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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 8, 2003 5:26 PM. The previous post in this blog was Laughed 'til I cried. The next post in this blog is Moonlighting. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Saturday, March 8, 2003

Chameleon

My wife got a compilation CD for Christmas entitled "A Year in Your Life 1963, Vol. 1." It's an obvious cheapie (the price tag was still on it), with only 10 songs, and in those days the hits were only about three minutes long. But it's the thought that counts, right?

A week or so after Christmas, we put it on the machine. I was pretty skeptical. This kind of disc is prone to bad remakes, unlistenable clashes in style, and poor sound quality. Surprisingly, this one had none of the above. It kicked off with the Vandellas doing "Heat Wave," and stayed in an excellent nostalgic groove. We've already got copies of most of this stuff somewhere in the vast archives, but it was a nice mix conveniently compiled on a single CD.

The strong familiarity of the collection was jarred, however, when the last track came on. It was an oldie called "Everybody," which I remembered but hadn't heard in years. It had a fine folksie feel. Obviously a white boy was belting it out, but with an unusual amount of soul. There was almost the feel of an old spiritual:

Everybody, everybody,
Everybody's, had a broken heart now.
Everybody, everybody,
Everybody's had the blu-u-u-u-ues.

I'm no musician, but it sounds like the thing is changing key in mid-verse, and there's handclapping, and a hootennany feel (and here I mean that in a good way) that really gets going toward the end. Gospel singers and everything.

I'd grown to miss that sound. When I was in high school, the group just ahead of us was at the tail end of listening to groups like the Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul & Mary were in their prime. Nowadays, all you're likely to hear of that ilk is "You Were on My Mind," a fine number, all right, but one of the most overplayed songs in the prevalent oldies radio rotation. So it was refreshing to hear this one again.

Naturally, my trivia-packed brain turned to the question, Who was that singing "Everybody"? Try as I might, I couldn't place it. Gene Pitney? Nah. So I headed over to the CD case lying over by the player and took a look. Let's see, that one was recorded by...







TOMMY ROE???

It was no typo. That indeed was Roe, whom I remembered exclusively for such bubblegum classics as "Dizzy" and "Jam Up and Jelly Tight" in the late '60s. Since my friends and I were all trying to get high on No Doz and bad pre-mixed screwdrivers at the time (I think the stuff was called "Tango"), we turned up our noses at this guy. Give us the heavy Cream and Led Zeppelin, thank you. Tommy Roe? That was for the 11-year-old girls. (This coming from the big bad 13-year-old boys, of course.)

Here in the friendly confines of the internet, I was able to confirm that before he went bubblegum, Roe had another musical life, including "Everybody," which made the Top 10. He was a teen phenom from Atlanta who broke out of the gate with "Sheila," a Buddy Holly sound-alike number so good it could have been Holly (1936-1959) himself. In the oft-told tale, Roe wrote the song for an ex-girlfriend named Frieda, but the title got changed before he first recorded it with his teen group, the Satins. Neither the group nor the single was going anywhere, but the talented Roe was soon out on his own and went up to Nashville to cut a few tracks. He redid "Sheila" at the tail end of a 1961 Nashville recording session with Elvis's backup singers, the Jordanaires, and ABC-Paramount threw the cut onto the B side of a single called "Save Your Kisses." A Baltimore d.j. decided to play "Sheila" instead, and the response to it was so great that it became Roe's first hit, at No.1 on the pop charts. It was popular in England, too, and Roe, then 20 years old, found himself travelling the world.

On the ensuing tour, Roe went through England playing on a bill with Chris Montez, an L.A. kid whose song "Let's Dance" was his best known number. Also on the tour was a little-known group called the Beatles, who were trying to get heard in the States. They befriended Roe, who says he tried to get the Fab Four a record deal in the U.S., only to be laughed out of record company executives' offices. (According to Roe, the ABC geniuses told him, "Tommy that's the worst piece of sh*t we've ever heard.") Legend has it that on that tour, Roe broke up a fistfight between Montez and John Lennon -- a believable tale given the latter's ability to rub people, particularly competing performers, the wrong way.

Roe wrote "Everybody" on the Queen Elizabeth on his way home from that tour. He went to the now-legendary, then-startup, Fame studios in Muscle Shoals in Alabama to record it. There were egg crates on the wall as soundproofing, and the echo chamber was the bathroom. The cut, released on an album called "Something for Everybody," also included the modestly successful singles "Come On" and "Party Girl." The latter two tracks were more popular in England than they were in the U.S.

After a couple of slower years in which the British invasion got all the attention, Roe dropped his first true bubblegum hit on the world: "Sweet Pea." This catchy number, peaking at no. 8, was followed by "Hooray for Hazel," which made it to no. 6, and a spooky slow cut called "It's Now Winter's Day," which just missed the Top 20 in 1967. Two years later, the teeny bopper classic "Dizzy" was in the stores, and it rose to the very top of the charts. "Heather Honey" (1969) was a minor hit, and then "Jam Up and Jelly Tight" finished at no. 8. There were some other singles thereafter, including a pointless remake of "Stagger Lee" that charted, and then the reign of Roe was over. His career gradually slowed, and with the disco era it stopped completely.

