Sisterly love

Aug 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Dee Dee Sharp is a perfect ambassador for the Jazzfest's Detroit-Philadelphia summit theme. After all, "Mashed Potato Time," her timeless 1962 hit, mentions a Motown song ("Please Mr. Postman") right in its lyrics. "Mashed Potato Time" — which featured a stunning sax solo that taught Clarence Clemons almost everything he ever needed to know (and which was later adapted by Dee Dee Ramone for his sole rap album, leading many to speculate as to where that Ramone had found his first name) — is a strong part of Sharp's legacy, along with her subsequent early rock hits. But she was also one of the first rock 'n' rollers to transition to nightclubs. She was also a pioneer on the business side of things, managing many of the legendary acts discovered and recorded by her then-husband Kenny Gamble (of Gamble & Huff fame). Metro Times recently caught up with Sharp by phone at her south New Jersey home.

Metro Times: You were a female rock superstar at 16. How did you manage to emerge unscathed as an adult?

Dee Dee Sharp: I had a prayerful mother. I had praying grandparents who prayed me up out of that crap. [laughs] I ended up unscathed; I really did. But I can attribute a whole lot of that to my mother. She was strict! I couldn't do anything. She'd say, "Well, I don't understand it but I'm not going to go for it either!" My grandfather was a Baptist minister. That's how I got all my training. My grandfather did not stand for any shenanigans.

MT: So you learned to sing in the church?

Sharp: Oh, yeah. Most definitely. I played piano; I studied piano from the time I was nine until I was 21. And my grandfather had me playing in the church as a young girl. I used to play for the church choirs, direct them, and do all the music and rearranging. And I just loved doing all that. It was really fun for me.

MT: How did your grandfather feel about you going into the secular rock 'n' roll music world?

SHARP: Well, it's funny but he really did not know until I was on American Bandstand for the first time. He came home early that day. My parents, my grandparents and my five cousins — who were more like my brothers — all lived in a big house together in Philadelphia. Everyone was watching me on the television and my grandfather said, "What is daughter doing on the TV set?" He was like, "Who? What? Why?" (laughs) And my grandmother said, "Well, daughter has something to tell you …" And I, of course, was like, "Oh, Lord!" But before I said anything, he said, "People all over the world will know your name." I remember that to this day. I was confused because I thought I was just doing a little record. But he had the gift of sight. I mean he actually foresaw the response that people would have to that record. He did not live to see it to fruition. But his words came true. I loved him so much. He would tell me: "As long as you trust and believe in God, you cannot go wrong." And, of course, give a portion of everything I did to the church. [laughs] He told me to keep God in front of me at all times and I would be fine. And guess what? That's exactly what I've done all these years. And as a result, the Lord has kept me through thick and thin. He has never left me alone. And I truly believe that. I have never forgotten my grandfather's words.

MT: You were one of the first rock and 'n' rollers to move to nightclubs and showrooms, performing standards and show tunes. Because you were so well known for your early hits and entrenched in the rock-pop market, did you find that transition to be difficult?

Sharp: Sometimes I still do. People still often look at me as just the "Mashed Potato" lady. And it's strange because I'm so much more than that. I'm a keyboardist. I'm a songwriter — I've written a lot of things. "Happy ‘bout the Whole Thing," which is the title track to one of my albums — I wrote that. I used to write a lot. I've done a lot of background vocals on hit songs by other artists. My career has been an eclectic mix. And it's all been fun. But it was difficult for me to make the transition to another market. I knew I could sing in nightclubs because that kind of music was my forte but nobody would give me the opportunity early in my career to do anything else other than sing "Mashed Potato Time." Ed Sullivan was actually the first one to see me in a different light. He was more concerned with my vocal abilities than just my hits. And it was wonderful for me. Ed Sullivan didn't just do his Sunday night television show. He had productions that would play in nightclubs. And he helped both me and Tom Jones crack that market. We would go to Lake Tahoe, Reno and to Vegas. And I discovered that I just loved doing that.

MT: Not only were you a pioneer as a teenage female pop artist but you were a pioneer in the music business as well, managing artists that recorded for your ex-husband Kenny Gamble, including the O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Billy Paul. … Since you were one of the first women in that role, did you find that to be difficult as well?

