Neil Sharpe is a SOTW Contributing Editor with an extensive experience with the emotional and psychological aspects of performance, health, and well being.
He is the author and co-author of three professional texts and numerous peer reviewed papers. Neil and his sax have terrified the unsuspecting since the 1950's.
About Sax on the Web Sax on the Web (SOTW) is a comprehensive saxophone site founded by Harri Rautiainen.
It covers many aspects of saxophone and saxophone playing in
articles written by several experts. An integral part is the SOTW Forum with 20,000 registered members from beginners to prominent
players and trade specialists.
“Deep gutted. Full chromed. Slammed to the floor.
Supercharged Merc’. Bustin’ for more.
Blue smoke trailing,
Stars tumbling out of the sky,
My wild-eyed passenger screaming,
'I don't wanna die!'
Two weeks under lock and key,
That’s what they’d laid on me.
But… a lucky break- an open window, a quick phone call.
Grab the sax. Bail out the car.
Look out Marco's Club, here I come.
People soon will be yelling:
'More! More! More!’'
As my sax gets them jumpin’
across a jammed dance floor.
Turn to my buddy:
‘I'm not trying to kill you, man!
Just getting you ready for some
ROCK N’ ROLL!' “
The real stuff: Sonny Del-Rio
Interview - Part One
Back then- the 1950’s. Antidepressants’ and inhibitors’ sales skyrocketed. Mr.
Gray Flannel suit and Susie Homemaker were choking pills back like there was no tomorrow, ‘cause there wasn’t. Love and hope lost in the grind of suburbia, the corporate rat race, “Keeping
Up With The Joneses”.
how could you resist? Especially with a wailing sax, a red hot band, and the music
calling your name.
That’s the blood in Sonny Del-Rio.
Was it Destiny?
Fate clicking into place? It can happen that way. Did for him.
’56-57. Little Richard came roaring in, with Lee
Allen blasting those searing solos on tenor sax. I fell asleep each night, listening
to the radio. Man, I was in Heaven!
Joe Ward’s Grade 9 music class. Fell into the sax easy. Joe told me that if I
really wanted to get serious, I should set up some private lessons. Enter Duarte McClain. Every Saturday morning.
After one lesson,
me and my cousin Donny were walking home.
‘Walking With Mr. Lee’
was the first rocking tune I’d mastered. Kicking it out on my
new ‘Olds Ambassador’ tenor sax. Purchased with my own
money, courtesy of making deliveries on my bicycle for George Hamilton’s Pharmacy.
Suddenly, I don’t
know why, I decided to play the song right there, in the middle of
the street, like a New Orleans’ musician.
‘Wow, it sounds fantastic,’ said Donny, as I wailed away. ‘Man, I
can feel that in my soul!’
think it’s too loud?’ I asked.
if it is. And anyway, look at that smile on that lady’s face.
She’s really digging it.’ ”
heart of Sonny Del-Rio… for 50 years and counting.
was rockin', it was rockin', You never seen such scufflin', And
shufflin' 'till the break of dawn.
Saturday Night Fish Fry
(from the album “Cactus Redux”- Trickbag featuring Sonny Del-Rio)
Grew up in a city
of art galleries, steel plants, universities, royal gardens, and
Grew up with a soul
called “Rock n’ Roll” and all that went with it…
“If I was
sick, rock was my medicine. If I was lonely, it was my friend. If I
was down, it was my inspiration. It was pure joy, a blessing
and…sometimes a curse.
When I first
started, the musicians were mostly much older men. Doing old
standards from the Great American Song Book. Tunes like ‘Peg of
My Heart’. That didn’t last long. We kids changed
everything. We were the ones doing the Top 40 Rock n’ Roll
hits. We were the only ones who knew how it really felt.
secret to performing- connecting and empathetic emotion. People want
to be entertained, to have those moments where they can get away from
You need to make
them like you. You need to let them know that you know what they’re
going through, what they’re feeling. Even today, when I’m
singing ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’, I see people in tears.
If I’m honking away on a rock tune, they’re up clapping
and dancing, cutting loose.
My first Rock n’
Roll band-‘The Gold Tones’. I was fifteen. Shortly after
that, I was recruited for THE band in town. That’s when things
really started moving. On tenor sax, I was stage front. Smoking
through the chart hits. Performing at standing room only dances. Next
thing I knew, I was doing most of the singing too.”
