Perfectly fusing vintage old school cool and contemporary jazz, soul and pop energy and swagger, Ben Sharkey has enjoyed an extraordinary dual career over the past ten years. Since the charismatic vocalist posted his first raw home videos of himself singing Michael Buble and Frank Sinatra classics to YouTube in 2007, he has amassed over 5 million views worldwide for over 70 clips – including the professionally shot, James Bond themed original “What You’ve Given” (over 150,000 views alone!) The Michigan native has also become one of the Motor City’s premiere live entertainers, with hundreds of performances at jazz hotspots like Cliff Bell’s and a five year and counting residency at the Willis Show Bar and Cash Only Supperclub in Detroit.
Over the years, many of the write-ups and promotional materials employed on Sharkey’s behalf have casually compared him to Frank, Buble, Dean Martin, Mel Torme and Harry Connick, Jr. They’ve mentioned his ability to delight fans with “his romantic style and velvet vocals on old swing and jazz standards that would make Ol’ Blue Eyes himself green with envy.” Yet once the singer began wowing live audiences by peppering the set list with his dynamic original songs, it became clear that he was developing into a singular artist with a hybrid style and vision all his own. His critically acclaimed 2011 independent album Day into Night laid the groundwork for Sharkey’s explosive emergence in 2017 with his Woodward Avenue Records full length debut whose moniker is as hip and stylish as the man
himself: Mr. Sharkey.
Driven by sensual, provocative lyrics and an ebb and flow of songs whose styles and grooves take the listener on a journey that includes soulful jazz-pop, Latin, swing and modern “housey” dance beats, the collection reflects a range of influences that take Sharkey far from his crooner beginnings. From track to track, he draws from a multi-generational musical well that includes the classic drum lines of Gene Krupa, the extraordinary scatting of Cab Calloway and King Pleasure, the bandleader prowess of Louis Prima and – pulling up to the present decade – the pop/R&B infectiousness of Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke (whom Sharkey once opened for at The Fillmore Detroit).
“While I’m a big fan of modern crooners like Buble and his vibe was a great starting point for me,” Sharkey says, “my new music is much edgier, and I’m more inclined than ever to take risks both musically and lyrically. As a singer and storyteller, I’m putting myself in more adult situations, like on ‘Beast in Me,’ where I sing ‘My thoughts may seem obscene, my thoughts don’t claim to be clean, baby, you bring out the beast in me.’ For my fans who know me best for my smoother sounds, I’m really excited about how they’ll react to the beats, movement and danceable elements on Mr. Sharkey. Overall, it’s more of a swingy kind of thing than I have recorded in the past, exploring the darker, cooler style of jazz from the Prohibition era. It would be easy to default to sweet love songs, but I enjoy the movement and making people dance a lot more.”
Sharkey’s original idea for the album’s title was “Sound Tracks,” to reflect his concept that this would be a soundtrack to a film that has yet to be written – perhaps a Prohibition era movie full of conflict and resolution, happy love songs balanced by darker mysteries. During the writing and recording, however, his father passed away. Sharkey always gave his dad credit for passing down his cleverness as a writer, and he has wonderful early memories growing up in Monroe, MI (25 miles south of Detroit), listening as his dad played everything from classical music to The Beatles. “A lot of my development as an artist and writer these past few years has been about me growing up as a man, too,” the singer says. “Everyone used to call my dad ‘Mr. Sharkey’ and I decided to go with that as a form of tribute.”
Also influential in shaping Sharkey’s musical sensibilities were his mother, who loved pop music, and his grandmother who was big into musicals and helped foster his early love for Sinatra. He first discovered his vocal gifts around age 5 when someone in the family whipped out an old 8-track of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” and Sharkey matched the voice note for note. Growing up in the shadows of Motown, Sharkey also was a huge fan of R&B greats Brian McKnight and Toni Braxton and considered himself a “megafan” of Michael Jackson. He developed an appreciation of jazz through his grandmother, who invited the family to hang out with her at jazz clubs in Chicago. While living with a roommate in his late teens, he was cleaning up and a Harry Connick, Jr. CD happened to fall out. “I put it in and was hooked,” Sharkey says. “I sang along and realized that my voice matched with his very well. To this day, I get Harry Connick comparisons and I always find that flattering.”
After taking musical theatre classes at a local community college, Sharkey moved briefly to New York to explore that world, then returned to Michigan and enrolled at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where he received a BFA in Fine Arts. While cultivating his musical talents, making those YouTube videos and starting to perform at local jazz clubs (a sold out show at Cliff Bell’s in 2010 got him on his way), he began developing his skills as a visual artist and painter as well. His work in oils based pop surrealism/pop contemporary art has been widely praised locally, and, among other events, he had a well-attended showing at N’namdi Center for Contemporary Art showcasing an exhibit of nine 6’ x 4’ paintings of people’s faces he called “Dollface.”
“Both in the visual realm and in music, if you’re an artist at heart, you have no choice but to create original pieces and songs that convey a message about who you are in your soul,” says Sharkey. “Both take a lot of focus and fleshing out of ideas that mean the most to me. With the music, for instance, I’m obviously a big fan of swing, and I have a song called ‘Swing Don’t Cost a Thing,’ which is an ode to my crooner roots and my love for the coolness of wearing a suit in an era where that’s not mandatory like it used to be. So I wrote a song about having swagger and dressing nice and being attentive to how we should present ourselves to the world.”