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Bobby Sharp: News

Study of a Songwriter - January 29, 2015

This is an article that Bennett Smith (Natasha Miller's daughter) wrote in high school with Bobby as the subject. It's a neat look through a different lens of this remarkable and special man who is dearly missed.


Imagine a Tuesday afternoon, just after the April rains have let up, the sun just deciding to emerge from its escape behind the clouds. The light is filtered down into the car through a series of droplets on the windshield as my mom drives down the main street. A tree canopy spans the road, just disappearing as we reach the small courtyard: six tiny cottages run-three on a side-down the lane, Bobby’s is labeled with the letter B, its brown paint ruggedly hiding the rusted metal plate. There are potted plants and wind chimes struggling for their spot on his tiny landing of a porch. As I open the screen door to knock, the musical breeze sends a shiver down my nervous spine. I’ve been here before, but never with such expectations or stipulation. 

Bobby Sharp opens the door, his shirt plaid and blue as always. I notice he has cut his hair since last time I saw him, and acknowledge this accordingly, finding his reply surprised and grateful. He smiles and his thin cheeks push his oversized glasses up his nose. “Who dat?” He says with the same vigor and enthusiasm as always, “you say ‘who dat’ when I say ‘who dat’!” His smell of cigarettes and wisdom tickle my nose as he leads me through the door, straight into his living room. I hear a local news channel mumbling the day’s happenings coming from the tiny television facing his bed, the wall of French doors exposing his dresser. The cottage is small and cluttered with 86 years of life neatly stacked and on display: there are paintings of his mother from the 1930’s to my mothers photo turned Christmas card, squeezable gifts with heart pillows in their arms. The whole room is designed to give complete access to the upright piano situated on one wall, a loveseat and chair facing the music. Set up on the main attraction is sheet music with the name Bobby Sharp, sharing the same space as Ray Charles, and Quincy Jones. I take the chair he motions to and he perches himself comfortably on his piano bench, “So, what is this project you have?”

After I explain to him my topic of writing and producing hit songs, Bobby recalls the writing of his most famous hit “Unchain My Heart” with a reminiscing air. “Well, I just sat down-wanted to write something catchy- Unchain My Heart came to mind out of I don’t know where, but I just started playing with the chords on that little electric keyboard, mom and someone watching Richard Pryor or something sitting in the next room over.” Writing songs had been easy, he said, “I grew up with Blue Moon, you know the...” he jogs my memory with a few lines of the popular tune, “that got me rhyming, so that wasn’t a problem.” Rhyming was built in, something he was used to, Edgar Allen Poe and “Blue Moon” had made sure of that. As he recites one of his favorite Poe poems, I think to myself, times were so different then and I realize for the first time, the extent of his talents.

 His stories are full of countless days running up and down Broadway to the producers with a hopeful new song each time: some that almost went to record, some that introduced him to Nat King Cole’s sunny face saying “yea I like that”, and some that Sarah Vaughan used as her stairway to fame. “With ‘Unchain My Heart’ I just wanted to write something catchy, ‘Don’t Set Me Free’, the sequel, you know, came when Ray’s people wanted another one, so I gave ‘em ‘Don’t Set Me Free’ I just wanted a few bucks you know,” he recalls as he searches for his old demo records amidst the piles of CD’s and tapes. 

He plays and sings me a few tunes, catchy and memorable, they leave me with a feeling of beauty and wonder. The songs were different, the melodies so romantic, in stark contrast to the 4-chord pop songs you hear today, but as I watch him play, I notice there are simple chords with just a few outlying notes to create depth and melody. Although his music gives me such a different feeling from the experience of music today, I begin to draw parallels between the decades. Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s the popular tunes were of love and heartache just as they are now.

