Bobby Sharp, a songwriter who endured a years-long legal battle to regain the rights to his hit song "Unchain My Heart," died last week at¿ an Oakland hospital. He was 88.
Sharp, a piano player and singer, penned "Unchain My Heart" in 1960 and Ray Charles turned it into an American sensation in 1961. An energetic cover of the song by Joe Cocker made it popular again in 1987.
Sharp received just $50 for the lyrics when he sold them to musician and composer Teddy Powell, who insisted on shared writing credits. Sharp then used the money to supplement a drug habit. In 1963, Sharp sold his remaining writer's share to Powell for $1,000. Sharp sued Powell for the rights to the song a year later and, after a seven-year legal battle, the suit was settled.
When the original copyright to the song expired in 1987, Sharp renewed it and Joe Cocker quickly snapped it up for his remake.
"Unchain My Heart" wasn't the only piece Sharp wrote. While living in New York, Sharp spent years walking up and down Broadway trying to peddle multiple songs to studio producers. He eventually sold "Don't Set Me Free" to lesser acclaim. Throughout the years, while working as a drug counselor in New York and at Westside Community Center in San Francisco, Sharp wrote several other songs but never penned a hit with the same traction as "Unchain My Heart."
Sharp was born Nov. 26, 1924, in Topeka, Kan., and lived with his grandparents in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. He moved to New York at age 12, staying with his then-relocated parents.
He served in the Army during World War II and attended the Manhattan School of Music. According to the biography on Sharp's website, he played several gigs with jazz legend Benny Carter as well as with Jimmie Lunceford's big band. He also worked with songwriters Charlie Singleton, and Dan and Marvin Fisher.
Friends who knew Sharp in his later years said he was a kind and generous man who was always willing to help when friends were down and out.
Lorrain Taylor, a friend since the early 1990s, said she met Sharp after reading about his legal struggles to regain the rights to "Unchain My Heart" in an Alameda newspaper. Back then, Taylor hosted a television show and invited Sharp to be on it. They became quick friends. When Taylor suffered a medical problem that left her without a car and unable to work, Sharp made sure she was OK.
"He would call me every single day and then he would come over every week and bring chicken, lamb chops, string beans and bananas," said Taylor,¿ who founded 1,000 Mothers to Prevent Violence. "He would make me laugh and always tell me to 'Look before you leap.' I called him my angel because during my vulnerable years I could have been taken advantage of and he was always there for me."
While Sharp spent a majority of his life working as a drug rehab counselor, he revived his music career at least twice in his later years. He paired with jazz singer Natasha Miller in 2004 to release "I Had a Feelin': The Bobby Sharp Songbook," which Miller performed at Yoshi's that year.
Singer Clara Bellino, of Oakland, met Sharp while painting his apartment in 2003. Bellino also quickly became Sharp's friend and eventually acted as his caretaker and musical collaborator. Bellino had been told in advance of her painting assignment about Sharp's songwriting talents and said when she found they jelled together musically, the two paired up to perform benefits in Alameda and to record the song "Hand In Hand" at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. Both Bellino and Sharp sang on the recording which Bellino said brought tears to Sharp's eyes when he heard the mixed version on CD.
"It's a beautiful classic jazz song," Bellino said. "He once played it for Nat King Cole, but he (Cole) died before he could record it."
Bellino created a documentary about the making of "Hand In Hand," which is linked to her website at www.clarabellino.com. She recently shopped the "Hand In Hand" recording to producers at the Midem music conference in Cannes, France.
Sharp lived alone in Alameda and didn't have any surviving family members.
The Bobby Sharp Celebration of Life Memorial will be held 1-3 p.m. Sunday, March 10 at
Rhythmix Cultural Works, 2513 Blanding Ave., Alameda