Neil Sharpe is a Sax on the Web 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 30,000 registered members from beginners to prominent
players and trade specialists.
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. But…
those years 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.
That became 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.
the road, that’s the life. Like everything in this business,
you go through it, learn your lessons.”
You moved so gracefully across that smoky room,
You thought those saxophones were playing just for you,
We danced a fantasy in syncopated time,
This must be love, I felt that magic when your lips
“Say You Will”
(Sonny Del-Rio from the album “40 Years of Rock n’ Roll”)
By the late 60’s, things began to dry up. The Beatles bowed out. The promise and hope of The
Love-Peace Generation faded out in a haze of drug overdoses, Altamont, and the Vietnam war.
Gigs slowed. Clubs dropped live entertainment.
“It can be a lot of pressure. Always having to wait for the call. Trying to keep a
balance between who you are and the fantasy the fans expect you to be.
But, that’s the sacrifice you make for your art. That’s what drives you to put up with all the crap,
all the double dealing and loneliness. That need to express yourself through your music.
I realize that may sound corny. But believe me, if you’re a musician, and I mean really
a musician, that’s how it feels. Still...
I had to recognize the practical realities. Recognized that the times had changed, the music scene too.
With little work on the road, it was time to go back home. Plus, I needed a break. A break from always working through a booking agency, from playing with professionals who
didn’t know me and weren’t in any rush to find out.
A break from dealing with ego driven players who had a couple of decent gigs and
suddenly became convinced they were the chosen ones, destined to zoom
to Number 1 on the charts, with the rest of the band suddenly reduced, in their eyes only, to disposable sidemen.
A break from girlfriends and wives who didn’t want their guys to go out of
the road because of the temptations- the groupies and the one-night stands.
Got back together with my wife. Tried again the 9-5 job routine. But this time…
I kept my sax chops up. Started the band ‘Taxi’. A very good band; not great,
but definitely entertaining. Did a lot of covers. Easy product to sell, to get work. The people loved it.
I began to hook up with other musicians who were coming in off the road. Began to explore, to
discover, to evolve. Which was easy to do, when surrounded by Hamilton’s inspirational musicians and producers, like
Daniel Lanois, Dave Rave,
In 1974-75, I got involved with The Terra Nye Experiment , a jazz/progressive rock group. We wrote a piece of music called ‘The Starship Suite’, more than 50 minutes long, that quickly proved
very popular as we performed it live at universities across the country (I used both my Super 20 tenor and a Buescher bari during the
shows). Unfortunately, we were never able to get into a studio to record this opus and only a few, poor quality, live recordings were
made. However, more than 30 years later, with most of the players still around, we finally went into producer Georgie Fab’s
‘Cellar Full of Noise’ recording studio and laid down the album, true to its original themes.
By the mid-70’s,
the music scene was reborn. Georgie Fab was with the great band
founded by drummer Skip Procop; their hit singles included ‘Pretty
Lady’ and ‘Sunny Days’.
And that's when it happened to me- 'The Crossroads'. That decision every musician must make.
It came while sitting in a ramshackle tour bus, squeezed in between the great
drummer Jack Pedlar and a 300 pound entertainer, sixteen hours into a grueling, supposedly
‘quick in-and-out’, road gig. Suddenly, I knew it finally was time. Time to choose-the straight life or…Rock n’ Roll?
Twice I had tried the 9-5-regular-paycheck-steady-job routine. This time, the skies opened. I looked around. Realized how many guys had quit the business and become hairdressers or something. While I was back on the road,
making a living...living a dream.
I’d been born Dennis Grasley, but largely had left that name behind when I got into
music. Yet, it wasn’t until that moment, when I turned to my long time buddy,
Jack Pedlar. and said, ‘All those other guys have quit the
business, while I’m still here, living it, the rock n’ roll life!' That’s when I realized that I truly had become ‘Sonny Del-Rio'- professional
musician...and all that goes with it...
And The Beat Goes On
“...The autumn of ’75- a disastrous five week, Eastern Seaboard, swing.
The last leg took us up into the Gaspe Peninsula area. We were
driving along the seacoast in what should have been a great day, with
spectacular scenery and not a cloud in the sky. But, our gas guzzling
‘63 Chevy van, jerry-rigged with a Volkswagen gas tank, was
strangling us. Had to stop every 60-70 miles to pour oil into the
gutless engine just to keep it going. Suddenly, in the middle of
nowhere, the Atlantic Ocean pounding in our ears, our roadie flipped out.
