Remembering Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett's Pianist : A Blog Supreme The longtime piano accompanist and musical director accidentally broke the hit "I Left My Heart In San Francisco." But he was also the driving force behind the style Bennett is best known for.
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Remembering Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett's Pianist

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Remembering Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett's Pianist

Remembering Ralph Sharon, Tony Bennett's Pianist

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT TIME IT WAS")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY BENNETT SONG, "I LEFT MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LEFT MY HEART IN SAN FRANCISCO")

BENNETT: (Singing) The loveliness of Paris seems somehow...

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