Gerald Sims, Chess Records session guitarist heard on Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher and Higher,’ dead at 83

Beside playing with many blues, soul greats, he also owned a music school and store near 79th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue where he gave Howlin’ Wolf guitar lessons.

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Gerald Sims, a session guitarist for Chess Records and other labels, who played with musicians including Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, The Chi-Lites, Ramsey Lewis, Billy Stewart, Minnie Riperton, Jerry Butler and Nancy Wilson.

Gerald Sims played with musicians including Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, The Chi-Lites, Ramsey Lewis, Fontella Bass, Billy Stewart, Minnie Riperton, Jerry Butler and Nancy Wilson.

Provided

As a session guitar player for Chess Records, Gerald Sims played with blues and soul royalty on hits that keep people grooving to this day — among them Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” and Fontella Bass’s “Rescue Me.”

But his most important audience was often family.

“I’d sneak in to his home music studio and listen to him practicing, and sometimes he could sense me, and he’d turn around a look and just play for me like I was the only audience in the world,” said his granddaughter Kaycie Alanis.

Mr. Sims died May 8 in Burien, Wash., from Alzheimer’s disease, according to his family. He was 83.

He also played on recordings for other labels, counted Muddy Waters as a friend and played with other musicians including Mary Wells, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, The Dells, The Chi-Lites, Ramsey Lewis, Billy Stewart, Minnie Riperton, Jerry Butler, Nancy Wilson and Willie Dixon.

“He was a very humble guy, but the truth is he was a damn good guitar player, one of the best in the world, a known commodity,” said Tony Gideon, a friend and fellow musician.

In the 1960s, Mr. Sims owned a music school and store near 79th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, where, every Tuesday for a time, he gave guitar lessons to his friend Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf.

“Wolf was probably about six and a half feet tall, and when he came in carrying his guitar for a lesson, it always looked like it was a violin case up against him,” said Marty Mia, who helped manage the school and store.

Mr. Sims’ dog, a Great Dane named Thor, was a fixture there, too.

Mia, who left a troubled home at a young age, credits Mr. Sims with helping rescue her. She was 14 but lied and told Mr. Sims she was 16 to get a job.

“He was like a father figure,” she said. “Being a kid growing up in the ‘60s with the race things going on and ‘you’ve got to stay in you place’ and all that, seeing how he accomplished all kinds of things, that’s what instilled in me the importance of work and education and making something out of myself,” Mia said.

Mr. Sims grew up in Chicago until his mother decided there was too much trouble he could get into in the city and moved by bus with her four sons to Kalamazoo, Mich.

A childhood bout with polio left Mr. Sims with a limp. That kept him from playing sports, like his brothers did. So he picked up a guitar, formed a band and would play for school assemblies.

At 19, he moved back to Chicago and quickly found a job playing at Chess Records and and in Gideon’s band, the Daylighters. He wrote a hit song for the group called “Cool Breeze.”

“I remember we used to cook beans together in his basement apartment in Englewood when we were starting out as struggling entertainers,” Gideon said.

Besides playing, Mr. Sims also arranged, wrote and sang.

“He was at the top of the list for this type of ability to recognize the sound we needed, a consummate professional,” said Larry Wade, who sang in Billy Butler and Infinity, which tapped him for help.

Mr. Sims’ guitar played a hand in courting Carol McGillicuddy, a professional singer he’d later marry. The story told in his family was that he kept sticking the neck of his guitar between her and the piano player one night at a gig. Things blossomed from there.

“They were an interracial couple and got together in 1960 on the South Side,” his granddaughter said. “He was not bothered about what other people might say about it.”

Gerald Sims

Gerald Sims with his wife, Carol Sims.

Provided/Family photo

Mr. Sims played the blues a lot but preferred soul.

“The blues is about the bad stuff, death and sadness and losing your woman,” Alanis said. “And soul is about the love you have and your passion. And I think that’s how he lived his life. He did not linger on the things that were hard or painful. He was always looking at the things that brought him joy or the next adventure.”

Mr. Sims owned several apartment buildings on the South Side and looked the other way more than once when someone couldn’t make the rent, according to his son Gerald Jones.

“He was a good dude, and that’s what I hope people remember about him,” said Jones, who is a railroad police officer in the suburbs of Atlanta.

Mr. Sims bought the building that housed Chess Records at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. in 1982. He ran his own record label there for a time and dreamed of turning it into a museum, which eventually happened after he sold it in 1992.

Alanis, who lives in Washington, moved her grandparents there in recent years so she could help care for Mr. Sims.

A few days before his death, she was at a pharmacy, picking up his medicine, when the stress and sadness hit her, and she had to sit down.

Soft rock from the 1970s was playing in the background, she took a few deep breaths, then “Higher and Higher” came on, with her grandfather on guitar.

“I just was thinking to myself, ‘You’ll be with me wherever I go forever,’ ” Alanis said. “And I laughed so loud that all the people in line turned to look and thought I was crazy. And then I just started crying.”

Mr. Sims is also survived by his wife Carol, four children, two stepchildren and eight other grandchildren.

Visitation is planned from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Modell Funeral Home in Darien.

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