By Ray Shasho
When recollecting those perpetual hit makers of the ‘60s, singer/songwriter Tommy Roe’s accomplishments are among the elite of the music industry. Tommy Roe wrote and recorded (6) Top 10 hits between 1962 -1969, more than any other solo American artist, including (11) Top 40 hits, (4) certified gold singles, and (2) #1 Hits.
Tommy Roe is a member of the Hit Parade Hall of Fame, The Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and The Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Roe will also be inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Association (IRMAA) Hall of Fame on September 2nd 2012.
Rock and Roll pioneer Tommy Roe became an overnight Top 40 radio sensation with his 1962 #1 Hit “Sheila,” a tune in which Roe pays homage to Buddy Holly. Tommy Roe scored again the following year with his Top 10 hit, “Everybody” reaching #3 in the U.S.
In 1963, Tommy Roe and Chris Montez (“Let’s Dance,” “Call Me,” “The More I See You”) toured with an up and coming rock and roll band called The Beatles. Roe initially tried to get The Beatles a recording contract but was told by a record executive to stick to writing music and leave the record business to him. When The Beatles popularity materialized, Tommy Roe was asked to perform at their first American concert at the Washington Coliseum in D.C. Because of an overseas wave of music to hit the U.S. called the British Invasion, Roe was forced to conceive a new sound.
In 1966, Tommy Roe’s #8 Top 40 bubblegum hit, “Sweet Pea” swept the nation, followed by a British Invasion influence release, “Hooray for Hazel” which reached #6 on Billboard’s Top 100.
In 1969, Tommy Roe struck gold twice with the prevailing, “Dizzy” reaching #1 and the Freddy Weller (Paul Revere & the Raiders) co-written tune, “Jam Up and Jelly Tight” peaking at #8 on the Billboard charts.
Tommy Roe’s willingness to accept and create new musical ideas sustained enormous commercial success during the most competitive period in American popular music.
Tommy Roe will be releasing his long and anticipated CD soon called, ‘Devils Soul Pile.’ Roe admits,“It’s titled after a song I have written and included in the lineup, the song is a departure from my normal and expected style, and one that tells the story of dysfunctional families, and the effect it has on our youth and our neighborhoods. Lyrically, this song is a bit serious, and was inspired by the everyday news of violence in our neighborhoods and cities. But a song that ends in hope.”
Roe’s new release will be followed by ‘An Evening with Tommy Roe’ concert tour launching on April 7th in Riverside, Iowa. A Florida appearance is scheduled at The Villages in Lake Sumter Landing. Roe says, “I will also do a Q&A session in the middle of the show while the stage is being set for my acoustic set with band leader and lead guitarist Rick Levy.”
I had the rare and wonderful opportunity to chat with Tommy Roe about his illustrious music career, including his personal experiences with The Beatles, Elvis and Frank Sinatra.
Here’s my interview with singer/songwriter/musician/rock and roll pioneer Tommy Roe.
Ray Shasho: Thank you for being on the call today Tommy. How are things in Los Angeles?
Tommy Roe: “It’s funny, I came here in 1965 to do a show with Dick Clark called ‘Where the Action is’ and was supposed to stay for six months but I’m still here. (All laughing)”
Ray Shasho: I heard through the grapevine that you’re working on a new CD.
Tommy Roe: “I’m not sure exactly when I’ll get it out, maybe by spring, it’s just a long process today. For one thing the record business just sucks! (All laughing) Trying to get a record deal or trying to get somebody really interested in your project. I mean, I’ve been out of the business for awhile and fighting that whole battle as well …it’s not easy. But if I’m not successful with a label by May, I’m going to put it out myself and see if I can get an independent distributor. And I can always sell it at my concerts …so we’ll see what happens. I’ve got some new songs and that’s why I’m so excited. I’ve started writing again and recorded the songs and I’m just trying to package it and put it together, so that’s kind of where we stand with it.”
Ray Shasho: We’re all anxiously awaiting some great new material by Tommy Roe. You are a true rock and roll pioneer.
Tommy Roe: “Well thank you. I didn’t record for a long time and songwriting is funny. I’m not the kind of songwriter where I can sit down every day and write a song, it has to come to me from somewhere. So it’s out there in space somewhere and it sort of reaches me. When that happens I turn one after another and they seem to come out real easy. When I went to Nashville to work with the songwriters there, they were so disciplined and go to the office everyday and write. I couldn’t do that, it’s not the way I do it. I just like to let it happen, and when it happens I have to make it work.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve heard the good and the bad about record companies in the 60’s. After chatting with Tommy James, he told me that even though he was literally cheated out of million in royalties, if it weren’t for Record Exec. Morris Levy, he would have never been a star.
