Conversation with Todd Sharpville – Part 1

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Before this interview, while doing a little bit of homework on my subject, I stumbled onto Mr. Sharpville’s Facebook page so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect when we got on the phone.

Todd is quite a pleasure to talk to and a very funny man as well. Beyond his quick wit and his self-deprecating brand of humor lies a man that has a vast amount of knowledge about music and life. He has the type of knowledge that can only obtained by living through it, not reading about it.
As Todd and I were discussing the combination of rock and blues and how closely the two are related, I told him I totally agree with him. I also mentioned I like my rock and roll but I try to keep the two styles somewhat separate. We both agreed if we don’t watch out for certain things, the blues can become watered down. That led to the subject of the blues purist movement…we’ll just jump into this midstream.
TS: As I said earlier, a lot of what is out there is rock with a blues influence, but it is being introduced to the blues market as blues. It’s kind of unfortunate really because if you do that for one or two generations more, kids pretty much won’t know the difference and in the end it will be believed that these things are the blues. Essentially the things that made it the blues in the first place will disappear. That’s how genres get watered down and die in the long run. That’s the reason I respect the need for blues traditionalists, because without them the idiom would die.
Every genre has traditionalists and every genre has had this problem. My dad was a real big Opera buff and that is one that is very watered down compared to what it used to be a hundred years ago. The amazing voices of old do not exist in the modern day because of finances. Your average Tenor or Baritone is only supposed to do a certain amount of work per year and only sing certain pieces while their voices are developing over these years. They would wait until their voice had achieved a certain kind of maturity level because if you start too early on, you will screw your voice up. In the world we are living in today, anyone that is an opera singer needs to take on any gig they can find, just to make ends meet. So the voices of most of the opera singers of today are gone because of the need to make money. In the old days these guys were looked after and sponsored by the conservatories with Kings and Queens taking care of them financially. I have a friend that is an opera singer and he has told me that his voice was only really good for the first 4 or 5 years of his career. He blew his voice out by taking on anything he could, but even so he is celebrated as one of the best in the world. He laughs at all of this and enjoys all the cash he makes from it because he knows he is making money on the name and if the old school opera singers were around they would be laughing at him.
ABS: Do you think there is some of that type of situation in the blues scene?
Well, I don’t know, we don’t really need to protect our voices but the one thing is back in the old days, you had to literally work your tips off to make a living. You had to know every aspect of the blues and you had to play a whole lot of bars before you ever got noticed. Then once noticed, you had to work your way up through the club scene after you got out of the free bars. Then, from the club scene to the theaters. It was a long steady process of learning your craft which would feed you better along the way, as you worked your way up the ladder. So, I guess now there are a lot of youngsters who get launched out as the next best thing and never really had to any of that at all. They have been chosen for marketing reasons. They do have potential for their age but that potential needs to develop into something tangible and whether that ever happens because they have been launched into mainstream so young is the question. They are missing the element of playing the shitty dives and learning their craft. That’s one of the things that makes people formidable after a period of time. So you get people maybe taking on more than they can handle while they are learning their craft. In the old days you did all the shit work while you were learning your craft before you were introduced to the market as the next best thing. There’s a lot of cute chicks wearing nice tight pants playing guitar, being hyped as the next best thing. But then you also have the guy with the fat hat and a beer belly who can
play the hell out of the guitar. So, if you take away the visuals and they were judged solely on how they play and not how they look, how many cute chicks would be celebrated?
On your Facebook page (which is hilarious) I saw a video of an 11
year old kid named Quinn Sullivan, he is definitely quite talented,
what were you doing when you were 11?
Well I just started playing guitar and getting into the blues. Up until then I was avid music fan starting at about 7 or 8. Listening to music was the only thing I was interested in doing so I didn’t do much else. I was a massive 50’s rock and roll fan. By the time the 70’s came around I hated what was going on in the mainstream. With the disco and the night fever craze, I ran screaming from all of it. I hated it. I think I was around 8 or so. I was 50’s retro throwback kid that’s all I was interested in really was 50’s music…I’d have gladly just jumped into a black and white 50’s movie.

