Sharp was born in Topeka, Kansas in 1924. His family had settled there because Kansas was, during slavery times, a free state. Sharp’s great-grandmother was a slave and he remembers her telling him stories about lying on the floor while cannonballs blasted through the cabin. The Great Depression soon followed, and Sharp’s parents sent him to live with relatives in Los Angeles while they went to New York to seek their fortune.
Sharp’s father was a concert tenor who won several small roles in Broadway shows but never hit it big. However, their social life was rich; they lived in an apartment building in Harlem with fellow residents Duke Ellington, Walter White, Roy Wilkins and artist Aaron Douglas. It was the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, and poet Langston Hughes was a family friend; Orson Welles had recently staged his famous Black Macbeth at the nearby Lafayette Theater.
Young Bobby stayed in Los Angeles with his pious grandparents and great-grandmother until he was 12, when he begged his parents to let him come to New York. Some family friends drove him cross-country in 1936, and he arrived in the midst of a cocktail soiree in his parents’ apartment on Sugar Hill.
Sharp attended high school in the Bronx and took his first job as an office “go-fer” for the Rockefeller Foundation. When World War II began Sharp joined the Army, was sent first to Ft. Dixon, New Jersey, then joined the 372nd Infantry regiment stationed in New York City, guarding the city and ports. Eventually he was transferred to Breckenridge, Kentucky, where he served until being discharged in 1944. While in the Army, Sharp had begun to sing a bit, “just for kicks,” he says. With the help of the GI Bill he chose to go to music school.