‘I released a 1968 ska Christmas song in Birmingham before managing Black Sabbath’

Former Black Sabbath manager Jim Simpson recalls the ska Christmas song he released 55 years ago for Big Bear Records

It’s 55 years since former Black Sabbath manager Jim Simpson released his first record on his independent record label Big Bear Records.

The ska Christmas single ‘Rudi The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ from The Steam Shovel was a follow up to ‘Rudi’s In Love’ from the Birmingham-based first ever UK ska band Locomotive in the 1960s.

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Although it didn’t break into the charts when it was first released in 1968 it did enjoy healthy sales over several re-releases. And Jim says it also caught the attention of the huge Walt Disney Corporation - but not in a positive way.

Jim explains: “They threatened Big Bear Records with litigation if we did not immediately ‘cease and desist’ from using our new Bear logo, which was deemed, in hindsight, quite correctly to look too much like their Balou The Bear.”

Big Bear went on to record more than 200 jazz, blues and rock albums, being named by the world's leading blues publication, Living Blues, as having "the most interesting collection of 1970s American blues recordings". It is the UK’s longest established Indie record label.

Jim hugs Ozzy on Black Sabbath bench (Photo - Graham Young)Jim hugs Ozzy on Black Sabbath bench (Photo - Graham Young)
Jim hugs Ozzy on Black Sabbath bench (Photo - Graham Young)

It wasn’t long after that, when Big Bear picked up one of the biggest bands in the world - who started out as an unknown band from Aston called Earth.  “We signed them for management and recording, and name-changed them to Black Sabbath and set about finding them a record deal with a major label to re-assign the recording rights to. 

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“I touted what was to become the actual first Black Sabbath album - ‘Black Sabbath’ - around London’s majors, and got 14 ‘no thank you – we’re not interested’, responses.

“I had not at that point just decided to bite the bullet and release ‘Black Sabbath’ on Big Bear when I received a phone call from Olav Wyber, A&R Head at the Phonogram Vertigo label who said, ‘that Birmingham band you played for me, I can’t remember their name, but I would like to sign them’. “It transpired that whoever was scheduled to deliver his next Vertigo release had failed to do so, and he vaguely remembered ‘that band from Birmingham’ who would do as a replacement. 

“I assigned the recording rights to Vertigo and continued to manage Black Sabbath, taking them to two hit albums, ‘Black Sabbath’ and ‘Paranoid’ and one hit single, ‘Paranoid’, before losing them to London-based managers with posh cars and smart suits.”

1968 - First picture of Black Sabbath by Jim Simpson1968 - First picture of Black Sabbath by Jim Simpson
1968 - First picture of Black Sabbath by Jim Simpson

Jim tells how Big Bear continued recording and releasing Birmingham bands, Locomotive, Tea & Symphony, The Dog That Bit People and Bakerloo Blues Line, before returning to an early love, American Blues - and proceeding to record 34 bluesmen including Lightnin’ Slim, Homesick James, Shuggie Otis, Big John Wrencher, Doctor Ross, Mickey Baker, Eddie Guitar Burns, Eddie Playboy Taylor, The Mighty Flea, Cousin Joe, Snooky Pryor, Willie Mabon, Billy Boy Arnold, Johnny Mars, Eddie C. Campbell, Chico Chism, Good Rockin’ Charles, Lonesome Jimmie Lee Robinson, Little Smokey Smothers and G.P. Jackson to name a few.

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He added: “Come the late 70s and Big Bear also turned its attention to Birmingham bands, charting with The Quads ‘There Must Be Thousands’ and very nearly doing the same with Muscles ‘Love Is All I’ve Got’ and the ‘Only Death Is Fatal’ single by Garbo’s Celluloid Heroes, which were turntable hits but didn’t produce sufficient activity over the record store counters.

“Come the mid-80s we started to record King Pleasure & The Biscuit Boys (nine albums to date), Tipitina, The Whiskey Brothers, Howard McCrary and more.” Big Bear’s current release is by the Blues star from Atlanta, Georgia, Chick Willis – and the CD reviews are, without exception, terrific. Here’s a selection:

  • “This album is no nonsense blues all the way, there is not a poor track” – Norman Darwen, Blues & Rhythm Magazine
  • “As live as you could possibly get outside a raucous club” – Harrie Huisman Fotos Blues, Rock and More Blog
  • “It’s crazy, but this is an end to end player, there is nothing you’re going to skip” – Graham Munn, Rhythm & Blues Magazine
  • “This turns out to be a fabulous collection of blues and R&B…a totally unreserved recommendation for anyone who loves The Blues” – Blues In Britain

So the story of Birmingham's Big Bear Records - the UK’s longest established indie record label - continues as we look back at that ska Christmas song where it all began back in 1968.

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