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Born in 1942 to working class parents and raised until the age of six in a section of Atlanta, Georgia referred to as “Cabbagetown,” Tommy Roe grew up in the west end of town where he attended Brown High School. Musically inclined, he spent those high school years with his band The Satins and played local dances and parties around town. More than just a cover band, the group played many of the songs Roe wrote, one of them being a song called Sheila.
“I wrote this poem for a girl I had a crush on in high school, and her name was Freda. It was also about that time my dad bought me this three-chord guitar, and I thought, ‘You know, if I can put some music to my poem, maybe I can write songs.’ So I put a melody to this poem, and it was Sweet little Freda, you’ll know her if you see her, blue eyes and a ponytail. But the interesting thing was before I could tell her how I felt and give her the poem, she moved away, and I never saw her again. So Freda really started the whole thing but then like a puff of smoke — she was gone.” (1)
The song was auditioned for Jud Phillips, brother of Sun Records Sam Phillips, for Judd Records. “Son, I like that song but we gotta do somethin’ about that title,” Roe remembered. “So, he sent me home and Aunt Sheila was visiting that weekend…and the rest is history!” (2)
The original version of the song (misspelled as Shelia), was recorded in 1960 by Roe and the Satins and a female vocal group, The Flamingos. The record received heavy airplay in Atlanta but flopped everywhere else. Roe and the Satins continued to play local gigs including sock hops for local DJ Paul Drew until they graduated from high school.
After high school, Roe got a job at General Electric where he soldered wires for $70 a week. It was through Drew that Roe met record producer Felton Jarvis. “Felton and I became real close friends and he said, "I'm gonna take you and record you in Nashville," Tommy said. “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.” (3) It was Jarvis that completed the deal for Tommy to sign with ABC-Paramount.
The first order of business was to re-record Sheila. Felton said, "We're gonna do it different. 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." Tommy remembered his misgivings. “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 … so we went to Nashville and recorded two songs, Save Your Kisses, which ended up as the A-Side of the record and Sheila … I hated Sheila when we left the studio and I felt like we had really screwed my song up there.” (4)
The hit version of this song was recorded at RCA Studios in Nashville with Jarvis as producer. The studio musicians were Jerry Reed (guitar), Buddy Harman (drums), Wayne Moss (guitar), Bob Moore (bass) and Floyd Cramer (piano). The backup singers were The Jordanaires, who sang behind Elvis Presley on many of his hits. (5)
Photo courtesy of Da Guy at Album Art Exchange
Save Your Kisses stirred little interest. When Baltimore DJ and afternoon dance show host Buddy Dean flipped the record over, the phones “lit up,” remembered Roe. “There were so many requests for the song that it just became an instant hit. It’s hard to figure. Sometimes the song, if it’s recorded a little differently – maybe add a little taste to it musically – it can make a world of difference, and I think that’s what happened with Sheila.” (6)
As the song made it’s way up the charts, ABC-Paramount wanted Tommy on the road to promote it. Roe was reluctant to do so. "Bill, I can't quit this job. I just got it. I have a little girl and a family to support. It's a job that I can have for a long time and I feel secure about it," Roe pleaded to record promoter Bill Lowery. Bill laughed, leaned back in his chair and said, "So let me tell you what, let me give you an advance against royalties, you take it home, you and your family talk it over and think about it," Roe recalled. “He wrote me a check for $10,000. I didn't make $10,000 in a year. This is back in 1962 when my dad and I together didn't make $10,000.”
After a discussion with his parents, he accepted Lowery’s offer and hit the road. “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 of what to do and how you learn from your failures. But that's how it all happened,” Roe recounted. “So we did the tour down south, in the southeast, and I come to find out that it was an all black tour with Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Jerry Butler and The Impressions and maybe three or four other acts, I can't remember all of them, but it was a big African-American Tour and this was in 1962, when you still had segregation in the south.”
Being his first tour, Tommy remembered many of the details. “While out on the road I found out that they always booked one white guy on the tour because they couldn't stop in restaurants, so I was the food runner. They would park the bus down the street from a mom and pop roadside restaurant or hamburger joint, as they didn't have places like McDonald's or Burger King back in '62. They'd park the bus and then send me out to get sandwiches. I did it for a few days and I thought, ‘Hey, you know, this is weird. I've got the #1 record in the country and I'm runnin' out for sandwiches!’ But they did that with all the white guys. In fact, Buddy Holly did it and Dion did one of them. That's just the way they did it down south at that time. And with me, you know, I was born into segregation and I had no idea about it until I turned into my teens before I began to realize this picture ain't pretty. But when I was a kid, you have to understand, that I was born into a situation. You don't even think it's different because you've never been anywhere. You think that's just the way it is.” (3)
Sheila debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on July 28, 1962 and on September 1, the song hit # 1 where it remained for two weeks. (8) The song topped the charts in Australia and Canada while reaching # 3 in U.K.