Tommy Roe: “That’s true, it’s like the guy that got me started Bill Lowery from Atlanta. We had these kinds of moguls around that sort of controlled different parts of the country. Levy up there and Bill Lowery in the south and these guys really helped a lot of young entertainers get started and without them we could have never done it. Back in those days the way radio was structured you had to have somebody fighting for you. We didn’t make the money that the guys make today but I think we had a lot of fun. I know I did, it was very spontaneous and I hope the kids today have as much fun as I did.”
Ray Shasho: I was intrigued by the artistic photos that you shot internationally and displayed on your website.
TommyRoe: “Yea, I got into taking pictures, my wife is from Franceand we go there at least once a year. Last year we went twice, she speaks five languages so we travel to all these different places. I kind of follow her around with my camera. (Laughing) But it’s just something I enjoy. It’s funny when I started in the music business; I was in high school and actually had an art scholarship to the Atlanta Art Institute. I was going to enter the Institute when “Sheila” became a hit. So I had to go with the music instead of the art. So it worked out for the best.”
Ray Shasho: You also worked for General Electric?
Tommy Roe: “I got married very young and had a little baby. I was married actually in my last year of high school so I had to get a job. I worked for General Electric; my cousin helped me get a job there, didn’t know what the hell I was doing … just putting wires together. I think what they did was to make machinery to generate electricity at a dam, but I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I was just thankful to have a job.”
Ray Shasho: Your first big hit, “Sheila” was one of those rock and roll originals. I’ve always felt if you had continued in that musical direction, you would have been a hell of a rocker.
Tommy Roe: “I kind of got sidetracked… “Sheila” and then “Everybody” was even more of a rockabilly southern song and it went to number three on the charts. But when I came out here to California, I got with this producer who wanted to change my style. What was happening at that time is you had the British Invasion. All the British acts were making it huge over here and really pushed a lot of the American acts off the charts. And this guy figured the only way that I could compete and to stay on the charts was to come up with something totally different. The British acts loved doing rockabilly, that’s what the British acts based their styles off, so he suggested that we get into the softer rock stuff and I think it really helped me survive the ‘60s. The British were just taking over the charts and then I came up with “Sweet Pea.” That was my first soft rock thing. It was a big hit so we just stuck with that style throughout the ‘60s.”
Ray Shasho: I always wondered if it was your decision to change styles musically or the record labels.
Tommy Roe: “Yea, it was the producer and the label together trying to figure out a way to keep me on the charts. But I really loved the rockabilly style, that’s what I do in my show. When I started singing as a kid in high school I use to do John Lee Hooker. The reason I did it was because our band was getting booked at fraternity parties at Georgia Tech and University of Georgia and that’s all they wanted to hear was blues stuff. So that’s what I really started to sing as a kid… all that blues stuff.”
Ray Shasho: When you wrote “Sheila” were you thinking about Buddy Holly at the time?
Tommy Roe: “I was a huge fan of his and that was my way of respecting Buddy Holly. When I first recorded “Sheila” I recorded it while I was in high school and wrote it when I was about 14 years old. I recorded it early in high school with my local band. We didn’t have the drums and when I hooked up with Felton Jarvis, he loved the song but wanted to put something more exciting into it, so he thought about putting those drums in there. My first version of “Sheila” was almost a hit, it was a hit locally in the southeast but never spread nationally and that’s why Felton knew the song. He knew it would become a hit if he rerecorded it and added the drums in there. I was a huge fan of Holly so it was fine with me.”
Ray Shasho: Besides Buddy Holly who were some of your early influences growing up?
Tommy Roe: “Chuck Berry of course, Carl Perkins… anybody that wrote songs. When I was a kid I wanted to be a songwriter, I was very shy so I never dreamed about being a performer. “Sheila” was originally a poem I wrote about a girl that I went to school with and her name was “Frieda.” It use to be “Sweet Little Frieda.” It was a poem and at the time my dad taught me three chords on the guitar and I thought… boy if I could just put some music to my poems maybe I could become a songwriter. So that’s what started it for me, it just happened that my dad played an instrument and I use to love to write silly poems to my girlfriends. So I turned “Frieda” into a song and ran around singing “Sweet Little Frieda” for a long time. When I finally got the chance to record it the producer suggested changing the name to “Sheila.”
Ray Shasho: You toured with the Beatles before they got big in America.
