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Guitarist Isaiah Sharkey on Playing at the Storied Velvet Lounge as a Kid

The rhythm and blues musician discusses Chicago’s rich musical tradition, touring with John Mayer, and more.

Photo: Eddie Victorian/@driven2xcelfoto and Tiffany Palmer/@tiff_tiff_hooray

Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: Isaiah Sharkey, who released his first solo album, Love.Life.Live, in September, and will perform at the Promontory this Friday, November 17. Details and tickets at promontorychicago.com.

You grew up in a musical family. How did that affect your own musical development?

My dad and his brothers and sisters had a group called The Fugitives in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s. They were real funky—they did covers and had a few records. I learned a lot watching them. We also grew up in the church. When I was four, I wasn’t good enough to keep up on the guitar, so I had to sing in a choir with my brothers and sisters. Eventually I started playing bass in church, and then the electric guitar. There are a lot of skilled musicians in church, so you had to be on point.

In my family, music is a tradition. My uncles and dad were no joke on their instruments. I would practice on something at home, and I would go to my father, and I’d say, “Dad, check it out.” And he’s like, “You’re playing the right notes, but you’re not playing the right feel. Go back and work that out.”

Why did you settle on guitar?

I always knew that I wanted to play guitar. My first memory as a child was this toy guitar with a little red button. You’d press the button and it would play a song. There’s this video of my dad’s band back in the ’80s, and I remember at the age of three, four, I would watch that video and grab a broom like it was a guitar—bounce up and down, spin around in circles making guitar sounds. My uncles would let me hold a guitar, too. I loved the smell of the guitar. So there was never any wavering.

How has Chicago’s rich musical tradition changed you?

When I was 14, there was this place called the Velvet Lounge at 21st and Indiana. The great, late Fred Anderson was the owner, and he’d taken a liking to me. I was underage, but he stamped my hand, and he would let me come in. I’d sit and jam, because I was really into jazz music at the time. I got to play with guys like Corey Wilkes, Bobby Irving, and even Fred himself. I learned on stage, and some nights I kind of got my ass kicked.

You just finished touring with John Mayer. How did you two connect?

John is a huge D’Angelo fan. Last October, I was playing with The Roots as a part of a house band, and John came into one of our rehearsals. He was supposed to sit in with us. He walked in and said, “Hi, my name is John.” I’m like, “I know who you are.” So I said, “Hi, my name is Sharkey.” He’s like, “Oh man, I want to play with you.” There was a mutual respect among guitarists. He’s a big fan of good guitarists, and he had checked out [D’Angelo’s album] Black Messiah, which I played on. So he jammed with us, and we instantly had a connection musically. We did the show, and two weeks later I got a call from his management.

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