Sharp: It was a difficult role. Part of it was because I was caught between being a wife and a rhythm & blues singer. [laughs] I knew what my role was as a wife and I was trying to do that. And I knew what my role was as an artist and I was trying to do that. And I knew what my role was as a manager and I was trying to do that. But it became exasperating because it was like, "Can you really serve four masters?" You just can't. So I actually opted out of being an artist at that point in my career. I put all my time into managing and being a wife. When I look back on it now, though, I just don't think it was appreciated at all. It really wasn't. My former husband, Kenny, I don't think he really appreciated what I was trying to do or how difficult it was to do both roles. Because it was hard to get Harold Melvin and Billy Paul and the Intruders off the ground. And I had to constantly go to all these different places to promote our artists. So I spent a lot of time on the road and not at home. So we eventually ended up divorced. But, you know, we're actually friends now! [laughs] In fact, I just talked to him several weeks ago and did his radio show. He and Mr. Huff have a show on Sirius Radio and I joined them the first week of June. It was interesting.

MT: Well, you're nothing if not ambitious because you also earned a Ph.D. in psychology at that same time! How in the hell did you find time to do that?

Sharp: [laughs] I went back to school. I promised my mom and I went back to school. And that's what I did. I really wanted to be a doctor from the time I was young. Oh, God, I wanted to be a doctor in the worst way! But I couldn't deal with having to look at cadavers. That would always make me have a hissy fit! So I figured, well, I promised my mom — and the next best thing is probably to be a psychologist. [laughs] And that's the truth. I couldn't take it. I don't know how morticians do it.

MT: I know how you feel. I've always had a hard time just going to funerals.

Sharp: Oh, listen, it bothers me too. It just tears me up. When my mother passed away in 2000, that's when it changed for me. It's no longer a hindrance for me. I will go. I mean, I don't enjoy it. I don't want to be in that environment for too long. That's the way I feel about it.

MT: Yeah, I guess I had a similar experience when my dad died. When people showed up, it really helped me and the rest of my family. So now I figure even if I don't want to go to a funeral, I do just because I know it helps the family.

Sharp: Yes. That's exactly what I do and that's how I feel. But on a more cheerful topic, I'm actually looking forward to coming to Detroit. I really am. I haven't been there in a very long time.

MT: I was going to ask you if you have any memories of playing Detroit during the early years on some of those rock 'n' roll tours.

Sharp: Truthfully, I just don't remember. You can call it a senior moment (laughs). I'm 63 now, OK? But I don't remember the details of a lot of those early tours. I know that I did them but I can't remember the name of the venues that we played. It's a blur. My manager probably would remember but I don't.

MT: Well, speaking of those early Dick Clark Cavalcade of Stars tours and some of those other early rock package shows, do you have any particularly great story that you remember from those years?

Sharp: Oh, God! The story that I most remember was when we were in Jackson, Miss. It was me with the Dovells and Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. I was the only girl on that tour. But I absolutely love the Dovells and Frankie Valli because they threw their bodies over me and some of the musicians that were playing with us to shield us. Because it was a very difficult situation. You see, they were stoning the bus! To this day, I absolutely won't play Jackson, Miss. [laughs] I will not go there! They started stoning the bus. And Dick Clark informed us that they wouldn't let us stay at the hotel where everybody else was staying. So we canceled the show. For me to see guys dressed in hoods — oh, God! That was just unbelievable. And I actually saw it right in front of me! It was horrendous!

MT: It's a bunch of inbred morons is what it is!

Sharp: Definitely. When the tour bus went to Florida for a show, the bus stopped to get gas or something and I said, "Oh, there's a drugstore." I wanted to go into the store to get some lipstick. And my mother pulled my coat and said, "I don't think you want to do that." And I said, "Oh, mother, please!" — just as most high-strung teenage girls would say. I told her nothing was going to happen to me. And that was the first time I encountered someone calling me the "N" word. And telling me that they don't sell lipstick to the "N" word. I have never forgotten that to this day! When I walked back out to the bus, my mother said, "Well, what happened?" And I said, "That man called me you-know-what." And she just said, "I told you don't go." So from that point on, when my mother said anything else to me, especially not to do something, I never again did it. [laughs]

MT: So your mother went on those tours with you?

Sharp: Oh, yes. She did every tour with me. Every single one. She traveled with me up to the point when she turned 60.

MT: Why do you think Philadelphia was such a hotbed of musical talent?

Sharp: You know what? The Philly sound and the Motown sound were related. The Philly sound was the early years and I think those early years laid way for what was to come later. I personally think that the combination of those two cities was just unbelievable. The Motown artists had great songs. I love those songs. I wish I'd have had some of those songs to sing! (laughs) But when you look at the later Philly years — the Gamble & Huff stuff, which I'm doing a few of those songs at the festival — they were melodic and they had a purpose. They were expressing everyday occurrences. "Me & Mrs. Jones" — the subject of that song was an everyday occurrence. They took that and put it into words and music and people could relate to that. "For the Love of Money" by the O'Jays. Another everyday occurrence that they took and put into words.

MT: Your dance hit, "Breaking and Entering," was that a Gamble & Huff song?

