LOS ANGELES TIMES (DON HECKMAN)
Two lives, reclaimed Fate dealt harshly with Bobby Sharp and Natasha Miller. His songs are helping to save them both.
The smile never left veteran songwriter Bobby Sharp's face Thursday night at the Vic in Santa Monica.
Leaning forward in his chair, he listened intently to singer Natasha Miller, following every twist and turn of the music, rocking gently with the rhythms. Occasionally, he silently mouthed the words, nodded approvingly at a particularly poignant phrase, and greeted the conclusion of each number with warm, enthusiastic applause.
The songs were familiar to Sharp and Miller, but not to the audience. With the exceptions of a Miller original and Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things," every number on the program was written by Sharp at least 30 years ago. And with the further exception of a single Sharp tune, each was being heard live by a Southland audience for the first time. That exception was the Sharp song that became a Ray Charles hit in the early '60s, "Unchain My Heart."
Miller sang the engaging material with sensitivity and insight, her cool musicality and clear articulation illuminating the unfamiliar pieces. In her renderings, songs ranging from the whimsical "A Real Swingin' Affair" and "Things Are Breakin' Like Rocks" to the touching "At Midnight" and "My Magic Tower" became instantly memorable.
What was even more remarkable was the story behind the music. Before the set, Sharp and Miller, both residents of the Bay Area city Alameda, outlined the unlikely circumstances surrounding their collaborative friendship.
It began nearly two years ago when Sharp, now 79, heard Miller interviewed on San Francisco jazz radio station KCSM-FM. Liking what he heard, he looked up her number and called.
"He said, 'I'm a songwriter and I'd like to know if you're interested in looking at some of my songs,' " Miller, who is in her early 30s, recalled at the Vic. "I said, 'Sure,' skeptically. I've had offers like this before and people hand me really strange songs."
And when he added during the phone conversation that Miller might know one of his songs, she thought, "Yeah, right, buddy."
But her response shifted gears quickly when he said, "It's called 'Unchain My Heart.' "
"My heart stopped for a moment," Miller said, "and I just thought, 'Oh, my goodness. I'd better check this out.' "
A few days later, when Miller received a package of lead sheets and cassettes from Sharp, she realized that she had been presented with musical lightning in a bottle. Although she was in the late stages of pregnancy, she was determined to find an appropriate showcase for the material.
In the first week of March 2003, her pregnancy ended tragically, with the death of her son, Aidan, and a near-fatal illness for Miller.
"When I got home," she said, "I tried to sing and nothing would come out. And I just thought I'd never sing again, and I didn't care. How could I, after what had happened to me? But I was also thinking, 'How can I let Bobby down? He's just handed me these lovely texts and melodies and chord voicings.'
"So I started working on 'My Magic Tower' and finally performed it in a concert, with Bobby in the audience. And that was really what helped to bring me back."
The songs' role as an impetus to help restore Miller's health was mirrored by the manner in which they revived Sharp's career as a songwriter and singer ? a career Sharp had thought was irrevocably in his past.
Halfway through her set Thursday, Miller invited Sharp up to the Vic's intimate performing space to offer his own interpretation of an original titled "Monica." Singing with a sweet, youthful voice, he told the tale of unrequited love with intimate tenderness. Then, responding to unrelenting shouts of approval from the audience, he moved to the piano to sing and play the witty and sardonic "Daddy Romeo."
The setting and the performance were light years removed from the circumstances of Sharp's life at the time when most of the songs were written. "Unchain My Heart," for example, was knocked out in an hour and sold for $50 to get a quick hit of the drugs that were then the center of his life. It wasn't until the original copyright ran out in 1988 that he regained ownership of the song.
"I had changed my life around," Sharp said, "became a drug counselor, came out to San Francisco and wasn't really thinking about music until I found out that I could renew the copyright. And it really changed my life. I'd worked as a postal worker, a factory worker, but I'd never built up my Social Security. But I'm in good shape now, luckily."
With the exception of "Unchain My Heart," none of the Sharp songs has ever been sung by anyone other than Miller. Her latest recording on Poignant Records, "I Had a Feelin'," is completely devoted to his works. But even this fascinating collection represents only a small percentage of his still unheard music.
