Bad Shit Is Good For You
An interview with Todd Sharpville (Pt.1)
Words: Vincent Abbate / PHOTOS: Chris Giff, Jennifer Noble
Within the blues world, we talk until we’re blue in the face about axe-shredding guitarists and leather-lunged singers. We admire the proud keepers of the flame and purveyors of tradition. Recently it seems we’ve become enamored with glamour and coolness as embodied by some of the genre’s younger, more marketable stars. There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
But if you ask me (no one has!), what the blues needs most of all is personalities. In other words: artists willing to stand onstage and be real. Musicians who are not afraid to reveal themselves as flawed, fallible human beings.
Take veteran British bluesman Todd Sharpville. At his recent performance in Bonn, Germany – a 90-minute show captured on video – one of the first things he says as he greets his audience from behind a piano is: “This is a song for everyone who’s failed. We’re all fucking human. We all fail at some point or another.” He then proceeds to sing the opening number, “The Blue Standard,” in a voice laden with sorrow and hurt. Yet there’s an undeniable glimmer of hope in his delivery, too.
Just like his outstanding 2022 release Medication Time (an album inspired by his brief stint in a mental institution earlier this century), his recent date with German television revealed Sharpville as a master at conveying moods and emotions. Taking the stage at a mid-sized venue called Harmonie, he and the members of his six-piece band were not out to show the world how talented they are at string-bending and paradiddling. Rather, they had come to make a series of statements about the human condition. Gripping moments from that performance – soon to be released on CD & DVD – include the aforementioned “The Blue Standard,” the stirring “Love Knows No Bounds,” the tortured and harrowing “Medication Time” and the heartbreakingly personal “Won’t Say Goodbye” – cathartic explorations of imperfection, shared humanity, mental illness and grief.
Only upon hearing these songs does one realize how rare it is for a blues artist to put himself out there the way Sharpville routinely does, hiding nothing, unafraid to come across as weak or vulnerable.
Yet he balances those intimate interludes with rousing doses of electric blues. The spellbinding “Used” rides a Muddy-meets-Junior Kimbrough groove. Sharpville’s Strat tone on Texas-style rockers like “God Loves A Loser” and “House Rules” inevitably recalls Stevie Ray Vaughan. The late-set rave-up “Red Headed Woman” evokes Elvis Presley’s TCB Band during their early 70s Vegas residency. Sure-handed covers of Eric Clapton and Dire Straits show that this accomplished songwriter will occasionally call on outside sources to get a point across.
No matter where he goes stylistically, the 30-year staple of the British blues scene always carries the air of someone who has made his share of mistakes in life and tried his best to learn from them. Sharpville’s ultimate goal, it appears, is to become a better version of himself. And he’s perfectly willing to let us be part of the process. “The great thing about bad shit,” he remarks on camera between songs, “is that it teaches us stuff. The blues is there for a reason. Suffering is good for you.”
Who Is Blues: Todd, as a musician, you’re a triple threat: You’re an expressive singer, a really strong guitar player and – what I consider to be the game changer – an exceptionally skilled songwriter. I’d like to start there. Name three of your favorite songwriters and tell me what it is you admire about them.
Todd Sharpville: I was a retro kid, so my first musical love affair was with 50’s rock ‘n’ roll. So I’d have to start with the very first artist who opened my eyes to songwriting: Buddy Holly. Even now, all these years later, I still listen to him with the same glee I experienced as a little boy when I used to dance to him unashamedly on my bedroom table with a tennis racket for a guitar and copious amounts of Brylcreem in my hair! When you put Buddy’s songwriting into the context of the era, along with the influences available to him at the time, his work was groundbreaking in every sense. Despite his youth and the cultural impositions upon his upbringing, he somehow managed to create a blueprint for all the popular songwriting that came after him. From the youthful urgency of “Peggy Sue” to the sophistication of “True Love Ways,” Buddy Holly will always be a part of me. The intelligent simplicity that imbued his writing continues to inform my own.
WIB: Who’s number two?
Todd Sharpville: Well I was about 14 years old when a school friend played me Bob Dylan’s Live at Budokan album. By this point, I’d begun appreciating poetry and was knocked out by Dylan’s lyrical genius. The ability to consistently say a great deal with as few words as possible is such a rare talent. Dylan has always managed to take this skill to extremes by imbuing his poetry with so much depth and color; he paints vivid pictures with sentences, creating cinematic landscapes with words in ways that have been matched by no other. His “dumbass little brothers” – as Loudon Wainwright suggested – were the legion of cinematic wordsmiths who came in the wake of Dylan, all lyrically wanting to be him but accidentally inventing themselves in the process: Jimi Hendrix, John Prine, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon etc are all great lyricists in their own right, but Dylan inspired so much of their eloquence. He continues to provide an unobtainable benchmark for my lyricism.
WIB: And another favorite?
Todd Sharpville: Willie Dixon. In essence, the blues is to modern music what Latin is to modern language and he’s the writer who provided the blues most of its greatest songs. Over the course of his life, he wrote well over 500 songs. So many of them became historic anthems that are still heard in countless barrooms. He provided signature tunes for Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, BB King, Elmore James, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, Otis Rush, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Charlie Musselwhite, James Harman and a host of other blues greats. And it’s worth bearing in mind that Dixon’s songs also became hits for a legion of multi-millionaire icons. Many of their early successes were attributable to this comparatively impoverished genius of a songwriter. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Jeff Beck, Steve Miller, The Allman Brothers, Motorhead, The Grateful Dead and Aerosmith are just a few of the icons who continue to owe Willie Dixon a huge debt of gratitude.
