Lucky Charms: The Life and Times of Mary Simpson
article by Michael DeVault | photo by Joli Livaudais
Mary Quinn Simpson was born in a castle and lives today in a spacious Park Avenue flat. Yet, as with so many facets of Mary’s life and career, things aren’t always quite what they seem.
“I was born in the Castle & Anchor, my family’s pub,” says Mary, her north English accent still heavy, even after four decades of southern living. That pub, a centerpiece of life in Stockton-on-Tees, still exists, though it has long been out of the Quinn family’s hands. “It’s still standing there on the High Street in Stockton-on-Tees.”
From those earliest years on the channel in northern England, through a marriage and immigration to the United States, even into her retirement today, Mary has never strayed far from the spotlight and, as her friends tell it, a jovial spirit, convivial attitude, and natural, gracious ease make her a steadfast centerpiece of life for anyone who knows her—and a Bayou Icon.
“It was love at first sight,” says John Denison, about meeting Mary. “She just has that way about her. She’s your best friend immediately.”
Of course, Denison notes, Mary has had a lot of practice being hospitable over the years. He refers, of course, to the time Mary spent working for the Bailey Organization, a system of working men’s clubs in 1960s England. The Bailey clubs – akin to supper clubs in America – were the cradle for musical talents in England at a critical time in the development of music. From a perch at a coat closet or a tableside, Mary did much more than just watched musical history unfold. She took an active part in it.
She recalls how young singer-songwriter Georgie Fame took a shine to her. At the time, Fame was one of the biggest hits in England. He played the Bailey circuit in the 60s, and it was at one of those performances he first met Mary and her friend, Jo McCue, who says Mary’s singing voice was “absolutely divine.”
“Everybody knew Mary no matter where we went because she had a wonderful voice,” McCue recalls. So it was no surprise that Fame took an interest in Mary, according to McCue.
Mary recalls the Georgie Fame story with a little more detail. Fame sent a chauffeured car to retrieve the girls and bring them to a restaurant in Middlesboro, a nearby town. While at the restaurant, Fame asked Mary to sing for him one of his favorite songs. The friendship was completely innocent, Mary insists. But that was little comfort to Fame’s fiancé, Nicollette, Marchioness of Londonderry, a woman of noble birth from a prominent English family. When Lady Londonderry arrived at the Middlesboro restaurant and found her fiancé with two young women from the club circuit, she became incensed.
“She knew working in the clubs was a terrible temptation for stars,” Mary says. “But Georgie wasn’t interested in anything dirty.” Instead, Georgie explained to his glamorous and elegant fiancé that he and Mary were kindred musical spirits with similar tastes in jazz standards and ballads. Mary described Fame as a “musical compatriot.”
“He loved all the things I loved musically,” Mary says.
It was no surprise, then, that Fame made sure Jo, Mary, and Mary’s sister Mardi were on hand a few weeks later when he played Royal Albert Hall with the Count Basie Orchestra in London. Mary remembers the event as if it were yesterday. The girls arrived together and were shown to their seats—at the front and in the center section. The music began and, as soon as Fame took the stage, something magical happened.
“He waved to me in Royal Albert Hall!” Mary says, bringing to a close her tale of Georgie Fame. But Georgie was hardly the only brush with celebrity Mary had during the Bailey era. In fact, along with Jo and Mardi, she watched an entire generation of British musicians come of age.
Working at a Bailey’s club one night, when Fame asked her to sing with the band “Moody’s Mood For Love,” she jumped at the chance. Little did she recognize then that Fame wasn’t the only person on the stage who would leave a mark on entertainment history. Joining Fame on bass that night was Jimmy Tarbuck, who would rise to fame as a television presenter and comedian.
“On piano was a little Irish man who never said a great deal,” Mary says.
That Irishman’s name? Van Morrison. The Van Morrison who would go on to pen some of the greatest hits of the 1960s—including “Brown Eyed Girl.” And with them all, Mary was a constant figure, as popular with them as they were with audiences. There’s a reason for that, according to McCue.
