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

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)