Tommy Roe: “I did. After Sheila was a hit in 1962, I had an opportunity to go to England and tour over there in 1963. I had worked some dates over here in the states with Chris Montez; in fact we did the Sam Cooke tour together and did several other tours together in the U.S. So we knew each other and they put us together on this tour in England to co-headline. When we got over there we saw the program and it had a featured act on our show called The Beatles, and they were on the bottom of the lineup. Nobody knew who the Beatles were they were just starting out, and I think they only did one other tour before our tour. The Helen Shapiro tour and then they did our tour. On our tour is when they really broke out, it was like Elvis all over again. I even suggested to Brian Epstein that I’d take a package back with me to the states and get them a record deal, which I did; they gave me a promo kit to take back to the states. All they talked about was America; they wanted to know if I met Buddy Holly, have you ever been to New York? Have you been to the Statue of Liberty? …so many questions, they just wanted to know everything about America.”
“So I came back to the states after the tour and I talked to Felton from over in England and I said, “You know I’m working with this band and they’re going to be huge, we should see if we can get them a record deal in the states.” So I brought my promo pack with me and took the Queen Elizabeth ship back to New York City and Felton met me at the dock when I got home. He said, “Come on grab a cab, we’ve got a meeting set up with Sam Clark at ABC Records and he’s waiting for you to hear the band that you found.” So we went right up to Sam’s office and I went in and they said, “Hey kid… it’s good to have you home, we heard you had a great tour and we understand that you found an act that you want us to hear. I said, “Yea, it’s an act that was on our tour called The Beatles. They all kind of laughed. I pulled out their first album with pictures of them wearing the bangs, and the office got real quiet …they stopped talking and looked at the front cover and then said, “What the hell is that?” Felton pointed out, “Wait, you got to hear them.” So they took the album and put it on the turntable, dropped the needle, played a few bars from the first cut and then picked up the needle and said, “I tell you what kid …let us be the talent scout, that’s got to be the worst piece of crap that I’ve ever heard in my life, we’ll find the talent, you just go back to your nice room at The Waldorf Hotel with the nice TV and write us some more hit songs.”I was devastated and felt about an inch high. They completely blew us off!”
“About six months later … The Beatles became how we know them as … The Beatles. Every time I would see those executives at my label from that point on …they would run for the door, they could not face me.”
Ray Shasho: In 1964, you were on the bill with The Beatles when they played their first American concert in Washington D.C. at the Coliseum.
Tommy Roe: “Of course I had done the tour in England with The Beatles in 1963, so we had a relationship. Brian Epstein was going to manage me at one time so they were talking back and forth with my music publisher and talking to Brian about managing me and said, we’re coming to the states and would like Tommy to open the show for us at a show in Washington D.C. so that’s how that all happened.”
“They did the Ed Sullivan Show and then took the train down to the Washington Coliseum show and I drove up from Atlanta with the band that I used to record “Everybody,” the song was just out as a new record. “Everybody” was inspired by my tour in England with The Beatles. I wrote that on the ship coming back from England to New York.”
“I only did two songs at the Coliseum show with The Beatles … I did “Sheila” and “Everybody.” Then The Chiffons came on and did two songs. But you know what’s funny; it was just supposed to be The Chiffons and myself, and after The Ed Sullivan show everybody called and wanted to get on that show. The Righteous Brothers were there and several other acts came and were also on the show. They got no publicity, they just wanted to come and be close to The Beatles. Murray the K came down from New York and wanted me to introduce them to The Beatles, I told him look …they’ve got security nobody can get near them, you can probably get to them easier that I can.”
Ray Shasho: I had a friend that was actually at that concert, he said that he couldn’t hear any of the music because the girls were screaming so loud.
Tommy Roe: “Al Gore was there too. There was an article in The Washington Post recently where they interviewed Paul, myself, and Al Gore for the anniversary of that show. They’re trying to save that building so they interviewed all of us together for that article.”
Ray Shasho: I was there as a kid, I think to watch the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the Coliseum was in a really crappy neighborhood.
Tommy Roe: “Yea, they used it for boxing matches and stuff.It was kind of a slimey kind of a place. And the acoustics in there were awful. My band was down in the orchestra pit, they cleared the stage and then they put The Beatles stuff on there. I was kind of standing at the door and watching their show and Ringo was actually picking his drums up and turning them around because it was like a theater in a round. He would get off his drum riser and reset his drums so he could play to the people that he had his back to. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and his drums were moving all over the place, the symbols were flying everywhere, I don’t know how he managed to keep them upright and not fall over. It was the most amazing thing.”
Ray Shasho: Tommy, not only are you a rock and roll pioneer, but you’re also a very important part of Beatles rock and roll history. We haven’t covered Elvis Presley yet … have you met him?
