Ralph Sharon, Jazz Pianist Who Accompanied Tony Bennett, Dies at 91
By MARGALIT FOXAPRIL 7, 2015
Ralph Sharon playing the piano as Tony Bennett performs at the Old State House in 1996 in Little Rock, Ark. Credit Beth A. Keiser/Associated Press
Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett’s longtime accompanist, who in the early 1960s persuaded Mr. Bennett to sing a song originally written for a Wagnerian contralto — about the fond intersection of a large muscle in the chest with a Northern California city — and in so doing created a Grammy-winning standard, died on March 31 at his home in Boulder, Colo. He was 91.
His son, Bo, confirmed the death.
A highly regarded jazz pianist in his own right, Mr. Sharon joined forces with Mr. Bennett in the late 1950s and remained with him for the better part of the next 45 years. He collaborated with Mr. Bennett on a string of Grammy Award-winning albums, over time serving as his accompanist, arranger and musical director, and is widely credited with nudging Mr. Bennett out of pop and into jazz.
“I’ve been very lucky to have worked with Ralph Sharon,” Mr. Bennett told The Seattle Times in 1993. “In my life I’ve seen only two others like him, Bill Miller with Sinatra and Bobby Tucker with Billie Holiday and Billy Eckstine — very good jazz musicians, but able to sublimate themselves to singers. It’s a real art, and it’s rarely recognized.”
Their most famous recording together, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” released in 1962 on the Columbia label, won Mr. Bennett two Grammys, for record of the year and best male solo vocal performance. Its title ballad remains Mr. Bennett’s vocal signature to this day and, in his myriad renditions, has sold millions of copies.
With music by George Cory and lyrics by Douglass Cross, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was first published in 1954. It had been composed in the early ’50s for the contralto Claramae Turner, a midcentury mainstay of the Metropolitan Opera whose roles there included Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” and Erda in Wagner’s “Siegfried.”
Turner sang the ballad as an encore in recitals but never recorded it. Then, in the late ’50s or early ’60s, Mr. Cory and Mr. Cross, acquaintances of Mr. Sharon, gave him the sheet music for Mr. Bennett’s consideration. Mr. Sharon put the music into a bureau drawer and promptly forgot all about it for more than a year.
Ralph Simon Sharon was born on Sept. 17, 1923, in the East End of London. His mother was a pianist for silent movies. By the time he was a teenager, Ralph was playing in the celebrated British big band led by Ted Heath.
In the mid-’50s, Mr. Sharon moved to New York to try to make it in American jazz. After a few years with the clarinetist Tony Scott and other jazzmen, he was asked to audition for Mr. Bennett, of whom he had never heard.
“I was skeptical,” Mr. Sharon told The Daily Camera of Boulder in 2009. “But I met this guy, and he sang a few things and I played a few things. I thought, ‘This guy sounds pretty good.’ ”
The two remained together until Mr. Sharon’s retirement in 2002, with Mr. Bennett backed by Mr. Sharon alone or by the Ralph Sharon Trio, which included a bassist and a drummer. Mr. Sharon left for a period in the 1970s to work with Rosemary Clooney and Robert Goulet but later reunited with Mr. Bennett.
On his own or with his trio, Mr. Sharon recorded dozens of albums, among them “Around the World in Jazz,” “The Magic of Jerome Kern” and “The Magic of George Gershwin.”
Besides his son, Mr. Sharon’s survivors include his wife, the former Linda Noone, and two grandchildren.
Call it providence. In 1961, as he and Mr. Bennett were about to embark on a concert tour, Mr. Sharon opened his bureau drawer, reached for a shirt and noticed the forgotten sheet music. The tour would take them to San Francisco — what would be the harm, he thought, in persuading Mr. Bennett to sing the ballad there?
“We played it there, and the people liked it,” Mr. Sharon told The Denver Post in 2002. “We thought it would be a local hit.”