Sharon Rae North will sing at the 2016 Richmond Jazz Festival, her seventh performance at the event. (Photo courtesy Sharon Rae North)
“I have always known I was a singer. It isn’t something I do; it is what I am. My day job is just something I do,” says Sharon Rae North.
North’s day job is working for the City of Richmond. Born in Youngstown, Ohio, North got to Richmond by way of Atlanta, having made a brief stop there as a journalist and television reporter. Her night gig — and her calling — is singing jazz.
North is preparing to perform at her seventh Richmond Jazz Festival this weekend. Acts include jazz legend Herbie Hancock (read our Q&A with him here), The Roots, Al Jarreau, Michael Franks, Esperanza Spalding, Vanessa Williams, Ramsey Lewis, Diane Schuur, Grace Kelly, Arrested Development (frontman Speech talks with us here) and Morris Day. The lineup couldn’t be more power-packed. North is the only artist that has performed all seven years — since the fest’s inception.
“For as long as I can remember,” North says of how long she’s been singing, “what started my music was listening to my parents’ records as a child.” She’d sit for hours, soaking in the music of Nancy Wilson and Della Reese.
“I would sing along and learn all the words. I couldn’t have been more than four or five years old,” says North.
Her first demo, a collection of four songs, was released in 2002 and could only be described as straight-forward jazz. Her first album, “The Way You Make Me Feel,” continued in the same vein but pushed North’s vocal capabilities, allowing her to present a singing style with similarities to Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. North then released “Gee Baby,” which brought her further toward into true jazz standards. Her newest release, “Sincerely Yours,” dropped July 6 and shows a heaviness in North’s vocals and in the music. This release is meant to be different from the last two; it straddles multiple musical genres, dipping into a smooth ballad with “Sister Moon” (originally by Sting) and a bluesy funk song, “Lonely Nights.”
Says North about her newest compilation, “I did nothing but sing. Fred [Sawyers] wrote all the lyrics on the original songs. He told me one day, ‘Sharon, I don’t write with anybody.’ And now I see why – he doesn’t need to.” The album was produced by the two-time Grammy-nominated Chris “Big Dog” Davis, who has also produced for George Clinton and P-Funk. Sawyers has sung with Isaac Hayes and Will Downing. “I was very nervous working [on this new release] with people at this level. I didn’t think I would measure up,” says North. “Fred is particular. We did one scratch vocal for 21 hours. Fifteen hours in one stretch.”
Mixing musical genres has become a mission for North after “Sincerely Yours.” She started a music festival, the Bad to the Bone Blues Bash, with her concert promotion company, Whole Note Music. “Word has gotten around, and I have had bands email me. I am not going to do all blues, but that will be a staple there. We are looking at doing another one in February,” North says. The last event, held July 31, featured the Bobby “Blackhat” Walters Band, the Lawrence Olds Band and longtime Richmond blues singer Lady E.
North is proud of the Richmond music scene but wants it to be more inclusive. “I would love to see the rock guys hanging out with the jazz guys. It happened in Georgia. I think it could happen here.”
Performing Aug. 14 at the Richmond Jazz Festival on Stage 3 at 1 p.m., North will have the opportunity to share the stage with the Roots, of whom she is particularly fond – she definitely plans on staying until they play. “If they are playing on Sunday, I’ll be there all day waiting,” North says. (The Roots are slated to perform on Stage 1 at 9 p.m. Sunday; see the full schedule here.)
When asked if she had any suggestions for those attending the Jazz Festival, being that she is an old pro, she says, “Get there early. You definitely want to be up front to see all the great acts this year.”
If you miss Sharon Rae North on Aug. 14, she will be at Capital Ale House Aug. 16 for the release of her “Sincerely Yours” CD, an event sponsored by the Richmond Jazz Society. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 the day of the show; find more information here.