Born Edward Ray Sharpe on February 8, 1938, in Fort Worth, TX. Addresses: Record company--Bear Family, P.O. Box 1154, Hambergen, Germany D-27727, website: http://www.bear-family.de. Booking--Marc Mencher, Action Packed Events, website: http://www.actionpackedevents.com, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The phrase "one-hit wonder" seems to have been invented for Texas blues and rockabilly artist Ray Sharpe. Best known for his 1959 dual market hit "Linda Lu," the singer-songwriter has parlayed interest in his early recordings into a solid following in domestic clubs and international festivals.
Described by the late producer Major Bill Smith as "the greatest white-sounding black dude ever," Sharpe's style encompasses all the best elements of early rock 'n' roll. As a singer-songwriter, he has mined Chuck Berry-type humor from the situations and wordplay in his songs. As a guitarist, he alternates snarling single note Albert King guitar bends with with twangy, free-flowing rockabilly. Moreover, after 40 years in the business, he manages to sound eternally fresh and youthful.
Got His Start in Fort Worth
Sharpe was born into a poor family split by divorce. One of his earliest memories is of living in a house without electricity or running water. The family's situation got marginally better when his mother relocated with her four children into a small apartment. A neighbor's radio first introduced Sharpe to the bluesy, big band sounds of T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, and Lucky Millander. Yet, it was hearing such country-western icons as Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams that inspired him to take up the guitar.
Young Sharpe worked as a janitor's assistant to earn the twenty-four dollars he needed to purchase his first guitar, a Stella. Once he became steady on the guitar, Sharpe played country music at high school talent shows, until he heard legendary bluesman Jimmy Reed's Vee Jay recording of "You Don't Have to Go." Reed's rudimentary style was easy to copy, and once the youngster learned it, he had all the building blocks he needed to make rock 'n' roll music.
The Sharpe family lived near a seedy bar called Cocoanut Grove. Undaunted by the bar's tough reputation, young Ray talked the owner into letting him play and sing for tips. He proved so popular that he was repeatedly asked back, and by the time he graduated from high school, music had become a lucrative alternative to training for a career as an interior decorator. Forming a band called Ray Sharpe and the Blues Wailers, he built up a good circuit of blues and rock gigs in and around the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The group briefly enjoyed a regular spot on KCUL radio, which catapulted them into one of the area's top nightspots, the Penguin Club.
Among Sharpe's early supporters were "Crying in the Chapel" tunesmith Artie Glenn and his son Darrel, who enjoyed a 1953 country hit with the song. Impressed by his Penguin Club performances, the Glenns offered Sharpe leftover time at Darrel Glenn's next session, in exchange for some guitar work. The deal yielded two strong demos, a rock 'n' roll instrumental titled "Presley" and a spirited R&B shuffle "That's The Way I Feel." The senior Glenn circulated the demo to music industry contacts, finally securing meaningful interest from independent producers Lester Sill and Lee Hazelwood.
"Linda Lu" Was a Big Hit
Two of the most important independent producers of their era, Hazelwood had already made a star of twangy-guitar master Duane Eddy, and the veteran Sill would eventually help Phil Spector form his groundbreaking Philles Records label. Together they saw possibilities in Sharpe, and brought him to Phoenix's Audio Sounds studios to re-cut "That's the Way I Feel," and a new song, "Oh My Baby's Gone." Today, this coupling is regarded by collectors and archivists as inspired Chuck Berry-styled rockabilly, blessed with the feel of Texas blues. However, in 1958 the Dot Records' subsidiary Hamilton Records was unable to sell the disc to the public.
Sill and Hazelwood still had faith in their young singer, and called him back to do the four-song session that was destined to jumpstart his career. Continuing in the style of his first release, Sharpe first recorded two self-penned originals, "Kewpie Doll" and "Monkey's Uncle," along with a sax-led shuffle version of the standard "Red Sails in the Sunset." He needed one more song to fill out the session.
"When I wrote 'Linda Lu' back in the 1950s, I didn't think much of it," Sharpe told Randy McNutt, author of We Wanna Boogie: The Illustrated History of the Rockabilly Movement. "A buddy of mine named Mike had asked me to write a song about his girlfriend, Linda, who used to come into the club to dance." He further recalled, "I wrote the song to rib her a little bit. You see she had a fascinating rear end, so to speak. When she danced, people watched." After playing the song in clubs, the singer forgot about it until his second recording session at Hamilton. "Then in the winter of 1958 I went to the Audio Sounds recording studio to make a record with Duane Eddy's band backing me up," Sharpe recalled. "My producer Lee Hazelwood, asked me if I had one more song to make four, and I was stuck. So I started playing 'Linda Lu" for him."
