Ralph Sharon Quartet
Ralph Sharon Quartet
Pianist/bandleader/arranger/composer Ralph Sharon has peformed and recorded with some of the most significant jazz artists of the last half century. Though primarily known to his musician peers and jazz af iciana-dos, his career has been associated with that of such famous jazz and pop talents as Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Rosemary Clooney, Mel Torme and many others. Sharon’s work has spanned the close of the big band era through bebop’s formative years and into the present day. As a bandleader, his recording history has continued over some 50 years and, in the 1990s, saw an upswing with the release of his composer tribute CD series.
Born Septrember 17, 1923, in London, Sharon was first schooled in music by his American-born mother, who had previously played organ in silent movie theaters. As he grew older, he became attracted to jazz and, in particular, the innovative bebop sounds coming out of the United States during the late 1940s. His professional debut as a pianist was with British bandleader Ted Heath in 1946. A few years later, he also played piano with Frank Weir’s jazz orchestra, a group which also included soon-to-be-famous pianist George Shearing on accordion. In addition, he recorded with saxophonist Ronnie Scott’s Esquire Five in 1948. Readers of Melody Maker chose Sharon as Britain’s number one pianist four years in a row, which lead to his participation in the magazine’s All Stars group in 1951-1952. By 1948 he was also leading his own sextet, which included percussionist Victor Feldman, later a well-known session musician in the United States. This group released several recordings on the Melodise label, including “There’s A Small Hotel” and “Blue Moon.”
Despite his rapid rise in the British jazz ranks, Sharon felt restricted by the music scene there and longed to work with American bebop players. In the fall of 1953, he emigrated to the United States, sharing quarters with clarinet player Tony Scott in New York. “The music I heard [in New York] was much more advanced than in England” he told Contemporary Musicians in a telephone interview. “I’d never heard this stuff in person, and it just blew me away. Tony was very much into bebop, and he would take me up to Minton’s [a famous Harlem jazz club] to sit in. That’s where I got my eduation.”
Sharon formed a new version of his sextet and began recording for the Rama label in the mid-1950s. In 1954, he released his Jazz Around The World album, which featured such notables as bassist Charles Mingus, drummer Kenny Clarke, saxophonist Eli “Lucky” Thompson and guitarist Joe Puma interpreting Sharon’s compositions. Switching to Bethlehem Records, he continued in a bebop-influenced direction with his 1956 Ralph Sharon Trio album. He also recorded with jazz vocalist Chris Connor on the Bethlehem label from 1955-1957. Another Bethlehem project brought him into the studio in 1956 with singer Mel Torme as part of an all-jazz musician version of Porgy And Bess.
In 1957, Sharon took on the duties of pianist and bandleader for singer Tony Bennett, which would prove to be a long and productive association. It seemed an unlikely pairing at the start, given Sharon’s bebop affinities and Bennett’s mainstream pop background. “I’d just gotten a call out of the blue, asking if I’d like to play with Tony,” Sharon told Contemporary Musicians. “To me, he was just a pop singer, and I didn’t know much about him. But I said that I’d like to try it, I went and played for him, and he hired me. I showed him different sorts of beats, different ways of phrasing, and he took to it immediately. All of a sudden, he was getting into a jazz feeling. I found it exciting, and he did, too.” Sharon encouraged Bennett to work with jazz musicians, which led to sessions with bandleader Count Basie. The resulting album, Bennett/Basie, was released by Columbia Records in 1958 and featured Sharon as arranger and pianist. The late 1950s also found Sharon sitting in with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on piano when Bennett shared the concert bill with the famed jazz group on tour.
At first, Columbia was somewhat concerned to see Bennett heading in jazz direction under Sharon’s influenee.
Members include Ralph Sharon (born September 17, 1923 in London, England), piano; Clayton Cameron , drums; Paul Langosch , bass; Gray Sargent , guitar.
Group began as sextet with Sharon as leader in Britain c. 1948; moved to United States, released Jazz Around the World, Rama label, 1954; signed with Bethlehem, released Ralph Sharon Trio, 1956; released The Magic of George Gershwin, Horation Nelson label, 1989; signed with DRG and released The Ralph Sharon Trio Swings the Sammy Cahn Songbook, 1995; The Ralph Sharon Trio Plays the Harry Warren Songbook, 1997; and The Ralph Sharon Quartet Plays the Frank Loesser Songbook, 1999.
