"When I was a kid I used to play to impress. Nowadays, I only play to express.
My sanity depends upon it." - Todd Sharpville
Without a doubt, Todd Sharpville is one of the most soulful blues guitarists in the world today along with having a burgeoning reputation for being an incredibly sought-after songwriter & lyricist: a veritable “Randy Newman of the blues”! Additionally, his shows are famed for being highly intense affairs, emotionally charged and full of spirit. One of a small minority of British acts who’s a regular “face” on the international touring circuit, Sharpville is in the process of taking the USA by storm and reminding blues fans around the world of the invaluable contribution that Britain still offers to blues culture.
Born in London into a family of mixed heritage (half South American & half British) he was originally inspired as a child by 1950’s culture, purposely shunning the late 70’s & 80’s mainstream culture that surrounded his childhood. Musically, he was touched by blues artists such as T. Bone Walker, Magic Sam, Hubert Sumlin, Freddie King, Peter Green & Lightnin' Hopkins. His non-blues heroes included artists as diverse as Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Lennon/McCartney, Willy Nelson & Woody Guthrie. Sharpville was lucky enough to have been mentored from the age of 16 by the legendary Californian bluesman Joe Louis Walker, having befriended him whilst Walker was on tour.
This relationship heavily affected the young bluesman’s musical outlook and understanding of the idiom as a whole. Todd says “to this day, I still hear a bit of Joe in every lick I play. His unswerving individuality as an all-round musician deeply affected me. He taught me the most important lesson very early on in my development: how to be myself. Joe schooled me along with a couple of other kids at the time, and all of us ended up becoming pretty well known. He always referred to us as his puppies. I’m honoured to be a JLW puppy & will proudly tip my cap to Joe ‘till the day I die.” Todd began to develop his craft whilst surrounded by the backdrop of the London blues scene. He was inspired by a range of guitarists who shared jam session stages with him at venues like the “Station Tavern”, Camden’s “Dublin Castle” & the now legendary “Marquee Club” (where he played his first official show as a solo artist).
He cites London guitarists Johnny Whitehill (of Paul Lamb & The Kingsnakes), early sidekick Roger “Mad Dog” Cohen and Snowy White as being formative teenage influences.
Sharpville’s recording career ensued in 1994 when he was signed by the infamous British blues label Red Lightnin’ Records.
Label boss Peter Shertser was historically known for a stable that included John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Peter Green & Buddy Guy, yet he found himself fascinated by Sharpville’s stylistic feel.
Todd’s debut album "Touch Of Your Love" (Red Lightnin` Records RLCD0095) was recorded on an original 1950’s vintage valve multi-track at Bryn Derwyn studios in North Wales and released later that year.
It featured a guest appearance from long-time British harmonica favourite & friend Paul Lamb. Up until then Todd could be found jamming at a variety of clubs and bars both home and abroad but it was in the wake of his debut release that he found critical acclaim from amongst the wider auspices of the blues world.
Red Lightnin’ promptly licensed Sharpville’s material to a variety of other labels who added him to a mass of compilation releases, some of these selling in excess of 100,000 units. Since then, his discography (not even counting the numerous commercial sessions he has played on) boasts an impressive 36 releases.
In 1994 Todd won "Best Album" in the British Blues Connection’s British Blues Awards shortly before winning "Best Guitarist" in 1995 (beating fellow nominees, Eric Clapton & Gary Moore). Todd consequently spent 2-3 years on the road promoting his debut, covering much of Europe along with parts of the USA. Interestingly, Todd remembers his debut with sadness: “I was angry that the label kept sub-licensing my music without my permission. I was too young & dumb at the time to really know what I was doing. The same goes for my musicality, it was pretty immature. I’d have preferred a longer gestation period before being thrown in at the deep end. I’m not fond of that record because of it. Also, my backing guitarist Roger “Mad Dog” Cohen had contributed to many of the songs but was never credited in the liner notes. He even played a couple of awesome solos on the album, but the label blamed their art department for accidentally missing him off. I guess they were trying to keep the focus on me. That’s like one of the worst things you can do to a musician, pretend that history didn’t happen. Bad karma.”