Sharp has offered to share some of the royalties from the now opened treasure chest of material with Miller, should the songs be picked up by other artists ? as they probably will be.
But Miller, who is also a concert violinist, and whose musical career embraces instrumental as well as vocal activities, nonetheless insisted on the importance of the songs themselves.
She ended her opening set at the Vic with "At Midnight," one of Sharp's darkest, most adventurous numbers. It was a fitting climax to a performance that was both a retrospective and a potential spark for the future.
Sharp is once again, he says, "writing down little ideas and things on envelopes and stuff," signaling the revival of a compositional imagination that has been inactive for decades.
"This evening," Miller said after she concluded her show, "was really all about Bobby, as is the recording. I'll be happy to give charts of his music to anyone, because it deserves to become part of the fabric of people's repertoire, of American music in general. His songs deserve to live on, and that's the reason I recorded them, and why I'll continue to sing them."
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Bobby Sharp's forsaken catalog of songs became 'Unchained' by twist of fate
Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic - San Francisco Chronicle
Bobby Sharp says the song "Unchain My Heart" saved his life.
He wrote the 1961 Ray Charles hit while junk-sick in his parents' Harlem apartment on a Sunday afternoon while they watched television in the next room. He sold the song the next day for $50 and bought drugs.
Sharp, now 79, spent longer working as a drug counselor than he did in the music business and hasn't written songs seriously in more than 35 years. But in March of last year, he heard local jazz vocalist Natasha Miller being interviewed on KCSM, and when she said that she also lived in Alameda, Sharp found her number in the phone book.
"Unchain My Heart," in a way, saved Natasha Miller's life, too. When she did that radio interview she was nine months pregnant with her second child. She grew ill, was hospitalized and lost the baby. Sick and exhausted back home, she was too weak to sing. But she had this stack of lead sheets and cassettes that Sharp gave her at a meeting in an Alameda coffee shop. She transposed his 1968 song "My Magic Tower" into her key and started singing again.
Miller, 33, will celebrate the release of "I Had a Feelin': The Bobby Sharp Songbook" on Tuesday night at Yoshi's, with Sharp in the audience, as he was for every recording session. With the Charles biopic starring Jamie Foxx due in October titled "Unchain My Heart," Bobby Sharp's unlikely star is on the rise after a life out of the spotlight.
He has lived in the tiny cottage off the street a couple of blocks from downtown Alameda since he first landed in the Bay Area in 1980. He left the music business around 1968, when he went to work at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City counseling addicts. ("I went in the hospital a patient," he said, "and I came out a staff member.")
"I couldn't write the doo-wop stuff," he said. "I was trying to write stuff that wasn't my bag. Plus trying to save my life, I had to stay away from drugs. I got sick of the business. My life was worth more than my songs."
Sharp attended the Manhattan School of Music after serving in World War II. He sang for a week with jazz great Benny Carter and for another week with the Jimmie Lunceford big band. "That's when I started running up and down Broadway trying to get my songs published," he said.
He wrote some songs with Charles Singleton, who wrote the 1953 rhythm and blues hit "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean." He worked with Dan Fisher, who had a piece of the Billie Holiday hit "Good Morning Heartache," and his brother Marvin Fisher, who wrote "When Sunny Gets Blue" (their father, Fred Fisher, was an old Tin Pan Alley hand who wrote "Peg O' My Heart"). He hung with the bebop players, nursed drinks at Smalls Paradise in Harlem and developed a drug habit. He was one of a hundred hustlers trying to get a foot in the door of the music business.
He wrote "Unchain My Heart" looking for a quick score. "I was strung out, " he said. "I needed to write something catchy."
He made the rounds of music publishers at 1650 Broadway and stopped by the office of Teddy Powell, an old-time band leader who co-wrote the Gene Autry hit "Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddles" back in the '30s. Powell offered Sharp $50 for the publishing rights, provided that Sharp cut him in for half the writing credit. Sharp took the deal and, to avoid problems with some existing contractual obligations, published the songs under his cousin's name, Agnes Jones.