As my mom chatters her small talk with Bobby and teaches him how to work his new stereo, I take in the emotion. Bobby’s insight to the world of producing and composing music gave me a new way of viewing the music and popular entertainment industry. His points, though subtly hidden in stories of his past, remind me of however hard or tasking life may seem to be, you always find a way through, and if you just relax and focus on doing what you love, those things you once drove for, show up without any work at all.


-Bennett Smith 2010

Bobby's 89th Birthday - November 26, 2013

Bobby would have celebrated his 89th birthday on November 26, 2013. If you asked him how he was doing, he'd most likely respond with a sigh and a smile, "Tempus Fugit". Bobby- you're missed!

Tim Hockenberry's "Unchain My Heart" - July 2, 2013

A great San Francisco Bay Area musician did a great version of Bobby's "Unchain My Heart". You can listen/watch it here

Slideshow of Bobby Sharp - April 3, 2013

We have uploaded the slideshow from Bobby's Memorial/Celebration of Life. There are great shots of him through the years- mostly the last 10. But there are wonderful shots of him as a kid in Los Angeles, with him mom and dad, in Harlem, on Broadway and in costume for the Beaux Arts Ball he attended with his mother.

Bobby Sharp's Celebration of Life Service - March 11, 2013

I met Bobby Sharp 10 years ago, and beginning with that first meeting, there was something Bobby did every time I was with him: Bobby told stories. He told stories about having to memorize Bible verses when he stayed with his Gramma Sharp in California, about how his Great Gramma Jameson had been a slave in Missouri and had lain flat on the floor as a child while cannonballs went through the walls of the house over her head, about how he’d fallen madly in love with Ruby when he got out of the army, and how she broke his heart, about writing songs—sometimes a hit song—on an electric piano while his parents watched tv, there, in the next room. Bobby was a consummate storyteller. And if you were with him for any reason more than once, he’d tell you the same stories more than once. But something about the way he did that made you listen. Even if you’d heard one story three times, Bobby could make you feel like you were there all over again. So you never minded. And I think the reason was, when Bobby told a story, he was there all over again, too. And he just took you along.

So . . . you were “there,” when he talked about the photograph of his mother’s family and said “they looked like they were doing ok, nice furniture, suits and ties and all, but they also looked like somebody died in the back room there . . . and maybe that was because it was the depression and they didn’t have any money. But they went to church a lot, too, and that mighta been it.”

Or —when Gramma Sharp wouldn’t let him skate on Sunday because skates made too much noise on the Lord’s Day, he asked her how “how about riding a bike with rubber tires?” but that didn’t work either.
Or when he was 12, and after driving with his parents’ friends cross country for three days from LA to New York, and not having seen his mother for 2 years, he was ushered into a party at an apartment at 409 Edgecombe, and someone said, “Bobby there’s your mother.” And he said, "Can't be her, she's too young to be my mother."

So when Bobby told those stories, whether he was poking fun or poignant, you were there. And you’re “there” when you hear a Bobby Sharp song, too. Bobby knew what it felt like at midnight, how still the valley was when snow covered it, how, when things aren’t going right, it feels like they’re breakin’ like rocks, and how, when we hear something really surprising—something we’ve been sworn to secrecy about—we just can’t keep ourselves from telling.

Stories and songs can take us places, and most often, where they take us is right back to ourselves. And when they do that, we get a chance to learn a little something about who we are, that we might not have been able to do without them. If they’re done right, they tell us we’re not alone. Because we know that whoever it was that put the words on how we’re feeling, is one of us.
And Bobby had his own special way of doing that.

Actually, Bobby had his own way of doing everything. When he realized that he and army life weren’t necessarily going to make a “harmonious” relationship, he devised a plan for getting out. Of course, he’d heard all the common tricks GIs would concoct to get out of the army . . . if you ate GI soap, it would give you a temporary ulcer—well, it wouldn’t, and that didn’t work. Or you could smoke cigarettes laced with vinegar and that would put a spot on your lungs and it’d show up in an xray—that didn’t work either. Or how one guy took off all his clothes and ran down the street naked—that worked.