Awards: Gold Badge of Merit from British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —DRG Records, 130 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.
As it turned out, Bennett recorded some of his most enduring hits after Sharon became his musical director. Among them was “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” which reached number 19 in 1962 and went on to become one of Bennett’s signature songs. In an interview with Billboard’s Jim Bessman, Sharon recalled that “A couple friends gave me a bunch of songs they wrote, and I put them in a drawer, and two years later I was looking for a shirt and found ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco.’ A week later we were in Hot Springs, Arkansas and I look at it and called Tony and said, ‘We’re going to San Francisco next. I’ve got a tune here that it might be a good idea to do’.” A few years later, Sharon heard a tune called “If I Ruled The World” in a performance of the musical Pickwick in London. Bennett and Sharon slowed down the song’s tempo, recorded it and scored a number 34 hit single in 1965.
Taking a break from working with Bennett in 1965, Sharon signed on as singer Rosemary Clooney’s accom-panyist two years later. He also launched a new version of his own band, which he had put on hold after starting his job with Bennett. With Jay Cave on bass and Christy Fabbo on drums, he signed with the Chess-distributed Argo label in the late 1960s and released his Two A.M. album. Sharon described the music on this LP to Contemporary Musicians as having “a melodic bop influence, not too far-out.” Around this time, he began his service as pianist and bandleader for Robert Goulet, best-known as an interpreter of such Broadway show tunes as “Camelot” and “The Impossible Dream.” Sharon recorded several albums with Goulet for Columbia in the early 1970s, and also released several albums with his own band on that label during those years as well, including The Ralph Sharon Trio Plays The Tony Bennett Songbook.
Sharon’s tenure with Goulet lasted into the late 1970s. At that point, he joined forces with Bennett once again. “I’d been in touch with Tony the whole time,” Sharon said of the years that the two were apart. “Torri Zito [Bennett’s arranger after Sharon] wanted to get off the road, so Tony asked me to come back, and I was happy to. I was back doing music with a jazz kind of feel, thank God.” With Sharon once again in the bandleader’s role, Bennett enjoyed a renewed popularity in the 1990s, earning a gold album with Tony Bennett Unplugged in 1995.
Meanwhile, Sharon began recording with a trio once more after signing with Britain’s Horatio Nelson Records. Joining him were bassist Lenny Bush and drummer Jack Parnell, the latter a bandmate of Sharon’s during his stint with Ted Heath. In 1989, he began releasing a series of songwriter tribute albums for the label, all titled with the prefix The Magic Of.…, starting with a recording of George Gershwin material. Similar albums interpreting the works of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin followed. In explaining his series to Billboard, he said, “I like to take famous popular composers whom I admire and investigate their particular body of work. I try to choose tunes that show off the different angles and atttudes that they have on a song—and that I can put a jazz feeling into.”
Sharon continued this series on the American label DRG, beginning with 1995’s The Ralph Sharon Trio Swings The Sammy Cahn Songbook, which featured veteran saxophonist Gerry Mulligan as a guest player. Next came Portrait Of Harold Arlen in 1996, followed by albums celebrating the songs of Harry Warren and Frank Loesser in 1997 and 1999 respectively. Sharon’s DRG incarnation of his trio, which included bassist Paul Langosch and drummer Clayton Cameron, was expanded into a quartet with the addition of guitarist Gray Sargeant on the Loesser tribute album.
After five decades in the music world, Sharon found that his brand of jazz was finally reaching a larger audience. “It used to be that, when you said you were a jazz musician, you didn’t get much of a response,” he told Contemporary Musicians. “Now there’s a lot more appreciation. I’m not the kind of musician who just plays for himself. I’ve always tried to find something that would be of interest to people…I still want to entertain them.”
Jazz Around The World, Rama, 1954.
The Ralph Sharon Trio, Bethlehem, 1956.
The Magic Of George Gershwin, Horatio Nelson, 1989.
The Ralph Sharon Trio Swings The Sammy Cahn Song-book, DRG, 1995.
The Ralph Sharon Trio Plays The Harry Warren Songbook, DRG, 1997.
The Ralph Sharon Quartet Plays The Frank Loesser Song-book, DRG, 1999.
Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of The Encyclopedia Of Jazz, Horizon, 1960.
Kernfeld, Barry, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.
Billboard, March 13, 1999.
Additional information was obtained from telephone interviews with Sharon in August of 1999.
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