Who were some of your 50’s music idols?
I guess really my favorite was Buddy Holly. At the time, that was really my first big passion. I knew every lyric to every song he ever wrote. I spent a lot of time listening to all those songs as a kid. I also liked Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis. I used to see those guys as a kid. The first show I forced my mom to take me to was Fats Domino. Those guys used to come and play in the UK. I was a member of the Bill Haley fan club and I saw him right before he died. I was a member of the Buddy Holly and the Jerry Lee Lewis fan clubs too. There was really only one newer band that came out that I was into and that was the Stray Cats when they broke. They were the one band that I would turn on the TV to watch. Of course they were more of a 50’s band when it came to fashion. I loved the way they dressed. I would go spend my pocket money and try to dress like them. At the end of the 70’s and early 80’s in London, we still had the remnants of the gang culture that had been so strong in the 60’s and early 70’s with the Skinheads and the rockers and so on. So the Teddy-boy culture of the 50’s rock and rollers was still pretty strong and I go to a Fats Domino concert and I see all these people who are basically the next generation of the teddy boy culture. The punk culture was still pretty strong in the early 80’s and there was still a lot of fights every where you went. Now sometimes you go to gigs and kids aren’t even allowed. Back then it was considered healthy to have a kid having an interest in live music.
Next question. Whats your opinion of the popular music scene today?
As it stands at the moment, pop music isn’t really pop music anymore. Historically, it used to revolve primarily around the youth culture because the youth culture used to rely and completely depend on the music. Every kid! Music was a necessity, it was the only way that the youth culture could express itself formidably. That and through fashion. We’ve reached a point now at the other end of the spectrum, that it has become a commodity amongst the kids. It is no longer a necessity. That used to be the difference. It used to be the adults viewed music as a commodity that could enhance your life but to the kids it was like heroin, they had to have it. Now the music has become another commodity, such as video games in the kids lives. The need for it disappeared. So the needs and the benchmark have been changed completely in how it is marketed. I don’t even think of it as pop music anymore. I see 4 major labels that rely completely on their back catalog to make money in the last few years, while the music buying market is shrinking. If you think of how many millions of records you needed to sell in the 80’s to have a world wide hit- in those days 15-20 million. Now, if you sell a couple million you have a big hit. Everything’s shrunk considerably. The big one making the money is Sony because of American Idol. They are guaranteed a big winner every year because of that. It’s definitely sad to see what has happened and it’s hard to not sit back and be angered about the whole thing sometimes. Take the show Glee. It was started to sell records; to make fans of their back catalog. Sony has been able to kick the shit out of the competition because of some of these tactics. Who knows, I’d probably do the same thing. What’s sad is that we have reached a point in time, where majors had to do this to survive. It’s been a vicious circle and is it been encouraged by the times we are living in. It’s been marketed into that kind of bracket I guess. When the companies are making more money off the back catalog, then we are in trouble.
I truly believe that this actually all started when the true music enthusiasts sold their labels to the big corporations and got out of the game. It happened between the late 70’s and early 90’s. All these guys cashed in their chips and decided to retire from the music business. At this point their companies were being governed by corporations rather than the music enthusiasts. That’s really what changed it. We saw how it was changing in the 80’s and what we have now is a by-product of that.
It can be incredibly depressing. I have, in my bathroom, a gig poster of BB King “Everyday I Have The Blues.” Opening act was Ike & Tina Turner. Back in the day BB King was a million seller. For him to do that now he’d have to do a record with Eric Clapton. If the average blues record today sells tens of thousands it’s kind of a big record. If it goes beyond that, it means you have done something to break into the mainstream and that applies to maybe one percent of the professional blues artists out there.
Let’s talk a little about your family tree. You come from a thousand years of Aristocratic families. Has your heritage helped or
hurt you?
Commercially, it has been a hindrance, certainly in Europe there is a bit of racism. Sort of: “you can’t play the blues if you are not black.” Especially in France. Traditionally they are anti any blues that isn’t black. There is this pre-conceived notion of what the blues is supposed to represent. The reality is if it wasn’t for the white British musicians in the 60’s breathing life into it, who knows where it would be?
But really my dad was a self made man. My granddad had blown everything on wine, women and song. So my dad and his brother and sisters were sort of split up in places all over the world and my dad ended up in Australia. I guess he had a bit of a chip on his shoulders from not having an education, so he worked very hard. He climbed the ladder the hard way over the years. He started making money in the late 70’s which also coincided with the massive taxing period right before Margaret Thatcher. So he gave away most of what he made at the time.
Other than living in a nice house there was not a ton of money splashed around. He was not real big into spoiling me and my brother. He wanted us to know we had to work for what we get.

