searchsearch
Radio And TV Legend Donnie Simpson On The Key To His Decades-Long Career: "I Don't Have To Be Great––I Just Have To Be Me"

Donnie Simpson

Photo: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images

news

Radio And TV Legend Donnie Simpson On The Key To His Decades-Long Career: "I Don't Have To Be Great––I Just Have To Be Me"

In honor of his recent induction into the Radio Hall Of Fame, GRAMMY.com highlights the broadcasting icon's celebrated career, his impact on media and culture, and his ongoing advocacy for Black representation in radio and TV

GRAMMYs/Jan 7, 2021 - 04:43 am

About five years ago, Washington, D.C., DJ Donnie Simpson emerged from retirement after a little coaxing from his wife, Pam.

"She framed it really [nicely]. She said, 'Donnie, everywhere you go, all you hear is how much people love you and they wish you'd do something else. And God has given you a gift that you should be sharing with people,'" Simpson tells GRAMMY.com over a Zoom interview. "That's what she said, but what I heard was, 'Get out.'"

The affable radio and television icon ultimately returned to the airwaves in 2015. Five years later, he received one of the highest accolades in the radio industry: Last October, he was inducted into the Radio Hall Of Fame, an honor recognizing his contributions to the radio medium over the last half-century. 

The honor is the culmination of the legend's celebrated, decades-long career in radio, which launched in the '70s when a teenaged Simpson got his start on the Detroit airwaves. At the time, he looked to a handful of local DJs as mentors, including the high-spirited Ernie Durham

"I did not adopt his on-air style, but I try very much to adopt his off-air style. He always carried it with class," Simpson said of Durham. "And that was the example to me: to always be kind to people, to look people in the eye, no matter who they were."

It wasn't until Simpson left Detroit, in 1977, and logged his first few years at WKYS 93.9 in D.C.––a station he would reformat and lead to No. 1 as program director––that he found his stride on air, he says. 

"It's something I always say, and it's so true: I don't have to be great––I just have to be me," Simpson says. "Being you always works because that's the spirit that connects us. That's the thing that makes you real to people; they feel you when you are you. When you're trying to be something else, they know that, too."

Simpson says he's long avoided listening to recordings of himself for fear that the inevitable analysis would disrupt the "magic" of what he'd helped create. That approach also extended to his TV career, which started—not counting a role he now laughs about on a short-lived dance show in Detroit—when he served as backup sports anchor for WRC-TV in the early '80s. Not long after, he began hosting a relatively new show on the then-burgeoning BET network. Simpson had concerns about whether the show was the right fit for him.

"BET, in its infancy, wasn't a very pretty baby. The quality wasn't there. I've always been protective of image, because that's all I have," Simpson says. "But after thinking about it for two days, I decided this: This is our first Black television network. If you have something to offer it, you have to do it."

The two-hour show, "Video Soul," which spotlighted Black artists at a time when MTV was almost exclusively focused on white musicians, became BET's highest-rated program at one point.

Jeriel Johnson, executive director of the Recording Academy's Washington, D.C., chapter, remembers watching "Video Soul" as a teen in his Cincinnati home. Simpson, he says, was a "steady presence of Black excellence."

"He was the face of BET," Johnson says. "He was just a staple, and he had such a calming voice and he was super smooth. I just looked up to him as a young, Black kid who loved music ... And I remember seeing him and being like, 'Wow, I could be on TV, too. If he can, I can.'"

On the program, Simpson interviewed artists who were already riding the waves of success or were well on their way: Jodeci, SWV, New Edition, En Vogue, Mariah Carey, Take 6, Whitney Houston. Regardless of the star who graced the couch each night, Simpson took the same approach.

"For every guest I ever had on 'Video Soul,' they would bring me a bio with all this information on the artist … I wouldn't even read it," Simpson remembers. "That's the point of the interview, for me to get to know you."

Elise Perry, a producer and the president of the Recording Academy's Washington, D.C., chapter, worked behind the scenes on "Video Soul" in the '90s, a pivotal decade for both R&B and hip-hop, she notes.

"All of these different subgenres of R&B really started to have an uptick in the '90s, and the fact that BET was present visually at that time, representing Black music in that way—it was a very special time," Perry says. "There were a lot of Black folk there, and it was just like a party. It was where I got my 'master's degree,' I call it. Everybody was family … It was just like a mecca."

Read: Meet The Recording Academy D.C. Chapter's First Black Female President, Elise Perry

Simpson treated the crew like family and has continued to provide unparalleled support for the D.C. community over the years, Perry, a D.C. native, says.

"He's our family. He's our brother. He's our uncle. He's that dude next door. He's our neighbor. He's our friend," she says.

"Family" is also how GRAMMY-nominated producer Chucky Thompson describes Simpson, who had a big impact on him when he was growing up in D.C.

"I've learned so much about people from him, just the way that he's been excited about their careers," he says of Simpson. "It transcends to you. It's like, 'Wait a minute, Donnie's excited? Now I'm excited.'"

