“We’d be working in the fields and Gene would grab a cornstalk and pretend it was a microphone,” Izetta Christian said of her brother. “He was bashful early on, but he got out of that.”
The 89-year-old spoke candidly about her late brother, “Jumpin” Gene Simmons, and his rise to rockabilly fame. Some 55 years later, his 1964 hit “Haunted House” still belts out across the airways around Halloween.
“I used to hear it on the radio every once in a while, but I don’t listen to it as much as I used to,” she said. “Our parents were thrilled when Gene hit it big.”
Times were tough growing up, she said, but the siblings – Agnes, Izetta, Leon, Gene and Carl – discovered a love for music that would get them through those difficult days and lead Gene to a chart-topping hit.
Rooted in Itawamba
Born in Itawamba County to sharecroppers Purdie and Earnestine Simmons, Morris Eugene “Gene” Simmons learned to play guitar from his sisters.
Unable to afford any real instruments, Christian said their uncle, Lamar Kelly, drew the neck of a guitar on a piece of paper and that’s how she and Agnes learned to play.
“He put the finger placement for the chords on the drawing, and we learned the basic chords,” she said. “After we got the hang of it, we taught our brothers.”
Christian said her uncle would pick them up in his old pickup truck and take the five siblings to the Courthouse Jamboree in Lee County, where the Simmons children’s love of music began.
Throughout their childhood, the family migrated from home to home, wherever the crops were ready and they could make money. Purdie Simmons didn’t own a car. He met his family’s needs by walking or hitchhiking to work and to local stores. He’d often put food and necessities on the businesses’ credit until he could make the next dollar.
“We were poor, but we were proud,” Christian said. “Our parents gave us the best they had, and that was love.”
Once, when he found himself with a few extra dollars, Purdie Simmons purchased the family their first radio.
“We were so excited to get it,” Christian said. “Carl learned to play lead guitar laying across the bed listening to the Grand Ole Opry on that radio.”
Good times were had, but the family’s hard times still persisted.
During Gene Simmons’ sophomore year, his father asked him to drop out of high school and go to work to help the family make ends meet. His oldest brother, Leon, was about to graduate and his father didn’t feel it was fair to ask him to quit. Simmons agreed and worked driving a truck among other odd jobs until the family could get back on its feet.
In the 1950s, Gene Simmons and his younger brother Carl headed out to Memphis to play bluegrass.
After arriving, the two quickly changed their tune. Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis were making waves with their raucous rock ‘n’ roll sound.
It was Presley, who had Itawamba County roots himself, who got Gene Simmons’ foot in the music industry’s door.
“Elvis told Gene, ‘I can arrange an audition for you, but I’m afraid that’s all I can do for you boys. The rest is up to you,’” Christian recalled her brother telling her of their conversation.
The doors opened, and the brothers landed a deal with the famed Sun Records.
They released “I Done Told Ya” and “Drinking Wine” in short order. Soon, the brothers were traveling the country with Bill Black’s Combo and opening shows for Elvis in Belden, Amory and Houston.
But after a few years with Sun, Gene Simmons failed to record a breakout hit. Dissatisfied, one day he walked across the street to Hi Records to see what they had to offer.
The outcome of the meeting was “Haunted House.”
Written by Bob Geddins and originally recorded by Johnny Fuller in 1958, Simmons’ version of the song peaked on the charts at No. 11.
On January 9, 1965 “Jumpin” Gene Simmons sang his hit on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. In a brief interview on the program, Simmons tells Clark of his song, “We ran out of material and decided to do an oldie.”
With a hit single came popularity and money. Simmons continued to tour the country. He purchased a home in Memphis, but he did not forget the struggles of his sharecropping parents.
“Gene bought our parents a home in Bissell,” Christian said. “He had a giving heart and that was something he wanted to do for them.”
Once while visiting his parents, Simmons purchased his father a white shirt, khaki pants and a straw hat. He topped his father’s snazzy attire off with a cigar. It was a far cry from the worn overalls and “wired together” shoes his father had worn most of his life.
Christian recalled her brother handing their father a roll of cash to pay off all the debts he owed.
“He told him when he walked in those stores to pull out that roll of money and tell them what you’re there for,” she said.
It gave Simmons great pleasure to see his father do so.
The new house
Simmons’s fame was short-lived, and he fell on hard times in the years ahead.
By the 1970s, rockabilly had sung its last, and Simmons had no interest in going in the direction rock ‘n’ roll was headed. He moved back to Tupelo, traveled to Nashville for shows, and worked as a songwriter.
Soon Simmons met up with fellow songwriter Tommy Barnes. The two found themselves with nowhere to go and wanting to sleep on the same couch at a friend’s home. The result of that chance meeting was “Indian Outlaw.” They pitched the song to a new, unknown face in country music: Tim McGraw. The song was McGraw’s first hit to break the top 10 and ultimately helped launch his career. Simmons also penned lyrics for Hank Williams Jr., Mel Tillis and Gene Watson, among others.
Simmons spent several years living in Golden with his family. His only child, Cary, told the Daily Journal in a 2006 interview his “father had hard times, but he never gave up.”
In the same article, it was reported that in Dec. 2005, “Jumpin” Gene Simmons stepped onto the Ryman Auditorium stage in Nashville and sang “Peroxide Blonde and a Hopped Up Model Ford.”
According to Simmons’ son, the singer/songwriter claimed playing the Ryman had been all he wanted to do in his life.
Simmons died after a brief illness on Aug. 29, 2006, the 42nd anniversary of “Haunted House” entering the Top 40. He was 69 years old.
As a tribute to his career, Simmons’ friends held a concert and used the proceeds to purchase a unique headstone befitting the entertainer’s career. Engraved next to the decorative guitar with Simmons’ name is the first line of his only chart topping hit.
It reads, “I just moved in to my new house today.”