Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Sharrock, Sonny (Warren Harding)

Guitarist Sonny Sharrock forged a path for the electric guitar in experimental jazz by adapting the improvisational style of avant-garde saxophonists to his instrument. In his work with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, trumpeter Miles Davis, the jazz/rock group Last Exit and as a leader, Sonny developed a personal language which combined the harmonic parallels of free-form jazz with the sheer strength of rock music.

Warren Harding Sharrock was born on August 27, 1940 in Ossining, New York. Sharrock was named after his father, who in turn was named after the twenty-ninth president of the United States. Sonny was raised in a somewhat musical family, with his brother and uncle singing in local groups.

Sharrock grew up listening to popular music and top-forty radio where he aspired to sing. As a teenager, Sonny spent his summers in Harlem where he would spend time with his father. During this time, he was a member of several gangs and often got into fights with rival gangs.

Sharrock first began performing in 1954 while singing with the woo-wop group The Echoes alongside his uncle. The group recorded in December 1957 with a backup band featuring guitarist Kenny Burrell, tenor saxophonist King Curtis, and drummer Panama Francis. The record from that session “Teenage Lover’s Lullabye,” was never released.

The Echoes performed throughout the New York area, including performing at amateur nights at the historic Apollo Theatre in New York City. Sonny began to listen to jazz in the mid 1950s and became an avid fan of jazz in 1959 when he first heard Miles Davis’s experimental album Kind of Blue.

Soon after, Sharrock began to seek out the music of other jazz artists, including tenor saxophonists John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and drummer Art Blakey. Within a year, Sonny was hooked and devoted himself to jazz study and performance.

Initially, Sharrock wanted to study the saxophone, but was sidelined due to his suffering from asthma. At the age of twenty, Sonny bought a Harmony acoustic guitar for twelve dollars and began to develop his improvisational skills. He began to teach himself the fundamentals of the guitar and primarily listened to saxophonists rather than guitarists. He also supplemented his education by studying a series of guitar instruction books released by Mel Bay Publishing.

From the start, Sharrock was interested in developing his own voice on the guitar. From September 1961 until February 1962, Sonny studied composition at the Berklee School of Music, although he was unable to read music. It can be argued that this lack of certain preliminary musical skills contributed to his ability to develop a distinctive style.

In 1965, Sharrock relocated to New York City and briefly studied with bandleader Sun Ra. During a visit to Sun Ra’s apartment, Sharrock met saxophonists Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick, who were members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. In order to earn extra income, Allen and Patrick performed with drummer Olatunji. Sonny impressed Allen and Patrick with his playing, and arranged for him to become the guitarist for Olatunji’s group.

Soon after, Sharrock began to make a name for himself in the city’s vibrant jazz scene. Beside his work with Olatunji, Sonny performed in pianist John Gilmore’s trio with bassist John Ore. From 1965 until 1967, Sonny performed with pianist Dave Burr and saxophonist Marzette Watts. Also during this time, he performed with saxophonist Byard Lancaster, a former classmate of his from Berklee.

In 1966, Sharrock began to perform with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, whom he mad met in Philadelphia while performing with Lancaster. The same year, Sonny performed on Sanders’ album Tauhid. This album is a milestone in Sharrock's development as a guitarist, as its compositions which relied less on chord structure and had loosely structured arrangements enabled him to expand his understanding of improvisation. Of the three songs on the album, “Japan,” percussionist Nat Bettis starts the song by playing a steady beat on a pair of bells before Sharrock enters the song playing a chord pattern which stays constant throughout the song. This grounding by Sharrock allows the rest of the ensemble to add layers on top of him, creating a simple, yet beautiful song which reflects the spirituality that is threaded throughout the album.

By 1967, Sharrock began to collaborate with flutist Herbie Mann and performed with him for the better part of seven years. With Mann, Sonny made appearances at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. The following year, Sonny appeared on trumpeter Don Cherry’s album Eternal Rhythm. After this album, he also left Sanders’ group.

The high-profile gig with Mann brought him to the attention of several prominent jazz musicians including saxophonist Wayne Shorter. In 1969, Sonny was featured on Shorter’s album Super Nova, which included guitarist John McLaughlin, drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and percussionist Airto.

In 1969, Sharrock released his first album as a leader, Black Woman The album featured his wife, singer Linda Sharrock, bassist Norris Jones, drummer Milford Graves, pianist Dave Burrell and trumpeter Teddy Daniel. The album included the song “Blind Willie,” a tribute to guitarist Blind Willie Johnson, whom Sharrock has named as an influence.