“Mary was just a great singer! She loved to get up on the stage and do her thing,” McCue says. That’s just what Mary did, time and again, with each of the stars who invited her to perform.
To Mary, these famous musicians were colleagues, coworkers and even friends. After all, this was 1962 and the British Invasion hadn’t swept across the United States—yet. And what of those mop-headed boys from Liverpool? When it comes to the Beatles, Mary’s coy, but she’s direct.
“I’m sure I made them tea and sandwiches,” Mary says. “I’m sure I did their lights.”
She plays down her memories of the young, pre-America Beatles and notes that no one paid them much attention before the Ed Sullivan Show appearance. No one had any reason to, she says, because “we didn’t know who they were and what they were going to be.” That revelation would come soon enough, in 1964, when the Beatles did play the Ed Sullivan Show and swept America with Beatlemania.
“My God, they exploded in America!” Mary says. “It was absolutely insane. We couldn’t get over the reception they got!”
Georgie Fame, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones all played the Bailey’s circuit before eventually making their way to explosive fame in America. And for each of them, there was Mary, Mardi and Jo, making sure their lighting was good, that they got into the club on time and out of it. All of it was just part of their jobs, handling the artists from club to club. In fact, Mary recalls how on one particular visit, her job was to accompany the band from one Bailey’s Club to the next.
“They played two gigs a night,” she says. So someone had to get them into the car and to the next gig on time. On this particular night, that was her job. She declined to name the star or his band, but she shared what happened when she climbed in the band wagon and someone produced a joint. She watched as they passed around a “hand-rolled cigarette” and Mary, then in her early twenties, said, “You don’t have to share! I have cigarettes.”
She laughs now, and probably laughed then. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing! Someone should have told me,” she says with a laugh. All the while, she constantly reminds that this was a time before any of these names—Van Morrison, the Beatles, Georgie Fame, or even Tom Jones—had made a mark on music or put a significant amount of money into their pocketbooks.
Which is why, one evening, a young performer bummed ten shillings (roughly a dollar, which was then, Mary points out, a significant amount of money) off Mary and Jo. The performer, Gerry Dorsey, was playing an extended engagement and was holed up in a hotel in the town.
His last night, Mary and Jo paid a visit to his hotel room and knocked on the door. “Gerry,” she says she called out. “It’s Mary! We need our ten shillings!”
She says Gerry paid back the ten shillings before moving on to the next town and, eventually, to America—where he’d get a new set of music and a new name: Englebert Humperdink. Being several years older than her sister and Jo, Mary became a surrogate chaperon of sorts, and for the most part she kept her sister and Jo in line and far from trouble.
“She didn’t get us into any trouble at all! We’d just go out and really enjoy our life,” McCue says.
McCue describes the trio as a Three-Musketeers style of groupies. But groupies back then were far different than groupies today. “It wasn’t like today’s groupies,” McCue says. “We were very young and naïve.” But, like the British Invasion would forever change the landscape of American music, a different invasion would forever change Mary Quinn’s life. At the same time musicians were traveling to the states, engineers and contractors were coming to England, Ireland and Scotland to build pipelines to transport oil from the North Sea to refineries in North England. By 1970, the Bailey organization had transformed the working men’s clubs into a chain of hotels, many of which hosted the oilmen from America. Mary was still with Bailey’s, and she was asked to organize a musical soirée to welcome the workers. She played a number of British standards from some of her old musician friends and some jazz standards before she opened the floor to requests. A young, handsome American stepped up.
“Y’all got any Johnny Cash?” Mary says, affecting a deep, baritone Southern drawl. “Those where his first words to me.”