WIB: When did you start writing music and do you recall the first song you ever wrote?
Todd Sharpville: I was 13 or 14 years old and crazy about a girl at a nearby school called Vicky Reynolds. I wrote an incredibly self-absorbed song called “Eyes Of Innocence.”* The vast majority of teenage lyricism is self-absorbed because teenagers are, well … so fucking self-absorbed!
(*Sharpville can still recite the lyrics to “Eyes Of Innocence,” though he refers to them bluntly as “total shit.”)
WIB: Did Vicky Reynolds ever get to hear it?
Todd Sharpville: Haha! No, I didn’t have the balls to show her at the time. My teens were lost in a sea of heroin abuse and self-entitled musings.
WIB: Moving on to singing … how about three singers you admire in any genre.
Todd Sharpville: I have far too many favorites to mention. But off the top of my head, one would be Bobby Bland. The ultimate crooner! He can melt you with one simple phrase. He possessed all the class of the great Las Vegas crooners alongside all the ghetto cool that only a black American bluesman is capable of exuding. Then there’s Willie Nelson. I love deep country music – I have big ears, I adore the best of most genres. He’s just so damn recognizable. His phrasing is unique to such a huge degree, and his attitude is always so emotional. He’s capable of singing the phone book and making me wanna cry. And you can’t go wrong with Sam Cooke. I love gospel music and to this day still regularly listen to young Mr. Cooke when he used to front the a capella group The Soul Stirrers. Such a pure, God-given voice. It’s impossible to hold back a smile whenever he sings the first words to any song. In operatic terms, Cooke was a Caruso. His tonality and texture were as perfect as humans are capable of exuding.
WIB: Same exercise with guitar. Who are three of your favorite players?
Todd Sharpville: Freddie King was my first guitar baptism. I was 12 years old and I hadn’t a clue as to how deeply expressive a guitar in the right hands was capable of being. Then I put on a compilation album called Freddie King 1934-1976 and was stunned throughout. The opening cut was “Pack It Up” – a slightly different mix and edit than on the Burglar LP. The first solo is so classy and passionate! The second song “Shake Your Bootie” is pure, unadulterated, explosive, horny sexuality. And the solo on the third track – a live version of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business” – sealed the deal for me: sorrow, humor, sexuality, anger, everything. The moment that album was over, I knew I wanted to learn how to play a guitar. Just remembering my Freddie King baptism sends shivers up my spine.
WIB: How about two more?
Todd Sharpville: T-Bone Walker, for one. Such a smooth, slick, swinging player! He was so fluid, yet so organic. Seemingly simple, yet highly complex. His sense of counterpoint was groundbreaking, and it permeated every solo he ever played. And of course B.B. King. What can I say? What can anyone say? He took the baton T-Bone passed him and ran with it all the way to the finishing line. I’ve never heard him play an awkward phrase. Every note he ever squeezed out sang like a bird. B.B. provided mankind with the closest aural representation of something angelic that humans are capable of experiencing without dying.
WIB: You’ve hinted at how difficult the corona-induced lockdown was for you. What were the biggest challenges you faced during that time? And positive aspects if any?
Todd Sharpville: That first year of Covid was difficult for everyone. I feel ashamed to single out stuff that personally pained me because there’s millions of other folks out there who suffered far worse in contrast. Like so many people, I’m still financially trying to recover. But on a positive note, it provoked me into musical action. It reminded me that I’m a soldier at heart and that I don’t accept the word “defeat” as being part of my vocabulary.
WIB: Your response to the loss of gigging opportunities during the first wave of the pandemic was to isolate together with a lockdown band and perform regular online concerts as “TheSharpvilleShow.” For those who may have missed it: Could you explain what that was all about?
Todd Sharpville: When I realized there would be no more live music for an undetermined period of time, no more real jamming – remote just isn’t the same – I also realized this would provoke a mental health crisis for many. I’ve come across a host of music fans around the world who don’t have families, don’t have many friends, and many of whom are on the spectrum. They utilize live music as their way of communing with the world; their way of imbibing a taste of deep humanity. So I decided to put together the world’s only fully professional lockdown band under one roof. I spoke to most of the musicians in the UK who sit at the top of the professional tree. Folks who shared similar experiences of working with a variety of big names in the business, so as to encourage some trust from within the music business. Having assembled the band, I needed somewhere big enough to be able to house the project, because I was essentially inviting not just the musicians, but also their wives, girlfriends, kids and pets to live with me for an unspecified period of time. Everyone would need enough privacy and space from one another in order to be able to make it work. So I figured out a legal way of doing it all, rented a mansion in Norfolk, sourced some financial backing in order to help capitalize the project and we all moved in together for the first six months of Covid. We played a free streamed gig each week, undertook recording projects for various projects from around the world and did a hell of a lot of press, TV & radio. We felt like the public representatives of the grass-roots music scene that was being torn apart by the crisis. It was such a privilege to be able to play together throughout that period whilst the rest of our compatriots were forced into such a horrendous state of musical isolation. It was therefore a huge responsibility to highlight the plight of our musical brothers and sisters around the world who were suffering. I ended up recording a remote duet from there with Robbie Williams of a song of mine called “Love Knows No Bounds” which I’ll be unveiling soon.
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In Part 2 of our interview, Todd Sharpville reveals what his personal struggles have taught him about life. He also talks about his recent performance for German television (where “Love Knows No Bounds” was on the setlist), the musicians who joined him on the gig and what it was like to play a song on one of B.B. King’s guitars. Look for it next week in this space.
Meanwhile, here’s the full video of that 90-minute show.