Earlier, we’d had to dump dates in order to return home with the first truck the
rental people had given us, a five-tonner. By mistake, the leasing
company thought the truck was overdue and had been stolen. The cops
started looking for us. The rental company later apologized, but
still took the truck back. They could make more money elsewhere. The
replacement truck blew out after only four hours on the road. And
then along came that beat-up hunk of junk, the ‘63 Chevy.
There we were, jerking along, when our roadie went ballistic. Flew out of the truck,
cursing, saying he’d had enough, was tired of getting screwed
over by rental companies and bar owners. Summed it up for all of us.
We were miserable. Down to almost zero dough. Forced to spend what
money we had on the van just to finish the dates.
At this point, our drummer Jack Pedlar suddenly announced: ‘You know what? It’s
my birthday! Let’s do something.’
‘On what?’ I wanted to ask, but we all climbed back in and went looking for the
Drove into a small French-Canadian village, asking people where was a good pub to celebrate. Had no luck, until we finally saw a young guy who looked like a good bet. Told him who we were, what we did. Got a big smile. Next thing we know, he was in the van, squeezing in between us and all the luggage and gear.
‘Hang a left and head up the mountain.’, he said. ‘I’ve got some
friends who live on a farm up there. Kind of a commune.’ Turned out to be our lucky day.
They were beautiful people, who treated us like long-lost relatives. Fed us wonderful
homemade soup with fresh baked bread. We relaxed in the long grass,
sun beaming down. We really hated to leave, but a gig was calling. As
we bid a fond ‘Adieu’ and were heading out, they handed
us a garbage bag- a present for Jack. Asked us to open it later. When
we hit the main road, Jack peeked in. It was ‘grass’, the
not-so-legal kind. Jack laughed and laughed. ‘Now this is a birthday party, I’ll never forget.’
Next up were eight wonderful years with
Ray Materick (who’s
done 16 plus albums including being produced by, and playing with, Daniel Lanois); his
singles include the terrific hit ‘Emily’.
"That was a great band. And this time around, we, the musicians, owned
everything! We were no longer just employees of some label or booking agency.
We wrote the songs. Managed the business. Played all the ‘A’ circuit clubs
and concerts. Were simulcast live by radio stations across the
country. Had weeks where we made big dough. And…weeks where we made zero.
Most musicians want to run their own show. That means it’s your responsibility to
pay the sound guy, to rent the gear and the lighting, to take care of
the accommodations and meals, to rent the truck and tour buses.
Expenses and salaries of the musicians always have to come out first,
‘cause without them, you have no show. What’s left, you split up.
My favorite album from those times is the ‘Ray Materick- Signature’ album.
Which provides insight into the business of recording and distribution.
"We wrote all the songs and paid all the production costs. Which topped $30,000.00! A lot of money from our tours went into it. Which was fine. Music is an art. If you want to do it right, the best people have to be at the controls."
Although the album was great, the record company’s timing wasn’t. They
released the album in the early ‘80’s when the country
was slipping into a major recession. In those days, labels hired
“store jobbers” to place the record in major stores and
set up radio and press interviews for every city on the tour. But,
with the unemployment rate climbing skyward, it definitely wasn’t
the best time to release a big production album.
"The LP won great critical reviews, but didn’t move the way it could have if they’d released it earlier. The cost of doing the album soon cut into our gigs. Began to run short of dough to rent equipment, to pay the road crews…Finally, a showdown with the record company. Went in to the meeting, ready to mortgage everything in order to pay for the studio, marketing and distribution costs. Sat down at the boardroom table, surrounded by suits, prepared for the worst.
Before we could say a word, they made an announcement! That savage shark of an economy had bitten deep. The company had gone into receivership. Our royalties had disappeared. But, so too had all the studio's huge bills!"
These days, everything is digital. Much cheaper to record and produce. As for
editing and mixing, when compared to analog, it’s no contest.
When you were working with a 2 inch master tape or even DAT tapes, to
do a little edit the tapes had to be manually rolled back and cut
with a razor blade. I was amazed when I first saw a recording
engineer do that, spools of recording tape spilling all over the
floor. Now with technology like ‘Pro Tools’, you move a bar and that’s it.
What was fun in the old days, was doing the analog mix in the studio. You had a big board
with all these channels. Our job was to move these channels up and
down when given the cue. If you wanted the sax to come up here for 16
bars and then go down, or bring the piano up, and so on, we had to
physically move the channels for each pass. We were trying to capture
that mix we’d heard in our heads. You’ve got the
engineer with his two hands, and me with my two hands, the guitarist
player with his two hands etc. Everyone had their little part to do,
moving these four faders up and down when it was your time to cue in.
