. I always have – I always drive. (both laugh) Well, so I asked about live shows. You went to the Phelps Lounge in the North End. Can you say anything about a place like that, like the Phelps Lounge? What do you remember about a place like that? Cause now it’s even the, the marquee, you know, recently they, it’s gone now, so it’s harder to get people to remember that particular place.
Simpson: You know what, I don’t remember – again – I don’t remember a lot about it. I know it was a club and I know that, you know, we used to go there for some of the shows, and people, certain people came to concerts.
We did big things with the pop and the blues
Gholz: We were talking about, the shop over the years and I wonder how, how has the – this may be a hard question to answer, but I’ll try it. How has the record industry changed? You’re approaching your 50th anniversary. You went from selling primarily pop 45s to young people, you know, 40 – you know, Motown, what was hip at that time. Now you’re, it seems you sell, gospel music, R&B, you’ve got some cassette tapes here. So how has the industry changed?
Simpson: It’s changed in a lot of ways. I mean, we started out with, like, the pop music or the good – the Motowns, which was really, really great music. Then, at that time, gospel was not very popular, especially, vinyl-wise because that’s what you had – vinyl. And we didn’t do a lot with gospel, but we did big things with the pop and the blues. And of course then, you know, jazz did and we just went through changes whereby you – later, then the gospel starts picking up a little and then jazz starts picking up and rap starts coming in and then it kind of pushed other things out of the way. And now rap is not as popular as it was. So now we’re going back somewhat in a sense, to the point where now we’re getting requests for the older jazz and the older R&Bs and things are less so, or as opposed to so much of the new – the rap.
Gholz: Mm hmm. So what do you, I see you had a Muddy Waters. What was he, a Little Milton, is there still a community that wants that kind of music?
Simpson: Yes, sure, sure. The thing that hinders it somewhat is there’s no air play. Nowadays you don’t get air play. If they got air play, you’d do a lot better with these things. But we’re not getting that.
Gholz: In the ‘60s, in the ‘70s, the early portion of the – when the store was happening, did you feel like there was a much more of a connection between – for instance, did you have commercials on local radio?
Simpson: Yeah, we did advertisement. Yeah, we did advertisement with WJLB between, we did the gospel advertising. We did the blues. We did and did very well with it.
Gholz: Yeah. And do you think, what do you think the importance is? You’re coming up, so next year is the 50th anniversary. So you’re in your 50th year, soon for the, for the business. What do you think, is it important, what’s important about are you going to do anything special for the 50th?
Simpson: I don’t know. That I have not thought about and I, I just don’t have any plans for it right now.
Gholz: Do you think it’s important to, I mean, my group is a historical group. We think about things like the Graystone and other places, you know, that have, that aren’t there anymore or whatever. Or maybe still are with us. Do you think it’s important to remember earlier moments in Detroit music history? Is it good to remember those things?
Simpson: Yeah. Yeah.
Gholz: Yeah? Why? (both laugh) Give me a reason to get up in the morning.
Simpson: Oh well hey, good music is good music. I mean, if you like music. You know, and it’s just nice to listen to some great music sometimes. Yeah, I would think so.
Gholz: Do you still listen to “Precious Lord” by Aretha Franklin?
Simpson: Yes. Now and then I do. Yes.
Gholz: Yeah. What else…
Simpson: Only, only the version that was – she redid it with them on “Amazing Grace.” ‘Cause, but we previously had it back when, “Checker” was around and then that’s when it was really, when her first purchase was.
Gholz: Right. Back when her father had more records than she did.
Simpson: Absolutely, absolutely.
Gholz: Did her father ever come to the store?
Simpson: No. He never did.
Gholz: No? Were there other artists who came to the store over the years?
Simpson: Yeah, there was a lot of people came to the store. We’ve had,I don’t know. Well we didn’t get – but I know we’ve had all The Dramatics and we’ve had (inaudible) to come to our store. You heard of him? I can’t quite, I can’t remember.
Gholz: Well you’ve got a lot of pictures here, so maybe when we get done we can take a look at – and see what we can find out.
Simpson: Yeah, maybe.
Gholz: Just a couple more questions. You said you got into the business cause you felt like it was something that your family could get into and maybe it’d be lucrative or good for you. What were you doing before that, to keep the family together?
Simpson: Well, I had been doing, I was working, but one time I worked – well the last job I had was at a dry cleaners. I was a sorter there and of course I was debating on, going back there or whatever. And then it came to me that, you know, the thoughts started coming to me that maybe I wanted to try and start a business and, but you know, for us.
Gholz: Was there an example and was there a record store that you went to? And you went, “Oh, okay, I can do this.” This is, was there an example at that time?
Simpson: No, there wasn’t, no, the thing was, well, there was the – first of all, my husband had opened up a business security. And then I come along thinking, well, it wouldn’t be something that – we couldn’t work in that with the children now, so it would’ve been good for us to come up with something different.
Gholz: Oh, I see. You can’t have a four year old doing security. (laughs)
Simpson: No, that won’t do. (laughs)
Carleton Gholz: Right.
The building that my husband was occupying for his services had one time been a record shop. And when she said a record shop and it was like, it clicked with me just like that. I said, wow, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And I took off, I asked my husband, you know, we talked about it, he thought it was a good idea, plenty of space, everything. And we just went from there.
