Sharp-Miller Duo Magical
When jazz stylist Natasha Miller sings “I Had A Feeling…” she could very well be describing the magical connection that brought her and songwriter Bobby Sharp together. The song is the title track from the CD the two released last year, all Bobby Sharp compositions, and until two years ago, all but one of these musical treasures lay collecting dust on Sharp’s piano.
Theirs is an unusual partnership: He is 81, and wrote most, if not all of his songs before she, who is 33, was born. And though they come from different eras and different backgrounds, he from Harlem, she from the Midwest, they make beautiful music together.
Their meeting was a kind of kismet. Sharp heard Miller being interviewed on Bay Area jazz station KCSM. “There was something ethereal in her voice,” he says. And though he had left his music career behind years ago, a spark was rekindled. Sharp, following his hunch, located her number in the Alameda phone book and called.
Miller remembers the phone call well and recalls that initially she was skeptical. “He was well-spoken and respectful,” she says, but she receives many such calls and this one didn’t hold promise of anything new. That is, not until the end of the conversation, when Sharp mentioned she might have heard of one of his songs, “Unchain My Heart.” Here, Miller knew something special lay ahead. “’Unchain My Heart’ is such a big song in our history and here is this guy calling me to ask would I be interested in his work,” she recalls. “I was thrilled.”
Since that phone call, Miller and Sharp have been working together constantly. “I Had a Feelin’” was released in 2004 to critical acclaim, and they have a second CD coming out in early 2006, “Don’t Move,” another collections of Miller singing Sharp compositions A third CD of Sharp himself, recorded at Fantasy Studios, singing 17 of his never-recorded gems, accompanying himself on piano, will follow.
The pair packs houses in the Bay Area, as they did December 12 at Yoshi’s, where the audience was treated to a splendid holiday and winter themed concert, As she always does at her concerts, Miller called on Sharp to join her on stage, this time to sing as a duet the gorgeous ballad “As the Years Come and Go.” Their voices melted together in a confluence of tender lyricism and harmony.
There are some 60 songs in his songbook, including the poignant “My Magic Tower,” the upbeat “Things are Breaking Like Rocks,” and the aching ballad “You Don’t Have to Learn to Sing the Blues.” “She gave her beautiful voice to songs I had even forgotten I’d written and makes them glow,” the modest Sharp smiles.
Both Miller and Sharp have extensive musical backgrounds. She grew up in Iowa, singing with her father, a pianist, and studying classical violin. A violin scholarship took her through college and for a time she played with the state symphony. Singing in the church choir provided a spiritual and gospel influence in her music.
Sharp was raised in Harlem in a family that was surrounded by the arts. His father was a concert tenor, and their small 2-room apartment in Sugar Hill, was a gathering place for prominent Harlem Renaissance figures. Roy Wilkins, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Douglas, the pioneering Africanist artist, all lived in the same building. Poet Langston Hughes, Eddie Matthews, who performed baritone in Porgy and Bess, and NAACP co-founder Walter White, all were part of his extended family.
Sharp’s interest in music was nurtured in this environment, but he did not get formal training until 1944, after returning from World War II. Under the GI Bill, he enrolled in the Greenwich House Music School where he learned fundamentals, and then went to the Manhattan School of Music where he studied harmony theory and piano. But it wasn’t until the woman he loved, Ruby, left him for another man that, broken-hearted, he began to write songs. “I started sitting at the piano 12 hours a day, writing ‘Oh, where have you gone without me,’ he muses with a smile. He gravitated to Broadway, hanging out in bars like Harlem landmark Small’s Paradise, where scores of other songwriters were trying to get their songs published. Sarah Vaughan recorded one of his first published songs, “Hot and Cold Running Tears,” but it never made the charts. It was during this time that Sharp met James Baldwin and wrote the title song “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” for the Broadway adaptation of this classic novel.
Sharp describes these times with great candor and detail, including his descent into a drug habit that began in the 50’s and stretched into 2 more decades. He wrote his most famous song, and the one that ironically saved his life, “Unchain My Heart,” so he could score enough money for his next drug buy. “I had to write something catchy, something simple that a publisher might like just for the advance real fast,” he says. He penned the tune, which he says was not one he particularly liked, on a Sunday night in his parent’s living room in Harlem. The next day he took it to a publisher, who bought it for $50, but like so many unscrupulous publishers, also insisted on taking half of the writing credit. Ray Charles recorded the song in 1961 and it became an instant hit. In 1963 Sharp sold his share of “Unchain My Heart” for $1000, money which fed his drug addiction. In 1970, a successful law suit restored all of Sharp’s rights to the song, along with the copyright when it ran out in 1988. With the copyright renewal, he regained 100% ownership of the song. By that time, Sharp had turned his life around. He had relocated to northern California, working as a drug counselor. “I wasn’t really thinking about music until I found out I could renew the copyright,” he says. Joe Cocker’s recording in 1987 and the recent Oscar-winning film Ray, have provided financial security for the songwriter, who lives modestly but comfortably in a cottage in Alameda. “If it hadn’t been for that song I wouldn’t be alive today,” he says.
Miller too has had her share of personal triumphs and tragedies, which may explain the spiritual connection between this talented duo. The up-and-coming songstress had already released two CD’s when she met Sharp and they began making recording plans. Then, shortly after their meeting, she tragically lost a child. She lay in the hospital near death, wondering how she could go on. She credits Sharp with instilling in her the will to come back
Their mutual admiration is evident in hearing them speak about each other. Sharp credits all of his recent success to Natasha: “Without Natasha’s hard work, talent and persistence, none of these songs would be recorded. They’d probably still be sitting collecting dust on the piano,” he says. Likewise, Miller expresses supreme gratitude to Sharp: “He has pushed the possibilities of my career a lot faster, she says. “People often tell me, “Natasha, your music is so great. When will you get your big break? I know in my heart my big break is having met Bobby,” she says. “This is the big gift, the big one everyone is waiting for.”
In the mercurial music industry, where egos topple careers, this is a partnership that works and is a lasting legacy to love. “It’s a miracle that we both had the fortune of meeting each other and making this music come back alive,” says Miller.
And in this season of miracles, perhaps none are more appreciative than the growing legion of listeners who share the joy of hearing their music.
Barbara Smith - Sacramento Observer (Feb 7, 2006)