As for comparing digital to analog, I can't say I notice any big difference in sound.
Some record producers say they can tell and maybe that would hold up
if you’ve got a million dollar audiophile stereo set-up, but
for me, the magic of music and performing transcends the technology.
Are we relying more on technology these days and less on creativity? I think we are.
Sometimes in recording, the less you have the more creative you have
to be. The Beatles did their great album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s
Lonely Hearts Club Band’ on a four-track board. Now we have
software to fill in the voices, bring them up to pitch, and so on. I
definitely think something is missing.”
Richard Newell A.K.A. “King Biscuit Boy” and Crowbar
Crowbar went on to record the international smash hit, “Oh
What A Feeling!” (written at Paddy Greens, an infamous local watering hole in
Hamilton). This was followed by a live album, “Larger than Life” which went gold, three
weeks after its release. But, success sometimes comes with a price
that's always been a part of the music business- ‘"creative
differences"’. Crowbar broke up (Richard had left after
the first album). But…
later on down the road, Richard and Crowbar’s great pianist/singer
Kelly Jay decided they
just couldn’t let that unique sound go.
Sonny Del-Rio, Rick Waites, Richard Newell, Paul Panchezac, then Mayor of Calgary Ralph Cline, Alex Macdougle, owner of the King Edward
Hotel- Jack Carter, Kelly Jay)
Richard had been pure blues, he now wanted to bring more of a rock n’
roll sound into the mix. After all these years, we finally got a
chance to play together in Crowbar, touring with some really creative
gigs…and interesting times…Such as a tour that took us
from a Tall Sailing Ship off the coast of Newfoundland, to my riding
a horse through the King Edward Hotel while wearing a pink cowboy hat
during the Calgary Stampede, to 2 a.m. sets at Tipitinas in New Orleans.”
In 1988, Richard and I recorded the album
AKA King Biscuit Boy’ for Stony Plain Records. I’m really happy the way the sax was recorded on that album,
especially songs like ‘Ashamed of Myself” and ‘Don’t
Let Daddy Slow Walk You’ [click here
to listen to these song clips and listen below for the full single ‘She Knocks Me Out’”].
Sonny and King Biscuit Boy later released the
“Two Hound Blues” (produced
by Georgie Fab and sax great Darcy Hepner)
featuring songs like “Bad Luck Soul”, “Play the
Honky Tonks”, and the title track written by Sonny to honor his friendship with Richard, [click
to listen to clips of these songs, and listen below to the full single “Two
Hound Blues” MP3’s also are available on iTunes].
Two Hound Blues
The horn charts,
arranged by Darcy Hepner, were played by Darcy Hepner, Simon Wallis,
Steve McDade, CarloDi Battista, John Willett, Glenn Higgins and Dan
Elliot. On drums are: Claude Desjardins, Jack Pedler, Randy Scott and
Bob Hayden. On bass: Roberto Occupinto, Johnny Stone,
Ronnie Lodge (of Ronnie & The Rockets), and Neil Nikafor.
On guitar: Peter Mueller, Bernie LaBarge and Mark Severn.
On piano: Jesse o’Brien and Richard Whitehouse.
But then, without
warning, three months after the last song had been written, Richard
Newell passed away. However, his musical genius lives on and
continues to inspire young musicians.
there hadn’t been a funeral, the musicians who knew Richard
wanted closure. We decided to have a full day concert: -‘Blues
with a Feeling:TributetoKing
Biscuit Boy’. 107 musicians
showed up for the gig! We eventually got all of them up on stage.
That first concert has been followed by six more that are always sold
out. Plus, this year we’ve added a blues boat cruise! All
proceeds fund a musical
Welcome To Saxland
We got a red-hot band,
We’re gonna rock your blues away.
Welcome To Saxland
Twice named Canada's Best Blues Sax Player by Real Blues Magazine,
in 2000, Sonny released his first solo album.
"‘40 Years of Rock n’ Roll’
really captured the essence of what I was looking for- numbers that always got a great response when I was performing them on stage,
including songs like ‘Treat Your Baby’ Right’ (check out the club video),
‘Jailhouse Blues’ (featuring King Biscuit Boy), and ‘A Friend Like You’
[For a free MP3 of ‘Treat Your Baby Right’, write to sonnydelrioATgmail.com, MP3’s
are available on iTunes.”]