Sharp: Oh, yes! In fact, Jerry Butler produced that session for me.

MT: Oh, wow!

Sharp: Yes, he did. Yes, he did! The Iceman himself!

MT: I love Jerry Butler.

Sharp: You're not the only one! I absolutely love Jerry. Jerry and his wife and I have been friends for over 40 years! I know that they've always had my best interests at heart. I know that they love me. No matter how many other people say they love me in this business, I know that Jerry and Annette Butler really do! And I love them. [laughs]

MT: I don't know that you can answer this one since you say your memory of those early years isn't what it should be. But do you know who played the saxophone solo on "Mashed Potato Time"? I've always thought that's one of the greatest sax rock 'n' roll solos on record, even if it is short.

Sharp: Buddy Savitt.

MT: Thank you so much. I've been unable to find that info. I always thought that sax solo taught Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen's band almost everything he ever needed to know.

Sharp: Well, Buddy Savitt played the sax solo on "Mashed Potato Time." He was a great guy. He was really sweet.

MT: You have so many awards and accolades. Why aren't you in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Sharp: [laughs] That's a good question! I got a Rhythm & Blues award in 2001. But I don't know. I can't answer that. Maybe I'm just not blessed enough; I don't know.

MT: Well, you should be.

Sharp: Well, I appreciate that. But I found that sometimes tooting your own horn just doesn't work. But I really can't answer why I'm not in. I do know that I was the first woman to do a lot of things. I was the first African-American woman to ever be placed on the cover of 16 Magazine. So I don't understand. I have no idea as to why I'm not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's ridiculous as well that I don't have a star on the Walk of Fame in Philadelphia

MT: I didn't know that. Well, hell, that's even more ridiculous.

Sharp: I know. But it's OK. Probably I'll get it posthumously. [laughs] It's OK, though, because I don't live in Philadelphia now. I haven't lived in Philadelphia in about 15 years. I live a quiet existence. I'm married to an attorney. I've got a really wonderful home in New Jersey. In South Jersey. There is a difference, you know! [laughs] I've got a great home here. In fact, the ladies are here cleaning right now. And I'm grateful. I love to cook but I sure don't like to clean! [laughs]

MT: So you just perform these days when you feel like performing?

Sharp: Yes. That's exactly it. I'm also recording a gospel CD right now. That's what I think my mother and my grandfather would have wanted me to do. And I've never done one in all these years. I did an album of songs of faith back in the '60s but it was more inspirational music. It wasn't really gospel. And I truly love gospel! I would love to meet Kirk Franklin. I think he's fantastic. I've met a lot of people over the years — but the people I really want to meet aren't in the secular music field. But I'm working really hard on that CD. I'm getting ready to do another song as we speak. I want to have it finished by November.

MT: Since your mother was watching over your career so closely, I wonder if Cameo-Parkway treated you fairly in terms of royalties. I know so many artists from that era didn't get treated fairly at all …

Sharp: No. No. No. No. As a matter of fact, they've just started paying me royalties over the last two years. And one of the reasons for that is I'm now married to an attorney! [laughs] So they're doing more as far as paying me is concerned at ABKCO these days

MT: Allen Klein and all those guys were kinda known as crooks in a sense.

Sharp: Well, Allen Klein is not really doing anything these days but his son Jody has been doing the work for Allen. I mean, they owe me a lot more but they've at least started.

MT: That's good because every time I watch Hairspray on TV, I've wondered if you're getting royalties from that.

Sharp: No. No. They definitely did not do what they were supposed to do by us. I'm far from the only artist. The Tymes. The Orlons. The Dovells. Even Chubby [Checker]. And I really think Chubby is upset by that. I haven't talked to him in a while but the last time I spoke to him, I got the impression that he's really upset. And you can't blame him. They didn't do what they were supposed to do. And I truthfully don't think they even care.

MT: Well, that's true of most of the business guys from that era.

Sharp: Well, one of the business guys from that era died just a couple of days ago — Jerry Wexler. You know I was on Atlantic for a little while, right?

MT: No, I didn't know that.

Sharp: Oh, yeah. I worked with Jerry. I didn't have much communication with Ahmet. But I worked closely with Jerry. And he was always very sweet! He was unbelievably sweet. In fact, he was so sweet that I used to think he shouldn't have been in this business! [laughs] Because there are too many weasels in the music business. But Jerry was just so sweet.

MT: Well, thank you so much for your time, Dee Dee.

Sharp: Not a problem! I hope to see you at the show. And please make yourself known, sweetheart.

Dee Dee Sharp plays Saturday, Aug. 30, at 5:15 p.m. on the Chase Main Stage.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]