Tommy Roe:“Oh yea, I met him several times. Felton who produced “Sheila” and “Everybody” ended up producing Elvis the last six or seven years of his life. So when they opened in Las Vegas at the Hilton, Felton invited me over to the opening show. So I met him there, Felton was always doing the sound for Elvis at those Las Vegas shows, so we’d hang out together and go to the dressing room. Elvis was a strange dude. Sometimes he would be very talkative and very alive and other times he would just sit in the corner and say nothing. Either he was moody or not moody there was no in between with him. When you first met Elvis, you think my God this guy’s handsome. And the first time you’re taken back, he had such charisma and magnetism when you walk into a room and meet him. There was two people that I’ve met that were that way …Frank Sinatra also had the same thing but in a different way. When you met Frank, his presence was overpowering and Elvis was the same way. There are very few entertainers that have that; it’s a God given gift.”
Ray Shasho: I was a huge fan of Frank Sinatra. I saw five of his concerts including front row center seats at Caesars Palace in Vegas and Resorts in Atlantic City. I’ve always wanted to meet him, what was Sinatra like?
Tommy Roe: “He was a great and fun guy. My wife was very good friends with him, as a matter of fact she had a house right next door to his in Palm Springs. Before we were married we’d go down to that house. It’s on the golf course and he’d be playing golf and met him several times there. But she knew him really well. The first time I met him was at a restaurant in Palm Springs, and I was touring and had my road manager with me, and he was 6’5 and weighed about 280 pounds, just a huge guy. So we’re in there together with my girlfriend at the time who became my wife Josette. As we walked in to the restaurant Josette said, “Oh there’s Frank” and I didn’t know who she was talking about. She took me by the hand and took me over to his table and introduced me to him. She said, Frank I want you to meet my boyfriend … this is Tommy Roe, he’s a singer too and this is his bodyguard. Frank said, “Josette, you don’t need a bodyguard, I’m your bodyguard. (All laughing) We had a fun conversation, “Jilly” was there with him, and I think it was kind of their hangout in Palm Springs. But he was a very nice guy and total charisma.”
Ray Shasho: When “Hooray for Hazel” hit the Top 40 airwaves, I really thought it was part of the British Invasion. I never imagined the tune to be a Tommy Roe song. Am I correct to think that the song mirrored the British Invasion?
Tommy Roe: “Well we were trying to survive weren’t we? Of course I had the experience of being over in England so I knew that sound. I was familiar with that British sound so I wanted to integrate it into my recording sessions. You’re right; “Hazel” did have that. I love doing “Hazel” in the show and it’s amazing how many people remember it.”
Ray Shasho: What was the origin behind “Hooray for Hazel”?
Tommy Roe: “Well you remember the Hazel TV show? There are so many girl names for songs… why not a Hazel … let’s do a Hazel. So that’s where a got the idea for the song.”
Ray Shasho: There seems to be a resurgence of “Sweet Pea” on You Tube. The song is getting thousands of hits, and everyone seems to love the little girl that you sing to in the video.
Tommy Roe: “I’ve heard about that, there’s a clip from ‘Where the Action is’ where I’m singing to that little girl. I’ve even had some emails asking if it was my daughter. It wasn’t my daughter but she kind of looked like me in a way. She was a big fan in the audience and knew every word to the song. The audience was full of kids but I just so happened to sit down with her and she sang right along with me. But there has been a lot of reaction to that video.”
Ray Shasho: Tommy, you’ve got some concert dates coming up?
Tommy Roe: “We’re going to start on April 7th at the Riverside Casino in Iowa and then we go up to the Seneca Niagara Casino in New York. We’ve got some dates over in Canada in May and coming down to the Villages in Florida on June 18th. We do an hour show with an acoustic set in the middle and a Q & A with the audience which I really enjoy. It’s a lot of fun and the audience loves it.
Ray Shasho: Tommy we’re all looking forward to your new CD and upcoming concert dates. Thank you for being on the call today and most of all for all the great Tommy Roe music over the years.
Tommy Roe: “Ray, thank you for the interest in Tommy Roe. We’ll see you down in Florida.”
Watch for Tommy Roe’s CD including brand new material soon!
Check for updates and concert dates on Tommy Roe’s official website at www.tommyroe.com
The Villages official website www.thevillages.com
Special thanks to the great Billy James at Glass Onyon PR for arranging this interview
Official website http://glassonyonpublicity.wordpress.com
Contact Ray Shasho at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Book Review -Ray Shasho is a product of the second half of the 20th century, made in the USA from parts around the world, and within him is every trend in music, television, politics and culture contributing to his philosophical and comically analytical reflections collected in his fine book of memories. I found Check the Gs to be pure entertainment, fantastic fun and a catalyst to igniting so many memories of my own life, as I too am within a few years of Ray. So to all, I say if you have a bit of grey hair (or no hair), buy this book! It’s a great gift for your “over-the-hill” friends, or for their kids, if they are the history buffs of younger generations trying to figure out why we are the way we are.~~Pacific Book Review
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