During the 1960s and early ‘70s, when the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Motown artists and other pop stars were dominating the radio airwaves, there was also a young artist from Atlanta, GA who was having his own string of hits. Singer/songwriter Tommy Roe had six Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, including the number one hits, “Dizzy” (in 1969) and “Sheila” (1962).
Notably, Roe’s most popular song, “Dizzy,” was recently named by USA Today as one of 100 Best Songs In History. This prestigious song list was determined by 24/7 Wall Street, which created an index based on sales from the Recording Industry Association of America, Billboard chart performance, the number of cover versions, and recognition among music fans. “Dizzy” was selected #91 on this list of 100 best songs.
Roe’s other Top 10 hits were “Sweet Pea,” “Jam Up and Jelly Tight,” “Everybody” and “Hooray for Hazel.” He also had four more singles that made the Top 40.
Roe’s hit songs were known for being fun, catchy and entertaining. By the mid-‘60s, Roe’s hits (and other songs in this emerging genre) became known as “Bubblegum Pop,” because these were hits that were happy and playful songs that were intended for teenagers and young kids.
Now 77 years old, Roe is celebrating his sixth decade in the music business. Over the years, he has toured and played shows worldwide, and he’s attracted new fans. Roe has also written and recorded new music; his latest album is called Tommy Roe Meets Barefoot Jerry, which is a collaboration between Roe and Wayne Moss of the band, Barefoot Jerry. In addition, in 2010 Roe released his autobiographical book, From Cabbagetown to Tinseltown.
Roe has been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, and the Iowa Rock and Roll Association Hall of Fame.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Tommy Roe. He tells how he got started in the music business, and how he wrote his classic hit songs. He also looks back on a lifetime of being a hit artist and performing his music to fans worldwide.
DK: I read that you’re from Atlanta. Can you talk about your early years growing up and becoming a musician?
Tommy Roe: I grew up in Cabbagetown, which is a section of Atlanta. It was a real working class neighborhood, just on the edge of Atlanta.
When I was around 14, I started writing poems, and I wrote a poem for a girl named Frida that I had a crush on (laughs). And around the same time, my dad taught me three chords on the guitar. So I thought…if I could put some music to these poems, I could become a songwriter. And then in high school, I formed a band called Tommy Roe & The Satins.
When I was 20, I had an opportunity to audition for a record producer. I sang “Frida” for him, and he said, “Man, I love that song ‘Frida,’ but I’m not crazy about that title.” So we ended up changing the title to “Sheila,” and as they say…the rest is history. It became my first number one hit, and it launched my career.
DK: After you had several hits, you became known as the King of Bubblegum Pop. How did the term Bubblegum come into music?
Roe: Well, it started when I recorded (the hit) “Sweet Pea.” In the beginning, my follow-up hit to “Sheila” was “Everybody,” which was also a big hit. Those songs were considered rockabilly, and I was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame during that period.
Then in 1964, I joined the Army Reserve, and for a whole year I was kind of out of the loop. And while I was in the Army, Beatlemania and the British Invasion started big-time. I noticed a lot of American artists were being pushed off the Billboard charts, and were being replaced by these British acts. So while I was in the service, I was thinking…when I get out, I’ve got to go back into the studio. What am I gonna do that will be different, that can compete with all these British acts?
So I came up with the idea—I called it “soft rock.” And I wrote “Sweet Pea” while I was in the service. Then when I got out of the Army, we went into the studio and recorded it, and “Sweet Pea” turned out to be a huge record for me. Then the DJs started calling it “bubblegum music,” because it was so different from what was happening on the charts. And it was soft—it appealed to young kids and teenagers.
At first, I resented the name “bubblegum”…I thought it was a negative thing. But I followed it up with “Hooray For Hazel” that was also a big record (laughs). It was another bubblegum record. And so I just embraced it and ran with it.
These days, I embrace the name “bubblegum”—I’m proud of it. One of the big thrills I get, is when I sing “Sweet Pea” to a live audience. I can see all the faces in the audience light up with a big smile (laughs). They seem to really get a kick out of it.
DK: Your biggest hit was “Dizzy,” which remains popular to this day. Can you tell the story of how you wrote “Dizzy”?
Roe: Yes. I wrote “Dizzy” with my longtime friend, Freddy Weller. Back in the mid-‘60s, I was a regular on Dick Clark’s TV show, Where The Action Is, which was filmed in Los Angeles. Also on the show was the band, Paul Revere & the Raiders. Paul needed a new guitarist, so he asked me if I knew someone who would be good. I suggested my friend, Freddy Weller, who was also from Atlanta. Freddy and I had started in the music business together. Then Paul called Freddy, who came out to Los Angeles and got the gig.
At the time, we were doing a lot of Dick Clark tours, and Paul Revere & the Raiders were also on the tour. These were bus tours—we’d travel all over the U.S. doing concerts. So now with Freddy being part of the Raiders, me and Freddy would travel and write songs together. And “Dizzy” was the first song that we wrote together.
Then I went into the studio and recorded it, and it turned out to be a huge record, my biggest single. And then Freddy and I wrote “Jam Up and Jelly Tight,” which was the follow-up single to “Dizzy.” Also, Freddy became a country artist, and we wrote quite a few country songs that Freddy recorded and did well. So we really clicked as a team writing together, and I still consider him my writing partner to this day.
DK: Both “Dizzy” and “Jam Up and Jelly Tight” are very catchy song titles. How did you come up with these titles?
Roe: I came up with “Dizzy” out of the clear. I loved the title “Dizzy,” and I thought you could really write something around that title. That’s the way I’ve always written it. I’d come up with a title first, and then try to write a simple story around it with the melody. Actually, “Dizzy” is a very complicated pop song, musically. It changes key 11 times in the song, with a lot of modulations.
With “Jam Up and Jelly Tight,” I got the idea from an expression my father used to say when I was growing up. It was a popular phrase, like “Groovy” or “Outasite.” He’d see a pretty girl walking down the street, and he’d say, “Son, that gal’s Jam Up and Jelly Tight” (laughs).
You know, Southerners are famous for their anecdotes and expressions, and “Jam Up and Jelly Tight” was one of those Southern expressions (laughs). It comes from the old days, when they would can jams and jellies in the South. When they finished, they would say, “Everything’s jam up and jelly tight.” They’d put it in the pantry, and that’s where that saying is from.
DK: I listened to some of your albums, and I noticed that you recorded cover versions of other classic songs from the ‘60s, like “Sugar Sugar” and “Crimson and Clover.” Were you a fan of those songs?
Roe: Yeah, I loved “Crimson and Clover” and all the songs that I covered. I’m a big fan of Tommy James (who wrote “Crimson and Clover”); I think he’s a terrific songwriter. And he was considered a bubblegum act, too.
DK: Tommy, a lot of years have passed since you had your string of hits in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. When you look back on that period, what comes to mind now?
Roe: I think about what an adventure it’s been. When I was a young person, I wanted to go to college. I actually went to the University of Georgia and registered. But around the same time, “Sheila” became a hit. So I decided to go with the hit instead of going to college.
It’s been an incredible learning experience for me. I’ve traveled all over the world—I’ve toured with big acts, small acts, big venues, small venues. I’m very proud of the success I’ve achieved, and the legacy that I’ll leave for my children and grandchildren. In that respect, I’m very happy about the way everything has turned out.
For more information about Tommy Roe, here’s his site: https://www.tommyroe.com
Tommy Roe also has a Podcast: https://tommyroepodcast.com/