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Neil Sharpe

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.

More articles by Neil Sharpe:

o Anxiety, Emotions and Performing Well 1, 2, 3
o John Barrow; How NOT To Make It In The Pop World
o Jazz and The Touch of Zen: Ken Fornetran
o Johnny Ferreira: Rock n' Roll Saxophonist
o SOTW Rock n' Roll Resources, contributing editor.
o Tipitina's, Tall Ships, and Horses in the Lobby

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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.

Created: August 9, 2009
Update: September 6, 2009
In Sax on the Web Rock & Roll Series:

Lead Photo

Ride The Wild Wind

By Neil Sharpe

“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,
‘Compulsive. Unpredictable’.
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

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”.

Enter Rock n’ Roll. Straddling the rhythm-and-blues-powered-engine of change. Ripping up, tearing down, everything in sight. The music that saved a generation. And not a moment too soon.

Which isn’t to say, it went easy. Politicians, preachers, and PTA’s condemned Rock n’ Roll. Said it caused juvenile delinquency, street fights, and motorcycle gangs.

Mainstream record companies tried to gut the new comers by covering their songs.

[Compare Little Richard on “Tutti Frutti
to Pat Boone’s version]

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.

“High school. ’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. 

Lee Allen’s ‘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!’

‘Do you think it’s too loud?’ I asked.

‘Screw them if it is. And anyway, look at that smile on that lady’s face. She’s really digging it.’ ”

That’s the heart of Sonny Del-Rio… for 50 years and counting.


In The Beginning

It was rockin', it was rockin',
You never seen such scufflin',
And shufflin' 'till the break of dawn.

Louis Jordan

Saturday Night Fish Fry
(from the album “Cactus Redux”- Trickbag featuring Sonny Del-Rio)

Lee Allen, Louis Jordan, Sam Butera, Mr. King Super 20 and a Berg Larsen 115- that’s what Sonny Del-Rio grew up with.

Grew up in a city of art galleries, steel plants, universities, royal gardens, and musicians extraordinaire.

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.

That’s the secret to performing- connecting and empathetic emotion. People want to be entertained, to have those moments where they can get away from it all.

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.

The city where Conway Twitty found a home and first played his huge hit ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ (that sold eight million records), written for him by his drummer Jack Nance at the local Flamingo Lounge.

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 “The Band”]

“I was lucky enough to be in the very heart of it. 'Just letting the good times roll' 

Let The Good Times Roll
(From the album "Two Hound Blues" -For a free MP3 of this song, write to sonnydelrioATgmail.com
MP3's available on Amazon.com and iTunes)

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 to do.

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 by the 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.”


Know Yourself

"For a 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 Comets’ ‘Rock 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 in control.

‘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 on.

You’ve always 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.”

The 60’s

In the 60’s, a SUPER NOVA explosion blew up the musical world.

Detroit and the great Motown sound; “The English Invasion” led by The Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, and The Rolling Stones; plus, San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury scene with the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and so many more.

But, simmering in the area of Hamilton-Toronto Ontario, were wonderful musicians teetering on the brink of stardom.

Artists like Joni Mitchell, Ian and Sylvia who filled the coffee houses with their now classic songs including “Circle Game" and “Four Strong Winds”.

The much covered (including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Barbara Streisand), singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot (e.g. “Early Morning Rain”; “If You Could Read My Mind”).

Neil Young and Rick James who teamed up in a group called The Mynah Birds.

And of course, Jack London and The Sparrows, who later became “Steppenwolf” with their iconic, world-wide, monster hit, “Born To Be Wild”. 

Other great bands were The Ugly Ducklings and The Mandala (the latter are discussed in Al Kooper’s fine auto-bio “Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards”).

“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. 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.

But, that’s the road, that’s the life. Like everything in this business, you go through it, learn your lessons.”

prev  Sonny Del-Rio, Interview Part Two: Tipitina's, Tall Ships, and Horses in the Lobby
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