"Linda Lu," with it's half-stuttered phrasing and rhythmic guitar hook, was the perfect teen rocker. Coupled with "Red Sails in the Sunset," the song was leased to Jamie Records in Philadelphia. Initially the latter tune was considered the A-side, but once Dick Clark began playing "Linda Lu" on his American Bandstand TV program, there was no question as to which side was the hit. Eventually the record rose to number 46 on the pop charts and number eleven on the R&B charts. It might have garnered more success, but the Blues Wailers felt Sharpe would be abandoning them by playing with the customary local musicians on tour. As a result, without strong management to advise him, Sharpe bowed out of an East Coast package tour that would have surely spurred his record sales. Undeterred, producers Sill and Hazelwood capitalized on the record as best they could, replacing "Red Sails in the Sunset" with Sharpe's rocker "Monkey's Uncle," on which they held publishing rights. "Linda Lu" became something of a bar-band anthem in the United States, where it was covered by various acts, most notably blue-eyed soul rocker Wayne Cochran. In the United Kingdom, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates hit the British Top 50 with their version.
Returned to Texas Blues
Despite a strong rapport with producers Sill and Hazelwood, Sharpe was never able to conjure a follow-up hit to "Linda Lu." First-rate Chuck Berry-flavored teen rockers "Long John," "T.A. Blues," and "Gonna Let it Go This Time" were not successful. Eventually the singer-songwriter's masters were shopped around to such small independent labels as Trey, Garex, and Gregmark, who reissued the artist's lone hit with an overdubbed vocal chorus and called it "The New Linda Lu." This was also the title of a 1964 LP of Jamie sides and rock covers titled Welcome Back, Linda Lou. Although he was happy to finally have his own album out, the ploy didn't restore Sharpe's chart fortunes.
Sharpe returned to the Texas bar scene, where he earned a steady living playing his danceable mix of rock and blues. Occasionally, an opportunity with a big label would raise his hopes. A smart one-off single with Monument, "It's Too Cold," b/w "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go," disappeared without a trace. The first of two raw and groovy soul singles with Atco, "Help Me Get the Feeling, Parts I & II," featured King Curtis's Orchestra and a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar. Best of all was the country soul number "Another Piece of the Puzzle," released by A&M in 1971. Pleading yet hopeful, the song should have signaled his mainstream re-emergence, but didn't.
In an interview with Where Ya At, Sharpe tried to explain his career conundrum. "I wouldn't have called myself a blues singer but that's all I was doing in clubs. But they didn't record me because R&B was not happening in clubs. They were pursuing crossover artists, somebody that brought something different to the table. And the uniqueness with me is that I'm black but I sound white and play blues guitar. So they pitched me from one extreme to the other. I was never able to do some of the songs I wrote, like 'Justine' which had kind of a good funk/R&B thing to it."
The Texas blues explosion of the late 1970s and early 1980s, headed up by the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan, threw a fresh spotlight on Sharpe's work. As a result, he cut two solid albums of stinging, electric blues and boogie for the Flying High label. Saddled with garish covers, the albums are hard to find today, but they comprise his finest later work.
Although "Linda Lu" continues to be his most popular composition, Sharpe's songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Neil Young, J.B. Hutto, and Rickie Van Shelton. A stroke of good fortune came his way during the early 1990s when, like his contemporary and close friend the late Ronnie Dawson, he was rediscovered by rockabilly enthusiasts. Nowadays he mixes bookings at domestic blues festivals with overseas rockabilly revivals, where he is overwhelmingly received as the star he deserves to be.
by Ken Burke
Ray Sharpe's Career
R&B singer, guitarist, and songwriter; formed first band, the Blues Wailers, 1956; recorded first single, "That's the Way I Feel," for Dot Records,1958; recorded lone hit, "Linda Lu," on Jamie Records, 1959; appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, 1959; released singles for Jamie and Trey labels, 1960, recorded for Gregmark, Garex, and United Artists, 1963; first album featuring overdubbed version of "Linda Lou" released by Award, 1964; recorded single for Fred Foster's Monument label, 1965; recorded with King Curtis and then unknown Jimi Hendrix at Atco Records, 1966; cut single for A&M, 1971; cut two albums for the Flying High label, 1980-82; Bear Family released retrospective of his early work, 1995.
- Selected discography
- Welcome Back, Linda Lou Award, 1964.
- Linda Lu Jumble, 1972.
- Texas Boogie Blues Flying High, 1980.
- Live at the Bluebird, Vol. 1 Flying High, 1982.
- Linda Lu Bear Family, 1995.
- Cotton, Lee, The Golden Age of Rock 'n' Roll: Reelin' & Rockin', Volume II: 1956-1959, Popular Culture Ink, 1995.
- McNutt, Randy, We Wanna Boogie: An Illustrated History of the American Rockabilly Movement, HHP, 1988; revised second edition.
- "Ray Sharpe," Action Packed Events, http://www.actionpackedevents.com (January 1, 2005).
- "Ray Sharpe," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 2, 2005).
- "Ray Sharpe," Both Sides Now, http://www.bsnpubs.com (January 1, 2005).
- "Ray Sharpe," EarlyHendrix, http://www.earlyhendrix.com/artists/sharpe/rec.htm (December 2, 2004).
- "Ray Sharpe," Where Y'At, http://www.whereyanola.com?id=7 (January 2, 2005).
- Additional material for this piece was taken from the liner notes to Sharpe's 1995 Bear Family retrospective, Linda Lu.