Friday, March 18, 2016

Forgotten Hits Interviews Tommy Roe (Part 1)

Last Sunday (March 13th) we went to the Tommy Roe / Chris Montez / Beatlerama Anniversary Show at The Arcada Theatre in beautiful downtown St. Charles, IL ... and before the concert, I had the chance to visit with Tommy Roe backstage for a little while.  (Tommy and his band leader / guitarist Rick Levy have been big supporters of Forgotten Hits over the years so it was nice to finally meet both of them in person.)

Frannie came with me backstage to snap a couple of pictures ... (her very first comment afterwards was, "Boy, he's still really cute!"  lol) ... and I've got to tell you that I have to agree with her ... Tommy still looks and sounds great.  (He told me that he's about to turn 74 but he easily looks 20-25 years younger than that ... and displayed a lot of energy on stage during his excellent performance.  (Scroll back to Monday, March 14th, to read our full review.)

We talked about all kinds of things ... going back to the very start of his career ... on up through his headlining tour of England in early 1963 when The Beatles were one of the opening acts on the bill ... his stint in the army ... his big late '60's resurgence with some of the biggest hits of his career ... what he calls his "five retirements from show business" (lol) ... right up to his brand new 2012 Album "Devil's Soul Pile" and this new reunion / anniversary tour which has taken Tommy and Chris back to England, back to Washington, DC, where they opened for The Beatles' very first American concert and now out on the road so other folks across the country can enjoy the excitement of this music again.

Because we were all over the board when we were talking, I've reworked this interview to run in a more chronological order ... so get ready to join us as we talk to Tommy Roe!


Kent Kotal / Forgotten Hits:  You recorded "Sheila" a couple of years before it became a hit … a completely different version … and really a whole different sound … that got some airplay locally down in Atlanta ... 

Tommy Roe: Yeah, while I was in high school.   

kk: And then you re-recorded it again a short while later and that's the one that finally clicked ... it had a "Buddy Holly" kind of feel to it, which I'm assuming was a very intentional kind of sound you were going for on your part …

TR:  Yes, yes it was … here's the deal.  
I recorded "Sheila" when I was in high school with my band in high school called The Satins.  We put a band together and we played at dances and sock hops and after the basketball games in the gym and so I recorded the song locally with the band in Atlanta and it got a lot of airplay in Atlanta.  Paul Drew was a deejay there on the 50,000 watt WGST station and he played it on WGST so it got a lot of recognition and Felton Jarvis was in the marines at the time and he heard the record while he was in the marines and when he got out he wanted to become a producer and he got with Bill Lowery and they worked out a thing for him to start producing some records, which he did with Ray Stevens … and they produced Gladys Knight and the Pips' first hit "Every Beat Of My Heart", which was produced by Felton in Atlanta.  

kk:  And of course he went on to produce everybody!

TR: Yeah, he ended up producing Elvis!   
So, Felton and I became real close friends and he said, "I'm gonna take you to Nashville and I'm gonna record you down in Nashville" and honestly, I'd already kind of given up because I'd made these records and they hadn't really done much other than locally so I was at a point where I was thinking "I'm not going to be able to make it in the record business" ... but Felton talked me into re-recording "Sheila" and he said "We're gonna do it different."  He said, "You know there's a vacuum left of Buddy Holly … there are still a lot of Buddy Holly fans out there so we need to do something to draw attention to you so I'm gonna put 'Buddy Holly drums' on 'Sheila'" ... and I wasn't really crazy about that whole idea because I was a big fan of Buddy Holly's and I felt like we were sponging off of him and his whole sound.  So anyway, that was Felton's whole idea … and we went to Nashville and recorded two songs … we recorded "Save Your Kisses" and "Sheila" and "Save Your Kisses" ended up as the A-Side of the record because "Sheila" … I HATED "Sheila" when we left the studio and I felt like we had really screwed my song up here.  
And radio worked on "Save Your Kisses" for awhile and it didn't do anything and then Buddy Dean in Baltimore, he was a deejay there and he had a tv show kinda like "Bandstand" but it was a Baltimore show with Buddy Dean, and he flipped the record over, played it, and it became #1 at his station there in Baltimore … and next thing it was #1 everywhere.  

