Lee Sims, Pianist

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The 1920s saw the rise of piano novelties and so-called syncopated pianists who helped shape the musical transformation of ragtime into popular music. Lee Sims was one of these piano stylists. During the 1920s and 1930s, Sims was known for his advanced chord structures and patterns. His successful career included recording player piano roles, making records, composing, publishing his unique arrangements of popular tunes of the day, and performing on radio and the theatrical stage (frequently with a singer, his wife, Ilomay Bailey).

Lee Sims was born April 30, 1898 in Champagne, Illinois. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was his hometown while growing up. At age of 8, he played ragtime and waltzes for a Y.M.C.A. calisthenics class in Cedar Rapids. By age 11, he was accompanying church singers and playing the theatre pipe organ for silent movies. At 14, he played at the Majestic Theater, La Salle, Illinois. While still in his teens, he went to work for a pipe organ manufacturer, demonstrating instruments all over the country.

At age 22, Sims decided to settle down in Chicago. He began making piano rolls for the United States Piano Roll Company and other piano roll companies. Today, these rolls are sought after by collectors.

He became studio manager for WTAS, one of the first radio stations in the Middle West. Later, he was studio manager of KYW, the Westinghouse station in Chicago, and WBBM, then the Stewart-Warner “theatre of the air.”

As a radio performer, Sims had a late-night program called "Piano Moods" over the Chicago NBC affiliate station, WMAQ. He founded the Lee Sims School of Music, and one of his pupils was Ilomay Bailey, who had been a vocalist with the Paul Ash and Ben Pollack orchestras. Prior to singing with these orchestras, Ilomay had had formal vocal training. The two were married and formed a team. Sims introduced Ilomay Bailey on his "Piano Moods" radio program and created an "instant sensation."

In the 1930s, Lee and Ilomay appeared as stars of the Chase and Sanborn Sunday night program for the National Broadcasting Company. Other radio appearances included Rudy Vallee's program and the Ben Bernie and Phil Baker shows.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Sims recorded approximately 60 sides for Brunswick. He published several courses on "modern piano" and numerous arrangements (or "transcriptions") of popular tunes of the day. Many original sheet music editions included a bonus Lee Sims chorus for the more proficient and adventurous performers.

After his heyday as a radio performer and recording artist, Sims devoted most of his time to teaching in his New York studio apartment, where Ilomay taught voice. Sims died of cancer on May 7, 1966.

Lee Sims was deeply imbued with the nineteenth-century European tradition and especially interested in the newer, impressionistic harmonies of Debussy and Ravel. While he recorded mostly sentimental popular songs, he had more serious ideas and aspirations. In 1928, his collection of "Five Piano Rhapsodies" was published.  In that same year, Sims recorded two of the “Rhapsodies” arranged for piano and orchestra on a Brunswick 12" disk. Sims appeared with the London Symphony Orchestra to play his symphonic tone poem, "Blythewood," with an orchestration by Ferde Grofe. Art Tatum biographer James Lester described Sims's compositions as being "drawn from the same sources as Bix Beiderbecke's 'In a Mist.'"

Sims's style was entirely outside the realm of jazz as we think of it today. Nevertheless, Sims influenced at least one notable jazz figure.  Art Tatum listened to Sims's radio broadcasts and acknowledged Sims as an important influence on his musical development.

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Image Gallery 

Paramount Theatre, April 20, 1934


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Recording from December, 1927

bullet"Meditation," by Lee Sims, with violin obligato
Streaming Real Audio

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Notes from "The Moods of Love" Record Jacket


Lee Sims, Piano and Organ
Ilomay Bailey, Organ and Vocal


            These Foolish Things Remind Me of You
            Love Me or Leave Me
            Love Is a Wanderer
            Everything I Have Is Yours
            My Ideal
            I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good


            The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else
            When Your Lover Has Gone
            Lazy Afternoon
            Ain't Misbehavin'
            If I Had You
            I'll See You in My Dreams

"People like quiet, easy music in back of them – sort of like a feeling of perfume in the air. They like to be aware of it, but they don't want to feel they have to be studying it all the time. That's what I'm trying to give them in this album."

Lee Sims is giving to listeners of his first long-playing album just what he has been giving all his listeners all over the world for many, happy years.  For his is a very personal, informal and extemporaneous style - definitely a "me-to-you" approach.  You could almost call him a "piano crooner."

And that is just the way this quiet, down-to-earth man has been playing piano ever since he originally started captivating large audiences with his piano programs first in the early days of radio in Chicago, later over his thrice-weekly, coast-to-coast NBC network shows.  He has always succeeded in establishing moods - colorful moods, too. The importance of color in his music can be traced right back to his earliest days when, at the age of eleven, he accompanied church singers and regaled movie house audiences with his work, not on the piano, but on the colorful pipe organ. He left his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when still in his early teens to go to work for an organ manufacturer, demonstrating the instrument all over the country.  Weary of wandering, at the ripe old age of eighteen, he finally decided to settle down in Chicago and to play in the radio studios there.

His audiences were not limited to the Windy City.  Early recordings and piano rolls carried his music all over the country. Then he met Ilomay Bailey, who was singing in a Chicago theater with, among others, Ginger Rogers.  Lee and Ilomay were married and formed the team of Lee Sims and Ilomay Bailey, whose warm, intimate singing and playing made them popular headliners all over the world.  Today they are still working together in their New York studios, coaching and encouraging young singers.  "Some are only six," says Lee. "And then we also have some who are only sixty!"

It was in his studio that Lee hit upon the idea of combining his piano and organ playing. "I've always had a curious nature.  I always wanted to know 'why' about everything.  My dad was a contractor.  He was Irish as 'Paddy's pig.' He never wanted me to be a performer of any kind.  So I had to pick up organ and piano myself.  After I'd taught myself to read music, I decided I'd like to try writing it."  The Lee Sims piano compositions are now standards everywhere and have been performed by top symphony orchestras.

"After I'd learned about reading and writing music, I became interested in new sounds.  I had a mechanical mind, so I started over-dubbing with a couple of tape recorders, and I hit on the combination of piano and organ which I used on this record.  This date might never have happened if I hadn't made a Christmas record just for my friends.  One of them, Al Kendricks, heard it and liked the piano-organ idea so much that he invited a friend of his, Ed Welker, up to my studio to hear other things I'd done.  It wasn't until after Ed started saying something about a contract that I discovered he was the man in charge of popular albums for RCA Victor.  Can you imagine that?"

Ed arranged recording dates for Lee, and the music contained herein was made.  "It was pure improvisation -- no arrangements," says Lee.  "In fact, five of the twelve tunes were ones Ed suggested making right on the date.  Let's see - Everything I Have Is Yours; My Ideal; The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else; If I Had You, and I'll See You in My Dreams. And that bit on Ain't Misbehavin,’ when Ilomay recites the lyrics -- that's something that just sorta happened right on the spur of the moment, too."

But then, that's just the feeling Lee wants his music to have and his listeners to get           -- the kind he has always produced with his relaxed, informal, legato, impressionistic way of playing. "Just mood music for people who like piano. Easy and informal. I guess the title really explains it:  The Moods of Love."          


George T. Simon, former editor of Metronome, is now a free-lance recording producer and television writer.

© by Radio Corporation of America, 1956

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Selections from the Lee Sims (1898-1966) 1950s RCA Victor LP, "The Moods of Love"

  1. "Lazy Afternoon"
    Streaming Real Audio
  2. "Ain't Misbehavin'" with wife, Ilomay Bailey
    Streaming Real Audio
  3. "These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You"
    Streaming Real Audio


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