Casio Announce Bill Sharpe as a 'Journeyman Pro' as part of the Privia Pro Musician Campaign23 November 2011
Focusing on the careers of a variety of musicians, from journeymen pros, to unsung hero session musicians and up-and-coming artists - Casio are celebrating their careers and how the Privia PX-3 is an integral part of their musical journey.
The first Pro Musician we would like to introduce is legendary Journeyman Bill Sharpe. A founding member of smooth jazz pioneers Shakatak, Bill Sharpe is one of the music industry's most respected keyboard players. Constantly in demand across the world he has worked with artists as diverse as Gary Numan, Don Grusin, Jah Wobble and Fast Eddie from Motorhead, selling nearly 10 million records in the process. At ease in his home studio he spoke with Martin over tea and biscuits about his musical journey, collaborations, cowboy boots and Casio's new stage piano the Privia PX-3.
A Conversation with Bill Sharpe:
Do you like playing the piano Bill?
Is that what you live to do, or what you just ended up
doing? If they were to cut you in half would they find a
(Laughs) Yes I guess they would. It's something that I started doing when I was very young. I started having lessons when I was seven. Mum, my dad and my sister all played the piano. My dad was an amateur player but he played really nice jazz piano. He was a big fan of people like Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner and all these classic wonderful jazz pianists. He didn't do so much soloing he just had a nice ear. He learned by ear, he couldn't read music. So I was kind of surrounded by that, so I started playing and having lessons. I mean I could do other stuff but playing the piano was kind of the one thing I could do well. So I think in life you've either got to have an amazing belief or you've got to have a mother particularly, somebody behind you…
A pushy mum…?
To make you practice… yeah I had a pushy mum, in a nice
way. She used to bribe me to practice… a penny a scale and
Is that where the biscuit habit came from?
(Laughs) Yes! So basically that's it. Then you get to a certain level. I got to grade five and you do all the exams and then you can start to play for yourself.
How old were you at grade five?
About eleven or twelve, something like that. I got grade eight when I was about fourteen, fifteen. Obviously I practiced hard. I used to practice four or five hours a day.
You were serious then?
Well I was classically trained. I did concerts with orchestras
and solo recitals.
Who were the people influencing you as a teenage Bill Sharpe?
When I was a teenager I was playing classical piano but really the one thing I always wanted to do was be in a band.
A classical band?
Well yeah… so consequently I was a massive fan of Keith Emerson, who to me was fantastic, 'cos he used to do some classical like The Nice and Emerson Lake and Palmer. But he also had a great right hand and he was quite jazzy. I used to like the way he used to be quite classic and then throw in a bit of jazz stuff. It was always like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, bit like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck… I was always a bit of an Emerson fan because `I liked his jazz whereas Rick Wakeman was very straight ahead. But also The Beatles, Zeppelin, ELP, and then at some point someone played me an album by a band called Return To Forever which featured Chick Corea. It was Hymn of The Seventh Galaxy and one of the seminal jazz-rock albums with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Bill Connors and Al Di Meola. And I thought, "Bloody hell, I thought Emerson was good!" (laughs). But it was all amazing electric piano solos and acoustic and synths that was just phenomenal. And that slowly got me into other stuff.
So Return To Forever blew you away?
Well yes, as a keyboard player. But then I started listening to
bands like Weather Report and other keyboard players like Herbie
Hancock who is probably one of my favourite piano player
keyboardists and started playing in different bands playing that
kind of music.
Then in the late 70's, I was living in Bishop's Stortford, a little market town in Hertfordshire and the Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth of Bishops Stortford were Roger and Larraine Odell and if you got into their little circle it was pretty cool, you're in with 'the guys' kind of thing. I think got a call from Rog' saying "I'm starting this jazz rock band and I've heard you play keyboards, would you be interested in coming along and playing?".
And what sort of age were you then?
It was about 1978 I must have been twenty-five, twenty-six
something like that. So I thought that's pretty cool, I've got an
invite from 'the guys'. So we had this band, there was Keith Winter
who was Shakatak's original guitarist, myself, Roger and a bass
player called Trevor Horn… who's not done too badly as a
We just used to do a Sunday lunchtime gig in Stortford in a little place called the Triad Bar and we used to do covers by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and that sort of stuff and I started writing pieces for the band.
And was the band called Shakatak?
No it was called Tracks. We're actually doing a reunion gig in October like thirty years later (laughs) ... playing self-indulgent jazz, which is great fun actually.
So you're backtracking…
Oh backtracking, very good! (laughs) Hey I might use that one. It's that marketing background of yours!
