Writer Finds Voice for Lost Songs

Special to the Mercury News

In the 1950s and early '60s, songwriter Bobby Sharp prowled New York City's Tin Pan Alley, hustling songs to raise quick cash in order to feed his heroin addiction.

Despite his self-destructive ways, Sharp produced an impressive body of work, including tunes interpreted by Sarah Vaughan, Ruth Brown and most famously Ray Charles, who turned ``Unchain My Heart'' into a signature hit.

By 1968, Sharp had given up on music. After many attempts to clean up, he got himself straight and, in 1980, moved to the Bay Area, where he worked for years as a substance abuse counselor. He assumed his songwriting career was decades behind him, and had packed away his treasure trove of tunes, many unpublished and unrecorded. Then, two years ago, he heard vocalist Natasha Miller on KCSM-FM (91.1) while driving near his home in Alameda.

``There was something ethereal about her voice,'' Sharp says over lunch with Miller at an Alameda diner. She has become a close friend. ``I heard her singing and thought, `That's cool.' Then she said she lives in Alameda. I went home and looked in the phone book, and there she was. So I took a chance, and I called. I told her I had these songs laying around.''

The result of that connection was Miller's CD ``I Had a Feelin': The Bobby Sharp Songbook,'' one of last year's most satisfying pop-jazz vocal albums. She launches her second Sharp project on Monday at Yoshi's in Oakland, where she'll start recording another album of his music, including several tunes that Sharp has revealed to her only in recent months.

``He held out on me,'' says Miller, 34, with a laugh. ``He sent me that first batch, and they were wonderful, and I recorded them. Then a few months later, he'd say, `I found this one in the closet.' Now I've got about 65 songs of Bobby's.''

For the concert at Yoshi's and an April 7 performance at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, Miller has commissioned charts from some of the Bay Area's best arrangers, including pianists Larry Dunlap, Frank Martin and Bill Bell. Accompanying her at both concerts are Los Angeles pianist Josh Nelson and acoustic bassist Jon Evans (who are also contributing arrangements), drummer Tim Bulkley, saxophonist Rob Roth, trombonist Adam Theus, trumpeter Jeff Lewis, violist Liz Prior Runnicles and cellist Jessica Ivry.

Raised in a highly musical family in Des Moines, Iowa, Miller is also an accomplished violinist, and she'll be joining the string section on several pieces (though not while she's singing).

Miller and Sharp will perform a vocal duet on his romantic ballad ``As the Years Come and Go,'' and he'll be featured on piano and vocals on his hard-luck saga ``Things Are Breakin' Like Rocks,'' a tune she included on her first Sharp CD.

``She's the star,'' Sharp says. ``I'm just here to support her. She gives me a hard time and makes me go up on stage and sing these songs.''

Miller says, ``And once he's up there, we can't get him off! He's 80 years old, and people say he sounds like he's 40. I think he sounds better now than when he was younger. His voice is more warm and full.''

Sharp does look and sound a good two decades younger than his chronological age, which is remarkable considering his self-inflicted hard knocks.

East to Harlem

Born into a middle-class family, Sharp spent his adolescence in Los Angeles, with his pious grandmother. At 12, he sent a note to his parents begging to join them in Harlem, where they had settled so his father could pursue a career as a concert tenor. ``I said, `Get me out of here!' '' Sharp recalls. ``My grandmother had me at church every four minutes.''

When he arrived at his parents' apartment in the upscale Sugar Hill neighborhood, he encountered a cocktail soiree in full swing. Among the neighbors in his apartment building were poet Langston Hughes, jazz great Duke Ellington and civil rights leaders Walter White and Roy Wilkins.

Despite being in a musical household, Sharp didn't get interested in songwriting until after he served in the Army in World War II. On the advice of respected arranger Sy Oliver, a family friend, Sharp ended up studying theory and composition at the Manhattan School of Music.

Rhythm and blues great Ruth Brown recorded the first song he sold, ``Sweet Baby of Mine.'' Sarah Vaughan recorded his pop tune ``Hot and Cold Running Tears,'' and country star Eddy Arnold recorded ``I Need Somebody.''

A tossed-off classic

A tough critic of his own work, Sharp doesn't think much of his most famous tune, admitting that he tossed off ``Unchain My Heart'' to pick up some cash to feed his drug habit. The song did end up taking care of him, however, once he won back the rights from an unscrupulous publisher with the help of a determined attorney. When Joe Cocker recorded the tune in 1987, it was just in time for Sharp's retirement. (He missed a bigger payday when Universal nixed ``Unchain My Heart'' as the title of the Oscar-winning biopic, opting for the bland ``Ray'' instead).

Anyway, Sharp is far more pleased with his song ``Things Are Breakin' Like Rocks,'' a line he picked up from a friend who was going through hard times.

``You've got to watch what you say to Bobby,'' Miller says. ``It may end up in a song.''

He's also proud of ``At Midnight,'' a tune he presented to Billie Holiday, though her recording session ended before she had a chance to sing the late-night lament. It's one of the unpublished Sharp tunes that Miller will introduce at Yoshi's.

``Bobby didn't give it to me for a long time,'' Miller says. ``I think he thought it was too dark for me, but I've been through the wringer like any other blues-jazz singer. It's not a showstopper, but it's a tune that makes the room go quiet. It opens with the line `Here am I, in the street alone at midnight.' ''

In his darker years, that's where Sharp often found himself, but with Miller's loving attention to his long-neglected music, he's enjoying a belated taste of the limelight.

Natasha Miller

sings Bobby Sharp

Where: Yoshi's, Jack London Square, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Monday

Tickets: $8-$10

Call: (510) 238-9200

Also: 7 and 9 p.m. April 7, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, (831) 427-2227, $14, $12 advance

Andy Gilbert - San Jose Mercury News (Mar 18, 2005)