But Bobby didn’t want to use any of those tricks. He knew, however, that psychology was the coming thing in both the army and the culture, and he relied on his knowledge of it from reading to devise his own plan—he just stopped talking. He didn’t say a word—for weeks. And the army decided that maybe they shouldn’t send this young man from New York to the battlegrounds of Europe. So . . . they let him out.
He didn’t say a word for weeks? I don’t think that was the hardest thing Bobby Sharp ever did in his life. But I’ll bet it was one of them.

Bobby Sharp Dies at Age 88 - January 30, 2013

Bobby Sharp, 88, of Alameda, passed away on Tuesday, January 29. His passing marked the end of a life filled with generosity toward friends, colorful storytelling about mid-century times in Los Angeles, New York, and California, and a long songwriting career highlighted by his 1961 hit, "Unchain My Heart."

Bobby Sharp, 88, of Alameda, passed away on Monday, January 28. His passing marked the end of a life filled with generosity toward friends, colorful storytelling about mid-century times in Los Angeles, New York, and California, and a long songwriting career highlighted by his 1961 hit, "Unchain My Heart." 

Bobby was born in 1924 in Topeka, Kansas, and after spending his early years in Lawrence, Kansas, moved to Los Angeles to live with his grandparents. His parents, Louis and Eva, had gone to New York to pursue career dreams they thought could be realized only in that city, things being what they were in the face of the Depression. His father, a concert tenor, won small roles on Broadway and at the famed Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, the same stage where Orson Welles had produced Macbeth with an all black cast. His mother became active in the National Urban League Guild and a lifelong friend of its founder, Mollie Moon. Then in 1936, at age 12, Bobby joined his parents in New York.

Despite the hardships of the Depression, the family enjoyed a rich cultural life surrounded by people who were making things “happen,” experiences that would later provide a spark for Bobby's songwriting talents. Their home at 409 Edgecombe Ave., on top of Harlem's "Sugar Hill," was a gathering place for prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Walter White, founder of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins, NAACP leader for nearly 25 years, and Aaron Douglas, the Topeka-born father of African-American art, all lived at 409 Edgecombe. Duke Ellington was a down-the-street neighbor. Poet Langston Hughes, Eddie Matthews, who performed baritone in Porgy and Bess, and Thurgood Marshall, then a young lawyer, all were part of young Bobby's extended family. Eva loved to entertain, and with only a hotplate and a few utensils, she somehow managed to host large parties for everyone in their two-room apartment. In those days, Depression or not, people would always get up and sing, and those songs got Bobby interested in music.

Bobby joined the Army in 1943, served in the 372nd Infantry regiment stationed in New York City and Ft. Breckenridge, Ky., and after getting out of the service, used the GI bill to study music, first at the Greenwich House Music school (for the fundamentals) and then at the Manhattan School of Music (for harmony, theory, and piano). His impetus for getting serious about learning the craft had come from family friend and famous bandleader Sy Oliver, who said, "Take lessons," when the 20-something Bobby asked, "How can I learn to do what you do—make real songs and write them down?"

For the next few years, Bobby ran up and down Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, trying to get songs published. He hung out in bars like Harlem landmark Small’s Paradise, meeting other hungry songwriters. He read books and poems—even the thesaurus—as he put down tune after tune.

Then in 1956, he recorded his first commercial success, “Baby Girl of Mine,” which was later covered by Ruth Brown. During the 50’s and 60’s his tunes were recorded by such leading artists as Sarah Vaughn and Sammy Davis, Jr. and, of course, Ray Charles. Bobby also played several gigs with jazz and big band greats Benny Carter and Jimmie Lunceford, and along the way, he worked with a score of famous songwriters—Charlie Singleton, Leslie McFarland, Jerry Teifer, Aaron Schroeder, Mel Glazer, and Dan and Marvin Fisher. Among his many friendships was the one he struck up with novelist James Baldwin when he wrote the song Blues for Mr. Charlie, after seeing Baldwin’s searing Broadway play about race relations in America.

