TWO LIVES, RECLAIMED FATE DEALT HARSHLY WITH BOBBY SHARP AND NATASHA MILLER.

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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

Wall Street Journal Entry

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VOCALIST-VIOLINIST Natasha Miller is hooked on the songs of Bobby Sharp, and who can blame her? This is Miller's second recording devoted to tunes composed by Sharp, best known for penning the Ray Charles hit "Unchain My Heart," and it's full of charming treats and discoveries.

Not least among them is Sharp's welcome cameo, in which the octogenarian briefly teams up with Miller for an unabashedly sentimental performance of "As the Years Come and Go." Sharp's hazy tenor has aged well, but not as well as his songbook, which, for all its strong ties to vintage pop and jazz, appears timeless. It's hard to categorize his legacy. The selections here are as diverse as the torchy "Prisoner of the Blues," the whimsical "Doin' the Impossible," the swinging "Don't Move" and the country-loping "Stolen Love (On Highway 99)". "Don't Set Me Free" rings a vintage R&B bell, but most of the tunes are as obscure as they are worthy of unearthing.

Miller isn't interested in merely playing the role of archivist. Her interpretations are heartfelt and occasionally moving. With help from a few arrangers, she also places Sharp's words (and delightful wordplay) in flattering settings that feature a rhythm section led by pianist Josh Nelson, plus, now and then, horns and strings.

--
Appearing Wednesday at Blues Alley.

Mike Joyce - Washington Post (Jul 21, 2006)


BAY AREA'S JAZZ CUP RUNNETH OVER

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WHEN IT COMES TO creative jazz singers, the Bay Area's cup runneth over, and the coming weeks bring a brimming mug of excellent artists to local venues.

Let's start with the second chapter of the unfolding musical love affair between the stylish Alameda-based vocalist Natasha Miller and octogenarian songwriter Bobby Sharp, who penned the Ray Charles hit "Unchain My Heart." With her 2004 album, "I Had a Feelin'," Miller revived 11 mostly forgotten gems by Sharp, who had languished in obscurity for decades. The album came just in time for him to benefit from a wave of attention generated by the hit film "Ray" (which was originally titled "Unchain My Heart").

Miller, whose rich, supple voice is sounding better than ever, celebrates the release of her new CD, "Don't Move" (Poignant Records), at Yoshi's on May 2. The album delves further into the Sharp songbook with 11 strong pieces that should make their way into other vocalists' repertoires, particularly the inviting, naturally swinging title track, the finger-popping "Stolen Love (On Highway 99)," and "Don't Set Me Free," a song Sharp wrote for Charles as an answer to "Unchain My Heart."

A first-class production all the way, the album was recorded and mixed by the esteemed Leslie Ann Jones at Skywalker Sound, and features consistently smart arrangements by pianists Josh Nelson, Larry Dunlap, Bill Bell and vocalist Ellen Robinson. The CD packaging itself is beautiful, with all the lyrics and a generous helping of photos. For Miller, the new project was an unexpected spinoff from the first album, made possible when Sharp kept digging into his long-neglected chest of tunes.

"At first he sent me a batch of his songs and they were wonderful, and I recorded them," Miller said. "But he held out on me. A few months later he'd say, 'I found this one in the closet.' Now I've got about 65 songs of Bobby's and he's filtered out the dubs, if there were ever any, because they're all viable."

For her performance at Yoshi's, Miller will be accompanied by the rising Los Angeles pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Dan Feiszli, veteran drummer David Rokeach, trumpeter Jeff Lewis, saxophonist Rob Roth and violist Liz Prior. Sharp will also be on hand to join her for a tune or two on vocals and piano. A quietly charismatic performer himself, Sharp recently released his first album in four decades, "The Fantasy Sessions," a highly satisfying session produced by Miller. Offering his own versions of his original pieces, Sharp is a natural interpreter with a real sense of drama.

Details: Miller performs 8 and 10 p.m. May 2 at Yoshi's. Tickets are $10-$16. Contact 510-238-9200 or www.yoshis.com.

Andy Gilbert - Contra Costa Times (Apr 20, 2006)

Bobby Sharp's Forsaken Catalog of Songs Became 'Unchained' by Twist of Fate

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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 14, 2004)

SPINVINTAGE PRESS RELEASE

Sooner or later, most singers get the urge to make a standards record. “And they always try to make it different,” says Natasha Miller, the sterling Bay Area-based jazz singer prized for her rich sound, streamlined phrasing and unforced feeling. “I wanted to make a standards album that was different different.”

Miller pulls that off brilliantly on her pleasing new CD, “SpinVintage,” a collection of classic songs that sound anything but standard. She puts a bracing spin on some of the best known tunes in the American Songbook, among them the Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” A deft musician with a keen sense of dynamics, tone color and timing, Miller brings spontaneity to the music while staying true to the melodies and lyrics. Her supple voice dances and floats through Adam Theis’ daringly original arrangements. His quirky and grooving charts, with their popping horn lines and moody film-noir flavors, frame and underscore the graceful melodies Miller sings, creating the yin-yang that gives this recording its singular sound.

