Born Thomas David Roe, 9 May 1942, Atlanta, Georgia
Though he is hardly a memorable innovator in the annals of pop, Tommy Roe cut some pretty decent rockers early in his career, was a talented song- writer and recorded some underrated country in the 1970s. With 22 entries in the Billboard pop charts over an 11-year period, he showed remarkable staying power.
With fellow students at Brown High School in Atlanta, Tommy formed a band, the Satins, and played fraternity parties at the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. They cut their first record in March 1960, "I Got A Girl"/ "Caveman", for Mark IV, a custom label set up by Cleve Warnock, who was Roe's first manager. The A-side was inspired by Buddy Holly's "I'm Lookin' For Someone To Love". It made some regional noise, causing the Judd label to lease the disc and reissue it for national distribution. Judd followed this up with the original version of "Sheila" (misspelled "Shelia" on the label), which was released in October 1960. Like the two songs on his first record, it was Tommy's own composition. "Sheila" was based on a poem that Roe wrote at age 14 for a girl named Frieda ; its original title was "Sweet Little Frieda". Except for some southeastern regions, the disc was overlooked by the record- buying public, probably due to a lack of promotion by Judd.
In February 1962 Tommy re-recorded "Sheila" for ABC-Paramount, during a split session with Vince Everett in Nashville. Producer Felton Jarvis stayed close to the original arrangement, but with more emphasis on the drums, very much in the style of the rhythm on "Peggy Sue". Roe's hiccuping vocal style was also reminiscent of Buddy Holly. This time, "Sheila" went all the way to # 1 (on September 1, 1962), not only in the US, but also in Canada and Australia and in the UK it reached # 3. ABC asked Tommy to go on the road to promote the record. He worked for General Electric, earning $70 a week soldering wires. Initially, he was reluctant to give up his day job, but when ABC advanced him $5,000, he hit the road.
The follow-up to "Sheila" was a remake of the Robin Luke hit "Susie Darlin'", peaking at # 35. After two non-charting singles came "The Folk Singer" (from the pen of Merle Kilgore), which stalled at # 84 in the USA, but reached # 4 in the UK, in the wake of Tommy's first British tour.
In March 1963, Roe flew to England as the co-headliner (with Chis Montez) of the Beatles' second British tour. Beatlemania was just taking off in the UK. Tommy shared some of the same influences as the Beatles, notably Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. Already after the first performance it was clear that it was impossible for Roe and Montez to follow the Beatles and they agreed to drop down the bill, letting the Beatles close the show. Upon his return to the States, Tommy showed a copy of the first Beatles LP, "Please Please Me", to ABC honcho Sam Clark. He told Clark that this group was huge in the UK, did not yet have an American recording contract and suggested that ABC should sign them. After listening to the album's opening track ("I Saw Her Standing There"), Clark dismissed the group as 'crap' and said, "Look kid, just stick to writing and singing songs and leave the business decisions to us."
In late 1963 Roe made a strong comeback with "Everybody" (# 3 US, # 9 UK). A remake of Chuck Berry's "Carol" (1964) was pure rock n roll, but got no higher than # 61. Then Tommy was enlisted into the Army Reserves, but was still able to record, though he had no hits in 1965. The next year he moved to California and hooked up with a new producer, who advised him to change his style, which up to that time was still rockabilly-influenced. The first hit in this "softer" vein was "Sweet Pea" (# 8), soon followed by the # 6 hit "Hooray For Hazel". Tommy's hits from the late sixties are often qualified as "bubblegum pop", though they are far less simple and contrived than things like "Simon Says" and "Yummy Yummy Yummy". In 1969 Roe scored his second number one with "Dizzy", produced by Steve Barri. It topped the Billboard charts for four weeks, the biggest hit of his career, and was also # 1 in the UK. "Jam Up Jelly Tight", also from 1969, was his last Top 10 hit (# 8).
In 1972 Tommy switched from ABC-Paramount to MGM South and his music became more country-styled. His last chart entry (on the pop charts at least) was "Working Class Hero" (# 97, 1973), my personal Tommy Roe favourite. Later he recorded for Monument, Warner/Curb, MCA and Mercury, without success. He also did some television and production work and toured on the oldies circuit.
In 1986 he was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
Official website : http://www.tommyroe.com
Interview from 2012 : http://www.examiner.com/article/interview-tommy-roe-tried-to-get-beatles-signed-both-rejected-by-abc-records
Discography : http://www.45cat.com/artist/tommy-roe
Acknowledgements : Fred Bronson, Rob Finnis, the interview mentioned above.
Dik, February 2014
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