Linda Lu

Guitarist Ray Sharpe is a rock and roller who made records for several labels between the late 1950s and early 1970s, though only one of his many releases was a hit. It was song about a girl they called Patty, but her real name was "Linda Lu." Lester Sill and Lee Hazlewood, the team behind "twangy" guitarist Duane Eddy's career, produced Sharpe's self-penned hit, which originally came to him as an afterthought, something he had written and discarded. But this particular tune had stayed in his head and, as fate would have it, was released at an opportune moment.

The events leading up to that moment are much like the stories of many other musicians. Growing up poor in Forth Worth, Texas, with a divorced mom and three siblings, he gravitated toward the blues, artists like T-Bone Walker and Jimmy Reed, as well as country singers typified by Hank Williams, all of them guitar players. In his teens he worked part time as a janitor and saved to buy his first guitar, a Stella, the axe of choice for many of the bluesmen he admired. With pianist Raydell Reese and drummer Cornelius Bell, he formed a band called The Blues Whalers and they began picking up gigs around Forth Worth, Dallas and points in between. Darrell Glenn, who'd scored a hit in 1953 with the original version of the often-remade "Crying in the Chapel," caught Sharpe's act at a nightclub with his father, Artie Glenn (the song's composer) and hired him to sit in as guitarist on a session, at which time he recorded a couple of demos, which he shopped around, quickly hooking up with Sill and Hazlewood, a former disc jockey who at that time was based in Phoenix, Arizona. His first single under their watch, "Oh, My Baby's Gone," was a strong rock and roll track mixing Ray's blues and country influences, with Duane Eddy and Al Casey playing guitar on the session. The finished take was licensed to Dot Records and released on the Hamilton label in 1958. Dot president Randy Wood soon shifted it to the Dot parent label and put a promotion push on it, yet the song was unable to get the airplay needed to generate sales.

Sharpe's second session with Sill and Hazlewood took place in May 1959 with a midtempo rock reading of the 1930s chestnut "Red Sails in the Sunset," a decent if unexciting rendition. With nothing planned for the B-side, Ray opened his bag of tricks and out came the aforementioned "Linda Lu." A quick session, two tracks in the can, and Eddy's label, Jamie, was on board with the release. When Dick Clark got his hands on the record, he preferred "Linda Lu," and that's what he played on American Bandstand. When radio reacted favorably, Sill and Hazlewood changed the "Red Sails" side to Sharpe's own composition "Monkey's Uncle," a Chuck Berry-inspired piece, for no other reason than to make more money for themselves with ownership of the publishing rights to both sides of the developing hit record.

Ray Sharpe

The classic "Linda Lu" guitar riff has been incorporated again and again by latter-day rockers into their own songs. An infectious rockabilly thumper, no one was likely to guess from Ray's vocals that he wasn't a white hep-cat. While not a huge hit, falling just short of the top 40 in the summer of 1959, the song put Sharpe on the map and also hit the R&B charts, landing one spot shy of the top ten. Though seemingly off to a pretty good start, it was the only record he ever placed on the charts. Four Jamie singles followed in 1959 and '60, but none clicked. A single on the Trey label (an Atlantic Records subsidiary) with Sill and Hazlewood still producing (by this time based in Hollywood), "Justine" was one of Ray's personal favorites, hinting at what Dee Clark might have sounded like if he'd been a rock singer. Hope for the record was high, expectations dashed in a matter of weeks.

His recording career at an impasse, he continued playing clubs around the country, mostly in Texas, and in 1962 a "new" single appeared, without involvement by Ray, on Gregmark Records (which Lester Sill and Phil Spector had a stake in). Called "(The New) Linda Lu," it was nothing more than the original master overdubbed with female backup singers. Not surprisingly, this curiosity went nowhere, except that it may have sparked memories and brought renewed interest in his work within the industry. Ray found himself back in the studio, and several 45s on various labels were released over the next few years, on the Garex, Park Ave. and Monument labels. His work for Atlantic in 1966 was notable for a couple of singles with the King Curtis orchestra in a more soulful vein, the first of which, "Help Me (Get the Feeling)" on the Atco label, featured guitar work on the session by Jimi Hendrix, less than a year before his visit to England led to the stardom Jimi had been unable to attain in the States.

As a white-sounding black rockabilly singer who plays a mean blues guitar, Ray is somewhat unique in music history. Other African-American singers who fall into the rockabilly realm would be Billy "The Kid" Emerson, Big Al Downing and...well, those two at least. Maybe we can make room on the list for Ron Holden (if for no other reason than his manic "My Babe"). The difference is, Downing and Holden are no longer with us and early Sun Records artist Emerson has long since retired his rock and roll ways, becoming a reverend and sticking to a strict diet of gospel music. Ray Sharpe, on the other hand, still indulges his rockabilly urges on stages in and around Texas on a regular basis. I don't think he plans to stop anytime soon.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Linda Lu