“Adam is a wild man genius,” says Miller, who’s worked with the creative Bay Area arranger, trombonist and bandleader and his genre-crossing Jazz Mafia crew over the years. “I needed his playful insight into this music. I wanted him to take the standards I’d chosen – songs that were familiar to listeners and were my favorites – and basically create new songs from them.”

Produced by Miller for her Poignant Records label, “SpinVintage” is a major departure from the vocalist’s last two successful recordings, “Don’t Move,” from 2006, and  “I Had a Feelin’,” releases two years earlier. They both featured the music of Bobby Sharp, the brilliant but forgotten songwriter who composed the 1961 Ray Charles classic “Unchain My Heart.” Miller brought Sharp back to public attention, showcasing many of his songs that had never been performed until she brought them to life.

With this new record, “I wanted to give the audience something they didn’t expect from me,” says Miller, a highly trained classical violinist from Des Moines who played with orchestras and chamber groups in the Midwest before moving to San Francisco in 1995 to write and perform her original songs. She worked in advertising while performing at night until the music took over and she gave up the day gig. Her signing career took off. Miller became a favorite on the Bay Area club and festival scene, and her two Bobby Sharp recordings brought her wider acclaim. Reviewing a performance of Sharp’s songs, Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Heckman praised the way Miller sang the material “with sensitivity and insight, her cool musicality and clear articulation illuminating the unfamiliar pieces.”

A versatile jazz artist who can create a mood of hushed intimacy or hothouse exuberance, Miller draws inspiration for a wide range of musicians, from the classical violinists Itzhak Perlman and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg to singer-songwriter Ricki Lee Jones, the Police and operatic diva Frederica von Stade.

Miller does the one operatic number on “SpinVintage”  -- “Summertime” from the 1935 Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess” – in a decidedly un-operatic manner. She sings it in a lower octave than the original, giving the song a bittersweet reading in a dark-hued Theis arrangement set in 6/4 time. It’s followed by Ray Noble’s lovely “The Very Thought of You,” which sails along in relaxed bossa nova groove perfectly suited to the smiling sensuousness of Miller’s vocal. “I wanted to bring out the beauty and simplicity of the song,” says the singer, who turns up the heat on a funky and joyous ride through the classic Etta James vehicle “At Last.”

The hip-hopping “Blue Skies,” with its darting, angular horn lines and “uppity attitude,” as Miller puts it, features an unexpected and delightful free-form rap by Dublin, a poetic Bay Area rapper who exchanges playful improvised riffs with Miller and trombonist Theis. Miller sings the very bittersweet “What’s New” with a kind of sassy irreverence that made her feel a little like Eartha Kitt. “The arrangement connotes her mentality and attitude,” says Miller, who enters after a strange intro featuring Sheldon Brown’s spooky bass clarinet. The soaring melody plays off the dark sounds bubbling beneath it.

Brown and other members of the blazing Jazz Mafia horns – trumpeters Erik Jekabson, Rich Armstrong, and Mike Olmos – appear on various tracks, along with other prime Bay Area jazz players such as pianist Matt Clark, bassists John Shifflett and Dan Feiszli and drummer Jeff Marrs. Feiszli and Armstrong join Miller for a wonderfully swinging version of Charlie Chaplin’s timeless “Smile.” Usually done as a ballad, Miller, who likes to turn things around, takes it a brisk tempo, singing the melody with the nimble grace of a tap-dancer.

“To me the song says joy, happiness, let’s keep moving,” says Miller, who’s faced a lot hardship in her life but keeps her chin up. “My life hasn’t been all that peachy, but attitude always has.” She knows what she’s talking about when she sings “Cry Me A River” – “It’s the story of my life,” she says with a laugh – one of the highlights of “SpinVintage.” She sings it with a blast of soul in a bluesy, saloon- swing setting.

The final three tunes on the CD were recorded live at Yoshi’s in Oakland, one of the country’s premier jazz spots, where Miller sings to sold-out audiences. A spare, mysterious version of “My Funny Valentine” is followed by a dramatic performance of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” which begins with a feeling of tender fragility, builds to a rousing gospel-like climax then comes full circle. It features the splendid pianist Mike Greensill, best known as the accompanist to his wife, the celebrated singer Wesla Whitfield.

 “Mike has a great feeling for singers. He anticipated what I was going to do next,” says Miller, whose sublime rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance” is a stripped-down duet with Greensill. As always, she sings without artifice. 

“This is a really listenable record, even thought your brain needs to figure out what’s going on sometimes,” Miller says. “It makes you think. I think there’s enough variety in the repertoire and approach than anyone can enjoy it, from the people who love jazz to those who’ve never listened to these classic American songs before.”

-Jesse Hamlin 

(release date Sept 14, 2010)