Starting today, we celebrate Ralph Sharon Week at the Year of Tony Bennett.
Ralph Sharon was born in London, England on September 17,1923 to an English father and an American mother, who was a professional pianist.
Mr. Sharon found success quite early in life. By the age of 20, he was playing for Ted Heath in England, all the time playing additional jazz gigs and recording for the BBC. In the early 1950s, he emigrated to New York. He worked with prominent musicians, recording albums with noted jazz musicians, including Charles Mingus, Jo Jones, and others.
Ralph Sharon is seminal figure in the early recording history of Tony Bennett. A noted jazz pianist, he encouraged Tony to explore his love of jazz at the same time the studio was attempting to guide Mr. Bennett into the role of popular singer. Sharon auditioned for Tony Bennett in 1957, as described by Mr. Bennett in his autobiography, The Good Life:
The first guy that showed up was okay, but the second guy, Ralph Sharon, just had to hit a few notes for me to know that he was the piano player for me.
At about the same time that Ralph Sharon began to play for Bennett, Columbia began to phase Mitch Miller out and Bennett began to work with other producers. Due to his enormous success, Bennett was able to stand up to the producers who wanted to keep him solely in the popular music hit factory. Tony Bennett had already recorded his first jazz album, Cloud 7, in 1955. Working with Sharon, they began to plan his next jazz album, Beat of My Heart. They assembled great percussionists to play the great standards, with exceptional arrangements by Mr. Sharon. In addition to great American drummers (including Nat Adderley, Chico Hamilton, Jo Jones, and Eddie Costa) they also brought in two important Latin American percussionists: Sabu and Candido. The album was one Tony Bennett’s finest albums to date and was well-received by jazz fans.
In 1962, Bennett and Sharon released one of my favorite albums, Tony Sings For Two. At a time when so much popular music was over-produced with enormous string sections, this album with just Ralph Sharon on piano and Tony Bennett singing was quite revolutionary. (I must admit that I was exposed to way too many albums with the Melachrino Strings during this formative period of my youth. I mean, who would make an album called Music To Help You Sleep? As they say on Saturday Night Live: Really?). This album is quite exceptional and very beautiful. The Year of Tony Bennett will be featuring several songs from this album during the week.
In 1966, Ralph Sharon and Tony Bennett parted ways. Mr. Sharon lived on the West Coast and wanted to spend less time on the road. They reunited in 1979 and continued to play with Mr. Bennett until 2002. They did wonderful work together on albums Mr. Bennett released in that period: Art of Excellence, Bennett/Berlin, Perfectly Frank, and the MTV Unplugged concert, among others.
Speaking strictly as fan of Tony Bennett, I am grateful for the collaboration between Ralph Sharon and Tony Bennett.
In addition to his work with Tony Bennett, the Ralph Sharon Trio recorded numerous albums, including songbook albums of the music of Harry Warren, Frank Loesser, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern.
For More Information
The website jazzprofessional.com has two interviews with Mr. Sharon, one about his work with Tony Bennett and the other about the nuances of accompanying singers.
This You Tube video is an interview with Tony Bennett from 1991, in which he talks about his professional relationship with Mr. Sharon.