Ralph Sharon, Jazz Pianist and Accompanist to Tony Bennett

To be an accompanist is to be doomed to the background, left off the marquee and nearly invisible behind the famous singer you support. But that’s not how Ralph Sharon (September 17, 1923-March 31, 2015) saw it.

To Sharon, Tony Bennett’s pianist and musical director for over 40 years, the privilege of being an accompanist had its own rewards. As he told Les Tompkins in a 1989 interview in Jazz Professional, “Being a musical director for Tony includes conducting, some writing, and, naturally, accompanying. I feel that’s a very fulfilling thing for me. To play in a jazz club somewhere–that would be fun, but this is what I really want to do, and what I love to do.”

In his role, Sharon got to work with the best of his time–Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, to name a few. He and Bennett often shared the bill with other jazz greats, and Sharon would often sit in. On one such occasion, Count Basie’s band needed a fill-in piano player, and Sharon took over for a night of improvisation that he called “the thrill of a lifetime.”

Sharon was a musical mentor to Bennett, encouraging the pop singer to shift to jazz, a genre for which he revealed a particular talent.

Sharon often suggested songs to Bennett, including “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which would become the artist’s signature hit. Sharon had been given the song by some songwriting friends and stored it in a dresser drawer. Several years later, as he was packing for a tour with Bennett, he discovered it and suggested it to the singer. They were, after all, scheduled to perform soon in San Francisco.

Sharon arranged and directed many of Bennett’s numerous Grammy Award-winning records, including “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (Record of the Year, 1962) and “MTV Unplugged” (Album of the Year, 1994).

The relationship began with a simple handshake. In 1957 and in need of an accompanist, Bennett invited three pianists to audition. Once Sharon played, he knew he’d met the one.

Links

NPR Tribute on “All Things Considered”

“The Art of Accompaniment,” National Jazz Archive, Part I

“The Art of Accompaniment,” National Jazz Archive, Part II