Around this time he was also regularly called upon to provide backing for visiting American artists, many of whom were the very legends that had inspired him as a child. These included Hubert Sumlin, Byther Smith, Chuck Berry, and Ike Turner. By the time Todd finally took a break from the road in early 2000 he had won the respect of many of these early heroes. His guitar skills have since been regularly called upon on a session basis by a variety of moremainstream “names” including Van Morrison, George Michael & Robbie Williams. The 90’s had also seen a long-term musical collaboration with British blues diva Dana Gillespie.
Todd & Dana had originally become close friends because the ex-Jools Holland sax virtuoso Mike Paice had been moonlighting in both their bands. This friendship led to Todd guesting on 5 Dana Gillespie albums and doing countless performances with her around the world (including the now legendary “Mustique Blues Festival” on the Caribbean island of the same name).
By this phase of his life Sharpville had launched what was to becomeLondon’s most notorious blues jam session at the “Weavers” club in Islington, which he co-hosted for 8 years with Earl Green (Otis Grand’s old frontman, referred to by Todd as the “finest blues singer in Britain”). Guest jammers read like a who’s who of the blues world including Larry Garner, the Fats Domino Band, Joe Louis Walker, Jerry Portnoy, Paul Lamb, Eugene Bridges, Larry McCray, Dana Gillespie, and Nine Below Zero (with whom Todd shared the same management for over 5 years). The Weavers jam saw some of the most compelling performances and magical combinations of UK & foreign artists in the most sociable of environments. It also gave birth to a host of new bands & partnerships, many of whom went on to achieve great things. These include Ian Siegal, Matt Schofield and Todd’s then harmonica player Lee Sankey.
Despite a three-year musical gap in his solo career caused by contractual difficulties with his label, Todd legally won back the right to record under his own name and returned with an all-out traditional release. “The Meaning Of Life” (Cathouse/Revolver/Universal CRCD 0057 - 2001) eclectically embodied every old-school tradition bar the Delta. It also featured a host of guest vocalists and players: ex Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, Snowy White, Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, Paul Lamb, 70’s pop icon Leo Sayer, and Keith Dunne. Outselling every other blues release from Britain that year, “The Meaning Of Life” spearheaded Todd’s re-emergence in Europe. He toured the album heavily with both Mick Taylor & Leo Sayer individually appearing as his special guests on the road to promote it. Additionally, the new album opened the ears of the industry to Todd’s writing skills, both musically & lyrically. This resulted in various writing collaborations that include 4 songs with Mick Lister (Amy Winehouse, The DumDums, Bad Company, S Club 7, etc) & the opening cut of Ana Popovic’s 2003 release “Comfort To The Soul” (Ruf Records) entitled “Don’t Bear Down On Me. The tour schedule for “The Meaning Of Life” also introduced Sharpville to the USA’s Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. This annual week-long festival on a 5 star ocean liner in the Caribbean is spearheaded each year by Taj Mahal, and consistently features the crème de la crème of the American blues scene (luminaries such as Etta James, the late Koko Taylor, Dr John, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi, Bobby Bland & Tommy Castro). Nowadays the LRBC is commonly referred to by America’s blues media as “the Mecca of the blues.” Having been spotted by one of the LRBC staff on the main stage at the Moulin Blues Festival in the Netherlands in 2002, Todd found himself being invited to be the first European artist in the LRBC’s history to play on their bill. Since then, he has been a regular fixture on the LRBC appearing as a surprise special guest on no less than 6 cruises. The bond between the artists and the 3000 or so fans is a strong one and Todd firmly attests that his “cruiser family” is still one of the most important facets of his existence.
