By Lolis Eric Elie
Mild-mannered public administrator by day, sultry blues singer by night, Sharon Martin is one of the many New Orleans treasures that few music fans outside the city have heard. Gigi’s is her kind of place and, as you will see in Sunday's episode, she brings the house down.
To give you a little background on this firecracker of a singer, I did a little Q&A with her recently.
How long have you been singing professionally?
Sharon Martin: Well, they tell me I'm a late starter. I was about 32 years old when I decided to jump out there singing with (guitarist) Carl LeBlanc. So, as of this day, I've been singing professionally since 1989 or 1990. I really can't remember, but for sure it's around 25 years or so. I got paid $50 per gig my first gigs.
What singers have influenced you? How would you describe the range of the music you perform?
Sharon Martin: I grew up listening to Nancy Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Carla Thomas and Roberta Flack. I love music and listen to almost every type except opera -- haven't been able to get into that. I usually say I sing "folk's music" -- music folks like. So to answer the question, my range of music is from jazz, R&B, a little country, and a little gospel. But most of all, I love songs that tell a story no matter what genre. I love delivering those types of songs.
In Episode 5 of this season, you performed "Use What You Got," a song by Sugar Pie De Santo, a singer I hadn't heard of until you introduced me to her. I recently realized that she's still out performing and recording. How did you first hear about her? How did "Use What You Got," become your signature song?
Sharon Martin: One of my favorite Christmas presents as a teen was a Decca record player. I loved music so much, I would sleep with a transistor radio my Uncle Vincent gave me. Long story short, one day on what I believe was WBOK, they played this song called "Soulful Dress." I went out -- I was about 14 at the time -- and I bought the record. I loved "Soulful Dress" and it was performed by Sugar Pie De Santo, a blues singer out of Chicago. When I would buy 45 rpm records, I would always play the flip side. Well, I played the flip side and loved it. The flip side was "Use What You Got."
I used to make my mama and sisters laugh by acting out the lyrics of the song. So when I started with Carl, he asked me what songs I knew and that was one of the ones I knew all the words to. He learned it by listening to me sing it -- he's so talented -- and it became a staple. When I started singing professionally, I weighed about 92 pounds, so it fit and it worked for me. Plus I liked the song. Delivering it was always fun.
Sharon Martin: "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" is a portrayal of one of Billie Holiday's last performances, three or so months before she died. So, you know, she was a little worn at that time. I was doing my regular Sunday brunch gig at The JuJu Bag Cafe here in New Orleans. The co-owner, Tommye Myrick (an award-winning director), asked me to sing "God Bless the Child" in a Billie Holiday voice. The audience egged on her request. I performed the song in a mimicked voice of Billie and the audience thought it was amazing. I thought it was funny that they thought I sounded like her.
After the set, Ms. Myrick popped the question, "Why don’t we do the Billie Holiday play?" Having served as an understudy to Wanda Rouzan for this play many years ago, I was kind of familiar with the script (at least I thought I was). So, I said, "Why not?" Well, after I saw the script, I thought to myself, "Lawd, what have I gotten myself into?" I had no idea how flipping voluminous the script was and that it was almost all on me. I researched, studied hard and rehearsed hard for three months, at least. The show opened and it was so well-received. By popular demand, it was extended twice after the first run.
I know you're not singing full time these days. What's your day job?
Sharon Martin: If I depended on singing for eating and maintaining this luxurious lifestyle I've grown accustomed to [laughs] I'd starve to death, and would be living on the street. As my day job, I serve as the administrator for the Industrial Development Board of the City of New Orleans. It's a full-time job and a one-and-a-half man office. So my life is full. I also sell ads for a great New Orleans magazine called BreakThru. It kind of fits since it covers entertainment, sports and music.
Where can fans hear your show?
Sharon Martin: Sad to say, I still have not put up a website although I've been working on it for one thousand years. I do post my public performances on my Facebook site, on CrescentCityLive.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org. One day, I'll finish that website.