Eugene Simpson, 89, who once sang on The Ed Sullivan Show and led the Rowan University Chamber Choir on tours around the world, died peacefully in his sleep at his Sicklerville home on Sunday, May 2.
Dr. Simpson was a conductor, arranger, vocalist and pianist who once chaired the music department at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University.
He led the Rowan University Chamber Choir during performances in Paris, London, Madrid, Rome, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
In 1957, he sang on The Ed Sullivan Show as leader of the Melodaires, a quartet he formed the year before while serving in the Army.
He later worked as a studio singer in recording sessions with producer and composer Quincy Jones and singers Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, Harry Belafonte, James Brown, Dinah Washington, Leontyne Price, Patti Page, Bobby Darrin, and the Ray Charles Singers.
Eugene Thamon Simpson was born on April 10, 1932, in Traphill, N.C., the only child of Eugene Tyra Simpson and Roxie Violet Johnson. The family eventually settled in Bladenboro, N.C., where his father was a superintendent of schools for Black children, and his mother was a teacher.
Dr. Simpson’s musical talent was discovered when he began to play the piano at age 6.
He had a gift, said Adrienne Simpson, his daughter: “My dad could sit down and play anything he heard. People would come to visit their house, just to hear him play.”
When he was barely a teenager, a wealthy white couple wanted to take him to New York to study at the Juilliard School. But his father refused.
Instead, his parents enrolled him at Palmer Memorial Institute, a school for affluent Black Americans in Sedalia, N.C.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Howard University, graduating in 1951 as the “Most Distinguished Student in Applied Music.” He received a second bachelor’s degree from Yale School of Music in 1953, and a master’s degree in piano performance, also from Yale, a year later.
Afterward, he started a doctoral program at Columbia University’s Teachers College, but his studies were interrupted in 1956 when he was drafted into the Army.
He later returned to Columbia, completing his doctorate in 1968. Soon after, he took a position as chair of the voice program at Virginia State College, where he met Ingres Hill, the woman who would become his wife.
She was a student at Virginia State, but they did not date until she began graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, their daughter said. After two children and 17 years of marriage, the union ended in divorce.
Dr. Simpson left Virginia State in 1970 to become chair of the music department at Bowie State College, and joined Glassboro State College in 1975.
After five years as chair, he focused on teaching voice and working with Rowan choirs and individual students.
He developed a small madrigal group into the Glassboro State College Chamber Choir, 36 singers who performed at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Piarist Church in Vienna, and Church of Las Calatravas in Madrid. The choir also toured in Salzburg, St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Dr. Simpson retired from Rowan in 2000, and started new projects, including writing. In 2008, Scarecrow Press published his biography about Black composer Hall Johnson: Hall Johnson: His Life, His Spirit and His Music.
In addition to his daughter and ex-wife, Dr. Simpson is survived by a son, Eugene Tyra; three grandchildren; and many cousins, former students, and international colleagues and friends.
A viewing will held be from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, May 15, at Pitman United Methodist Church, 758 N. Broadway, in Pitman, N.J., immediately followed by a funeral service. Interment will be at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Md., on Monday, May 17.