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Archive Interview: Tommy Roe (2012)

Tommy Roe Today
We are republishing all of our interviews, over the years, with some of great artists of the rock era.  Some were originally published on this page while others will be transcripts from our podcast. 

Throughout the 60's and early 70's, Tommy Roe lit up the radio with some of the most infectious songs of the time. Starting with his Buddy Holly tribute, Sheila, in 1962, Roe had a string of hits that went through the entire decade including Everybody, Sweet Pea, Hooray for Hazel, Dizzy and Jam Up and Jelly Tight. Both Sheila and Dizzy topped the American charts and he totaled 22 songs that made it to the Billboard Hot 100.

VVN Music recently had the chance to talk at length with Roe about his career and his latest endeavors.

Vintage Vinyl News (VVN): I understand that you are recording and are almost finished with a new album.

Tommy Roe (TR): Almost finished with it. I have one more song to finish yet which I'll start recording on April 2. Hopefully I can get it released by mid-April or, at least, the end of April.

VVN: How are you going about releasing? Through iTunes?

TR: I want to definitely get it on the internet via iTunes and Amazon, all of the download markets is what I'm shooting for. I'm trying to get a deal. The record business is so screwed up, especially for someone like myself who has been out of the record business for awhile. Trying to get a record deal is really incredible. It's very difficult. If we don't succeed with that, I'll probably just release it on my own and the distributors will help me out with it.

In fact, I kind of like the idea of independent because you have complete control of the project. I like the idea of doing that. The main thing is to get it on iTunes and Amazon and all the download sites.

VVN: They say that digital is outselling the physical product but the figures aren't showing that yet. Still, to get a CD distributed is tough because the main places where the CDs are sold now like Wal-Mart are cutting back so far.

TR: Absolutely. They aren't selling like they used to. What's very interesting to me is that I started in the business in the late-50's and through the 60's and our main thing was selling single records. Albums really wouldn't sell back then. You tried to write a hit song. You tried to sell the song. What's incredible to me is that it has come full circle. That's really what is happening now with downloads. People aren't downloading albums. They're downloading songs. I think its really a great thing. Being a songwriter, the whole idea is to sell your song and I think this download thing for songwriters is fantastic.

VVN: I read that the new album is almost all new material except for one cover and one you dipped back in time to rerecord that you originally had on an album in the mid-60's. How did you make that decision?

TR: Kick Me Charlie is the song and I would get so many requests on the internet for Kick Me Charlie. It was on the Sweet Pea album from 1966. It was supposed to be a single and it ended up being a B-side on one of the singles. I have a lot of fans that bought those records back then and love B-sides and they always ask me about Kick Me Charlie. I thought I would do an updated version of it so we went in the studio to record it and it really came out fantastic. It has a lot of energy and the lyrics pop out. I really like the way it came out.

The cover is Tim Hardin's song If I Were a Carpenter.

VVN: What's the general feel of the album? Are you going back to your rockabilly routes or is it a wide swath of different genres?

TR: I think it covers different genres. I don't write in any particular genre. There are three songs on there that are kind of country oriented. They're not real fiddle country but they're that kind of sound. Kick Me Charlie I guess could be country as well but, to me, its more of a pop record.

Really, what I do when I write a song is that I just record it the way I wrote it. I don't try to write specifically for a rockabilly sound or a rock sound or a country sound. I just do it the way I feel it.

VVN: All through your career you've done that. I know you are a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. You started out in Rockabilly with your group the Satins but then you watch your career and you come to a song like It's Now a Winter's Day which is a nice soft song and, of course, then there were your big hits which were more uptempo.

TR: Right. I started out rockabilly. Sheila was my tribute to Buddy Holly. That was the whole idea of that song and then Everybody was kind of my first real rockabilly hit. I used to perform a lot of rockabilly stuff in my show right out of high school.

