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