(The Ambassadors- 1959)
The late 50’s
and early ‘60’s were the golden days. Gigs every night of
the week. Standing-room-only audiences. Packed dance floors.
Sonny’s hometown, Hamilton, Ontario, a city now of over 500,000, had a heart
like an Irish mother. Tough, hard working, but always ready to dance her cares away.
Or The Golden Rail Tavern, where Ronnie Hawkins (who had
hits with “Hey Bo Diddley”,
and “Forty Days”)
arrived backed by “The Hawks”, including Levon Helm on drums.
They’d driven all the way in a single car from Arkansas. They
had to be successful, because they didn’t have gas money to get
home! [Hawkins eventually made his home in Ontario Canada; Helm later
linked up with local Canadian musicians to form the outstanding group
“I was lucky enough to be in the very heart of it. 'Just letting the good times
I got married in 1961. I was 17, she was 16. We were just kids, but fell in love and
had a lot of fun. We went on to have two beautiful children Lori- Ann
(born in ’62) and Tommy (born in ’64).
Everything was going great in the music world, but then…
Eight Days A Week
The Beatles swept in. A lot of 50's style rock acts suddenly were old news. You had to
be deaf and blind not to see what was happening- the sea change taking place in music. I’m not complaining. The Beatles were
the most innovative group of talented musicians I’d heard. You couldn’t help but marvel how their style and sound changed so
dramatically from album to album. They broke down a lot of barriers, freed up musicians from miserable royalty rates, and smashed open the
gates for a creative avalanche of new artists and producers.
Problem was that in between The Beatles and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury sounds, the sax
began to drift out of favor on the rock charts. I still was doing all right with bookings, but not enough to make a living. So, I’d
tried to do the ‘right thing’. Got a regular job, cashed a regular paycheck, did the 9-5 thing. But, it didn’t work.
Maybe ‘cause I was forcing myself to do something, I wasn’t meant to do. My wife and I split for a while in ’66.
I hit the road.
Hooked up with
Madden Enterprises. Next thing I know, I’m out on a tour with a
girl singer, an organ player, and a drummer who’d never heard
of me and I’d never heard of them. But we all had one thing in
common- we wanted to be in show business. That tour ran for a couple
of months, six nights a week. Then out again with another band, and
another one after that. Can’t remember most of those musicians
or many of the dates, but I was working. I was doing what I was born
Fell into the role
of the right hand man to the lead vocalist. Fine with me. Didn’t
have all that weight and responsibility. My job was to be the wild
child, to make the lead guy look good, to bring the passion,
excitement, and musical soul to the stage. I loved it.
Stage image and
performance are critical. That quintessential sax pose- the arched
back, the horn screeching at the sky. Body positions to sell the
emotion (I’ve got twenty plus). Bar walking and table dancing.
Working up your
performance until you can jump from one table to another, playing a
solo, while leaving five to ten tumbling tables behind. Of course, it
takes practice, dented saxes, and a few sore knees. But, understand
one thing. If you want to lay it down, you’ve got to really
work to get it down.
I moved up to
‘A’ gigs and concerts in the big cities. Like the Esquire Show Bar, in
Montreal, just before the World’s Fair, ‘Expo ’67’,
that attracted millions. Backed up sax greats like Junior Walker. Gigged
with the Jeff ‘Soulman’ Brown band. Roamed the town in
Jeff’s Cadillac Eldorado. Moved on to the Paradise Room. All
accommodations supplied, half price on hotel meals, $120.00 a week
plus tips. May not sound like much now but back then, we were sailing
high and free.
I remember once
dozing in a tour bus, lulled bythe hum of the driving
wheels on black asphalt. Flickering neon signs, industrial
wastelands, farmers’ fields, small towns, all flashing by. I
didn’t know how many miles we’d covered, how many days
we’d been out, or how many rooms we’d played. I only knew
I was loving every second of it.”
musician, it’s important to know who you are. That’s not
a cliché. Just a hard won truth.
When I first started out, I never tried to emulate anyone’s sound or
phrasing. Never bought the records of great players like Coleman
Hawkins or John Coltrane to copy what they were doing. Never tried to
develop a tone, or sound, like anyone else. I just tried to play with
all my heart and soul. Let what I was feeling transcend into that
growling sax sound that comes from pure emotional overblowing. Just
tried to be me, to develop my own sound.
Each of us has our
own distinctive speaking and singing voices. Why would we think it
would be any different with playing the sax? You might as well let
yourself be yourself, because that’s the way your tone and
sound is going to go.
