Dorothy Simpson, Mom of Black America’s First VJ
Donnie Simpson’s mom, a record shop owner for 45 years, is still going strong
They say without Donnie Simpson, there would have been no BET. And without Simpson’s Record Shop in Detroit, there would have been no Donnie Simpson.
Approach the store today—owned by DJ Green Eyes’ 82-year-old mother, Dorothy Simpson—and you know you’re stepping into history.
A loud speaker outside saturates the community with melodies. Inside, all sorts of things remind you of the good ole days.
On the right side of the store, there’s what you would expect—countless classic records. On the left, there’s candy.
Whatever your 10-year-old taste buds grew up on, she’s got it: Charleston Chews, Lipsticks, Chick-o-Sticks, BB Bats and much more.
On one recent spring day, kids bounced in from the neighborhood and said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Simpson.” Then they pulled barely a dollar’s worth of loose change from their pocket, and indulged.
After the children, older folks looking for a new gospel song and a young guy looking for the latest in hip hop, followed.
Before approaching the counter, they all first stopped to hug, kiss and show their respect for Mrs. Simpson.
“To me it’s about the relationship with the community. I don’t worry, because I know every person over here is looking out for me,” says Mrs. Simpson, as she reminisces over the 45 years she’s been in business in the same neighborhood.
Her family has a long relationship with the community, and it shows on the walls crowded with pictures of people from around the way. There are baby pictures, graduation pictures and wedding photos of Detroiters who’ve come through the store that Mrs. Simpson and her late husband, Calvin Simpson Sr., opened on a whim.
Mrs. Simpson was considering businesses she could open in the commercial property her husband owned that could be a hands-on responsibility lesson for her children. She had been having problems getting a phone line put in and went to chat with a local business owner to get some help.
As they talked about the neighborhood and what kind of business it lacked, the woman mentioned there used to be a record store.
“I had that little light bulb moment and said, ‘Dagnabit, that’s it,’” Mrs. Simpson recalls.
At that time, she and her husband Calvin Sr., who died of natural causes in 2007, knew nothing about records. But with the store’s instant popularity and a booming music industry in Detroit, that quickly changed.
That’s how music got into the blood of Black America’s original VJ and his five siblings, including his twin brother, Lonnie.
“I remember records, eight tracks, four tracks, cassettes, all that. But I also remember thinking: ‘What’s a video?’” laughs Mrs. Simpson.
While Donnie achieved fame as the host of a national video show, his brother, Calvin Jr., owned Bad Records, a local chain of wholesale music stores. Another brother, Harry, is a local DJ.
When kids come in to buy a new CD, sometimes by an artist Mrs. Simpson doesn’t like, she still encourages them to follow their dreams—like she did for own children.
“Children are children,” says Mrs. Simpson. “[After] my kids grew up, I realized the store was still for the children. We help with homework and whatever else we can do.” Her commitment to helping her neighborhood has grown stronger as it has experienced economic decline.
“It’s the music that keeps us going,” she says.
Working for the family business as a youth, Donnie unpacked boxes of albums, straightened up around the store and unbeknownst to him, was beginning to build his own music industry legacy.
While a Denby High School student, he was a teen DJ for WJLB. Once his parents hosted the radio station at the store for a promotional day. Al Perkins, who was a DJ at the station, took a liking to Donnie and helped to nurture his career.
“That was when I realized he was serious about radio and DJ-ing—we just didn’t see it going this far. But if you follow your dreams anything can happen for you,” says Mrs. Simpson, who Donnie credits for introducing him to a lot of music. He became known as a DJ who played music you had never heard.
After eight years at WJLB, he hosted a morning show in Washington, D.C., for 33 years, hosted “Video Soul” for 14 years and redefined the possibilities for record spinners.
Once Donnie reached national stardom, a visit home to the store was a special treat for customers. Donnie would drop off pictures of himself with celebrities like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Mrs. Simpson hangs those pictures on the same board as the neighborhood stars who’ve come through her shop.
But her most precious memories in the store are of her husband. “Everywhere I look in this store there is a piece of him or one of my children. It’s made a great life for me here,” Mrs. Simpson says.
So while the country praises Donnie, Detroit lauds his mother—the woman who would help you with your homework, sell you a Chick-o-Stick and your favorite new album.
Be sure to stop by, purchase a CD and give Mrs. Simpson a hug.
Simpson’s Record Shop, 2961 E. McNichols Rd., Detroit, 313-891-2400