Danny Sims: Impresario with Mob connections who managed Bob Marley early in his career

 

Before Bob Marley signed to Island Records in 1972, he had written or recorded over 200 songs for Danny Sims, an African-American with Mafia connections who discovered him in Kingston in 1967.

These tunes included Stir It Up, which brought Marley his first international success; recorded by Johnny Nash, Sims' protégé, who had had a number of big-selling records in the United States, the song was a Top 20 hit in the UK and US in April 1972.

From 1995 to 2002 Sims' record company, JAD Records, released 15 discs of material by Bob Marley and the Wailers, in a series called The Complete Bob Marley and the Wailers: 1967 - 1972. Included were extremely rare cuts like "Selassie in The Chapel", "Tread Oh" and "Black Progress". Recognising Marley's songwriting talents, Sims put the Jamaican on a retainer of $100 a week – good money at the time, especially in Jamaica; and he signed him to his publishing company, Cayman Music. "I was out hustling songs," said Sims. "I got Eric Clapton to do 'I Shot The Sheriff'." Meanwhile, Barbra Streisand recorded "Guava Jelly", an early Marley composition.

In 1972, Sims signed Marley to CBS but his first single, "Reggae On Broadway", flopped. That year Marley met Chris Blackwell, who signed him to Island, with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone, as The Wailers; Sims took a percentage.

The American retained Marley's publishing until 1976: when Marley learned that publishing royalties from "I Shot the Sheriff" were worth millions of dollars, he worried he might not receive all his earnings. Was Marley anxious because he had learned that Sims' partner in Cayman Music was Paul Castellano, head of New York's Gambino crime family?

Born in Mississippi, Danny Sims was raised in Chicago and New York City. Intelligent, funny and sophisticated – in 1977 he married Beverly Johnson, the first black American to appear on a Vogue cover – Sims profited in the entertainment business, largely with black acts. But he also managed Paul Anka, a former teenage star turned immensely successful songwriter – "My Way" was his tune.

Sims had an additional career, as the proprietor of Sapphire's, the first black midtown Manhattan supper club. He never tried to hide his associations. "With the Jamaica boys who would come to America and get into trouble, I was always the guy they called," Sims told me, discussing narcotics. 'I was able to reach out with the guys I was friendly with, and keep the bad Americans away from them, to let them do their stuff without bothering them. You mentioned my name in New York in the white or black community, and people left you alone."

The writer and Marley archivist Roger Steffens confirmed this. "Danny's mob connections were no secret," he said. "He admitted to me that his partner in JAD Records for decades was Joe Armone, head of one of the biggest crime families in America. 'I'm a mobster,' he told me proudly, more than once." (Armone, who died in 1992, was involved in the "French Connection" heroin smuggling case and participated in the 1985 killing of Sims' Cayman Music partner Paul Castellano.)

Sims said that he and Johnny Nash left America for Jamaica to escape the FBI. When Nash had an r'*'b US No 1 in 1966 with "Let's Move and Groove Together", the record company radicalised a radio commercial for the release by adding the words "burn, baby, burn" – at the time of the Watts, Chicago and Detroit riots. "The FBI called me and said, 'Danny, we finally got you.' We thought we were going to get killed by the FBI for 'inciting a riot', as they called it. We got on a plane to Jamaica."

In Kingston, Sims moved into an uptown property. Nash's songs developed a Jamaican sense: he was the first international artist to regularly co-opt Jamaican rhythms, exemplified by the rock-steady feel of his 1969 hit with a version of Sam Cooke's "Cupid". It was Nash who found himself in Trenchtown on 7 January 1967 at a Rastafarian "grounation"; before a blazing fire, Bob Marley sang a number of his songs.

"Johnny told me about this fantastic artist," remembered Sims. "He said the songs were great, and he had invited him up to see me at my house. Bob came up with Peter Tosh, and Rita, and Mortimer Planner [a revered Rastafarian elder]."

The Jamaican's ambition, he told Sims, was to be "a soul singer, like Otis Redding". Sims, only interested in pop love songs, said he was not interested in material about Rastafari, although Marley was free to record such subject-matter for other labels. Sims was shocked to see the vicious class prejudices in Jamaica; Sims' maid refused to serve food to Marley and Tosh, considering them too low-caste; uptown Jamaican girls hanging out at the house would snootily disappear at the arrival of these ghetto boys.

Marley's signing to Island did not mark the end of his association with Sims. Following the discovery in 1980 of manager Don Taylor's embezzling of Marley's money, Sims was hired by the Jamaican to manage him. In New York that summer Marley paid a visit to Paul Castellano, co-owner of Cayman Music: at Sims' suggestion Castellano was to underwrite Marley's projected expansion in the US – which would include a departure from Island. But Marley never benefited from this financial injection – he was soon diagnosed with terminal cancer: the funds were diverted to the career of Peter Tosh, who Sims was also managing.

A decade ago Danny Sims was living anonymously in Balham, south London; a health freak, he spent his days at the gym, cycling around his area and living on an arcane diet of liquidised organic meals. After moving to the Dominican Republic – some said he was in hiding – he returned to Los Angeles. Before he was diagnosed with colon cancer, he had been telling his life story to the film director Oliver Stone, looking for an unusual angle for a Marley biopic.

Danny Sims, music business entrepreneur and restaurateur: born 1940; married Beverly Johnson (one daughter); died Los Angeles 7 October 2012.

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