Striking while the iron was hot, Tommy and Chris Montez who had the hit Call Me, co-headlined a 21-city tour to England that had The Beatles as the opening act. “At first, I thought The Beatles were our backup band in London in 1963! I’d never heard of them, didn’t know who they were. They came in with all that hair and I thought they were kind of strange lookin’. After the first night, I knew Chris Montez and I were going to have a tough go of it because they created such chaos during their part of the show,” recalled Roe. (9) So, for the remaining part of the tour, Tommy and Chris opened the show for the Beatles.
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Roe got along quite well with the Beatles. “Every day began with nonstop questions about everything American. Evidently, their biggest goal was to go to the States,“ Roe said. “John and George got me aside and John said, ‘Y’know, we do Sheila during our shows. But I’m not sure if we’re playing it correctly.’ So John played it and he was playing the chords backward! He was playing A-D-E-D instead of A-E-D-E. He said, ‘I knew something was wrong.'” (9)
The bus rides for a three-week tour can be painfully long. So, how did everyone pass the time? Tommy recalled, “I sat with Ringo or George a lot on the bus. John and Paul stayed together because they were writing on the bus all the time, just as I was. John let me borrow his Gibson guitar on the bus and I wrote the song, Everybody (released in October of 1963) on it.” (9)
When the tour ended, the Beatles manager Brian Epstein, approached Roe and Felton Jarvis, who was on the tour, about introducing a copy of the Beatles Please, Please Me album to ABC. Jarvis thought it was a great idea and Epstein presented him with a full promo pack. “On Thursday, April 4, we sailed from Southampton aboard the Queen Elizabeth. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was the first person to bring The Beatles to the United States, albeit in my guitar case. We disembarked at Pier 90 on the morning of April 9 and took a cab to ABC-Paramount, where president Samuel Clark greeted us.” Roe remembered. (12)
“So we went up to the Clark's office with the promo pack… which was actually just a NEMS Music Store bag that Brian had given me that included the first album and a bio. They congratulated me on the tour as Clark with Larry Newton, who was the Vice President said, ‘And Felton tells us you found an act you'd like us to sign to ABC Records.’ I said, ‘Yeah, it's The Beatles. They're really phenomenal.’ I was really sellin' it. I said ‘Like Elvis Presley, they create pandemonium everywhere they go. Their music is great and it's so different.’ So, Sam says, ‘Well, let me hear 'em. Have you got something we can hear?’
I pulled out that first album with the picture of them in that stairwell with the hair. Well, the whole office just got quiet when they saw that album. They must have been thinking ‘Holy crap, what has this kid brought us?’ Felton blurted out something to the effect of ‘Well, you've gotta hear 'em’. So Clark removed the LP, put it on the turntable and dropped the needle on the first song, which was Love Me Do or Please, Please Me. He played a few bars and picked up the needle and said ‘Kid, that's gotta be the worst piece of shit I've ever heard in my life! Let us be the talent scouts. We know music — you just concentrate on writing us some more hits. We'll put your records out and you'll be a big star. Don't worry about finding us other acts.’ And I was like, “Man, you just feel like you're so sold on something and then to have it shot down like that was pretty disheartening.’” (3)
Obviously, Roe didn’t land the Beatles for ABC. But he did continue to write and sing his own tunes. And he did sell records. From 1962-1973, Tommy Roe placed 22 songs, twenty for ABC, on the Billboard Hot 100 including six top 10 hits and two songs that hit # 1 — Sheila in 1962 and Dizzy in 1969. (14) At age 75, he still performs.
1) Simmons, Rick, Rebeat Magazine, Then and Now, “Everybody” Really Loves Tommy Roe, April 28, 2015, Link
2) Tommy Roe (live) –
3) Kotal, Kent, Forgotten Hits, March 18, 2016. Link
5) Songfacts, Link
7) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.
8) Andelman, Bob, Dizzy? Hear About 1963, When The Beatles opened for Tommy Roe! Video interview, February 5, 2014, Link
9) Wright, Ian and Lauren, Snapshots: Tommy Roe upstaged in U.K. by The Beatles, April 12, 2010. Link
10) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 600.