Ralph Sharon dies at 91; pianist brought Tony Bennett his signature song

Ralph Sharon, pianist who helped Tony Bennett leave his heart in San Francisco, dies

Ralph Sharon, a British-born jazz pianist who accompanied Tony Bennett on and off for more than 40 years and brought the singer his signature song, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," died March 31 in Boulder, Colo. He was 91.

His death from natural causes was confirmed by his son, Bo.

Sharon was one of England's finest jazz pianists before moving in the early 1950s to the United States, where he would work with such jazz and pop headliners as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Mel Torme and Rosemary Clooney. A bandleader, composer and arranger, he also recorded two dozen albums with Kenny Clarke, Charles Mingus, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones and other noted artists.

His most enduring association, however, was the one he forged in 1957 with Bennett.

Sharon did not think he and the singer would make a good musical match. He was steeped in jazz, while Bennett was known for his renditions of popular songs like "Blue Velvet," Stranger in Paradise" and "Cold, Cold Heart."

The pianist later admitted he didn't even know who Bennett was, but that didn't matter at the audition.

"The first guy who showed up was OK, but the second guy, Ralph Sharon, just had to hit a few notes for me to know he was the piano player for me," Bennett wrote in "The Good Life," his 2010 autobiography. "Hooking up with Ralph was one of the best career moves I've ever made."

Sharon was, according to Bennett, the "perfect accompanist," but he also played a broader role in shaping Bennett's sound: He urged the crooner to move beyond pop standards into jazz.

"He kept saying, 'If you keep singing these kind of sweet saccharine songs like "Blue Velvet," sooner or later the ax is going to drop on you and you're going to stop selling,' " Bennett once told National Public Radio, "

The result was the 1957 album, "The Beat of My Heart." Arranged and conducted by Sharon, it included Art Blakey, Jones, Chico Hamilton, Herbie Mann, Nat Adderly and other jazz masters. It changed Bennett's career, leading to collaborations with Count Basie and Ellington and a critically praised show at Carnegie Hall with sax player Al Cohn, guitarist Kenny Burrell, percussionist Candido and the Ralph Sharon Trio.

Bennett "loved jazz, loved to listen to it," Sharon told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. "So, if I may say so, I was like the missing ingredient for him. I could bring out the jazz element that already was there in the background."

In 1961 Bennett cut an album with Sharon on piano as the only accompaniment. Called "Tony Sings for Two," it was, Bennett said, "one of my finest records ever."

During this period Sharon discovered the song that Bennett would make famous around the world.

Songwriters George Cory Jr. and Douglass Cross had run into the pianist in New York and handed him some of their compositions, hoping the tunes would find their way into Bennett's repertoire. Sharon threw them in a drawer and forgot about them.

Two years later, in 1961, he was packing for a tour with Bennett and found "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" on the top of the stack of Cory and Cross songs he had stuffed in his shirt drawer. As luck would have it, the foggy "city by the Bay" was one of the stops on the tour, so Sharon tucked the song into his suitcase.

After a show in Hot Springs, Ark., Sharon went to the piano in the hotel bar and played it for Bennett.

"I thought it was a great song," the singer later wrote.

When Bennett sang it at the Venetian Room in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, the crowd loved it. So did the rest of the country after he released the recording in early 1962. It won Bennett his first two Grammys.

Sharon was born in London on Sept. 17, 1923. His earliest musical training came from his American-born mother, an organist who played the accompaniment in silent movie theaters.

When he grew older, Sharon began listening to American jazz recordings and realized he had found his musical home.

He made his professional debut in 1946 as a pianist for British bandleader Ted Heath. By the late 1940s he was leading his own sextet, which included percussionist Victor Feldman, and made several recordings.

In 1953, he moved to New York, where he roomed with clarinetist Tony Scott. Within a few years he released "Around the World in Jazz," which featured a number of notable artists, including bassist Mingus, drummer Clarke and guitarist Joe Puma.

Over the next decades he would collaborate with some of the biggest names in American popular music, including Torme, Clooney and Robert Goulet, with whom he made a number of albums in the 1970s.

After parting with Goulet in 1979, he joined up with Bennett again and helped steer the singer's comeback, leading Bennett to his first Grammy in three decades with the 1992 album "Perfectly Frank."

In 2002 he retired as Bennett's musical director and, after 40 years in Sherman Oaks, moved to Colorado. He was still performing in clubs and hotel lounges until a few months ago.

Sharon is survived by his wife of 41 years, Linda Noone Sharon; their son, Bo; and two grandchildren.

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