What happened after Everybody was that I went into the Army for a short time. I was in the reserves so I had to go do a stint in the Army. I was out of commission for about a year and, then, when I got out of the Army this whole British Invasion thing started. We had all these British acts coming to America and releasing records that were making it on the charts and pushing a lot of American acts off.

My idea was to try to survive this whole British thing. I had lived in England for awhile when I first started touring so I kind of had a feel for that music. So my producer and I put our heads together and we said we had to find a niche that wasn't British and wasn't like the top American rock acts. We had to find something in-between so that's how we came up with that soft rock and bubblegum sound of Sweet Pea. That was my first song in that genre and, of course, that became a big record and we cracked that market. They used to call me the “King of Bubblegum” when I started the whole bubblegum thing in the mid-60's. Because I could write those songs, that's what helped me survive the British Invasion. A lot of the American acts just disappeared from the charts but I managed to hold my own.

VVN: In looking at your history, there are really three distinct phases. You had the hits around '62/'63 and then you go up to '66 with Sweet Pea and Hooray for Hazel and then there is another gap before Dizzy in '69.

TR: Hooray for Hazel's original recording kind of had a British swing to it. I was walking the line between British and bubblegum. Again, if I hadn't been able to write those songs, it would have been a very difficult time. I'd have had to quit records but, being able to write your own music is really the key to the whole business. It's so difficult to find hit songs so the songwriting thing is what helped me survive.

VVN: Did you have much music that was recorded by other artists?

TR: They covered my hits. Dizzy was covered by a slew of people. My favorite version of Sweet Pea is actually by pianist Roger Williams. He did a version of the song that was an almost classical sounding record. It was really incredible which I really enjoyed. It just shows how you can take a three-chord song and, depending how you arrange it, you can make it sound pretty incredible. Dizzy, of course, was number 1 again in England in the late-90's by Vic Reeves and the Wonder Stuff. The Ventures covered a lot of my records, Sweet Pea and Dizzy.

I never really had an artist come to me for a song. Usually I would just have a hit and they have a cover of it.

VVN: You mentioned a simple three-chord song but, one of the things I notice in your music is that they are a lot more complex that what would be your run-of-the-mill record at the time. The best example is Dizzy which has six, eight, maybe ten key changes.

TR: It's a very complicated song to play. I was at a New Years Eve party this year and they had a band there so I got up and sang. Everyone wanted me to do Dizzy so I said follow along but they couldn't play it. I tried to tell them the chord changes and progressions but they never got it so I finally just did it with the guitar. It's a very complicated song.

I wrote that with Freddy Weller who was the lead guitar player for Paul Revere and the Raiders for a long time. He and I used to write songs on the buses touring around with Paul and the boys. I actually dreamed the song Dizzy. I took a tape recorder around with me because you never knew when the idea for a song would come along. So, I woke up one night with this melody in my mind so I put it on my tape machine and I went on a tour where Freddy was on the tour with us. He and I finished the song and I said “Look, Freddy. I've had a lot of suggestions that my songwriting needs modulations so we ought to put a modulation in here. Why don't we put it on the first bar and see what it sounds like.” Sure enough, it's like B-G-B. It worked. It's really a clever song and the progression gives it a lot of energy.

VVN: In your early days, around the time of Sheila, did you do a lot of package tours or were you out on your own?

TR: Well, when Sheila became a hit, I was working at General Electric. Sheila had been released once before on a local label in Atlanta and it kind of became a local hit. I met Felton Jarvis and Felton wanted to record me. He remembered and he wanted to rerecord it with the drums in there and make it different so, we went to Nashville to record it and we released it and they played it around Atlanta.

So, I was still working at General Electric when the producer, Bill Lowrey, called me at work to come by the office saying “It looks like Sheila is going to be a big record.” I thought, “yeah, I know they're playing it locally here” and he said “No, it's bigger than that.”

