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.” 

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 (ANG Newspapers) (May 2, 2006)