2004 marked a pivotal time in Sharpville’s personal life being the year that his marriage collapsed. He found himself unable to cope with the separation from his 2 children & subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown by the end of the year. This resulted in his hospitalisation for a month with a “reactive depression” diagnosis. This also marked the beginning of a 4 year court battle for increased contact with his children (indeed, the US wing of “Fathers 4 Justice” welcomed Todd’s public support & streamed a pertinent song he wrote for his children, “Just Because” on the home page of their website). It was during this difficult time that Sharpville was invited by his friend Leo Sayer to a residential studio in Denmark to guest on 5 tracks on his “Voice In My Head” album (Edel Records), along with contributing a track to his “Endless Journey” album (Sony Records). Sayer purportedly arranged a meeting with the chief consultant of the psychiatric hospital where Sharpville was staying and convinced the medical staff to release him into his custody in order to guest on his album. The consultant agreed and Sharpville was released a week early & placed on a flight to Denmark in his dressing gown and pyjamas! This form of “music therapy” proved successful and it was whilst he was recording at Lundgaard Studios in Denmark that he met the legendary Californian songwriter, Albert Hammond. They soon became close & Hammond retained Sharpville as his musical director & guitarist. This relationship was cemented by the album “Revolution Of The Heart” (SPV) highlighting Sharpville’s arrangement skills, his electric & acoustic rhythm & lead, and additionally featuring him on bass guitar on every track. Todd toured Europe with Hammond to promote this album (with Hammond’s influence rubbing off on his writing ability). This period spawned an eclectic song-writing spree resulting in Todd’s mainstream singer/songwriter divorce album “Diary Of A Drowning Man”. This album was produced by Dave Hyatt (Stone Roses/Ian Brown) in Denmark & Steve Power (Robbie Williams) in London. It featured a duet with the legendary british diva Sam Brown. “Diary Of A Drowning Man” sadly witnessed the demise of its record label before it could be released due to the label's simultaneous financial foray into the world of film. Regardless, one of the album’s main tracks, “Sole Survivor” generated over 87,000 plays on myspace & the album became a firm favourite on the web. The album’s copywrite has since reverted back to Sharpville’s ownership and “DDM” is currently on the shelf unreleased.
On the live front, this period saw Todd opening-up on the continent for artists across the musical spectrum, from rock n’ roll legend Bo Diddley (shortly before his death) to pop diva Pink; Joe Cocker to BB King (including the honour of supporting the legendary “King of the blues” on the last night of his European farewell tour at the D’Coque arena in Luxembourg).
During this time Sharpville made full use of the arena stages and developed an infamous reputation for highly dramatic, large-scale production performances. Todd remained continuous in his plight to put the blues back into the crazy world that he felt had enveloped him.
In 2007 he signed a management agreement with one of the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise business partners, David L. Jones (Cathouse Music LLC). Jones additionally went on to represent Todd’s friend & mentor Joe Louis Walker, and in 2009 Sharpville was asked by Walker to guest on his Stony Plain Records comeback release “Witness To The Blues”. This resulted in a trip to Rhode Island to Duke Robillard’s studio where the album was being produced by the New England guitar legend. Robillard and Sharpville had bonded 8 years earlier & had managed to reconnect during the recording of Walker’s album.
Robillard swiftly became a huge fan of Todd’s shelved “Diary Of A Drowning Man” and proposed that he produce Sharpville’s next blues release. Todd found himself in the midst of another writing spree which resulted in the recording of his double album “Porchlight”. The process was sadly interrupted by the un-expected death of Sharpville’s father which inevitably changed the ethos of the album. Work swiftly resumed with Robillard holding court behind the mixing desk (though the “Duke” did find time to guest on the humorous track “Lousy Husband But A Real Good Dad”). The musicians on “Porchlight” comprised the majority of Robillard’s touring band (including long time Roomful Of Blues stalwart, Doug “Mr. Low” James on baritone sax). In addition, Todd asked Kim Wilson (of the Fabulous Thunderbirds) to play harmonica on 4 tracks, and guitar duelled with Joe Louis Walker on “When The Blues Come Calling”.The album comprises 15 songs; 14 Sharpville originals & 1 cover: “If That Ain’t Love What Is” (an irreverent Shel Silverstein song, originally written for country artist Bobby Bare). Musically, it marks a journey that spans a plethora of blues styles & eras, all intertwined by the common thread of Todd’s passion for the idiom and his need to get his emotions off his chest.
Having successfully beaten off a few of life’s unwelcome interruptions along his journey, “Porchlight” heralds Todd Sharpville’s return to the international blues arena. Older, wiser, and sporting a more empathetic view of the world that surrounds him & his place within it, Sharpville continues to place British blues back onto the revered plinth where it so aptly belongs.
- Elliot Stanhope, 2011