The big plus is, it
never ends! Sax players aren’t athletes like the great Wayne
Gretzky or Joe Namath. We’re lucky that way. We don’t
stop playing ‘cause our knees go, or we get too old. You’re
always honing your tone. I’ve been doing this for 50 plus
years, and I’m still learning, still growing.
Great jazz players
are like Abstract Expressionist painters, splashing color all around.
Great jazz is never literal or straight forward. But when you hear
it, everything falls into place, wonderfully coherent, speaking to
what’s inside of you.
I know who I am.
I’m a honker and a rocker. But, Rock n’ Roll musicians
are equally moving, equally emotional, equally communicative and
connecting as jazz players. We play with excitement and passion,
soulful and tuneful, true to the music. Fitting inside of the music.
Letting it flow through you like a cosmic force. Not getting tied up
in ego trips that trap and blind.
A song that made
that really made an early impression on me was Bill Haley and The
Around the Clock.’ The sax that centers that song only plays two notes, but those two
notes, in syncopation, are the core essence. That’s what you
want to do with solos. Get to the core. Like the great Lee Allen.
Strip it down to the essential, to the heart of the song, to what the
music makes you feel.
Louis Jordan is another great example, a player, from the jump-swing blues era, who
had a real impact on me, along with Sam Butera.
As for technique,
mostly growl and flutter tongue for the tonal qualities. I’ll
overblow to get grit and texture, to emphasize the attack. If I want
to be more melodic, I use a wider vibrato to convey emotion.
For the tech
set-up, I tried playing with the mike clipped to the bell. But, it
can cause problems, unless you’re working with a pro soundman who knows the material and knows you.
Sound engineers are artists too. I’ve had a few times where the
soundman really enhanced our performance. But too often, the sound
guys won’t catch the solo or will pump it up six bars late.
That’s why I now prefer using a standup mike. I use those four
inches or so, away from the mike, as my volume control. That way I’m
‘Course there’s nothing new, when it comes to sound problems Back in
the ‘50’s, we often had to tune the sax to the hall
piano. No electric keyboards in those days. Problem was, sometimes
those pianos were so flat, if you wanted to be in tune, the
mouthpiece had to be so far off it was barely hanging on. Got used to
wrapping a piece of paper around the neck cork to keep the mouthpiece
got to trust the soundman, but some of them are really brutal. They
can kill you and your show, no matter how brilliant you and the band
have been playing. I’ve walked off stages and yelled a
well-deserved ‘Assassin’ to some of them.”
“But the cat who had the greatest impact on me, was
Richard Newell a.k.a ‘King Biscuit Boy’.
He walked up one night, during a set break, and introduced himself.
Said he loved my playing. Gave me a little sticker he’d
made-‘Del-Rio Records’. Very cool. Pasted it on my sax
case. I still have it. Said he wanted to be a musician himself- a
blues harmonic player. Nice guy with a musical encyclopedia for a
mind. We became friends. Listened to what he was doing. He had a terrific sound
(e.g. "Step Back Baby"). But even with all of that, I never
dreamed what he would become, but…more on that shortly.
King Biscuit Boy
(courtesy of www.kingbiscuitboy.com)
1965-69 was a
magical time in the rock music world. Seemed like there was a great
collective vibe going on.
I loved getting
together with people I’d met the night before. Doing whatever
they were doing. Skiing, trout fishing, sailing, or whatever. They’d
invite me and I’d always go. Out to their farms or their homes.
eventually came with a price. I was drinking too much. That’s
the thing about this business. Drinking has got the best of many
musicians. When you’re in bar scene 6 nights a week, staying
with the strippers in the daytime and with rock people in the night,
things can get crazy.
Guess I thought
that engine in me could keep going forever. But that’s
drinking. Keep at it and suddenly you’re doing things, you
normally won’t do. You become a person you never wanted to be,
going way over the line. Musicians who drink to be ‘true’
to what they think is the Rock n’ Roll image, have no idea what
they’re getting into or what the music is really all about.
Alcohol cuts wide and deep. It’s too easy to get lost.
especially true when drugs rolled in- Jamaican Trip weed, hash, the
‘love drug’ M.D.A, sunshine blotter acid, cocaine…heroin.
That’s when the toll of musicians really began to mount.
But, that’s the road, that’s the life. Like everything in this business, you go through it, learn your lessons.”