At the height of his popularity, Roe appeared on a teeny bopper afternoon TV soap opera called "Where the Action Is." This was a hysterical train wreck of an idea by Dick Clark -- a serial daytime drama interrupted by scenes like Paul Revere and the Raiders showing up out of nowhere to lip-synch a song on the beach.

Roe wrote all his own hit songs, and around the web there is mention of his writing some songs for the Tams, an Atlanta-based soul group, as well. As best I can tell, however, the Tams' few hits, including "What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am)" and "Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy," were penned by others. And that's about it as far as traces of Roe writing for hire.

In later years, Roe did some country music, and he still makes some rounds on the nostalgia circuit to this day. Screaming fans and the Beatles waiting in the wings to go on are in the past, however; in the wings today are likely to be the slot machines of an Indian casino.

I stopped in my favorite music store, Music Millennium, the other day and picked up a cheap copy of Roe's greatest hits to see what was there. His place in rock history became evident even in that setting. The fellow who checked me out of the store looked at the disc cover and said, "When we first opened the Millennium store [March 15, 1969], this picture was one of the ones in the window. Tommy Roe had a record that had just come out."

The disc shows that Roe was a chameleon, who changed his musical backdrops around several times. But he also was not afraid to send the same sound out several times until the public got tired of it. For example, around the time he was doing "Everybody," he also crooned the very different song "The Folk Singer," a slow story ballad that could have been one of the Everly Brothers or Perry Como. Yet "Come On," a Rick Hall-Dan Penn tune that followed "Somebody," had much the same sound as "Everybody." (Alas, the chorus lacked just a smidgen of the soulful punch of its predecessor.) And with "Everytime a Bluebird Cries," the general thrust was to recapture the feel of "Sheila," but with Kinks-style harmonies and upfront electric guitars.

Without a doubt "Sweet Pea" (1965) was the big turning point. The fresh sound brought to Roe by new producer Steve Clark (or, as one account goes, by an assistant producer named Curt Boettcher) was (to my knowledge) completely original -- not derivative of anything else. But then "Hooray for Hazel," which is probably the Roe song I like least, retread the same ground a few months later.

Time out for "It's Now Winter's Day." This was a slow, pretty number about the angst of a southern boy alone in the big city in the depths of the short months. A bizarre addition to the record, however, is some organ screeching that creeps from one side of the stereo to the other at the beginning and end of the song. I guess this was Steve Clark's (or Boettcher's) attempt to emulate songs such as "Susan" by the Buckinghams, in which baffling sound effects and miscellaneous noisy musical noodling would interrupt an otherwise normal little track.

The rumbling Holly drumbeat of "Sheila" actually supported something relatively new in "Dottie I Like It." This was a nice attempt to combine Roe's two big hits ("Sheila" and "Sweet Pea") into one package, and add some new fetaures. In fact, it worked well. There's even a hint of some psychedelic guitar in there to make things interesting. For some reason, though, this one was a hit only in England. It's one of two relatively unknown gems on the disc, the other being "Heather Honey," which deftly combines sticky sweet pop with country. (You can almost hear the inspiration for a young Billy Joel in the vocal and piano work on "Heather.")

But between those two was "Dizzy" (1968), which has got to be one of the top 5 on anyone's list of bubblegum faves. On this one, big strings joined the "Sweet Pea" mix, and Roe's key-change hooks breathe life into what would otherwise be a pretty standard chord pattern. It grows on you like a fungus.

Thereafter, it's a slow fade to the end of the series. "Jack and Jill" is "Dizzy" meets "The Beat Goes On" or Ray Stevens. "Jam Up and Jelly Tight" proves that a dirty song can be passed off as something else if it's dressed up sweetly enough. Musically, Roe had already been there and done that, but hey, it fit right in there with Archies' "Sugar Sugar." In 1970, Roe released "Stir it Up and Serve It," a straight-ahead rock number that marked another potential turn into Hitland. It was good, but there was no way it was going to get much attention given the end of the Beatles, the emergence of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, and the many other excellent rock acts that crowded the airwaves of the day. "Pearl" was as good as many other ballads of the time -- Glen Campbell, B.J. Thomas and others hit it big with a lot less -- but Roe's number was up. A big seller it wasn't to be. (Again, you can hear Billy Joel in there.)

On the whole, riding down Memory Lane with Roe for this post has been an enjoyable experience. The guy was front stage for several big moments in rock 'n' roll history, and he was able to write and perform great songs in several different sub-genres. In all of his illustrious recording career, however, for my money nothing matches the exuberance or energy of "Everybody":

One time or other, everybody listen to me,
You lose somebody you love
But that's no reason for you to break down and cry

I said a-hey, everybody, everybody, everybody's
Had a lonely moment
Everybody, everybody
Everybody's had the blu-u-u-u-ues

You tell 'em, kid.

UPDATE, 3/10/03: A true gentleman, Tommy Roe writes:

A very interesting post, and thanks for passing it along to me. Glad you enjoy "EVERYBODY," I think it's one of my best songs. I wrote one song for the TAMS, "YOU MIGHT AS WELL FORGET HIM," which did quite well in England, and is included on one of their albums. I think the rumor about writing their hits came because I was a partner in the publishing company that published their songs.

Thanks again,
Tommy


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