Charles was at the peak of his career when he recorded "Unchain My Heart" in late 1961, coming straight off the No. 1 hit "Hit the Road Jack," less than a year after his first No. 1, "Georgia on My Mind."
Sharp started bouncing in and out of drug rehabilitation about the same time, checking himself out to write another, lesser song for Charles, "Don't Let Me Go" ("It was kind of an opposite," Sharp said). He also sold Powell his remaining writer's share of "Unchain My Heart" for $1,000 in 1963. The following year -- after learning that Powell paid him with royalties he already owed Sharp -- Sharp sued to regain his rights. Powell settled the suit seven years later, by which time Sharp was long out of the music business and working with drug addicts.
When the original copyright expired in 1987, Sharp himself renewed it for his own publishing company, B. Sharp Music, about the same time he retired from Westside Community Mental Health Center, where he'd worked since he moved to the Bay Area. He now shares the writer's royalties with Powell's heirs and keeps all the publishing revenue. "I got the rights back," he said, "and I get all the royalties, me and Uncle Sam."
No sooner did Sharp reclaim his copyright than Joe Cocker, the noted Ray Charles impersonator, brought his career back to life in 1987 with a pumped-up cover of Sharp's song. Powell, who still owned a piece of the song, called with the news. "He didn't even know his name," Sharp said. "He told me, 'Joe Crocker's recorded your song.' "
Sharp never met Charles. "We were in the same lawyer's office at the same time once," Sharp said. "But we didn't speak because we didn't know each other. "
To Sharp, his songwriting career was like something that happened in a different life. He owned a dusty, beat-up piano, but he rarely played. "I wouldn't deal with it," he said.
But Miller, who dedicated the album to her stillborn son, Aidin, brought that part of Sharp back to life. Now his piano is covered with old sheet music and onionskin lead sheets. He has stacks of CDs and cassettes piled around his small home. "I've had all these songs sitting around here for eons," he said, surveying the stacks of papers and tapes as if they were lost children back home.
"She did all the work," he said, pointing at Miller. "She did everything. If it wasn't for her, I'd be just sitting here."
Joel Selvin - San Francisco Chronicle (Apr 24, 2004)
Oakland Tribune (ANG Newspapers)
UNCHAINED- Bobby Sharp, 81, finally releases debut album with the help of Natasha Miller
A BEAUTIFUL BEGINNING: Singer Natasha Miller has recorded two albums of songs by 81-year-old Bobby Sharp. Meanwhile, Sharp has just released his debut CD, “The Fantasy Sessions.” (Nick Lammers - Staff)
FIFTY years after making his debut in the music business, Bobby Sharp finally fulfilled a longstanding dream last week and released his first CD.
"I guess I'm pragmatic," the Alameda resident says. "I guess if I don't do it now, I'll never do it. We're not going to be here forever."
It's a bit of a miracle that Sharp got the chance to record "The Fantasy Sessions." There aren't many musicians who release their debut albums at the age of 81. The market, as they say, isn't there for it. Add the fact that the singer-songwriter-pianist spent some 30 years out of the business and you've got a truly improbable tale.
One thing in Sharp's favor is his talent as a songwriter. He's penned many amazing songs over the years, most notably the Ray Charles hit "Unchain My Heart" in 1960. And with dozens of unrecorded numbers sitting around in boxes in his longtime home in Alameda, he wasn't hurting for material when it came time to enter the studio for the new album, a collection of tunes that sound like they came out of the Great American Songbook.
The other equally important factor working in Sharp's corner is Natasha Miller. The Oakland-based vocalist, an incredible talent in her own right, released her first CD of Sharp tunes, "I Had a Feelin,'" in 2004.
She followed with another all-Sharp affair, "Don't Move," which hit stores last week. She'll perform selections from the Sharp songbook tonight at Yoshi's at Jack London Square in Oakland.
Miller's efforts have played a huge role in raising awareness about Sharp. In fact, "The Fantasy Sessions" probably wouldn't have happened without her.
Sharp admits his career hasn't gone as he planned. And though he's had ups and downs, music has been there for him during both.
While now is a good time for Sharp, he can still remember darker moments, including the trouble he got into during his short stint in the Army during World War II.