And I was still working at General Electric at the time and Bill Lowery calls me up at work one day and says … and I had just taken this job and it was a great job … my cousin had got me the job … and he called me up at work one day and said that I need to think about turning in my resignation and quit my job at GE because it looks like I've got a hit record.  And he couldn't talk me into it.  I said, "Hey, I just landed this job!" and I was married and I had a little kid so he laughed and he said, "Come by the office and we'll talk" ... so that night I went by the office and we talked and I said, "Bill, I can't quit this job … I just got the job and I had a little girl and a family to support and it's a job that I can have for a long time and I felt secure about it" so he laughed and he leaned back in his chair and he said "So let me tell you what … let me give you an advance against royalties ... you take it home and you and your family talk it over and think about it" … and he wrote me a check for $10,000.  I didn't make $10,000 in a year … this is back in 1962 … and my dad and I together didn't make $10,000.   
So I was shocked with that and I went home with the check and my mom and dad looked at it and said, "Well look, you're young, so this is really your choice" ... and you know the thing that I was really upset about was that my cousin had got me the job.  You know, Jackie Densmore was my cousin and he went out on a limb to get me this job and what hurt me more than anything was telling Jackie that I was gonna quit the job after he'd stuck his neck out for me.  So I said "Dad, what's Jackie gonna think?"  And he laughed and he said, "Well, don't worry about it, I'll take care of Jackie" … he said "Go ahead and do what Bill wants you to do and see what happens" and so the next thing I knew I was on the road and I really wasn't prepared for it.  The very first tour I did was with Sam Cooke … I was just totally unprepared for it … I'd never played professionally before, just locally with my band so I had a learning experience here of what to do and I mean you fail and you learn from your failures.  But that's how it all happened … and I hit the road.     
Funny story ... right after the Sam Cooke tour they put me on a tour through the midwest and they had a lot of ballrooms in the midwest, if you remember, in the '60's and you could do like ten shows in a row in these ballrooms … so they sent me out on this ballroom tour with a promoter named Jimmy Thomas, who lived up in Minnesota, I think, and I was doing the tour and I was collecting cash, ya know, 'cause they used to pay you in cash when you were on the road.  
So I come home and Bill asked me, "You know, you've got all this cash … what do you do with the cash when you're travelin' around" and I said "I just put it in my suitcase" and he said "What do you do when you're flyin' around?" and I said "I put it in my suitcase and I check it on the airplane" and he's like "WHAAAT?!?!  You check your bag with $10,000 in cash in it on the plane?!?" ... but in those days I never lost a dime!  It was a different time and you didn't think about stuff like that.  And I was so na├»ve anyway but here I was going around and checking my bag with $10,000 in it and you do that today and man, it'd be gone in a minute!

kk:  So it sounds like your parents were very supportive of what you wanted to do. 

TR:  Oh, they were.  Well, my dad played guitar, you know …

kk:  No, I didn't know that

TR:  Yeah, he taught me to play the guitar so he was very instrumental in me getting into the business.   
When he first bought me the guitar, I had wrote … and I'll tell the story on the stage tonight … I wrote this poem about this girl that I was going to school with named Freda and that's how that all happened. He taught me three chords on the guitar and I thought, "You know if I can put some music to these silly poems I'm writing, maybe I can be a songwriter", and that's how that all happened.
It was originally called "Sweet Little Freda".  So yes, they were very supportive.
And my dad had a band … he passed away a few years ago … he was 94 years old … and he passed away a few years ago … he died in his sleep, and that's the way to go.  Anyway, he had a little band, a little bluegrass band, in Alpharetta, Georgia, and he used to play at the barber shop and every time he'd go and get his hair cut, he'd sit up there at the barber shop and I used to love to listen to them play.  I recorded them one afternoon at my farm in Georgia and I've got this old tape of my dad and his band playing all this old bluegrass music and it's really cool.  

kk:  That IS cool ... but obviously, even as a southern boy, it was rock and roll that did it for you.

TR:  Well, dad didn't like that too much … he was a country guy, you know … and I was into … I used to listen to all that R&B stuff when I was a kid in Atlanta and you couldn't hear it in the daytime … you could only hear rhythm and blues, black music as far as that goes, in the south, late at night. And there was a station there called WALK and there was a deejay named Zenas Sears and he would come on like at 11:00 at night and I would turn my radio on and mother always wondered why it was hard to get me up to go to school because I was up all night till two in the morning listening to John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, Bobby "Blue" Bland and all that stuff that they played, which you couldn't listen to in the daytime.  That's how I got into it.   
And then my band, when we first started out in high school, we did this stuff … I used to sing Jimmy Reed, believe it or not, all his songs I would sing ... and we had a harmonica player in the band called Drolet Bush and he would play the harmonica and we would do this blues stuff with my high little voice (lol) and play fraternity parties and they loved it, you know, they danced to it.  

kk:  I remember when I first started doing Forgotten Hits I would write about how I would go to bed at 10:00 and I always had my radio on under my pillow so my parents wouldn't know that I was still listening to the radio when I was supposed to be sleeping … and I'll betcha I got a thousand letters from people ALL over the country that said "You, too?" (both laughing), which is really funny because, you know, you thought you were the only one … and then you find out that EVERYBODY did that … EVERYONE was doing it … because back then we LIVED for this music … and we couldn't get enough of it.  We absolutely lived for it ... and those are the people that Forgotten Hits connects with.

TR:  Yeah, yeah.  I love the way you manage your site because you tell the real stories and you get all these readers to open up and share their memories and it brings it all back.
I never will forget the first record player they bought me … we bought everything at Sears … you know, my dad and mother, they always shopped at Sears … and the first guitar I had was a Silvertone, which he bought at Sears, and it had a neck like a two by four ... I mean I could hardly get my hands around it …

kk:  Yeah, and you needed like a vice to push the strings down!  (lol)

TR:  Yeah, Unbelievable.  And so the first record player they ever bought me was a Silvertone and it always sat right next to the bed with the volume in the front so I could play it real low at night, you know.

kk:  Yeah, once you're hooked you're hooked … there's just no escaping the music … no goin' back.

TR:  Yep, those were the days … it's like you say, once the genie's out of the bottle, you can never put it back in there but it was a wonderful time to grow up as a teenager, in the '50's and '60's.

Tomorrow in Forgotten Hits ...

Tommy Roe "Meets The Beatles" ...
And tries to get them signed to an American record deal.
(Think about it ... Tommy Roe COULD have been the guy who introduced The Beatles to America!!!)  kk