Simpson: But then it just so happened that I was talking with a lady, which was a cashier in a store. And right here on (inaudible). And in my, in the middle of my thinking of what I would do, thought, you know, what we would do as business people, she mentioned the fact to me that the husband – the building that my husband was occupying for his services had one time been a record shop. And when she said a record shop and it was like, it clicked with me just like that. I said, wow, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. And I took off, I asked my husband, you know, we talked about it, he thought it was a good idea, plenty of space, everything. And we just went from there.
Gholz: And so the starting, the – the little capital that started it off was just the money he was making, the security stuff?
Simpson: The money that, yeah, whatever we had, that’s what we started with. Yeah. We didn’t do anything to what, you know, outside of – and then we just worked and, you know, kind of put it together and told the kids, well, you know, what was going on. And everybody was really excited and, explained to them that we got to work, but right away there won’t be any pay. Nobody gettin’ paid ‘cause we don’t have any money. (Both laugh) But, when we started making some money then we will start paying. And so we kept our promises, but we did what we could to make sure, you know, and you go out and buy a couple of records now today or whatever. And thank goodness that at that time the distributors was basically in the city, the record companies, and you could go to them…
Gholz: Right, right. One stops.
Simpson: No, I wish I could go to the companies.
Gholz: Oh, the…right! Of course.
Simpson: No, I went to Atlantic, I went to those places and purchased that before one stops came in.
Gholz: I see.
Simpson: And, so, but they were, it was easy. They were very kind. They weren’t spread way apart and things like that. And one does not have much money. We couldn’t go in and just stock up. So if I sold two or three today, then maybe one, two or three tomorrow. It would depend on how I sold today as to what I would buy tomorrow. Then I would just, you know, restock as I could with whatever money we had coming in.
Gholz: That means you have to be really responsive to what, what the audience wants.
Simpson: Absolutely, absolutely. Nothing like scratching and making notes. Then, well, we had a request with this, request with that, and that’s the way we started getting it together, is by knowing what other people wanted and then you go out and you purchase it.
Gholz: It, in ‘66 when you were starting the record shop, how old was your oldest at that point, if I may ask?
Simpson: My oldest was about, so I would say about 16.
Gholz: Oh, 16. So they were out, so if they had wanted, before that – your record shop happened, if they had wanted to go buy a record, a Motown record, where would they have – and they were from this neighborhood before your record shop, where would they have gone? Hudsons, or something like that or where would they shop?
Simpson: You know what? I can’t say. I don’t know. I don’t know because, back prior, previously – well, prior to that we very seldom bought a record. And of course in the area where I lived at that time, Whites Records was a little bit closer to where we was. Before that. So they – and they were going like 69 cents and it was kind of hard sometimes to get it. So we had two or three records in our house and that was about it.
Gholz: Okay. So you weren’t, weren’t, a rich family.
Simpson: No, we weren’t a rich family.
Gholz: And well this is all this is great. I encourage you to, if you need any help celebrating your 50th anniversary, please give me a call. I don’t know what you’d want to do, but we’d, I’d come over and have some candy that day and at least celebrate or something.
Simpson: Okay, that would be nice.
Gholz: So is there anything else you would like to suggest to us? We’re a young nonprofit. We’re only a couple of years old. You know, we only have a little bit of a budget. We’re going to do some fundraising over time. Who do you suggest, what do you suggest we should be focusing on in the coming years when, in terms of musical history, what do you think, who do you think we should be talking to or what do you think we should be attending to? Do you have any advice for us?
Simpson: Well, right now I really don’t know because I don’t know where to go seeking information myself now. It seems that the record companies themselves, are all untouchable nowadays. There was a time when they sent representatives out to you to tell you what was happening, was common or what’s hot bring you pictures of the artists or bring you samples and things like that. Or they would do radio advertisement and that would help. And, but now it’s like they don’t exist anymore, so I don’t know where you would go or what you would do. I think if radio could come back somewhat as it was, that would be a great help. You know? And I think most people think that maybe people don’t listen to radio now, but I think that a lot of people do. I think radio is still helpful. If it came back and it was interesting to people. I think they would listen.
Gholz: What about in terms of historical people? Who else should I be – people like, I don’t know. Maybe you don’t think you’re such an interesting person to talk to. I think you’re an interesting person to talk to. But who else should I be talking to, do you think? Who has some good memories of, what we’ve been through in the city as far as music goes? Who else should I be talking to?
Simpson: Well, Damons, Damons would be a good source. They’ve been around for a long time. Yeah. Shantinique hadn’t been around as long as them, but I’m sure that they would be a good source.
Gholz: Yep, no least 20 years. At least, if not more…
Simpson: More than 20. They’ve been around more than 20. They would be. Most of the others, I don’t even know if they’re around anymore.
Gholz: Yeah, we were saying earlier. Yeah.
Simpson: No, I don’t, I can’t think of any. Because all the other shops that you mentioned earlier, they’re not in existence anymore. Even the one stops that we had, I don’t even know where to find any of them anymore. They don’t…
Gholz: (inaudible), was that one?
Simpson: (inaudible) was one. Yeah, it was.
Gholz: I was in there just before I think they shut down. You know, I think that was like 15 years ago or so. I think they finally called it.
Simpson: They did.
Gholz: Yup, yup. Well, Mrs. Simpson, thank you so much for sitting and talking to us.
Simpson: Well, you’re welcome. (laughs)
Gholz: Thank you.