I went by the office and he said “You know, Sheila is forty-something with a bullet in Billboard” and I said “What is that?” I didn't even know what that meant and he laughed and explained that the bullet meant it was moving up the charts fast. He suggested I consider quitting my job at General Electric. I was just married and had a little baby and thought “No way I can do that!” I had just landed the job and I wasn't about to quit it because I felt secure there making about eighty-bucks a week. He laughed again and said “I'll give you an advance to help you change your mind” and wrote me a check for $10,000. Back then $10,000 was probably like $50-60,000 today. I didn't make $10,000 in the whole year so I was shocked. I talked it over with my parents and they were amazed. They thought “you're young, give it a try” so, as they say, there's nothing left to say. The rest is history. It changed my whole life.

Sheila went on up the charts and became a big hit. I started touring in the south-east. The first tour I did was with Sam Cooke. Chris Montez and I were on that tour together with the Impressions, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and a lot of big acts from the south. That was my first big tour. It was really an experience because I was such a fan rhythm and blues music.

That's how I met Chris and, of course, later Chris and I were booked in England and on that tour there was a featured act called The Beatles.

VVN: You toured with the Beatles twice, right? Once in the U.K and once over here.

TR: I did the tour in England where Chris and I were the headliners. Nobody really knew who the Beatles were in 1963 in America though they did in England. Of course, the Beatles as we know them today came to the United States and did the Ed Sullivan show and, right after that, they did the Washington Coliseum in Washington, D.C. At the time, Brian Epstein and I were talking about Brian managing me so he called my producer in Atlanta, Bill Lowrey, and asked him if I would open the show for them in Washington. We did that and I had a good relationship with the boys.

VVN: How did the song Everybody come about?

TR: I love Everybody and I love doing it in my show. It's a real crowd pleaser. I wrote Everybody after my tour of England with the Beatles. When I went to England, they were still really in the 50's musically so the Beatles were doing a lot of rockabilly stuff, covers of 50's songs like Gene Vincent and stuff like that. I started hearing that music and, in the states, you were hearing Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobby Rydell. These guys were having hits in the states which was kind of pop-rock.

I took the Queen Elizabeth back to the states and on the ship back to New York I wrote Everybody. I was really inspired by that tour and the sounds I was hearing over in England.

When I got back in the states I played it for Felton and we went down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record it. It ended up being probably the second hit recorded in Muscle Shoals. Arthur Alexander had recorded You Better Move On. That was the first hit and then I came in with Everybody. After that, everybody started going to Muscle Shoals to record. A lot of hit records came from there.

VVN: It really is a great song. It's one of those that seems so short and you're always saying “What, it's over already?”

TR: That's another interesting thing that you mention short. Radio in the early 60's didn't want a record over two minutes. When I would write a song, I would keep it in my mind that I had to keep it right at two minutes. 1:58, 1:59. They loved to come out of the news with a song like Everybody because it had a lot of energy.

So, that's another tactic I used as a songwriter, being a formula writer, that's what we were called. We tried to put a story into a two-and-a-half minute song. It's not that easy to do sometimes. That was the whole process of writing a song. You tried to write a hit but you also tried to keep it short.

VVN: Around '69 and '70 you had a resurgence after a couple of years where you didn't hit the top ten and then you had a long string of hits.

TR: After Sweet Pea and Hooray for Hazel, I tried some psychedelic-pop music. I did two albums, It's Now a Winter's Day and Fantasy which were produced by Curt Boettcher who was into that psychedelic-pop sound. We experimented and It's Now a Winter's Day was released as a single. It was almost a hit. It's a winter song and it turned out to be a very warm winter so the DJ's stopped playing it. They were playing it like crazy in December and we figured this was going to be a big hit record. Then it got real warm and they started backing off the record. It was at 30-something on the charts and it just stalled out.

So I was kind of experimenting with Curt Boettcher in that period and then I got back with Steve Berry in 1969 to produce Dizzy and I got back to the bubblegum sound.

