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."
-Don Heckman - L.A. Times 9/11/2004