Tommy Roe Has Come a Long Way Since 'Sheila'

Tommy Roe -- the artist behind such hits as "Sheila" and "Dizzy," is back with new music. The Georgia native has been busy promoting his current single, "Memphis Me." He tells Billboard that he's enjoying having new music to talk about, because he admits it doesn't happen that often.

"I haven't had a new record out since the late 1990s, so having a new record out is kind of cool," he admits, saying that a creative spurt led to his return. "I wrote this song called 'Devil's Soul Pile' a few years ago, and it was a completely different genre than you would expect from me. The song is lyrically about crime in the inner cities, and is a bit of social commentary. When I wrote it, I decided that I really wanted to have it be heard, so I decided to go into the studio to cut it. Songwriting for me is a strange thing. It's something that comes in spurts with me. When it happens, I will write a dozen songs or so. Then, I may not write again for two years."

"Devil's Soul Pile" stems from an experience during his youth. "When I was a kid, we were in church every Sunday morning, and my parents would take me to these camp meetings," he recalled. "It would be a weekend of picnics and tailgating, but underneath these tents that were set up, preachers would preach all day and night. I remember this one time I was about nine or ten years old, and this one preacher kept talking about the devil as a collector of souls. I thought to myself, 'If he collects souls, they've got to be in a warehouse somewhere.' That happened when I was a kid. Fast forward about three or four years ago, and I went trout fishing with a friend of mine in the Sierras, and I see this road sign that says 'Devil's Post Pile," which was a town up there. It triggered that memory. I had to then think about what I was going to write about. Living in Los Angeles at that time, you saw something everyday about inner-city crime and what's going on with the youth. So, I based it around that, with the song ending with a message of hope. That got the album started, then I had to come up with more songs. "Memphis Me' was a catalog song of mine that I wrote some years ago. I just put it in a drawer and forgot about it. So, I dug that out and recorded it."

He turned nostalgic when asked to share the story of the song that gave him his initial break -- 1962's "Sheila." It all stemmed from, you guessed it, a girl.

"I wrote this song about a girl I was going to school with. I had a crush on her, and her name was Frieda. I wrote her this poem, and was going to give it to her. But, she moves out of the neighborhood, and I never got to give it to her. I put three chords to it, and wrote the song. I went around high school singing 'Sweet Little Frieda.' Then, I got an audition with a record producer to do a session, and I sang Frieda for him. He said he loved the song, but we had to do something about the title. So, we changed the title to Sheila. I recorded it while I was still in high school in Atlanta, but after that a friend of mine, Paul Drew -- who was a DJ -- introduced me to Felton Jarvis. He wanted to be a producer, and he remembered the local version of 'Sheila.' He wanted to re-do it. "That's a hit song,' he'd say."

Jarvis -- who would later produce Elvis Presley -- was right. The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962, and Roe was soon able to quit his full-time job with GE and work his music full-time. Did he ever get a chance to thank Frieda for the inspiration?

"She doesn't have a clue she started the whole thing for me," he said. "I don't know what happened to her."