Natasha Miller's new CD was more than 40 years in the making, even though the jazz singer is only 33.
That's because Miller, a Des Moines native who has spent the last decade forging a career in Alameda, Calif., struck up a friendship with a seasoned songwriter more than twice her age. That they connected at all was a fleeting chance.
It was nearly two years ago. Miller was singing as an in-studio guest on jazz radio station KCSM-FM in the San Francisco Bay Area when fellow Alameda resident Bobby Sharp happened to tune her in on his car radio.
Sharp heard what he calls an "ethereal" voice that inspired him to go home, look up Miller in the phone book and mail her a batch of his songs -most of which had languished since the 1950s and `60, unpublished and unheard by anybody save their author.
"I had never done that before in my life," Sharp said earlier this month, from Mil! ler's office in Alameda.
Miller listened to Sharp's demo recordings of such tunes as "My Magic Tower," which she eventually chose for her CD.
"You just know it was not written in this decade or the last couple of decades," she said.
"In my magic tower when the day is through/ I stay by the hour and dream of you/ And remember the hilltops we used to climb/ And smell the aroma of tall growing pine," goes the first stanza of "My Magic Tower."
"I used to read Edgar Allan Poe a lot, and I used to read dictionaries and the thesaurus," Sharp said to explain his songwriting style. "I think that's where I get this rhyming and stuff like that together."
Of the 11 songs on Miller's CD that ended up as a tribute to her newfound friend, "I Had a Feelin': The Bobby Sharp Songbook," only one had been previously recorded: "Unchain My Heart," immortalized in 1961 by Ray Charles (heard twice in the new "Ray" biopic) and revived in 1987 by Joe Cocker.
Sharp, who turns 80 today and will attend Miller's homecoming perform ance at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, says he wrote the tune "one Sunday evening to go see a publisher and get some advance money" -money to fuel his heroin addiction.
Sharp, who was living in New York, eventually conquered his demons and moved to California in 1980 to work as a counselor in a methadone treatment program for addicts. When he heard Miller's voice, he was still in musical hibernation. He would spend 15 minutes at the piano per month, tops.
Miller's music career, meanwhile, was going full steam ahead. She's not just a jazz singer. In fact, that was kind of the last piece of the puzzle of her career to fall in place.
"I'm outgoing in a lot of ways but I'm shy in others," she said. "It was hard for me for a while, three or four years ago, to get up on stage. I didn't want people to look at me. I didn't want to talk to them. I didn't want to show my emotion physically. If I could have gotten on stage and sung from behind a wall, I would have."
Miller was trained as a classical violinist at Drake University and Iowa State University and led her own professional string quartet in Des Moines before she left for the West Coast. She plays guitar and piano and has recorded an album of pop-rock songs. She runs her own entertainment production company in Alameda that helps stage concerts around the Bay area.
"I have a really strong business side," she said. "A lot of artists and musicians don't find that side in them."
It wasn't only Sharp who reclaimed a piece of himself through the process of recording "I Had a Feelin' ." Sharp sent Miller his songs shortly before March 2003, when the singer's son, Aidan, was stillborn. Miller dedicated the CD to him.
"I was just a wreck," Miller said. Her timely work with Sharp "certainly softened the fall," she added, and both of their lives "exploded" once they met and began to dig into the songs.
Miller and Sharp can attest to the power of a song on! ce it finds the right singer.
"Without Natasha I'd just be driving around staring into infinity," Sharp said.
Kyle Munson - Des Moines Register (Nov 26, 2004)