Long live Cedars, the legacy of the late Tommy Simon

Thursday, November 16, 2017

It would be hard to find a bar owner who has touched as many lives as Tommy Simon.

He took over Cedars in downtown Youngstown in 1975, turned it into a mecca of rock ’n’ roll, and ran it until 2008.

Simon, who died last week at age 63, left a lifelong impact on the people he met at his bar, and the many more who didn’t know him but loved what he created.

The sheer volume of heartfelt memories posted on Facebook puts his accomplishment in perspective. It’s an outpouring of love and appreciation, especially from those who knew him best in the 1970s and ’80s.

Cedars-goers were bonded by a love of rock ’n’ roll, but that was just the foundation. Their comments paint a picture of what Simon – and his oasis of a club – meant to them.

Among the memories are two recurring themes: “Cedars gave all of us misfits a place to feel at home” and “many of my best memories were at Cedars.”

To be sure, Cedars has always been more than a bar.

For many people, it was a home, the place where they felt they belonged the most. It was the place where they could be themselves.

Simon presided over it and created a music scene there in the process. He nurtured it by giving new bands a place to play and also booking top national acts on tour.

For some, Cedars was the place where they met the person they would marry. For many, it was the only place to find like-minded people. Always cool, never pretentious.

The bar, which moved from its original North Phelps Street location to the West Side in 2012, is now called Cedars West End and is owned and operated by Tommy’s daughter, Mara, and her spouse, Billy Danielson.

Mara grew up as a loving sidekick to her father as he ran his bar, and was deeply moved by the deluge of memories from his friends. “He truly was a very important part of not only local music scene history, but national, too,” she pointed out.

In a Facebook post, she talked about how her father shared his love of music with her. “One of the best memories I’ll keep dearest to my heart is he and I driving down Fifth Avenue after picking up a liquor order for Cedars. I was probably all of 7 or 8 years old, riding with him in his red Mazda RX7 with the T-tops off, playing the Talking Heads. “And She Was,” “Burning Down the House” and “Once In A Lifetime” – they were his absolute favorites.”

Longtime Cedars regulars told me about Simon and what he meant to them and the city.

“Whether he realized it or not, Tommy Simon provided the canvas for many local artists to work,” said Pete Drivere, whose band the Infidels played there many times. “In a day before other club owners shamelessly copied his format, he provided many misfit, artistic kids with a relatively safe place to express themselves and create art.”

Timber Gilliland’s band 8 Balls was a mainstay at Cedars in the 1980s.

“Tommy was the gatekeeper for a place where the lunatics definitely ran the asylum,” said Gilliland. “By looking at him, you wouldn’t guess he was a cultural icon for Youngstown. Stocky and stoic, and not at all flashy or demanding attention.

“Back in 1981 he let the B Minors band play their original music on a Wednesday night. They invited the 8 Balls band to play their originals. They invited the Sonics. And soon, original music bands were drawing hundreds of people on the weekends. And original, creative types were coming from all over to Tommy’s club – bonding and organizing.

“Tommy often came across as gruff and overburdened, but there was much more to him. If you were lucky enough to stay after hours with him, he’d open up. Even smile and joke. People were often misjudging him: ‘What, he has three college degrees? He has a 3-year-old daughter? He had dinner with Billy Idol?’ Yep, yep and yep. I’m glad that Cedars still exists, though in a new location. The scene that spawned from there remains today.”

Jim Pernotto, the renowned artist, was a regular patron in the ’80s. He pointed out that in the 1990s, downtown was a ghost town of boarded-up stores – except for Cedars. “He kept the lights on downtown,” said Pernotto. “He was very intelligent, which made him a good bartender, and had a good ear for music.”

Although I have been to Cedars many times, especially the original location downtown, I didn’t know Tommy, and I was never part of the early Cedars heyday.

But I do remember the first time I stumbled into a rock ’n’ roll bar in Pittsburgh many years ago. Until that day, I was unaware that such places existed, and I instantly knew I had found what I was looking for.

I think many Youngstowners had a similar experience when they first entered Cedars.

When Cedars moved to the West Side, it brought its look – including the same bar back that graced the original location. But more importantly, it brought its vibe. The Cedars family, its history and its rock ’n’ roll spirit remains intact.

It’s the rare bar that stays true for 40 years. That’s a tribute to its founder, and I hope it never changes.

Note: An ’80s Cedars Reunion will take place at the bar Dec. 23. Mara said it will incorporate a tribute to her father, as well as other Cedars originals who recently died, including Jeff Sanders (Sharkbites, Easy Street band).

Guy D’Astolfo covers entertainment for The Vindicator.