Singer Sharon Tandy died on 21 March 2015 after a long illness. Her friend Alec Palao pays his respects.
When you have been a long-time fan of an artist, becoming friends with them can make your appreciation of their talent just that much more satisfying. I’ve been fortunate to get to know many of my vinyl heroes and heroines, and amongst my favourites has to have been Sharon Tandy. Though it was not unexpected, Sharon’s passing is really quite tragic. A truly wonderful lady, you should have known her.
She was born Sharon Finkelstein in Johannesburg in 1943, gifted with a full-throated voice that soon got her noticed locally. By 1964 Sharon had several recordings and movie appearances under her belt, but it was a chance encounter with South African-born Frank Fenter, back home as manager of ex-pat beat group the Couriers, that led to major changes. Sharon went back to the UK with Fenter as both her manager and her partner, and after some months of struggle, he got her signed to Pye and Mercury, where the singer made a handful of state-of-the-art pop singles in 1965 and 1966, including the delectable ‘Perhaps Not Forever.’
With Fenter ensconced as UK label manager of Atlantic, he engineered a major coup in getting Sharon aligned with Stax and she was dispatched to record with Isaac Hayes and Booker T & The MGs in Memphis in November 1966, the first non-American artist to do so. Though she taped several tunes there, only the pumping ‘Toe Hold’ saw release in early 1967, around the time Sharon got to open for the Stax/Volt tour in the UK.
Her next record is the one Sharon Tandy is best known for. The intended A-side was a cover of ‘Stay With Me Baby,’ but heavy continental airplay saw the flip ‘Hold On’ get the nod. On this molten disc, Sharon’s breathy vocal was accompanied by the powerhouse sounds of the Fleur De Lys, Fenter’s house band and a legendary act in their own right. They would back Sharon on several other freakbeat gems, including ‘Daughter Of The Sun,’ and in time she and guitarist Bryn Haworth became a couple.
Though she released a steady flow of singles through to the end of the decade, Sharon never really capitalized on the small amount of noise that ‘Hold On’ had made, despite some memorable discs such as ‘You’ve Gotta Believe It’ and ‘Gotta Get Enough Time.’ The young woman also encountered a run of bad luck that led to fractured relationships and ill-health, and by 1971 she was back in South Africa. Sharon forged a new career for herself in the 1970s and 1980s, singing on several local hits with Billy Forrest and Graham Clarke, and she also started a family. But back in the UK and beyond, thanks to that run of notable singles, Sharon graduated from an intriguing mystery for collectors to boasting a cult following as a veritable mod-goddess, fuelled by an occasional glimpse of her sultry Vidal Sassoon-ed promo shots, or the heavy rotation of ‘Hold On’ at any retro club you might encounter.
My own obsession with Sharon started around 1983, when I came across ‘You’ve Gotta Believe It’ in a Crouch End record shop. Already a Brit-girl freak, I was amazed at the sheer kitchen-sink-ness of the sound, and vowed to seek out all of this lady’s records from that point on. Which I did, and while they often differed, none disappointed. Fast forward twenty years: when digging around the Stax shelves at the Fantasy tape vault in Berkeley, I found several reels dedicated to Sharon’s vintage session at McLemore Avenue, which provided yet another angle on her talent. And so, with their discovery a Sharon Tandy compilation was a no-brainer. However, I knew that to do so, it was essential that I speak to the lady herself – and where on earth was she?
During the subsequent assembly of ‘You Gotta Believe It’s . . . Sharon Tandy’, a chance phone call by the Ace origination department to a photo agency looking for pictures of Sharon revealed that in fact she was living in London. Right from our first phone conversation, I could sense how thrilled she was, and after meeting in person for an interview at her bedsit in Mile End, we became great friends. Despite the obvious health issues that had precipitated her move back to England, Sharon was invariably upbeat, and just thrilled to know there was interest in her career. I really enjoyed her company and it felt like it was a divinely appointed mission to make sure the collection came out, despite a licensing log-jam that once or twice threatened to scupper it.
Often, during the many subsequent visits to see Sharon whenever I was over from the States, she would tell me in a lilting South African accent, “oh Alec, how I’d love to sing again!” To test the water, I brought over an acoustic guitar and we went through her vintage songbook, Sharon closing her eyes dreamily as she revisited those classic Atlantic recordings, and other cherished tunes from that era, such as Fleur De Lys’ ‘Liar.’ It was a thrill and a half just to be able to do that with her, but when the compilation was ready to roll at the beginning of 2004, she agreed to fully take the plunge and the 100 Club was booked for the night of 19th February. I readied the setlist with some of Ady Croasdell’s soul sessioneers, and there was a capacity crowd waiting to witness Sharon Tandy’s return. In truth, Sharon later told me it took every ounce of strength she had to make it up to the stage, but standing right by her side the whole time, I would have never guessed, such was the sheer joy she radiated that night.
Making that moment happen for Sharon has been one of the highlights of my reissue career. She fully deserved the kudos she received in the last years of life, even if her failing health became more serious as time went on. My final conversation with her was last year, when she rang, basically to say goodbye. That must have been a tough call to make, but she still reiterated to me just how much she had valued our friendship and everything that had happened. To be appreciated the way myself and Ace were by Sharon is the best payoff anyone in our line can ever have.