For Thompson, who helped craft hits for Faith Evans, Notorious B.I.G. and Mary J. Blige in the '90s, "Video Soul" was formative.

"It was almost like another version of what 'Soul Train' meant," Thompson says. "But [Simpson] got even more personal with you because he was able to talk to the artists and give you a little bit of insight on what their journeys were … He gave me a lot of information on how to make it in this business."

"Donnie Simpson is the standard," Joe Clair, comedian, radio personality, on-air veteran and host of "The Joe Clair Morning Show" on WPGC 95.5 FM in Washington, D.C., adds. "My mom and dad loved him, my siblings love him and people from a generation after me love him. That is a testament to who he is as a broadcaster and what he means to us as a voice for our community. I've worked with him throughout  the years, and he's given me valuable advice both for career moves and for negotiating my worth. He is a shining example for a life in radio and television on your own terms."

Yet becoming successful in the business, including achieving financial success, wasn't an easy journey for Simpson. The DJ has been vocal about the need for equitable pay for Black DJs. In recalling his own path to multimillion-dollar contracts, Simpson turns to a lyric from Elton John's "I've Seen That Movie Too": "It's a habit I have / I don't get pushed around."

"I've walked out [on deals], because you're not going to get me for half [the] price because I'm Black; those days are over," Simpson says, adding that in Detroit, he made one-fifth of what white DJs were making. "That was a very significant part of my career, to be able to be a part of changing that narrative, to letting them know you have to pay Black talent."

Simpson has also advocated for stations to put more of the DJ back into DJing. In the past few decades, he notes, many DJs have watched their curated playlists and airtime drift away due to technological advances and the consolidation of station ownership.

"So much of its personality has been stripped from it," Simpson says of the art of DJing. "I play whatever I want to play every day, but that's the magic of it to me … I don't want a computer programming music for me, because every day feels different. And I like to be tapped into that feeling."

In 1974, Simpson played Elton John's "Bennie And The Jets" on his show in Detroit, a decision he says he fretted about because "Black folks didn't know Elton John." He played the song twice that evening and got an overwhelming response from callers. John himself was soon on the phone with Simpson to discuss the record's success in Detroit; he handed Simpson a gold record for the single six months later.

"It's music that you wouldn't traditionally associate with Black radio; it's Elton. But that was a lesson to me," Simpson says. "It's all music to me; I don't care who made it. I just care what it sounds like [and] if it fits what I'm doing."

The fact that most DJs no longer have the latitude to craft their own playlists is a big loss for radio, Simpson says.

"You have young people out here with great ears that will never get the chance to express themselves musically because it's all programmed for them," he says. "I used to love it when wheels would touch down in Atlanta or New Orleans [or] L.A.—wherever it was. I couldn't wait to pull out my little transistor radio and hear what they were doing in that city, because it was always different."

After Simpson learned he'd be inducted into the Radio Hall Of Fame this year, he took a look at its roster of honorees over the past three decades. When he didn't see New York DJ and “Chief Rocker" Frankie Crocker and other Black radio icons on the list, the announcement gave him pause.

"These are voices that you should know about, some great talents through the years ... legends that have gone largely ignored," he says. "But I also, in my acceptance speech, acknowledged that the [Radio Hall Of Fame] is trying to correct that. You look at the list of inductees this year, with Angie Martinez, The Breakfast Club, Sway Calloway and me––man, it's like #OscarsTooBlack. It's a lot of people of color that went in this year. So they have recognized that, and I applaud them for that."

At a time when systemic racism and police brutality against Black people have come to the forefront of the national dialogue, Simpson says he feels compelled to speak out.

"If I were not on the radio, if I didn't have a microphone, I think I would still feel that responsibility to whatever people I encounter that I could talk to, to tell them how important this moment in history is for us," Simpson says. "I am so honored that I have had a platform for, now, 51 years to allow these voices to come on the radio or on TV and talk about these matters that make a difference to our community."

In 2010, Simpson retired from WPGC, where he'd hosted a morning show for nearly two decades, after contending with a "toxic" environment. But five years later, he was back at the other end of the dial on D.C.'s WMMJ Majic 102.3. Now, another retirement seems like the furthest thing from his mind.

"What's there not to love about it? I sit there kicking it with people I love. We have all the fun we can stand," Simpson says.

As praise continues to roll in from industry A-listers for his Radio Hall Of Fame induction, Simpson has advice for the many artists and listeners who now look to him for guidance as he once looked to his own mentors: "Be kind."

Each morning, Simpson takes a walk or run beside the Potomac River. While he says there's a health benefit to the ritual, he's got an additional reason to step out of his door.

"What I'm really doing is collecting smiles," Simpson says. "That's kind of my purpose: to bring warmth and joy."

Tune in for a special Up Close & Personal conversation discussing Donnie Simpson's career and life in broadcasting. Moderated by Jimmy Jam, the event premieres Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 4:30 p.m. PST/7:30 p.m. EST via the Recording Academy's official Facebook page.

Beyond The Beltway: A Closer Look At Washington D.C.'s Vibrant Music Community

news

GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

news

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

news

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

news

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards