SHARP-MILLER MAKE BEAUTIFUL MUSIC
He might be the best songwriter you’ve never heard of. But all that is changing for writer and musician Bobby Sharp, whose new CD, Bobby Sharp, The Fantasy Sessions, will be released this May. The talented composer, who penned the 1961 Ray Charles classic “Unchain My Heart,” abandoned his musical career some 35 years ago. And no doubt he would have continued to live in relative obscurity were it not for a fortuitous meeting in 2003 with Bay Area songstress Natasha Miller. He was captivated by her voice after hearing her on KCSM-FM radio station in Alameda, and, though he had left his music behind long ago, was inspired to call her. After sharing some of his music with her, she was similarly enthralled. Now, three years later, they have released I Had A Feelin’ a luminous CD with Miller’s lush vocals singing all Sharp compositions. Two more CD’s are in the works: Don’t Move, to be released in April, also from Sharp’s extensive songbook with Miller’s lustrous voice and stylings; and Sharp’s Fantasy Sessions, another gem, featuring Sharp’s buttery tenor singing 13 of his never-recorded songs and accompanying himself on piano.
Theirs is an unusual partnership. He is 81 and wrote most, if not all of his songs before she, who is 34, was born. And though they come from different eras and different backgrounds, he from Harlem, she from the Midwest, they make beautiful music together.
Talking with Sharp is like settling into an easy chair with a favorite book. He is an engaging raconteur and his conversation is peppered with anecdotes and remembrances of colorful moments in our country’s history. He was born in 1924 in Topeka, Kansas and remembers his great-grandmother, a former slave, describing how she had to lay on the floor of their house during the Civil War, to escape cannonball fire. As a small child, he left Kansas to live with relatives in Los Angeles while his parents moved to New York to pursue their love of the arts. Then, at age 12, after considerable begging, his parents sent for him to join them in New York. His father, Louis Sharp was a concert tenor who won small roles on Broadway and the famed Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, the same theatre where Orson Welles had produced Macbeth with an all black cast. But the economy in the U.S had plummeted, recalls Sharp, “and the world was not clamoring for black concert tenors during the Depression.”
Nevertheless, the family enjoyed a rich cultural life surrounded by the arts. Their home at 409 Edgechome St., in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem 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. Sharp still has a portrait of his mother, which was painted by Douglas, hanging in his home today. Poet Langston Hughes, Eddie Matthews, who performed baritone in Porgy and Bess, and NAACP founder Walter White, all were part of his extended family. “We had a 2-room apartment with a hotplate and a piano,” Sharp remembers, and there were always parties. His mother Eva, a beautiful, vivacious woman, loved to entertain. “Mom liked to cook pig’s feet and greens. People came by with their own bottle. Someone would get up and sing and play,” he recalls. ”That’s how I got interested in music.”
While his mother encouraged him to be a psychiatrist (“She didn’t want me to go into music, because she saw what it had done to my dad”), Sharp followed his heart and, after serving in World War II, used the GI Bill to study music. He learned fundamentals at the Greenwich House Music School and then harmony theory and piano at the Manhattan School of Music. He began his songwriting in those heady years in Harlem. Like so many of that era’s aspiring songwriters, he remembers “running 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” voraciously as he penned tune after tune. He finally got a record contract in 1956 with a song “Baby Girl of Mine,” which was later covered by Ruth Brown. During the 50’s and 60’s he composed tunes for Sarah Vaughn and Sammy Davis, Jr. and also played several gigs with jazz and big band greats Benny Carter and Jimmie Lunceford. He struck up a friendship with novelist James Baldwin after writing the title song for Blues for Mr. Charlie, Baldwin’s seering Broadway play about race relations in America. Sharp has a book inscribed to him by Baldwin and also a letter, written from Paris, where Baldwin spent his later years.
Sharp describes these times with great candor, including his descent into a drug habit that began in the 50’s and stretched into two 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 composed the tune one 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. When Ray Charles recorded the song in 1961, it became an instant hit. But in 1963 Sharp sold his share of the classic for $1000, money which again fed his drug addiction. Fortunately, in 1970, a successful law suit restored Sharp’s rights to the song, along with the copyright when it ran out in 1988. By that time, Sharp had turned his life around. He had relocated to northern California, working as a drug counselor. 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.
Music took a place on the back burner for most of Sharp’s years in California. And until he began his collaboration with Natasha Miller, scores of jazz and blues-tinged gems lay collecting dust on his piano bench. But all that changed when Sharp, again following his heart, made the call to Miller. Miller’s life was transformed as well. She recalls being overwhelmed when she saw the lead sheets and scores for this treasure trove of music. “These songs truly belong in the Great American Songbook,” she says. Now thanks to Miller and her production company Poignant Records, the world can hear these musical jewels.
The pair packs houses as they did recently at Steamers in Fullerton and the Vic in Santa Monica. They received rave reviews at the Monterey Jazz Festival last September. Sharp is modest and unassuming about his talents and continues to be “fascinated” by the recognition and acclaim that greets him after each concert with Miller. At Monterey, Miller delivered a stellar performance, including such nuggets as “Snow Covers the Valley,” an aching ballad, and the up tempo “Things Are Breaking Like Rocks,” and then, as she always does at concerts, asked Sharp to come to the stage. “I thought I would just sing a few songs and then sneak off,” he says. Instead, he received a standing ovation. Fans lined up to talk, shake his hand and express how they had been touched by his music. He always “nails it,” Miller says. “My fans become Bobby’s fans,” she adds.
None of us gets to choose when our star will rise and we will get our “big break.” Sharp reflects, “How strange life is. Here I am 81. It could have been thirty years ago. But it wasn’t and I’m grateful to Natasha…She’s taken songs I had even forgotten I’d written and made them glow.” And for Miller as well, the magical connection this extraordinary duo has established is their lasting legacy. “I know in my heart my big break is having met Bobby,” Miller says. “This is the big gift, the big one everyone is waiting for.” And we listeners are the lucky heirs of this legacy of fine music.
by Barbara Smith - Precinct Reporter (Feb 23, 2006)