(Laughs) Yeah sorry it popped out
So er… (laughs) what was I saying? Oh yeah, I started writing
stuff and we ended up doing quite a lot of my numbers for Tracks.
Then Roger, who was also working South London in a venue called The
Cat's Whiskers in Streatham, which was one of these big places
where they used to have all these bands playing the hits at the
time. Late 70's, so it was lots of Abba tunes and disco. And one of
the guys in the band was a guy called Nigel Wright - who ended up
becoming the producer of Shakatak - he had this idea of doing some
stuff like a lot of the American artists such as The Crusaders,
particularly this guy called Rodney Franklin who'd got a track
called The Groove. And I said "it would be kind of cool to do some
instrumental British funk like this" 'cos everyone was listening to
all the American stuff. He heard some of my songs and said "lets go
into the studio and record some of your tunes" and one of the songs
we did 'Steppin' ended up being the first Shakatak record.
So a slow process of the way things evolve, coincidences and how life is really. Sometimes they're lucky breaks, sometimes not so lucky… it just worked out. Then in 1980 we did our first few singles and it went from there.
The band was phenomenally big at the time wasn't it… even I paid to go and watch it.
Actually I tell a lie… I got a free ticket!
My God, I'm stunned… I was about to give you your money back. (laughs) Bloody freeloader!
But I think everyone looked daft then though didn't they, early 80's?
Yes but then you look at Duran Duran and Spandau… the new romantics, they were very stylised. The fashion was part of it. Shakatak was never about fashion, that's for sure. We got into it a little bit more as we became more successful, but in the early days… I look at some of the stuff I used to wear on stage and it was just like… unbelievable! Sort of like white cowboy boots with mauve trousers and all sorts…
What inspired that then? Did you wake up one day and have a blind man dress you?
(Laughs) Well I don't know? I think we all look back… and I can't think of a fashion I was following, maybe I was totally original? But it was just bizarre with mauve trousers tucked into the boots!
So do you still wear the boots now Bill or are you more of a Hush Puppy man these days?
Er no. Weird a lot of the clothes that I wore then. We became a bit more stylish, we did videos and stuff like that, I've got old suits and a little bag with stuff. My wife's always said for me to throw them away but I want to keep them all because they're part of me.
They say that wives don't they? "Throw it out, it doesn't go with the décor".
Yes its history. I mean I can't get into them any more but so what? They were in some quite successful videos and stuff so its nice to have them. (Laughs) I'll stick them on EBay maybe and get a few bob… or not!
Shakatak is still very active, a lot of people may not realise that.
Yes we still tour. We do a new album every couple of years. We toured round the world recently.
Is that with new stuff?
You can see I've done my research!
Well done… (laughs). Yes, we had a new album which was released spring this year. It was released in this country and we're actually doing a bit of promotion through September and October because we're doing a few gigs in the UK. We're just working on a date down your part of the country, at the Concorde Club…
I promise I'll pay for that one!
Really? (laughs) ... but obviously unless you get on national
telly and radio, people don't know you're still touring. But we're
like so many other bands, you think "whatever happened to them?"
but so many of them are still touring and doing well actually. But
the live side of things are brilliant. Wherever we play we always
sell out and we do good business. The CD's basically sell pretty
well. Nothing like they used to, but all our albums are on iTunes.
We probably do most of our sales through iTunes around the world.
And that does quite well actually. The back catalogue obviously
helps like Night Birds, Invitations, Down On The Street… those
albums still tick over and sell really well.
To be honest music in the 90's went in a direction I didn't particularly like… but I listen to Shakatak now and I think the tracks still sound fresh, particularly the instrumental stuff.
I like to think so, certainly the style has remained the same and popular, judging by our audience reactions, audiences that include a lot of younger people that weren't even around in the 80's! Presumably they got into us from their parents? Or they took them! (laughs)
But apart from Shakatak you're quite active as a pianist aren't you?
Yes I do lots of other projects.
What sort of direction has that taken you? Do you prefer doing that to the band?
I do all sorts of different things. In the 80's I did an album and a couple of records with Gary Numan, which was very different from Shakatak. I used to joke with Gary because you couldn't play any 7th's. Everything had to be sort of electro stuff. One particular track was quite a big hit called 'Change Your Mind'. That did really well, it was a top 20 record.
I remember that. I didn't realize that was you on there to be honest…
It had a good video and it was a record basically that myself and my engineer Nick Smith and I produced and then Gary… I tried to sing it actually… but Nick very kindly said (laughs) "This is not quite right" I was working on a solo album. Nick, who had also been working with Gary, sent the track to him and he loved it. So he came in and sang it. Pretty much in one take and it was like 'wow!'. Purely by chance because we had finished the track, but his vocal just slotted in perfectly. And because of the success of that we went on to make an album. So that was something that I quite enjoyed doing.