The chief producer was Georgie Fab, with recordings at Cross Eyed Bear Studio, Catharine
Street Studio, Chatham Gardens, and Grant Avenue Studio. It was mixed by L. Stu Young and mastered by
Nick Balonga of TheMetalworks. Dixon Yarmouth is on guitar, Jessie O'Brien, keys; Ronnie Lodge,
Randy Scott, Bob Haydon, and Johnny Stone are the drummers.
“In the past few years, I've returned to my community roots, and am a strong supporter of
charitable work. You get a feeling of grace when helping others. It’s my way of paying back the community for
the wonderful gift given to me-a life in music.
Each year, we have a Christmas Party Concert to raise monies for local charities. Last year, 16
bands and individuals were featured.
The ‘Green Room’ is always a big part of our charitable concerts. The touring musicians
have a chance to catch up, laughing and telling road stories that get
wilder each time they are told. Musical artists always are
coming and going off stage, sweating and flush from their
performances, accepting the accolades of their peers, with contagious
smiles and eyes bright with the spirit of Christmas giving.
In 2003, we released a Christmas CD that continues to do very well! Great musicians like Tom Wilson,
Dave Rave, Ronnie and The Rockets
and Jude Johnson volunteered.
Georgie Fab kindly donated his studio and great production skills. Word spread quickly. Soon the lineup included
Boris Brott and the Hamilton
radio and television personalities, politicians (including Alderman,
and multi-instrumentalist, Bob
Bratina, and the now Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario,
Lincoln Alexander). Although the CD was recorded in July, the studio was decked out with
a Christmas tree and decorations to get everyone in the mood. It was
a great recording session, with people bringing their families and
friends to join in. (Check out this promotional
visit I did on the local television station).
In 2006, my
“Welcome to Saxland” CD was released. These songs, half original and half covers, really
capture the heart and soul of performing. When you’re up there, you need songs that you can
really relate to emotionally, like ‘Are You Ready To Rock’, ‘Crazy Street’
or Roy Wood’s tune ‘Baby You Sure Got It Now’ (featuring Jesse O’Brien
on piano) [MP3’s are available on iTunes].”
The CD was recorded
and mixed at A Cellar Full of Noise by Georgie Fab and L. Stu Young,
and again mastered at The Metalworks by Nick Balonga, with Mark
Severn on guitar and vocals, Jack Pedlar on drums, and Neil Nickafor
[For free MP3’s
of “Let The Good Times Roll”, “Treat Your Baby
Right”, and “Baby You Sure Got It Now” please write
“As for what
I’m doing now, I'm very fortunate. ‘The Sonny Del-Rio Band’ features Jack Pedlar on drums, Danny Thomas on guitar,
and Mike Williams on the “dog house” bass. My website is up and running with videos, pictures, and CDs.
One of my favourite bands to work with is the great Teenage Head
featuring the outstanding guitarist, Gord Lewis. I’ve been making
appearances with these rock icons since the mid-80’s (now known as ‘Sons of Hammer’,
due to the tragic passing of their wonderful singer, Frankie ‘Venom’ Kerr). Tom Wilson is now the lead vocalist.
Recently, I had the privilege of being involved with a very special project that features
many of the area’s terrific musicians- the ‘Canadian Heroes’ tribute.
Song writers Jason Simpson, Georgie Fab,
Skip Prokop and myself got together to pen the song; ‘CANADIAN HEROES’, as a salute to our
Canadian Forces who every day put their lives on the line in Afghanistan.
All proceeds will go to "The Military Families Support Fund". In addition to Gord Lewis, singers on the record include
Ian Thomas, Tom Wilson, Brian Melo, Ray Materick, Skip Prokop, Tomi Swick, Kelly Jay, Dave Rave and
Jack Dekeyzer. Also featured on the chorus is the 80 piece children's choir from Saint Michael's School, under the direction of Joe Allain.
Together with me every step of the way is my wonderful wife, Faye, who I daily thank
for her great support, hard work, and creative input. And, of course, the greatest blessings of my life- my children and grandchildren,
which includes Chad Baker, born in 1984, who I didn’t meet until he was seventeen years of age.
However, we now have a great father-son relationship.
I’m especially proud that I’m serving as producer for my son
Tommy’s group, Tommygunn, for their first CD, “No Justice- Just Us”.
What is success for a musician? Money, fame, record deals, awards? Very few of us
will enjoy these, but every one of us knows the joy of making music.
This is why we carry on, night after night, year after year, at
small clubs and neighborhood bars everywhere. Success is a gig tonight!
So, if you’re in the area and looking for a good time, check the club listings.
I’ll be playing.