GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations: Sharon Isbin

From Elvis Presley to Andrés Segovia, GRAMMY-winning classical guitarist reveals five GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that connect her musical dots
  • Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
    Sharon Isbin
February 11, 2014 -- 5:14 pm PST
By Steve Hochman /

(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various individuals who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)

There aren't many artists whose musical dots connect Elvis Presley, Andrés Segovia and "Space Oddity" astronaut Chris Hadfield, particularly among classical guitarists. But those are key points highlighted as Sharon Isbin draws the rather complex, colorful picture of her wide-ranging musical accomplishments and the evolution of her tastes and sensibilities, not to mention astonishing skills behind them.

Presley and model rocketry both led to her dedication to guitar, if indirectly, which, in turn, led to a guitar she endorsed and her album, American Landscapes, accompanying Hadfield in a space shuttle rendezvous with Russian cosmonauts in 1995.

"Chris Hadfield was going to be launched in the space shuttle [Atlantis]," says Isbin. "He'd discovered a travel guitar I endorsed and offered to take one up as a gift to a Russian cosmonaut on the space station. What about the synchronicity of that?"

Synchronicity figures in many of her connections, from being a student under Segovia, to collaborating with Joan Baez, to recording with a wide range of guitar stars (Steve Vai and Heart's Nancy Wilson, among them) on her latest album, 2011's Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions. It's all about her continuing journey.

The two-time GRAMMY winner has given much thought to these connections lately. Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, a documentary about her life and art, has just been completed, and it's yielded certain patterns and unexpected epiphanies, which are clearly reflected in her choices of GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations recordings.

Music Of Albéniz & Granados
Andrés Segovia
Decca (1944)
Inducted 1998

"I first met [Segovia] when I was 14. My father is a scientist and would commute a couple of times a month to Washington, D.C., from Minneapolis where we lived. Doing so, he discovered a guitar shop where the owner, Mr. Papas, was a colleague and friend of Andrés Segovia. My father would fly me up. I started with having a lesson with Mr. Papas. He offered, after giving me a few lessons, to introduce me to Segovia when he came to D.C.

"One thing that stuck with me and stayed in my memory was to be a few inches away from [Segovia], the beautiful gemlike tone he had in his right hand, and to experience that so close was something that became a model for me that I always held as an ideal sound that I wanted to create. Like melting butter. This beautiful sound you could bathe in.

"He is best known for Spanish music, which is featured on this 1944 album. This music is really something [that] brought out the essence of the compositions. Even though they were written for piano, he made it sound like guitar music, because both of these composers were inspired by Spanish flamenco [guitar]. And they tried to bring that to the piano, but here it found its home."

"Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
Elvis Presley
RCA Victor (1960)
Inducted 2007

"Why did I pick the guitar? When I was 9 years old, our family took a sabbatical year to live in Italy. My older brother said he wanted guitar lessons. My parents managed to find a teacher who had studied with Segovia who was touring through Europe and coming twice a week to Varese, where we were living. Aldo, the teacher, lived in Milan and would commute. My parents brought my brother to the interview and as soon as he realized it was classical, he said, 'No! What I wanted to do was be the next Elvis Presley!' He never took a lesson and I offered to take his place. I had played piano [for] a couple of years, but gave it up at 8. So I said I would volunteer for this.

"Later when I became a teenager and then [a] college student, I really fell in love with Elvis Presley's music. Magical! His voice [had] a tone with similar features to Segovia. This song — the end of each line is like a kiss, so beautiful and sensuous. I relate to that, the tactile feeling of touching the strings. If it hadn't been for Elvis Presley, I wouldn't have started guitar."

Chopin: The Complete Nocturnes
Artur Rubinstein
RCA Red Seal (1965)
Inducted 2004

"When I was about 14, we were back living in Minneapolis and I had a chance to hear Artur Rubinstein do a solo recital of all Chopin. That was mesmerizing. To me, he is the ideal Chopin interpreter. I have listened to this CD so many times it's amazing it still plays. The lyricism of his playing, the sensuality of it, the way he phrases, the sense of rubato — all of that became a model for me on guitar, even though I don't play Chopin."

Stan Getz & João Gilberto
Verve (1964)
Inducted 1999

"I was very fortunate also to meet Laurindo Almeida in the 1980s, one of the great Brazilian guitarists who brought bossa nova to North America. We ended up having a trio called Guitarjam, and in that process he introduced me to Brazilian music. To have a mentor like [him] and learn the in-between beat and perform and record with him for five years was a joy as well. During that time I met Tom Jobim [composer/guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim], and worked in collaboration with him as well as another Brazilian guitarist, Carlos Barbosa-Lima. We recorded an album with him and opened one of Jobim's concerts in New York. And Jobim plays on this album, a perfectly ideal example of Brazilian bossa nova. You can hear Jobim playing and the beautiful voice of Gilberto.

"This is the album that introduced Astrud Gilberto in 'The Girl From Ipanema,' so it's historic as well as being a great representation of bossa nova to this day. And Stan Getz, being a great sax player, little did I know that I would soon be collaborating with Paul Winter, another great aficionado of his. We formed a trio with percussionist Thiago de Mello, performed together for many years and made an album, Journey To The Amazon. That was the first year [1998] The Recording Academy [awarded] the [Best Classical Crossover Album] category and we received a nomination."

Joan Baez
Joan Baez
Vanguard (1960)
Inducted 2011

"When I was a kid and volunteered to take lessons, it was because I was familiar with folk music and loved it. And when I was in college I was over the moon about Joan Baez. I can't tell you how moved I was by her music. It would always make me cry, somehow [I was] deeply touched by the quality of emotion she brought to it and loved the songs as well. Little did I imagine I would meet her, let alone play with her. What happened was I had collaborated with the British composer John Duarte on 'Appalachian Dreams,' a wonderful work inspired by music from the mountains, on my first GRAMMY-winning album, Dreams Of A World, in 1999. He said, 'I'd like to write you another work.' I said, 'How about something inspired by the songs Joan Baez made famous in the early part of her career?'

"I tracked her down and asked if it was OK to have a piece called 'The Joan Baez Suite.' She gave it her blessing. We premiered it in San Francisco. She was away but sent her mother for her, and she gave it thumbs up. She heard a tape and loved it. And she offered to sing on it when we recorded. We recorded out at Skywalker Sound and added it to the album. She sings 'Wayfaring Stranger' and 'Go 'Way From My Window,' on the album Journey To The New World [released in 2009, which also] won a GRAMMY. When she came to New York to hear it, she pulled up a chair and said, 'Why don't you play for me?' She pulled up a chair a few inches from me. I began to play Segovia's 'Asturias' and opened my eyes and saw she had tears streaming down her face. It was a piece her father had played for her, Segovia's recording. It was remarkable that the woman who put me in tears was now having this moment.

"This particular album of Joan's, from 1960, was my favorite. [It's] a perfect example of her music."

(Two-time GRAMMY-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin is currently performing dates on the Guitar Passions tour with Stanley Jordan and Romero Lubambo. The tour takes its name from her 2011 album, Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions, which features duets with Jordan, Lubambo, Heart's Nancy Wilson, and Steve Vai. Isbin is the subject of a one-hour documentary, Sharon Isbin: Troubadour, which will debut later this year.)

(Steve Hochman has been covering the music world since 1985. He can be heard regularly discussing new music releases on KPCC-FM's "Take Two" and the KQED-FM-produced show "The California Report," and he is also a regular contributor to the former station's arts blog "Without A Net." For 25 years he was a mainstay of the pop music team at the Los Angeles Times and his work has appeared in many other publications.)

Email Newsletter