Although Bobby had sold all the rights to "Unchain" in 1963 for a very small amount, he didn't learn till later that he'd been cheated out of royalties from the song. He sued, and seven years later, the courts awarded him judgement. Typical of his generosity, he included a sizable sum from the court settlement to the friend who had tipped him off about the stolen royalties. He renewed the copyright for “Unchain My Heart” in his own name in 1988, one year after Joe Cocker reignited its hit status.

By this time, Bobby had more or less retired from the songwriting business; he'd moved to Alameda, California in 1980 after an earlier short stay in Lafayette, and began working as a substance abuse counselor at the Westside Community Mental Health Center in San Francisco. He retired from counseling in 1988 and didn't give much thought to the music business for a number of years following.

But then in 2005, Bobby got back in the music business again briefly when at age 81 he released his debut CD “The Fantasy Sessions”—playing the piano and singing his own tunes.

Bobby's stories, his bright, "I'm hangin' in there," and years of generosity to friends and strangers alike will be sorely missed.

-Martin A. Miller

A Celebration of Life Memorial Service is planned for March 10, 2013. Please see details here: In lieu of flowers or donations, and in the spirit of Bobby's generosity please extend a helping hand and support to someone in need.

Beautiful! Snow Covers the Valley - October 16, 2012

The wonderfully talented Phil Matson arranged Bobby's song "Snow Covers the Valley" for Voices Iowa. Check it out here!

Baby Girl of Mine - August 28, 2010

Listen to a vintage recording of "Baby Girl of Mine" written and recorded by Bobby Sharp!

"Fantasy Sessions" at Indigo Seas! - December 12, 2009

Lynn von Kersting of The Ivy in Hollywood has purchased Bobby's CD's to carry in her gift shop next to the restaurant called Indigo Seas! Check it out!

New Bobby Sharp Songs! - February 2, 2009

Bobby recorded 3 new songs at Bay Records in Berkeley. Engineered and mixed by Dan Feiszli! Check them out under the "Music" link!

"As the Years Come and Go" - March 21, 2008

Please visit this page to download lead sheets, mp3's and listen to the 3 versions of this great song!

Bobby Sharp in NYC: September 2007 - April 17, 2007

Hold on folks! Bobby Sharp just might make an appearance in NYC this September! Check the calendar from time to time and see when/where!

15 Tracks from Bobby's Demo Sessions online Now! - February 19, 2007

Bobby recorded 15 songs in 2005 at San Pablo Recorders in Berkeley. It's just him playing the piano and singing his songs. They're beautiful! Some of them you might never have heard before! Also, check out his new song, "Treasure Every Moment" from the Jazzschool Concert. It's a live recording!

Bobby's Writing New Songs! - January 10, 2007

Bobby just completed a new song, which makes for 3 in the last 2 years! We can't wait to hear them Bobby!

CD Release Party a HIT! - April 9, 2006

Wow! What a night! Bobby was greeted by over 100 of his adoring fans for a night of music and congratulations! People came from all over the Bay Area to wish Bobby well! Don't forget to look at the party pix! Thanks to Paula Rainey for organizing the event!

Fantasy Sessions Coming Earlier Than Planned - March 8, 2006

We'll have the CD's completed and in hand earlier than imagined. The music is out of this world! Stay tuned for more information. We expect to be able to have them in by the end of March!

Bobby Sharp - The Fantasy Sessions - January 10, 2006

We just finished the mastering process of Bobby's CD! It sounds amazing, and I've posted a couple songs on the "music" page for you to hear! It will release nationally on April 25th!

- Natasha

Merry Christmas!!! - December 22, 2005


Merry Christmas!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Hope you like this web site!

xoxoxo, Natasha

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