The Kansas native says, "I went AWOL and was caught and put in the guard house. The sun was going down and the other guys (in the guard house) said, 'Sing us a song, Bobby.' So I sang Billie Holiday's 'Trav'lin' Light.'"
Sharp has always had a nice voice and he was more than just a competent pianist — although he says he figured out early on that he "wasn't going to be Oscar Peterson." Knowing he had a knack for melodies and lyrics, he dedicated himself to becoming a songwriter.
In the right place and the right time — New York City in the 1950s — he experienced moderate success early on. The first song he published was "Baby Girl of Mine," which later was recorded by the great R&B vocalist Ruth Brown.
Like many others in the music business, Sharp soon ran into trouble with drugs.
"A lot of time I would write songs just to get money for heroin," he says. "I still have songs at home that I look at now and go, 'Gee, why'd I write that song?'"
Down and out, Sharp returned to his parents' home in Harlem and began messing around with the family organ. In a matter of hours, he wrote what is generally regarded as his greatest song — "Unchain My Heart."
That led to his greatest business folly. Desperately in need of money, Sharp signed away 50 percent of the future royalties to the song for a mere $50.
Fifty bucks doesn't take a heroin addict very far, even in those days, so Sharp made another financial misstep when he then signed over his remaining rights to "Unchain My Heart" for $1,000. For that sum, the new owner also received the rights to Sharp's next song, "Don't Set Me Free," also recorded by Charles.
In 1965, Sharp sued for a percentage of the royalties. Five years later, the case was decided in his favor. The decision gave him full ownership of his songs when rights came up for renewal in 1988. Since that time, the songwriter has been living comfortably off the royalties to "Unchain My Heart."
"It didn't hurt me when I wrote a check for a Lincoln Mark V," Sharp says with a slight smile. "It's earned more than a million dollars over the years."
Soured on the music business, Sharp got married and moved to Alameda in 1980. The marriage lasted roughly a year, but Sharp still lives in the same home on the island.
He worked as a drug abuse counselor in San Francisco for eight years, retiring from that job in 1988 — the same year the royalty money started flowing in. Sharp stayed pretty far away from music, having stopped writing songs in the'70s.
Then, in 2003, fate struck. He was riding in his car and listening to KCSM, the San Mateo-based jazz station, when he heard Miller's voice through the speakers. For some reason, which he still can't pinpoint, he decided to contact the vocalist to see if she might be interested in hearing some of his songs.
Miller still remembers the three-minute phone call she received from the man who claimed to be the author of "Unchain My Heart." Sitting in her Oakland home, she points to her bookcase, which holds the original cassette tape Sharp sent her.
"I don't know why I've become a historian," Miller says, looking over at her collection of Sharp memorabilia. "But I just knew that I should keep everything."
The tape featured him singing the original "My Magic Tower," a tune that wowed her. She decided she wanted to do an entire album of Sharp's music.
Miller, who grew up in Iowa and began pursuing a singing career when she moved to the East Bay in the mid-'90s, already had a pair of recently released albums to her credit — the KFOG-friendly singer-songwriter batch "Her Life" and the jazz standards collection "Talk to Me Nice."
A tragic incident, however, nearly prevented her from recording "I Had a Feelin.'" Miller, who was expecting her second child when she met Sharp, was devastated when she lost the baby at full term.
"I was so wrecked, both physically and emotionally," she says. "In my mind, I said, 'That's it. I'm done with (music).' But, then, 'Magic Tower' and Bobby, being 79, sort of wore on me. I realized that I had to (record the album). There was no choice in the matter."
That's exactly how Miller sounds on the CD — like a woman on a mission. Listeners reacted favorably to "I Had a Feelin,'" which encouraged the vocalist to record a second batch of Sharp songs.
Of equal importance, the album generated enough interest to convince Sharp to record his own CD. There's now talk of a movie being made about Sharp and Miller, as well as a book about their lives in the works.
"All these high-falutin' Hollywood things are happening in the background," Miller says. "If something happened, it would be an ego boost for a second. But the main reason I would like to see something happen is that then Bobby's music would be unfurled for the public.
"I say to people that I already got my big break. That was getting to meet Bobby and record his songs. Of course, I'm not selfless in this. I like that I'm the one who gets to introduce his songs to the public. I feel like a proud mother."
