Sharp was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1924. His family had settled there because Kansas was, during slavery times, a free state. Sharp’s great-grandmother was a slave and he remembers her telling him stories about lying on the floor while cannonballs blasted through the cabin. The Great Depression soon followed, and Sharp’s parents sent him to live with relatives in Los Angeles while they went to New York to seek their fortune.
Sharp’s father was a concert tenor who won several small roles in Broadway shows but never hit it big. However, their social life was rich; they lived in an apartment building in Harlem with fellow residents Duke Ellington, Walter White, Roy Wilkins and artist Aaron Douglas. It was the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, and poet Langston Hughes was a family friend; Orson Welles had recently staged his famous Black Macbeth at the nearby Lafayette Theater.
Young Bobby stayed in Los Angeles with his pious grandparents and great-grandmother until he was 12, when he begged his parents to let him come to New York. Some family friends drove him cross-country in 1936, and he arrived in the midst of a cocktail soiree in his parents’ apartment on Sugar Hill.
Sharp attended high school in the Bronx and took his first job as an office “go-fer” for the Rockefeller Foundation. When World War II began Sharp joined the Army, was sent first to Ft. Dixon, New Jersey, then joined the 372nd Infantry regiment stationed in New York City, guarding the city and ports. Eventually he was transferred to Breckenridge, Kentucky, where he served until being discharged in 1944. While in the Army, Sharp had begun to sing a bit, “just for kicks,” he says. With the help of the GI Bill he chose to go to music school.
His mother was not happy with his decision. “She wanted me to be a psychiatrist,” Sharp says. “She didn’t want me to get into the music business. She saw what it did to my father.” But Sharp took the advice of a family friend, well-known arranger Sy Oliver, who recommended that Bobby study music theory and composition.
Sharp attended the Greenwich School of Music in 1946, followed by the Manhattan School of Music in 1948. He also took piano. “I just wanted to play chords and get sounds,” he said. Songwriting turned out to be his forte, often combined with his vocals. In 1956 he cut a single in the Wing label, called “Baby Girl of Mine;” it was later covered by Ruth Brown, who sang it as “Sweet Baby of Mine.”
Sharp played several gigs with jazz legend Benny Carter as well as with Jimmie Lunceford’s big band. He also worked with songwriters Charles Singleton, and Dan and Marvin Fisher (their father, Fred Fisher, wrote “Peg O’ My Heart”). Sharp worked his way up and down Broadway trying to sell his songs. “I just kept writing and running downtown,” he says. Along the way, he picked up a drug habit.
One Sunday afternoon in 1960, Sharp sat at the keys of his Wurlitzer piano in his parents’ living room while they watched Perry Mason, and with his headphones on, he picked out a tune. He needed a quick drug fix and wanted to write “something catchy” that would sell, so he quickly wrote “Unchain My Heart.” Sharp sold the tune for $50 to producer Teddy Powell, who demanded half the writing credit. Sharp used his cousin’s name, Agnes Jones, to avoid further complications. Charles was at the peak of his career at that time, and recorded the tune, “Unchain My Heart,” in 1961, right on the heels of “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
Sharp also penned tunes for Sarah Vaughn, Sammy Davis Jr. and his friend, author James Baldwin. Sharp wrote “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” in honor of Baldwin’s 1964 play of the same name; Davis recorded it with a Quincy Jones arrangement.
But drugs took their toll. Sharp started bouncing in and out of rehab programs and sold the remaining rights to “Unchain My Heart” to Powell for $1,000. Powell paid him with royalty money already owed to Sharp. The next year Sharp sued to win…