Red Simpson, whose entire chart identity was built on truck songs, died Friday (Jan. 8) in Bakersfield, California, at the age of 81 following complications of a heart attack.
Born Joseph Simpson in Higley, Arizona, on March 6, 1934 and raised in Bakersfield, he was instrumental in creating the flashy, high-octane “Bakersfield sound” that made stars of such artists as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Simpson fronted his first band — the Repose Ramblers — during the Korean War while serving on a hospital ship.
Once out of the service, his first professional job was performing at the Wagon Wheel club in Lamont, California. From there, he moved to playing piano at the Clover Club and then to filling in for Buck Owens on weekends at the Blackboard Club in Bakersfield.
In the early 1960s, Simpson signed as a songwriter for Cliffie Stone’s publishing company, after which he began co-writing with Owens. Their greatest success as a writing team came in 1967 when Owens took their song “Sam’s Place” to the top of the country charts.
Simpson’s path to writing and recording truck and trucker songs was paved after Merle Haggard rebuffed producer Ken Nelson’s request to record some songs on the subject. Nelson was Haggard’s producer at Capitol Records, the label to which he then signed Simpson.
Although truck songs would become epidemic after the popularization of citizens band radio in the early 1970s, country music had already developed an affinity for the genre by the time Simpson charted his first record — “Roll Truck Roll” — in 1966. It peaked at No. 38.
He would not score a Top 5 — and it was his only one — until 1971 when he hit with “I’m a Truck.” In all, he charted eight singles, his last one being “The Flying Saucer Man and the Truck Driver” in 1979.
In 1995, Simpson recorded two duets with Junior Brown, and in 2002 he headlined the opening of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s exhibit on the Bakersfield Sound.
Simpson continued to perform and record intermittently until his final hospitalization.
Shortly before his death, he completed recording the album Soda Pops and Saturdays. It is scheduled for release on Feb. 4.