Tommy Roe: The Original Cabbagetown Kid
Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, an impressive array of talents called the Atlanta area home, from rock ’n’ roll originators (Piano Red and the recently departed Beverly “Guitar” Watkins) to future country music superstars (Bill Anderson, Jack Greene, Mac Davis, Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed). Yet few more proudly represented their home turf than a key part of Cabbagetown’s musical lineage, Tommy Roe.
The future bubblegum pop sensation spent the early years of his life in Cabbagetown and came of age around Atlanta, where he took an early interest in poetry. Once Roe learned guitar and began setting poems to music, he formed a band with a couple of hometown friends.
“I put a little band together in high school with two of my buddies,” Roe says. “I played rhythm guitar and we had lead guitar and drums. No bass. A very thin-sounding band, I’m sure. We played a lot of fraternity parties at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, University of Alabama.”
Roe’s first band played an early version of an international hit. It began as a poem about Roe’s childhood crush, Frieda – a girl who’d moved out of town without notice years before Roe became a pop star. When it came time to cut his first hit, ABC-Paramount encouraged Roe to swap the name Frieda for the more Southern and phonetically friendly Sheila.
“I write about this in the book, and it’s all speculation,” Roe says of the change. “It was pretty close after the second World War. Anything German was out of style, and Frieda was a German name.”
Resistance to a German name is easy to believe because Jud Phillips, the brother of Sam Phillips and owner of influential rockabilly label Judd, allegedly praised the change to “Sheila” because “no one in the U S of A is going to buy a song about Fraulein Frieda.”
“Sheila” became a smash hit in 1962, raising a question still pondered by Roe: has the real-life Frieda ever had any clue that she inspired a timeless pop hit?
For an idea of how well “Sheila” suited the charts in 1962, it lost the number one spot in September to another song about a youthful love interest, the Four Seasons’ “Sherry.” Competition for “Sherry” and “Sheila” included another object of affection, Nat King Cole’s “Ramblin’ Rose.”
Roe’s career-launching hit offered him two very different touring opportunities. One of which teamed him with Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler and the Impressions and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles for a tense trip through the segregated South.
“I had a number one hit, so they were happy to have me, but that wasn’t the number one reason to have a white act on your tour back in those days,” Roe says. “The black artists couldn’t stop and eat at just any restaurant, and they couldn’t stay in the hotels. They always had a white act on tour with them to be a runner for food and to help them navigate the South. I never will forget, they’d see a restaurant on the side of the road, and they’d park down the street. I’d walk down the street and order like 40 hamburgers. They’d always look at me real funny, like, ‘Boy, are you having a big party?’ I would usually say it was a fraternity thing. We were having a fraternity party. If they’d known I was ordering for a black troupe, they might not have served me, so I had to play that game.”
Those burger hauls ended up being Roe’s main role on the tour.
“They wanted me to sing ‘Sheila,’ my one hit, and that was it,” Roe adds. “I’d get off stage and go get the hamburgers.”
Another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came in 1963 when Roe toured England with The Beatles. The tour predated the first American wave of Beatlemania and Roe’s short diversion from popular music.
“After I toured with The Beatles in 1963 over in England, I came back and they came to the states in 1964,” Roe says. “They invited me to play their first American concert in Washington DC. That was in February when I opened the show for them in Washington. In March or April, I went into the Army. I had to go into boot camp. I was about to get drafted, and I joined the reserves. So, the whole year of 1964, I was out of the loop. I was doing my training. While I was in there, it gave me a lot of time to think because it was during the British Invasion. After The Beatles hit it big, dozens and dozens of British acts came over, and they started pushing the American acts off the charts. While I was in the service, I was watching this. I thought when I get out of here, I’ll have to go in the studio and make another record. How would I compete with all this great music coming out of England?”
Roe’s solution in a musical climate where “Sheila” and “Sherry” took a back seat to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” inadvertently created what became known as bubblegum pop.
“So, I consciously came up with the idea to write something totally different,” Roe adds. “That’s when I wrote ‘Sweet Pea.’ I called it soft rock. It wasn’t aggressive. It was safe for the DJs to play. When I got out of the service, I moved out to California and recorded ‘Sweet Pea.’ It went to the top five. So. when I got out of the service, I was back on the charts when very few Americans were still on the charts.”
After “Sweet Pea” furthered the career of Roe, not to mention fellow softies like Tommy James, it proved that singing simplistic songs to a teenage audience still made fiscal sense during one of rock’s most rapidly evolving and experimental decades. In fact, Roe’s teenage sound remained lucrative all the way through 1969’s “Dizzy.”
Through it all, a Southern boy with opportunities to tour far and wide rarely got to play shows back home. Aside from historic local appearances by The Beatles, Cream and The Monkees featuring opening act Jimi Hendrix, decision makers in Los Angeles and New York avoided concerts in the presumably backwards South for years. The first cracks in that flawed way of thinking came after the success of the first annual Atlanta International Pop Festival, held Independence Day weekend in 1969.
“When I moved to California, I stayed there pretty much all the time because that’s where the work was,” Roe says. “I was a regular on Dick Clark’s Where the Action Is show for a few years. I was basically there, and I would get back to Atlanta to visit my mom and dad and my daughter, but I never did a lot of shows in Atlanta. Basically, I worked everywhere else.”
Although Roe’s golden era ended with 1970’s “Jam Up Jelly Tight,” he remained a recording artist for years to come. He even cracked country music’s top 40 with a 1986 version of “Let’s Be Fools Like That Again,” even if 1973’s “Working Class Hero” has aged better and sounds like a missed opportunity for Charley Pride and other song interpreters to better introduce Roe’s talents to Nashville.
Nowadays, Roe’s retired from touring about as many times as KISS has, but he still frequents the recording studio. Future releases include a new song titled “20/20 Vision,” a play on the year 2020.
For new music with local flavor, track down a copy of the new Cabbagetown Chronicles: Volume 1 CD. The compilation raises funds for Patch Works Art & History Center, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the neighborhood’s historical identity, relevance and integrity. Its track list includes Roe’s “Cabbagetown,” which is a rockabilly reimagining of an older song called “Birmingham.” The multi-generation celebration of a mill town’s musical legacy also includes K. Michelle DuBois’ cover of Roe’s “Pearl.”
If that’s not a healthy enough dose of reading material and listening suggestions, these stories about ‘60s stardom barely scratch the surface of the rich details shared in Roe’s 2016 autobiography, From Cabbagetown to Tinseltown and Places in Between.