For those of us who grew up listening to the Gap Band in the 1980s, there was usually one name we’d see on all of their records.
Lonnie Simmons, a pioneer of funk and a legend who helped transform the black music scene in the 1980s during its post-disco doldrums.
Whether he was co-writer, producer or executive producer, or as founder and owner of Total Experience Productions and later Total Experience Records, Lonnie’s mark was all over the Gap Band’s music. It was his unique brand of funk (plus a few gimmicky but fun sound effects) that became the band’s signature, and without him, we’d never have had Number One classics like “Burn Rubber,” “Outstanding” and “Early In The Morning.”
Lonnie Simmons died February 6, 2019, from undisclosed causes, leaving behind a funk music legacy that rivaled any of his peers’ during the post-disco era of the early 1980s – sales-wise one of the lowest periods in black music history.
Simmons was reportedly in his mid-70s when he passed.
Lonnie Simmons first came up in the industry in the early 1970s by way of his South Central L.A. nightclub that bore the Total Experience moniker that would later become the name of his production company, recording studio and record label. The Total Experience nightclub was wildly successful, with big name acts like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Rufus & Chaka Khan, the Main Ingredient, the Dells, Johnnie Taylor, the Manhattans, and even the Spinners performing there when they couldn’t fill bigger venues.
After using his club’s earnings to buy a Los Angeles recording studio in the late ‘70s, Simmons’ fortunes changed forever when he met an unknown group from Tulsa, Oklahoma named the Greenwood, Archer and Pine Band (named after three of the city’s famous streets). The name had already been shortened to the Gap Band for the two albums they released before meeting Simmons, with those albums having flopped in 1974 and ‘77. But Simmons changed their (and his) fortunes forever with their third release.
The Gap Band released its first Total Experience production (and third LP overall) – the self-titled Gap Band album – in 1979 during the height of the disco era. By that time, Simmons had inked a major label contract with Mercury Records and the Gap Band’s first single under the deal, “Shake,” became a national hit, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart that June (ranked just behind huge disco classics like “We Are Family,” “Ring My Bell” and “Boogie Wonderland”).
The success of “Shake” propelled Simmons and the Gap Band to the next level, and by the end of the year, they had released their second collaboration The Gap Band II, which included two songs Simmons co-wrote: their second top-10 hit, “Steppin’ (Out),” and the ubiquitous “I Don’t Believe You Want To Get Up And Dance (Oops, Up Side Your Head!),” an eight-minute, straight-up funk jam that, in 1980, matched the No. 4 peak of “Shake,” but more importantly gave the Gap Band its first gold album.
By the middle of 1980, with “Oops Up Side Your Head” being a club and radio mainstay, The Gap Band were now bonafide hitmakers. But two things would happen later that year that would propel Simmons and his top group to higher heights than even they could’ve imagined.
First, Charlie Wilson – lead singer of the Gap Band – introduced Simmons to two new singers he’d met on a trip to Dallas: Cavin Yarbrough and Alisa Peoples. Impressed with their talents, Simmons signed them to his production company and had them record their first hit, which he co-wrote – a funky mid-tempo groove entitled “Don’t Stop The Music” (how many readers remember that inescapable chorus sung by a nasally Cavin Yarbrough – “don’t you stop it, don’t you stop, don’t stop the music”?).
Secondly, the Gap Band recorded its third album under Simmons – The Gap Band III – which would become their first No. 1 on the soul album chart. It included “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me),” another funk anthem Simmons co-wrote that would become their first No. 1 on the soul singles chart (exactly 38 years ago this week; February 14, 1981).
The song that eventually knocked “Burn Rubber” out of No. 1?
It was Simmons’ own “Don’t Stop The Music,” making him one of very few people to ever write and produce consecutive No. 1 singles by different artists on the soul chart.
The Yarbrough and Peoples hit would become a major smash, spending a total of five weeks at No. 1 and crossing over to the top 20 (No. 19) on the Billboard pop chart, while selling a million copies in the process.
By comparison, “Burn Rubber” had smaller chart numbers as a single (only No. 84 on the Hot 100), but yielded bigger fruit by propelling its parent album to platinum status. Its follow-up single, the funk ballad “Yearning For Your Love,” contributed to the growing success, peaking at No. 60 on the pop chart (and No. 5 soul) and opening up the Gap Band to an ever-widening audience who could appreciate both their harder funk and their slow jams.
With two million-selling success stories behind him, Lonnie Simmons was able to start his own record label, Total Experience Records (under a distribution deal with Mercury/Polygram), with the first two signees being, of course, The Gap Band and Yarbrough and Peoples. The first album out of the gate for the new label would be its biggest.
Gap Band IV was released in May 1982 and contained three major smash hits, “Early In The Morning,” “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” and “Outstanding,” all co-written and/or produced by Simmons. The album would become the band’s second No. 1 and its second platinum release. The singles all reached No. 2 or better on the Billboard soul list, with “Early In The Morning” and “Outstanding” both hitting No. 1.
“Early In The Morning,” with its famous rooster-crowing intro, was essentially a continuation of “Burn Rubber,” with the lyrics lamenting the jilted guy from a year earlier now having to pick up the pieces, get a fresh start and find himself another lover. It became the Gap Band’s biggest hit by spending three weeks at No. 1 and reaching No. 24 on the pop chart.
“Outstanding” continued the band’s penchant for slowing things down a bit to a nice mid-tempo groove that fit well into quiet storm radio formats. The song also had the ironic fortune of being sandwiched at No. 1 on the soul chart in February 1983 between the No. 1 rankings of the first two Thriller singles, “The Girl Is Mine” and “Billie Jean.”
