Sammy Salvo was one of a number of rock ‘n roll singers whom RCA Victor signed to tentative contracts in the late 50’s in a random effort to replicate the Elvis Presley phenomenon.
Born Salvatory Anselmo in Birmingham, Alabama in 1937, Sammy started out singing country music like the popular Webb Pierce songs of the time. He sang with music entrepreneurs like Birmingham disc jockey Joe Rumore, who took music into the small town locales around the state by highlighting local unknown talents showcased by a variety of sponsoring businesses coordinated by Joe. Sammy even recorded local commercials for Rumore – from Golden Eagle Syrup to Little Miss Sunbeam Bread.
In late 1957, Sammy recorded 2 songs that he had written – “One Little Baby” and “Lonely Dreamer” – in Joe’s basement, which was one of the first places in Birmingham that had real hi-fidelity equipment for recording. Backing Sammy on this was the local session group called the Jubilaires, made up of Rick May, Kenny Wallis, and Henry Stellecki. These recordings were pressed under RCA’s custom pressing operation and released on the local Mark V label. Sammy’s brother George took off with a carload of the 45’s to Houston and went door-to-door hawking the record to all of the record shops and DJ’s. In the meantime, Mr. Rumore had sent Sammy to Nashville to meet Chet Atkins and play his demo tapes for him. Atkins liked what he heard, but told Salvo that he was full at the time of new breaking artists like Sammy, so Sammy headed back home. In the meantime, RCA was receiving word that Sammy’s record had sold 10,000 copies the first week of release in Houston; so the wise businessman Mr. Atkins decided to recall Salvo back to Nashville and immediately signed him to an RCA Victor recording contract.
The first recording session set up for Sammy was to re-record the Mark V songs for RCA. Moments prior to the session, Salvo was given a tape of a just-released song by a Nashville recording group led by lead singer Dale Ward, called the Crescendos, doing a teen-type rock ’n roller called “Oh Julie” that had only been out about a week on Excello’s subsidiary label Nasco. Sammy did not know the song was released; he simply liked the sound. So he chose to record his own version of “Oh Julie”. On the B-side of the RCA single, he recorded Wayne Handy’s “Say Yeah” that had been released on the Renown label. Although it was the Crescendos’ version of “Oh Julie” that forged its way into the top five nationwide in December of 1958, Sammy’s version made it to a respectable #23 and probably prevented the Crescendos from garnering enough sales to reach #1. Many stations played “Say Yeah” because it too was a really good song, and the Crescendos’ version of “Oh Julie” was getting the bigger share over Sammy’s version on the A-side. Teens loved the “Say Yeah” side because it was a great dance tune. But “Oh Julie” was a success for Sammy. In fact, it was Sammy’s biggest hit.
Sammy styled himself after Bobby Darin, he says, “because he was a good entertainer”. This is obvious when you hear Salvo’s voice, especially on some of his songs like “Marble Heart”. Sammy fit the class of Darin’s persona well. His performances, all across the country, showed Sammy as a class act – from his actions to his dress. And like most pop stars of the era, Salvo was the sweetheart of all the girls. He got so many letters from girls that he used to fill up the trunk of his car with them. But one girl in particular, Carol Park, for whom he wrote “Don’t Cast Your Spell on Me” did just that, and in 1961 Sammy married. His popularity with the girls was capitalized on by some of the show hustlers working rock ‘n roll shows across the nation at the time. Sammy received letters and cards from girls on one occasion exclaiming his handsome looks and his singing voice at a show in California. Sammy replied, asking what did he look like in the show since he had never even been to California! Sammy even made it to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand for an appearance doing “She Takes Sun Baths”, a take-off of the Royal Teens hit of the time “Short Shorts”. Salvo was making big bucks at the $100 per hour standard rate for 1958 performers. Sammy couldn’t wait to get back to Birmingham when he started making good money recording and performing. He went straight to Jim Skinner Ford, pointing to a new 1960 Thunderbird, saying “Put a Continental Kit on that one and I’ll take it!”.
Sammy recorded many other songs on RCA – with one of the best being “Lovin’ At Night” written by David Gates. He even did a cover of Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga” on the Imperial label that was rather well done. A song of Roy Orbison’s called “Night” was recorded and released by Salvo that is considered a great cover version. Most of Salvo’s records emphasized his powerful crooner-style voice, so they were all considered good. He recorded for four major labels in his career – RCA, Dot, Imperial, and Hickory. Sammy also wrote a number of songs along the way. In fact, Sammy has stated that he probably made more money from his record-writing than from his recording. Some he recorded, and some others recorded. Jimmy Newman’s release on the Dot label of “Bop-A-Hula” was written by Salvo. Another song previously mentioned above, “Don’t Cast Your Spell on Me”, was written by Sammy for Fats Domino but was rejected by the Fat Man, so Sammy just recorded and released it himself.
Throughout his career, Sammy recorded with many big-name people in the recording industry. Some of them include: Chet Atkins, Boots Randolph, the Jordanaires, Jerry Reed, Joe South, the Anita Kerr Singers (who backed up Sammy on about 20 of his 30 career releases), and Floyd Cramer. He met many more of the just-emerging rock ‘n roll stars of the day while recording in Nashville and also throughout his travels and road tours. He tells the story of seeing little Brenda Lee at a disc jockey convention in Nashville when she was starting out – only 9 years old, and she had a sprained ankle at the time. So Sammy personally ‘carried’ her around to meet and talk with all of the DJ’s at the convention.
Today, Sammy has settled into family life after leaving the recording business many years ago and starting a retail meat business with his brother George. He has turned the business into a big success, much through his dedication to work ethic; Sammy gets up at 1:00 in the morning to start his long day at work. He has 9 grandchildren to share his spare time with, still living right here in Birmingham.
Sammy has not publicly sung since a local recording artists reunion in 1983, but he was on a radio show hosted by Birmingham ‘heyday of rock ’n roll’ disc jockey Russ Knight recorded for Jefferson State Community College during the Christmas season of 1999. Playing his marvelous collection of music and reminiscing about his fabulous career in the recording business, it was easy to see that Sammy Salvo enjoyed as well as appreciated and respected his earned place in rock ’n roll history. Knowing Sammy as the great and personable man that he is, only us – his lucky fans – can enjoy, respect, and appreciate him more.