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Neil Sharpe

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.

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 New Orleans
o Ride The Wild Wind

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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 30,000 registered members from beginners to prominent players and trade specialists.

Created: September 6, 2009

prev  Sonny Del-Rio, Interview Part One: Ride The Wild Wind     

In Sax on the Web Rock & Roll Series:

Photo 8 Two Hound Blues

Tipitina's, Tall Ships, and Horses in the Lobby

By Neil Sharpe

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.”

Homeward Bound

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

Met mine.

“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, Tom Wilson.

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.

Terra Nye  

By the mid-70’s, the music scene was reborn. Georgie Fab was with the great band 'Lighthouse", founded by drummer Skip Procop; their hit singles included ‘Pretty Lady’ and ‘Sunny Days’.

Out of town tours suddenly were financially possible. The blues scene took off, featuring artists like Powder Blues Band and Downchild Blues Band [both Powder [who kindly donated a Mp3 to SOTW’s New Orleans Project] and Downchild are still going strong].

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...

Photo 5

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 nearest town.

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.’

Ray Materick

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

Richard "King Biscuit Boy" Newell had become one of the preeminent blues harmonica players of his generation (e.g. "Step Back Baby")

He had helped to form the band ‘King Biscuit Boy and Crowbar’. Their first album, ‘Official Music’, released in 1970, won raves, and featured the hit single, ‘Corrina, Corrina’.

Richard soon was in great demand (playing with artists like Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin while socializing with John and Yoko, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and The Rolling Stones). For his next album, he flew down to New Orleans to record a self-titled album on Epic Records with the legendary Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and The Meters [click here to listen one of the tracks "Achin' Head"- for more info on this album, click here to access "Mind Over Matter" from Dan Phillips' great New Orleans music blog, “Home of the Groove”].

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.

Photo 6 Crowbar
(“Crowbar”- 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)

“Although 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 ‘Richard Newell 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’”].

King Biscuit Boy: ‘She Knocks Me Out’  
Photo 7

(Special thanks to Stony Plain Records and Holger Petersen)

Sonny and King Biscuit Boy later released the CD, “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 here 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.

“Because 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:Tribute to King 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 scholarship in Richard’s name.

Welcome To Saxland

We got a red-hot band,

We’re gonna rock your blues away.

Sonny Del-Rio
Welcome To Saxland

Twice named Canada's Best Blues Sax Player by Real Blues Magazine, in 2000, Sonny released his first solo album.

Photo 9 (222K)

"‘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.

Charitable Work

“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.

Meanwhile, out in the main ballroom of The Leander Boat Club, Santa has arrived and is giving out presents to the children. We’ve never had the slightest difficulty with the bands; everyone’s always in a great mood and happy to help the charities, The Hamilton Spectator Summer Camp for Kids and 900 CHML/Y108 Christmas Tree of Hope. Here's a video from a couple of years back.

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 Philharmonic Orchestra, 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 on bass.

[For free MP3’s of “Let The Good Times Roll”, “Treat Your Baby Right”, and “Baby You Sure Got It Now” please write to sonnydelrioATgmail.com].

“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.

I also work with great artists like Ray Materick, Trickbag, Ronnie and The Rockets, Dave Rave, ‘The Floyd Factor’ (led by drummer Tony Fertado) and do sessions with artists like Dan Medakovic (on his new CD, “Honeybucket” produced by Ray Materick).

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.

Like Little Richard sang:

“Saturday night

and I'm feelin' fine.

I'm gonna rock it up. I’m gonna rip it up.

I'm gonna shake it up.

And have a ball tonight.”

Photo 11
prev  Sonny Del-Rio, Interview Part One: Ride The Wild Wind

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