VVN: You had a really good run then right through the next year or two.

TR: Heather Honey came after Dizzy and that was a big record and then Jam Up and Jelly Tight after that and it was another gold record for me. Stagger Lee, that was also a big record.

VVN: Then you had an album in '77 and then it wasn't until 2003 before you did your next album.

TR: I recorded for Monument Records for awhile in the mid-70's. We did two records. I kept switching labels. I got with Mike Curb and I think the last album I released was in the early-90's, a kind of a compilation of the hits and some new material. I believe that was the last one released by a label.

VVN: I know that you are semi-retired, but you are still going out on the road occasionally. You have six or eight dates already scheduled for this year.

TR: I retired from the concert scene about four years ago. My old band leader, Rick Levy, he was with me for years, he kept pushing me. He said “You know, I keep getting calls from so-and-so wanting to book you” but I had just lost interest in traveling so I backed off doing dates. Rick kept pushing and so last year I finally said “OK, I'll do some dates.” We did three dates up in Canada last year and I really had a blast. I had a great time with Rick and the band, traveling with my old buddies again.

I'm doing a show of my own, An Evening With Tommy Roe, where I can talk with the audience. I do a bit in the show where I go out into the audience and talk with them. Ask what's on their mind. Do some trivia questions. It went over really well and I had so much fun with the guys that I thought “Let's see if I can do a few more dates this year.”

We've got eight or nine dates booked already and I think as long as I can keep it simple and not start barnstorming again...I wouldn't be willing to go out and do 90 or 100 dates a year again. That would be too much for me. If I can pick and choose my dates and have fun with it, I think I'll continue doing it.

VVN: I understand that the show is your hits and your story, but you also do quite a few covers.

TR: I do Lawdy Miss ClawdyCarpenter, of course, which has been part of my show for years, Chuck Berry stuff and some of my favorite rock stuff from the 50's and 60's. Rockabilly stuff. It's a high-energy show. I do an acoustic bit in the middle where I do a couple of new songs and a couple of B-sides. Off-the-wall stuff that you don't hear a lot of but I get requests to do. That's kind of a fun part of the show as well.

VVN: Any thoughts of recording some of the shows and putting an album together of that sometime?

TR: Maybe. We did record some shows at Casino Rama in Canada. I think we need to get a better recording system for a little better quality. I wouldn't mind having a live show of my hits. That would be kind of a fun thing to do. It's something we've talked about. Rick brought it up several times. It's just a matter of getting the right technique to be able to do it properly. To make it sound good.

VVN: Any thoughts on putting all your experiences down on paper?

TR: I am thinking about that. I have written a little bit but, you know, it's so difficult to write about my life. I don't know why it is. I should record these sessions when I do interviews because this is what it's all about. I'm really talking about what I want to write about. I need somebody to help me write it eventually. I probably can't do it on my own. Get a co-writer to help me put it together. It's in the works. I've been thinking about it for a couple of years.

VVN: Is there anybody in today's music that really impresses you?

TR: I love Alison Krauss. I love Springsteen. I think he's a real rocker. I love the way he opened the Grammy Awards this year. I think he was the best act in the show. He really rocked out.

I like to listen to college radio a lot. You hear a lot of really interesting music there and new stuff that doesn't get a lot of play on commercial radio. Sometimes there's some interesting songs. Being a songwriter I like to hear what other people are writing.

I love Alison Krauss' voice.

VVN: I've always said, “If angles are real, then they sound like Alison Krauss.”

TR: I went to a charity function this year with Ted Turner who is a good friend of my wife and I and she was performing there that night. We sat at Ted's table and she was at the table with us. I told her that I bought her records before she became a really popular singer. I have her original recordings.

VVN: Way back in her teens when she started.

TR: That's right and I told her I was a big fan. I was excited about meeting her and she was just terrific. She performed with just her guitarist and she sang and played the fiddle and it was terrific.