The following year, Sonny made an uncredited appearance on Miles Davis’ album A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The same year, he released his second album Monkey-Pockie-Boo, which he recorded in Paris after a tour with Mann.

Sonny found Mann’s music to be constricting and ultimately left his group in 1972. Upon leaving, Sharrock assembled his wife, Graves, Daniel, and bassist Sirone and formed the band Sharrock. In 1975, Sharrock released his third album,Paradise. In an interview with critic Ben Ratliff, Sharrock later stated “it wasn’t a good album, but its my fault because I couldn’t really put the direction together.”

Shortly after, the group broke up and Sharrock decided to take some time off from the music industry, only sporadically performing throughout the rest of the 1970s. During his time away from music, Sonny worked as a caregiver for children suffering mental disabilities and as a chauffeur. Sonny and Linda divorced in 1978.

In the early 1980s, Sharrock’s work became an importance influence in the burgeoning downtown avant-garde community in New York City. In 1980, Sonny was offered to open for guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer by producer Roger Trilling. He immediately agreed and was introduced to bassist Bill Laswell at the show.

Soon after, Sharrock and Laswell formed the group Material and released the album Memory Serves in 1982. Sharrock and Laswell began to collaborate more often resulting in the group Last Exit, which featured Sharrock, Laswell, saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson.

In 1986, Last Exit released the album Köln. On “Last Call,” Sharrock adds distorted embellishments and scrapes that perfectly coincide with Brotzmann’s squeals and indistinct honks. The similar tones between Sharrock and Brotzmann mirror how a similar outlook to music can translate to different instruments. The culminating harmonic storm towards the end sees Brotzmann and Sharrock trading sonic lines back and forth resulting in a dramatic finish.

The same year, Sharrock released Guitar, which featured Sharrock recording accompanying tracks and performing on top of them. With the release of Guitar, Sharrock began to experiment with electronics and other modern sounds. The following year, Sonny released the album Seize the Rainbow, featuring bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummers Abe Speller and Pheeroan akLaff. In the late 1980s, he began to perform with the New York based group Machine Gun, which got its name from a 1968 album by Brotzmann.

In 1990, Sharrock performed with guitarist Nicky Skopelitis on the free-improvisation duet album Faith Moves. The same year, Sonny released the more commercially minded album Highlife, which featured bassists Charles Baldwin and Dave Snider, and drummers Abe Speller and Lance Carter.

The following year, Sonny released the album Ask the Ages. The album saw a reunion with Sharrock and Pharoah Sanders and featured bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Elvin Jones. The album’s second track “Who Does She Hope To Be,” perfectly highlights the style of Sharrock’s late career. Sharrock captures the ballad feel of the song by utilizing a more somber distorted tone on his guitar. Sonny freely improvises throughout the loose chord structure of the song with Moffett playing sparsely to blur the tonality of the song. Between improvisations, the ensemble plays a solemn melody that perfectly weaves the song together.

On May 25, 1994, Sharrock died of a heart attack at his home in Ossining, New York at the age of fifty-three. Sonny passed away just before signing a recording contract with RCA records, his first major label record deal of his career. Prior to his death, one of his final projects was composing and recording the theme song to the animated program Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

Sharrock is survived by his wife Nettie and daughter Jasmyn.

Select Discography

As a leader

Black Woman (1969)

Monkey-Pockie-Boo (1970)

Paradise (1975)

Dance With Me, Montana (1982)

Guitar (1986)

Seize the Rainbow (1987)

Live in New York (1989)

Highlife (1990)

Ask The Ages (1991)

With Don Cherry

Eternal Rhythm (1968)

With Miles Davis

A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1970)

With Byard Lancaster

It’s Not Up To Us (1966)

With Last Exit

Last Exit (1986)

Koln (1986)

Iron Path (1988)

Headfirst Into the Flames (1989)

With Herbie Mann

Windows Opened (1968)

Concerto Grosso in D Blues (1968)

Live at the Whiskey A Go Go (1968)

Memphis Underground (1969)

Stone Flutes (1970)

Hold On, I’m Coming (1972)

With Material

Memory Serves (1982)

With Pharoah Sanders

Tauhid (1966)

Izipho Zam (1968)

With Wayne Shorter

Super Nova (1969)

With Nicky Skopelitis

Faith Moves (1990)

Contributor: Eric Wendell