That request came from Ervin Simpson. Eight months later, Mary and Ervin married and Mary the entertainer was quickly supplanted by Mary the mother, when her daughter Katie was born. The Beatles eventually returned to England, and likewise, the time came for the Simpsons to make the journey to America. Ervin, Mary and young Katie booked passage on the Cunard Line’s Queen Elizabeth II and set sail for the family’s first voyage to the United States. After they returned to England, two more children followed—Delia and James—and six years after marrying, the Simpson family made their way back to Ervin’s relatives in the Monroe area, where the Simpsons “bought a home and tried to fit in,” Mary says.
While her children became “Americanized,” Simpson did her best to find a home for her entertainment persona. She didn’t have to look very far, and within just a few years, she was a stalwart performer at Monroe’s Little Theatre. One of her earliest roles required her to portray an Irish Mother Superior in Nunsense. At the time, Chris Ringham was the director, and Mary recalls how shocked Chris was when she went from a proper English accent to a full-Irish brogue. The part even won her a coveted Christopher Award for best supporting actress.
Meanwhile, she continued to pop up at nightclubs and bars. Enoch’s became a favorite watering hole of the Simpson clan—her son, James, plays the venue regularly. And it was at a popular nightspot, The Aperitif, where she met Denison in the 1980s.
Denison was in the club with a group of friends, one of whom was playing songs on The Aperitif’s grand piano. When Mary walked in, she approached the piano and asked if the pianist “knows any Cole Porter.” Without missing a beat, entertainer Mary took over.
“She launched into a great Cole Porter song, and we were just mesmerized by this woman with a British accent in Monroe, Louisiana, belting out a show tune,” Denison says. Over the years, Denison developed a close friendship with Mary, who has developed an almost cult following in northeastern Louisiana as a comedienne and singer. She’s spent a lot of time working with Monroe-based Elvis impersonator Todd Martin. It’s through this comedy and musical routine that Mary’s sense of humor became widely known. Denison laughs when he thinks of some of Mary’s “great one-liners.”
“Mary can be, as the British say, ‘cheeky,’ when she wants to be. She likes a good joke that will make you blush—and she can tell them very well, too,” Denison says.”
That sense of humor has helped Mary in more ways than one, according to Denison. A few years ago, Mary was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. The cancer had spread, but she sought aggressive treatment.
“I really believe it was Mary’s indomitable spirit that got her through that. That brassy, bawdy personality took over and fought that cancer,” Denison says.
Mary recalls it slightly differently. The cancer scare, and the treatment that followed, was a particularly dark time for her. She didn’t let it win. Faced with a radical mastectomy, Mary did what any good, bawdy comedienne would do. She attended a party. The party, hosted at the Little Theatre, was ostensibly for her birthday. But it was clearly “a going away” party of sorts, Mary says. The message on her cake summed up the party’s theme, the tone, and Mary’s attitude to fighting her cancer. That cake read, simply, “Thanks For the Mammories.”
“That’s just what you get with Mary,” Denison says. “There is no pretense about her at all. She’s unfiltered. Period.”
That party, the jokes, even the cake, are no surprise to Jo McCue, who’s kept in touch with Mary over the years. Though McCue still lives in England, her daughter recently moved to Texas and she and Mary have plans to visit on McCue’s next trip to this side of the pond. She’s sure, too, that there will be plenty of memories shared and plenty of laughter.
“Mary was very free spirited, very glamorous, very much fun to be with,” McCue says. “We just had some great laughs.”
Today, Mary Quinn Simpson still performs a comedy routine and sings. During this interview in fact, she broke into song at least three times—flipping seamlessly between lilting soprano and sultry jazz, even throwing in a bit of Amy Winehouse for good measure. She talks frequently of her “retirement,” though, and thinks fondly of her regular trips to New Orleans, whose jazz roots and musical atmosphere speak to her soul.
“Having a French pastry shop on every corner doesn’t hurt anything, either,” she says, winking. She also suggests, almost wistfully, that she might like to move to New Orleans one day, to more enjoy her “retirement.”
“I’d love to move to New Orleans and maybe get some gigs there, maybe sing some Horace Silver, some Jobim, or maybe Amy Winehouse,” Mary says.