Special to the Chronicle Times
John Simon begged his parents for a guitar when he was a pre-teenager. They reluctantly shoveled out $99, guessing his interest would disappear and the investment would be a waste.
John, the son of Karen "Kit" Sievers, Alta, and the late Larry Simon, and grandson of Phillip and Shirley Simmons, Cherokee, fooled everyone. He taught himself how to play and had jam sessions with friends. When he was in high school at Alta, the music director worked with him some and got him interested in jazz band. He was also involved in the high school choir.
After graduating from high school in 1996, he went on to pursue a music major, earning a bachelor's degree from Webster University, located in St. Louis, Mo.
He became aware of the need for musicians in the military, and liked the sounds of the benefits. For the past three years he has been an active member of the First Cavalry Division Band.
John returned recently from a 10-month stay in Iraq where his job, and those of the other soldiers in his division, was to entertain the soldiers serving overseas. He and nine others formed a rock ensemble and featured all types of pop music. The group, named "Amber Tide" was quite popular with the soldiers. John shared his talents on the guitar, accompanied by a drummer, key board player, bass player and vocalists.
"We traveled where the USO didn't go, to bring the soldiers there a piece of home," said John, now back at his home base - Ft. Hood, Texas. "They were generally surprised to hear that quality of music coming from an army band."
The 50 some concerts were held throughout Baghdad in tents, dining facilities, on the trailers of trucks or on the ground. They always gathered a large audience.
"Amber Tide" members even had the opportunity to meet some professionals who were also out entertaining. The group opened for comedian Robin Williams and for a concert presented by Ted Nugent and Toby Keith. Some members of the army band played on stage with the professionals; Ted borrowed John's guitar for the set. "We didn't have a lot of time to interact with them but they were cordial."
John and the other members of the band stayed in the same type of facilities the soldiers were staying in during their time in Iraq. They were transported to their concert sites by helicopter. Loading and unloading the heavy equipment was quite a project. They had to load all their equipment into a truck to go to the helicopter pad, unload it on the pad then load it into the helicopter. They did this four times everytime they played to get their equipment there and back.
While Amber Tide performed in Iraq, some 30 other army musicians were in the country entertaining including a salsa band, that was also quite popular among the soldiers.
John and the other members of Amber Tide returned to the states Jan. 29. They don't know how long they will be together, since army life is so unpredictable. It was decided that a CD should be made to commemorate the fun and talents they shared as a musical group. They were given permission to spend the week at Fort Meade Maryland, which houses a recording studio, to record 16 of their favorite songs. The songs will be in CD form and possibly made available to the public. "That's our ultimate goal." But if it doesn't go out to the public, that's okay, too. The trip has been fun while it has lasted.
The media picked up on the band. The story has been on the radio as well as newspapers. MTV recognized the group and a piece will be out on their website on Sunday.
John performed with a concert band, playing percussion instruments, previously, when stationed in Virginia. Several concerts were presented there. He has also played for the ceremonial band which performs during many special military occasions. The band has played at many departures and arrivals of Iraq soldiers.
Though his specialty is music, John pointed out that he went through basics and has been trained to be a soldier - gun in one hand, guitar or drumstick in another. He enjoys what he does but with only one year left of his enlistment, he is not sure if he will reenlist. A new chapter of his life will begin in June when he marries his college sweetheart, Elizabeth Ventling.
"I feel real fortunate to have had the opportunity to go to Iraq," John said, adding that he is, however, glad to be back home. "The chance we had, to play for the soldiers and raise their morales - I'm thankful everyday we had the chance to do that and wouldn't want to change that at all."