Jim Harrington - Oakland Tribune (May 2, 2006)
JazzTimes May '06
Last month in this space, I relayed the heartwarming tale of Bay Area singer Natasha Miller and her rescue from obscurity of one-hit songwriter Bobby Sharp by recording not just one but two full albums of Sharp compositions that had spent years yellowing inside his piano bench. Now, the man himself—whose only previous claim to fame was the 1962 Ray Charles smash “Unchain Your Heart”—has, at age 81, emerged from the shadows, singing another baker’s dozen of self-penned tunes while accompanying himself on piano (with Miller in the production booth).
Though Sharp’s voice isn’t going to keep Michael Bublé or Curtis Stigers up nights worrying, you can’t help but admire his octogenarian pluck—and you’ve got to love his way with a melody and a lyric. Most of Sharp’s elegant ballads are the sort you’d expect (or, at least, would have expected a half-century ago) to be embraced by Billy Eckstine, though his grittily melancholy “Lonesome Traveler” would have been ideally suited to Charles, and his “North Wind” sounds precisely like the sort of reflective musing favored by Sinatra in the September of his years. Truly a trove of lost treasures found.
Christopher Loudon - JazzTimes May '06 (May 11, 2006)
JazzTimes April '06
Review of Natasha Miller's "Don't Move" (all songs by Bobby Sharp)
Long story short; All but forgotten, septuagenarian San Francisco-based songwriter Bobby Sharp, whose only real success was the long-ago Ray Charles hit “Unchain My Heart,” happens to hear a radio interview with local singer/violinist Natasha Miller. He gets in touch and offers to send her some songs. She cautiously accepts and finds herself with a trove of undiscovered treasures. Recording for her own label, she releases an entire album of Sharp tunes. The response to the 2004 album, I Had a Feelin’, is terrific. And so Miller heads back into the studio for this equally estimable companion.
The songs–some new, many decades old– are uniformly delightful, with Sharp’s work variously echoing the laidback sophistication of Bobby Troup (“Prisoner of the Blues”), the countrified whimsy of Roger Miller (“Stolen Love”), the saucy pep of Peggy Lee (“Don’t Move”), the midtempo sweetness of Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Once More”) and the playful bounce of the Sherman Brothers (“Doin’ the Impossible”). Nor does it hurt that all 11 are respectfully, intelligently framed, with Miller’s clear, cool voice wrapped in top drawer arrangements interpreted by the sort of top-drawer players (on most tracks, a nine-piece band that somehow sounds big enough to fill the Hollywood Bowl) even Cole Porter or Frank Loesser would be proud to share their words and music with.
Christopher Loudon - JazzTimes (Mar 11, 2006)
Charleston Daily MaiLIt's hard to resist a musical fairytale story like this, especially when the soundtrack is as classic as the songs of Bobby Sharp. Sharp's long, spotty songwriting career has yielded just one hit -- "Unchain My Heart" (Ray Charles and Joe Cocker) -- for which he sold the rights for around $1,000. Along the way, his songs were recorded by Ruth Brown, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., and James Baldwin.
Fast forward to 2002, when Sharp heard jazz singer Natasha Miller interviewed on Public Radio and called her out of the blue to pitch his songs. Miller ended up recording two CDs almost entirely of Sharp's material. Now 81, "The Fantasy Sessions" is Sharp's debut CD, and it's chock full of tunes, all written from the '50s to the '70s, that rest in that soulful pocket between jazz and blues and could easily wind up in the songbook of American classics.
These are not silky, sentimental ballads, but edgy numbers that open themselves to a variety of interpretations. The sparse arrangements and instrumentation center on Sharp's strong piano and vocals -- which at times, border on Mose Allison-styled quirkiness. While much of Sharp's life has been anything but easy, this is certainly a sweet way to head down the back nine. www.poignantrecords.com.
Michael Lipton - Charleston Daily Mail (W. Virginia) (Apr 27, 2006)
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)
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)
Study of a Songwriter
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 love seat 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
"Unchain My Heart" Songwriter Bobby Sharp Dies At Age 88
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.