Remembering Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett's Pianist

Apr 9, 2015
Originally published on April 9, 2015 9:05 am

Pianist Ralph Sharon, the longtime accompanist for Tony Bennett, died March 31 at age 91. In the audio link above, Tom Cole has a brief report for NPR's Morning Edition, and below, Walter Ray Watson filed this remembrance for NPR Music.

Pianist Ralph Sharon is often remembered as the guy who accidentally introduced Tony Bennett to his signature song, "I Left My Heart In San Francisco."

While preparing for a tour, he opened up a shirt drawer and found a stash of sheet music he had forgotten about. Knowing their itinerary was destined for San Francisco, he brought a certain song to Bennett, and the two rehearsed it while in Hot Springs, Ark. Countless times, Sharon retold the story that a bartender said to them both, "If you make a record of that, I'll buy it."

Of course, there's more to Ralph Sharon than an unexpected hit: He was Bennett's accompanist and musical director for more than 40 years, encouraging the singer toward the style he's best known for today.

Born in England in 1923, Ralph Sharon wasn't much of a music student until he heard records by the virtuoso jazz pianists Fats Waller and Art Tatum: "I became intrigued by them," he said told the United Kingdom's National Jazz Archives.

In 1953, having played with the top mainstream jazz musicians in London, Sharon moved to New York City to pursue music. He became a naturalized citizen in the U.S., led trios, sat in at nightclubs like the legendary Harlem room Minton's Playhouse. Some major artists played on his records such as drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Charles Mingus.

Sharon also took gigs accompanying jazz singers — big names at the time like Chris Connor and Carmen McRae. That reputation led Tony Bennett's office to call Sharon. At the time, Bennett was a pop singer, and Sharon, being a strict jazz player, knew nothing about the man he was to audition for.

Though skeptical, the audition went well. "I thought, 'This guy sounds pretty good,' " he told the Boulder Daily Camera.

Sharon encouraged the singer to perform and record with more of a jazz feel than the pop tunes he'd been known for. Their breakthrough together came with the jazzy 1957 album The Beat Of My Heart. Featuring drummers Art Blakey, Jo Jones and Chico Hamilton, the arrangements added heft and challenged Bennett's vocals.

"There's some terrific stuff on it," Ralph Sharon recalled to the National Jazz Archive. "Kai Winding, Herbie Mann, Al Cohn and Nat Adderley were among the great players who took part." Major jazz figures like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson and Dexter Gordon would eventually record with Bennett and the pianist.

Nearly six years later, in January 1962, Sharon's hand-in-glove piano work would sidle up to Bennett's now-iconic intro and make way for that soaring finish of "I Left My Heart In San Francisco."

For decades, Bennett thanked his accompanist on stages around the world. Ralph Sharon kept playing locally near his Boulder, Colo. home after he retired as Bennett's musical director in 2002.

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Next, we have a story of a man who wasn't that famous. He had the personality instead to take a back seat and play a huge role in the rise of another man who did become famous. Pianist Ralph Sharon supported Tony Bennett as his accompanist and music director for more than four decades. Ralph Sharon died last week in Colorado at age 91, and we have an appreciation from NPR's Tom Cole.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Ralph Sharon played with some of the top mainstream jazz musicians in his native London before moving to the U.S. in the early 1950s. A few years later, he found himself auditioning for Tony Bennett, as he told NPR in 1998.


RALPH SHARON: I really enjoyed what he did and just on a handshake, we've been together ever since.


TONY BENNETT: (Singing) I didn't know what time it was.

COLE: Bennett was already a pop star, but he liked jazz.

SHARON: I encouraged him to sing with Count Basie band and Duke Ellington band and also record stuff with jazz musicians.


COLE: Sharon made his own records while working with Bennett and the pianist developed a keen ear for when to play and when to take a supporting role, as Bennett told the NBC TV affiliate in Cleveland in 1991.


BENNETT: I can't ask for a better colleague or a nicer person to be around. He's just very intelligent and a wonderful musicologist. He's found all my songs, not just "I Left My Heart In San Francisco," but he's found all of them for me.

COLE: Sometimes by accident. Songwriting friends would give Sharon sheet music for Bennett to consider.


SHARON: One day, I ran into them. They gave me a bunch of songs.

COLE: Sharon said thank you very much and put them away for a couple of years.


SHARON: We were going on the road, and I happened to be looking for a shirt in a drawer.

COLE: Where he'd stashed that sheet music. He spotted "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" and, for whatever reason, threw it in his bag. He rang Bennett's room when they got to their hotel.


SHARON: And I said, you know something, we're going to San Francisco next. And I said there's a song here that might be interesting.


COLE: It became Bennett's biggest hit, and the two performed it together until Ralph Sharon retired as Bennett's music director in 2002. Tom Cole, NPR News.


BENNETT: (Singing) The loveliness of Paris seems somehow... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.