Ding dong, Wicked Witch is alive

Pub date May 20, 2009
WriterMosi Reeves
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

AFRO-SURREAL What was black music like before hip-hop took over? On Chaos: 1978-86 (EM), a compilation of private press recordings by the obscure machine funk guitarist Wicked Witch, it resembles squelching synthesizers riffed like rock guitars and deep, rumbling bass stomps. Unevenly tuned fretboard licks mash with splashing, polyphonic drum patterns as a mysterious leading man uncomfortably murmurs lyrics like "I just can’t hang out, too much time is lost."

As a young guitarist hooked on Cream, Sun Ra, and Weather Report who mostly played for family and friends in southeast Washington, D.C., Wicked Witch’s Richard Simms didn’t achieve local fame, much less a national audience. But his subterranean woodshedding reverberates with tremors from an industry in upheaval. Musicians adopted electronic equipment en masse, supplanting the flowery string arrangements of 1970s disco with keyboards and drum programming. It wasn’t just black musicians transitioning to the computer age: early-1980s rock offers contrasts between lush new romanticism (Human League, Duran Duran) and crass arena sounds (Foreigner, REO Speedwagon). While the latter is celebrated via redundant VH-1 retrospectives and football stadium soundtracks, early-1980s black music and its heroes (the System, Imagination) remain unexplored.

Nelson George describes the period in 1988’s authoritative history The Death of Rhythm & Blues. "Synthesizers of every description, drum machines, and plain old electric keyboards began making MFSB and other human rhythm sections nonessential to the recording process," he writes, somewhat overstating his case. "There were so many … with all the personality and warmth of a microwave."

George’s "microwave music" condemnation still resonates, and this crucial period of black music — just before the hip-hop, R&B and quiet storm era — has largely escaped serious critical attention, save for disco aficionados who cherry-pick proto-house music stars like D-Train and Larry Levan. Meanwhile, Wicked Witch’s unintended documentation of the black new wave — meshing machine gun funk with spacey keyboard ambience on "Fancy Dancer," giving a shambolic twist to Mahavishnu Orchestra-style jazz fusion on "Vera’s Back" — has reemerged on the collector’s market. Simms’ private press singles, which include two 7-inches and a 12-inch long player, have been bootlegged. Original copies trade for $100. This probably led EM, a Japanese specialty label, to contact Simms and assemble Chaos.

"It wasn’t commercial," Simms said during a recent phone conversation. Forced Exposure, the Boston distributor handling Chaos, had passed on his information, but it took more than two weeks to finally reach him. Though pleasantly surprised by the novelty of an interview, he’s somewhat suspicious of the affair. When asked how many copies he pressed up, he shoots back, "Why are you inquiring about that?" as if this writer, armed with a copy of Goldmine magazine, wants to corner the market on Wicked Witch collectibles. And how did Simms come up with the name Wicked Witch anyway? "I’m stumped on that one," he says. "I think I wanted something dramatic, like theater."

Simms remembers forming his first band, Paradiagm with teenage friends "on an original-type kick" from around the area. The group recorded the track "Vera’s Back" before going their separate ways. "We were trying to do an original act, but people didn’t really accept it," he says. Chuck Brown’s ingenious go-go style, an amalgamation of James Brown’s call-and-response breaks and N’awlins marching band jazz, reigned as D.C.’s unofficial soundtrack. And since Paradiagm wasn’t a go-go band and didn’t play covers of radio hits, they couldn’t get bookings: "It was too hard to break new material." Simms managed to reach the manager of Return to Forever, Chick Corea’s jazz fusion superstar collective. But he says, mysteriously, "We did vocals, and they weren’t doing no vocals."

After that came Wicked Witch, which Simms describes as a "studio thing" where he worked out his musical ideas and recorded them. Yet even that was relatively short-lived. "My background is jazz fusion," Simms says. For Wicked Witch, he tried to merge fusion and funk, resulting in tracks with cryptic time signatures and spaced-out melodies. "If it was more funky, I think it would have been it. But it wasn’t funky enough. But I still dig it."

By the mid-1980s, the leather-clad hero of "Fancy Dancer" disappeared in the Chocolate City, just as the hip-hop era had begun. "Kids, a job, other things you gotta do … all of the above got put on top of the music. And then the music became close to nothing," Simms says. Before that happened, however, he pressed up those now-collectible records for himself. "Nobody was doing it for me, so I might as well do something on my own, right?"