That trivial tidbit aside, to this day, “Outstanding” is best known as one of the Gap Band’s signature songs.
Lonnie Simmons’ good fortunes continued into 1983 with the Gap Band’s next release, Gap Band V – Jammin’, which included another funk classic co-written by their talented producer, “Party Train.”
In keeping with the gimmicky sound effects Simmons had used on the Gap Band’s previous top hits – like the revving car engine and screeching tires on “Burn Rubber,” a crowing rooster on “Early In The Morning” and the high-pitched shrill of bombs dropping on “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” – he employed a whistle-blowing choo-choo train to begin “Party Train,” whose shuffling beat resembled that of a locomotive anyway.
Who said funk music couldn’t be funny and funky at the same time? That formula had worked for Total Experience and the Gap Band for three years and wasn’t about to end now.
“Party Train,” one of only two Gap Band V tracks actually produced by Simmons, peaked at No. 3 on the soul chart in the summer of ‘83, and Gap Band V – Jammin’ would be the group’s last gold-certified release.
In 1984, it was Yarbrough and Peoples who would return to the top of the charts. Their second (and final) No. 1 single, “Don’t Waste Your Time,” topped the soul list in May of that year and nearly returned them to the top 40 of the pop chart as well (No. 48 peak).
Later in 1984, the Gap Band released Gap Band VI, which included Simmons’ co-penned hit “Beep A Freak,” another gimmick-filled song (with lots of beeps) that peaked at No. 2 soul in early 1985. A year later, Yarbrough and Peoples would match “Beep” with “Guilty,” a song they took to No. 2 in early 1986.
With No. 1 hits now eluding them, this alternation of No. 2 songs between Total Experience’s top two artists would continue with the Gap Band’s remake of The Friends of Distinction’s “Going In Circles,” which hit No. 2 later in 1986.
While Total Experience’s songs were clearly still radio hits in the mid-to-late ‘80s, the sales picture wasn’t as pretty. After Simmons switched Total Experience from Polygram’s distribution arm to that of RCA Records in late 1984 – and with him now having more than a dozen acts signed to the label who weren’t having nearly the success that the Gap Band and Yarbrough and Peoples were having – Simmons‘ good fortunes began to run out.
Eventually, in 1987, after several more underperforming albums, the Gap Band left and Total Experience closed its doors for good.
The Gap Band had moved on to Capital Records where it scored its final No. 1 single, “All Of My Love,” in 1989. Yarbrough and Peoples’ had left the label in 1986 to return to Texas where they got married, never to be heard from again, musically speaking.
Lonnie Simmons, who remained in the entertainment industry by doing motion picture and video production, continued to reap the rewards of his earlier successes from his songs being sampled on hundreds of future R&B and hip-hop songs.
For instance, “Oops Up Side Your Head!” was sampled in 41 different songs, according to the website whosampled.com; most notably in the No. 1 song of 2015, “Uptown Funk,” by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars.
“Outstanding” was tapped in 85 different songs, including Ashanti’s “Happy” from 2002 and Soul IV Real’s “Every Little Thing I Do” from 1995.
“Yearning For Your Love” was sampled in SWV’s “You’re Always On My Mind” plus songs by Nas, the Pharcyde and Will Smith.
And “Burn Rubber,” Simmons’ most sampled tune, appears in 118 different songs, including classics by NWA, Dr. Dre, Public Enemy and 2Pac.
With those credentials, it’s safe to say that Simmons’ mark on funk music and on black music in general is indelible. He almost singlehandedly filled a void in uptempo black music that had been created by disco’s 1979 demise, and kept it fun and funky in the process.
Without him, we likely would have never known the Gap Band – and later Charlie Wilson – and the many classics they’ve given us.
Simmons was a true innovator and creator and a music force to be reckoned with. And for that, he will surely be missed.
R.I.P. Lonnie Simmons.
Here’s a ranking of the biggest hits of Lonnie Simmons’ career as producer, writer, or label owner, based on the songs’ performances on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart (now called the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart):
- “Don’t Stop The Music” – Yarbrough and Peoples (1981); (No. 1 soul, 5 weeks; No. 19 pop)
- “Early In The Morning” – Gap Band (1982); (No. 1 soul, 3 weeks; No. 24 pop)
- “Burn Rubber” – Gap Band (1981); (No. 1 soul, 2 weeks; No. 84 pop)
- “Outstanding” – Gap Band (1983); (No. 1 soul, 1 week; No. 51 pop)
- “Don’t Waste Your Time” – Yarbrough and Peoples (1984); (No. 1 soul, 1 week; No. 48 pop)
- “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” – Gap Band (1982); (No. 2 soul, 4 weeks; No. 31 pop)
- “Beep A Freak” – Gap Band (1985); (No. 2 soul, 2 weeks; No. 103 pop)
- “Guilty” – Yarbrough and Peoples (1986); (No. 2 soul, 1 wk)
- “Going In Circles” – Gap Band (1986); (No. 2 soul, 1 week)
- “Party Train” – Gap Band (1983); (No. 3 soul, 5 weeks; No. 101 pop)
- “Shake” – Gap Band (1979); (No. 4 soul, No. 101 pop)
- “I Don’t Believe You Want To Get Up and Dance (Oops!)” (1980); (No. 4 soul; No. 102 pop)
- “Yearning For Your Love” – Gap Band (1981); (No. 5 soul; No. 60 pop)
- “I Wouldn’t Lie” – Yarbrough and Peoples (1986); (No. 6 soul, No. 93 pop)
- “Big Fun” – Gap Band (1987); (No. 8 soul)
Also, please see this touching personal tribute by the man who created the Total Experience logo, Mohammed Mubarak.