By Andy Argyrakis
What do neo-soul innovator D’Angelo, “Lady Marmalade” Patti LaBelle, guitar god John Mayer, “Shout” singer Ronald Isley, and gospel great Smokie Norful all have in common? Well, outside of being exceptional artists in their respective fields, they’ve all had the fingerprints of star session guitarist Isaiah Sharkey on their recent tours or albums (including a multiple Grammy winner) in the midst his steady ascent as an esteemed solo artist.
“I started out with my first guitar at 3 or 4 years old,” explains the now 29-year-old Chicago native, whose local roots date back to a somewhat rough patch of Cabrini Green on a street that’s since been named after double Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Curtis Mayfield. “My dad and his brothers and sisters had a group back in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s called The Fugitives. They made albums, did shows and really inspired me whenever I [played] their cassette tapes that we had at home. My brothers and sisters are all also musicians and singers. I grew up in the church, and that really started my foundation, but my father was really open to all of us listening to different types of music. Jazz, rock, funk, blues—you name it, we were listening. So I started there and ventured off into jazz, started incorporating it into the gospel music that I grew up listening to and playing in different choirs. People started to take a liking to it, I started getting hired by choirs and gospel artists outside of my church, and started to build a reputation for myself.
“Simultaneously, I was also playing at the jazz club Velvet Lounge, owned by the [late,] great Fred Anderson, and he would allow me to sit in and do jams and sometimes even be a feature,” Sharkey adds. “So I was getting all this information and exposure and started doing sessions at the age of 13 and 14, which led to [connecting with] bigger artists in the gospel industry and then even more sessions. One of the sessions got into hands of the great Ronald Isley. He heard my guitar playing, loved it, and asked me to go on the road with him. From there, it was a domino effect to D’Angelo and all the way up to now John Mayer, with a lot of other artists in between just giving me different experiences and allowing me to exercise what I grew up listening to.”
As a result, Sharkey’s already come through Ravinia once before, when he played in Miss Patti’s band on a show shared with The Commodores in 2016, though this summer marks his proper venue debut as an artist on a July 6 bill of similar stature starring Michael McDonald and Chaka Khan. “She’s a legend that’s sweet like a grandmother or an aunt, a beautiful woman who’s very talented with just a very warm spirit,” the onetime band member remembers of his old boss before reflecting on Highland Park’s ultimate summer hangout. “I had a chance to walk around just a little bit. It’s just a great environment with a great view from the stage, and also from the audience looking in and from the lawn.”
But that’s not the only happy memory that brings Sharkey back to Ravinia: “My manager works with Chaka Khan, so that pitch was placed. I guess a few people thought it was a good idea, including Chaka Khan, which was an honor for me. There’s no voice like hers! I love her version of ‘A Night in Tunisia’ and so many songs like ‘Tell Me Something Good,’ ‘You Got the Love,’ and ‘Sweet Thing.’ The list goes on and on. And with Michael McDonald, there’s the Doobie Brothers and all of the hits, ‘What a Fool Believes’ and ‘Takin’ It to the Streets,’ plus his career as a solo artist and as a session singer with Steely Dan and on so many different albums. I definitely grew up [with] him.”
Sharkey won’t have a ton of time onstage while in the warm-up slot this time around, but he plans to maximize the opportunity, perhaps inserting a few covers in between tunes off his brand-new Love Is the Key and 2017’s Love.Life.Live. Though he recorded an album called Skyliner as a young teenager with his family, the singer-songwriter/six-string slinger considers the former to be his official debut, with his artistic growth even more apparent on the current collection.
“That was more of a showcase as a child doing jazz music and stuff,” Sharkey reasons. “There were some originals, but not anything I could really say that I arranged, so Love.Life.Live. was the first for me. It took about three years to construct that album from start to finish because of touring. My goal was to put out a body of work that was honest and reflected all of my musical experiences at that particular time, plus to have my vocals in the forefront instead of just my guitar with me and actually writing the songs and compositions. I was going for more of a classic R&B/soul style sonically, but I still wanted it to be modernized, so I had some hip-hop and other elements in there. Love Is the Key is a big body of work. It’s 17 songs, so there will be a ‘part one’ and a ‘part two.’ It’s more of the same [vein], but I’ve had even more musical experiences since the last album, so those will be summed up for this particular time in my life. The album talks about all different types of scenarios of love and how I view love in general.”
For those wondering, Sharkey is the proud father to a daughter and is also dating these days, but the new material truly transcends any particular personal scenario and points towards the timeless side of the soul dial, though it’s not necessarily limited to the genre itself. “You’ll hear little influences of Curtis Mayfield, D’Angelo, maybe Marvin Gaye, maybe Stevie [Wonder],” he suggests. “I don’t think I’m as great a singer as those artists, but I do admire their work. You will maybe hear a little Prince, maybe a little Sly [Stone] and just soul music. And when I say ‘soul music,’ any genre of music that’s from the heart, the body, and the soul is ‘soul music’ [to me]. Whether its funk, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix, whatever it is, it’s still soul music. I want to be as impactful as I can, make people feel good again, make people love again and give people pleasant memories. I hear people say a lot, ‘I remember where I was when I first heard that song,’ and I just want to give those experiences to people and affect the world in a positive way.”
Speaking of that pursuit for a near-perfect record, Sharkey’s already struck gold in that department as a member of D’Angelo and the Vanguard (since 2009 on the road), whose 2014 soulfully and socially conscious album Black Messiah didn’t just mark a massive comeback for its leader after 14 years away from the studio, but went on to collect Grammys for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Song (for “Really Love”).
“It was unreal,” Sharkey muses of the entire experience. “It felt really good, number one, because winning a Grammy is such an honor and an accomplishment in the music world. Another thing was the hard work and long years of blood, sweat, and tears, practicing and trying to get good—not to win a Grammy, or to be famous, or have so many accolades, but just to do it because I love to do it. It felt good that the love brought me there. Also being a huge fan of D’Angelo, there was a moment where he wasn’t really doing much and lot of people, along with myself, thought he would never come back out and do anything. Meeting him and having him ask me to be his guitarist, that alone was great, but to be a part of such a timestamp as an album, it’s an even higher honor because it’s something you can play back over and over again. And then to win awards, again, that’s way more than I ever imagined.
“It’s all been a huge blessing. I’m grateful for sure,” Sharkey continues. I reflect quite often in a very grateful state. I never thought in a million years that I would be sharing the stage with such great human beings and artists. As a kid, I just wanted to play guitar and to be able to play a song would make me happy. But the love, and the consistency, and the great man upstairs helped all that stuff become possible, so I’m very grateful.” ▪
Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based writer/photographer whose credits include the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Daily Herald, Illinois Entertainer, Concert Livewire, Chicago Now, Redeye, Metromix, Paste, DownBeat, Pollstar, and Celebrity Access, among many others. He is also the founder of ChicagoConcertReviews.com and the house photographer for the Chicago Theatre.