Sunday, June 14, 2015
Ralph Sharon 1923 - 2015
Ralph Sharon, who has died aged 91, acted as accompanist and musical director to the singer Tony Bennett over a period of almost half a century. He arranged and directed all 10 of Bennett’s Grammy Award-winning records and guided his choice of material. “Ralph is my idea of the perfect accompanist,” Bennett wrote in his autobiography. “No one understands me more than he does, and we’ve become as close as brothers.”
Ralph Simon Sharon was a Londoner, born in Bethnal Green on September 14 1923. His father was English and his mother American. She had been a professional pianist, accompanying silent films. On leaving school, Sharon worked in a factory before joining a series of professional dance bands, including those of Ted Heath and Frank Weir. He led his own recording and broadcasting sextet before emigrating to the US in 1953. He took American citizenship in 1958.
It was his devotion to jazz which prompted the move and, for the first few years, he was entirely immersed in the New York jazz world. Sharon had never even heard of Tony Bennett when the singer invited him to audition as his accompanist in 1957. He recalled: “I thought, 'This guy sounds pretty good.’ At the end, he said, 'How’d you like to come with me?’ I said, 'Come with you where?’ He said, 'Everywhere!’ ”
In 1961, Sharon was responsible for introducing Bennett to I Left My Heart in San Francisco, the song which made him an undisputed star. He had been given the sheet music some time before, but had put it in a drawer and forgotten it. He came across it while looking for a shirt.
They tried it out in a hotel bar one night and the bartender called out: “If you guys record that song, I’ll buy the first copy.” If it hadn’t been for Ralph, Bennett observed: “I wouldn’t have that song, which has made me welcome all over the world.” It’s success was so unexpected that it was originally a B-side of a single.
They parted amicably in 1966, when Sharon decided to move to Los Angeles, where he again found himself accompanying singers, among them Nancy Wilson and Rosemary Clooney. This was not a good period for Tony Bennett. He was involved in constant tussles with Columbia records over his choice of material.
By the end of the decade he was without a recording contract and increasingly out of the public eye. Eventually, with his son Danny as his manager, Bennett’s fortunes recovered and he and Sharon were reunited in 1979.
The next two decades saw one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of popular music. By sticking to what had now become recognised as the classic style of American song, with a strong jazz influence, Tony Bennett attracted a new audience among all age groups. Albums such as The Art Of Excellence (1986), a collection of songs accompanied solely by Sharon’s piano, and MTV Unplugged (1994), which won that year’s Grammy of the Year award, stood out in a long line of successful recordings.
“I got Tony into jazz – he’d say that himself,” Sharon told an interviewer in 1988. “He found a whole new audience and a whole new way to phrase and present himself. Now, he couldn’t be without it.”
Ralph Sharon retired from touring in 2002 and settled in Boulder, Colorado. Retirement did not, however, keep him away from the piano or from the bandstand. The already lively local jazz scene received him with open arms and he was soon leading his own trio, commuting regularly between Boulder and Denver.
In addition, he continued recording on his own account for some years. Between 1995 and 2007, for instance, he made 10 albums devoted to work of the great American songwriters. He was still performing until three months before his death.
He is survived by his wife and son.