On the other hand I've worked with… I've got to know, through working with different keyboard companies… an American pianist called Don Grusin. Don and his brother Dave are quite famous American keyboardists. Don and I over the years have become great friends and we did an album in Los Angeles in about 97. I did a solo album with Don and a lot of his friends. People I'd listened to for years and I was in the same studio playing with them, it was quite nerve racking really, but amazing to play with the drummer who used to play with Weather Report, the bass player that played with Al Jarreau, Paulinho da Costa, then Jeffrey Osborne sang one of the songs. It was like all these people coming in from LA and I was like "Bloody hell!" So that was cool. Then Don and I have done a couple of other albums together, one of which is coming out later this year on Universal in Japan. Then through the publishers I've got I've become quite friendly with a guy called Jah Wobble
Yeah Jah Wobble… (laughs). He's a great guy called John who's
well known really 'cos he was in a band called Public Image with
John Lydon… Johnny Rotten… and John's done loads of different
stuff. He's a really unusual bass player, kind of reggae style
really. We've managed to do a bit of writing together earlier last
year and we did a couple of tracks and he said "we must do an
album, see what happens?" So we're going to go in in October and do
an album. I've got no idea what it will be like but it will be
great fun to do!
So I've kind of worked with all sorts of different people… actually I've got one other album, a blues album with a guy called Fast Eddie from Motorhead… he was the original guitarist… we haven't finished that one yet. We might at some point.
So I kind of go… from outside of the band… I do work with these great jazz musicians, then I'll go and work with a rock legend and then do a bit of reggae jazz… so all sorts of stuff. So my life is really interesting. When I come back to the band, I've been working with all these different people, so hopefully when we're doing an album some of that stuff will come out.
A cocktail of different sounds then?
Yeah. It's a little out of my comfort zone sometimes but it's a good thing really.
So your kit then… you're doing all these different things but would you say you were a pianist or a synth man?
Both I would say. I'm classically trained so I play the piano mainly, but then I've got into synths. I grew up using the old minimoog and all that stuff. I struggled with the DX7 when it went digital, but anything analogue I'm pretty good with. I can use the oscillators and stuff so yes I like using the synths as well. Obviously all the kit these days has got everything on it. When we were successful, obviously… I was quite lucky really cos we had a road crew that used to lug all my gear around.
Isn't that a great idea… people carrying your stuff for you!
Yeah you turn up to a gig and its like 'there' and you've just got to start playing virtually. And it's fantastic because I used to carry around an old Yamaha piano, a Fender Rhodes and all sorts of stuff…
Not at the same time!
(Laughs) Well no! But the crew… those guys could do cos they were so strong. But everything now you can get on one keyboard so it's fantastic, or even in the computer.
You've been using Casio's Privia PX-3 recently. Casio are new to the professional market, so how have you been getting on with that?
Well actually its great. I used it on a gig a few of weeks ago, it wasn't a Shakatak gig, and it wasn't a gig you'd call… in musicians terms, 'an easy get in'. It was up two flights of stairs. I don't have a road crew anymore so I was lugging the stuff myself with a bit of help from the other guys. It was at a stately home and there was only one small lift and I couldn't be bothered to wait, so I just stuck it under one arm and walked up the stairs! Which was brilliant. It's very, very portable and it was fantastic cos other keyboards that I've got… which are great but sometimes you need two people to help you carry them or you can carry it on your own and you end up with a bit of a bad back…
… a hernia!
True! So from a practical point of view the Casio is brilliant, so that was great. I didn't have to use a lot of different sounds on that gig but basically the acoustic piano, electric piano and organ sounds which are the main three I use, all sound great. There are some other stuff like the strings and brass and bits and pieces which are not so great, in my humble opinion. But when you are paying a reasonable price for a full size weighted keyboard… that's the other thing, it's got a nice action and it's an 88 keyboard! A lot of the various synths you don't have that full size keyboard, so as a piano player its really nice having the full length keyboard.
Do you think its something that you will continue to use… you'll keep it in your armoury?
Oh very much so. As I said, on gigs particularly and I'll probably record with it too. In the piano section there's two or three nice electric piano sounds, the acoustic piano is pretty good I have to say and the organ stuff is quite nice. I've yet to go through a lot more of it but so far… having played it in the studio and having used it on gigs… yeah definitely.
Interview by Martin Perry
(Martin is a respected musician and publisher, well known throughout the music industry)