Okay then, since it’s not about where you’re from, what is it about?
A lot of people get slapped around by life a little bit as they get older, so I guess I have had my share of that but really the blues is more an understanding of the culture, I think. For me, growing up as a blues musician is when you start listening to the blues. What you’ve been listening to, how you’ve listened, how you’ve felt about it. All genres have their own language, their own accent. For me what really makes a blues musician is someone who is at one with the blues culture. Musically and grammatically. They understand it. What it was all about. You have to be a die-hard blues fan for a long time to really get what it’s all about. To me that is what is paramount, even more than your progression as a musician. It’s your knowledge of the culture that makes the difference. There’s a certain tendency for a few of these kids that are hyped on the scene. They listen to a little Stevie Ray Vaughan and the last couple BB King albums, they go make a blues record and they are suddenly the new generation of blues musicians. It takes a little longer than that to learn a language.

People get better with age in the blues… experience.
How important is it for a young player to get in a band and back the singer, as opposed to being in the limelight?
That is a very hard call to make because everyone is uniquely individual and they develop in different ways. I really enjoy being the backing guitar guy. It’s such a different thing but very fulfilling. There is a real art to making the singer look good. I miss that side of my life. It’s something that I rarely get to do these days but I really enjoy it. Nowadays, any kid that is going to be able to make a living and put food on the table out of music is very lucky, so the gloves are off I guess. What’s best is to somehow get through these circumstances in life. The best advice is to stop listening to other people about how great you are and get honest with yourself. Start opening your ears to what sucks. That’s really when I started growing up. That’s how I improved musically. I stopped concentrating on the things I was good at and stopped kissing my own ass and looking for validation from others. Let’s face it, when you are a young guitar player, all you really want essentially is for people to kiss your ass and tell you how great you are. When you are full of testosterone and have a axe strapped around your neck: That is sort of the nature. My advice would be to try and go against that instinct.

We all know what we are good at in life. It’s important to find the stuff we don’t like about ourselves and to work on that and change that. It’s the only way we can progress in any kind of aspect, whether it is music or life.

Isn’t that a little painful?
Of course it is painful. We are facing our shit list. It’s the only way to participate in life, to some degree. There is always going to be some. At the end of the day we are human, but to what degree we get honest and face it is what’s important. Some of it sucks slightly less than others but we come to appreciate all of it for what it’s worth.
One of my great American blues friends said to me when I was in the nuthouse that what had happened to me was that I was a virgin to loss. Prior to the breakup I had never really lost anything. I was a loss-virgin and my first major loss knocked me off my feet a bit.
Some people can go through their life never experiencing any major loss and then others experience many. There’s sort of a sense that after you’ve had one or two of these things hit you, you are not as protected as you thought you were. So you prepare for them better. That’s perhaps what leads to the perception of our depth and maturity as a blues musician or an aging jazz musician as far a dimensionality to what we are doing musically. To be three dimensional I guess you have to suffer a little. On the other hand, I see others who go through life and everything seems perfect. They have never experienced the down side. They have the best of everything and they’ve been incredibly blessed. Of course, I can only spend a limited time in their company because I find them extremely boring. There is something missing. It takes a certain amount of suffering to connect, to help you connect with the fucking human race. If not, you’re watching the world pass by you.