Legendary Music Producer and TSU Faculty Reflects on Memories with ‘Queen of Soul’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – On the morning of August 16, 2018, Sanchez Harley reached for his cell phone to send a comforting text message to his dear friend who was gravely ill with pancreatic cancer.

“I’m praying for you. I will always love and appreciate you,” he wrote.

Harley, a Tennessee State University Alum and legendary music producer, did not know that the 18-time Grammy Award-winning Icon Aretha Franklin would not live to respond to his message. She would die that same morning.

“The only way to describe her is she was a one and only, and there will never be another. She taught me a lot,” he said.

This fall, Harley has returned to TSU as an adjunct professor in the Department of Music to teach students some of the valuable lessons he learned from the “Queen of Soul” and other wisdom he has accumulated during his journey in the music business.

Aretha Franklin with Sanchez harley and Jerry Parries, former president of the Tehillah Music Group. (Photo submitted)

“I was working on a duet with her and Karen Clark-Sheard, and I was trying to get them tight on a particular line, and she said to me, ‘Sanchez, perfect is not perfect.’ And I thought about that and taking it to the next level. Taking it to the next level means that you discover what feel is,” he said. “The definition of feel is the amount of imperfection. It’s the imperfection in something that creates the feel, because if it’s perfect, it doesn’t feel good… You really arrive as a producer when you figure out what of and how much of the bad you need to include in something for it to be good.”

Although he entered TSU on a music scholarship as a bass clarinetist and performed with the instrument in the symphonic band, Harley also played saxophone in the TSU jazz band and in the Aristocrat of Bands. He said that during his career he has worked in several capacities, including arranger, producer and coordinator of live events.

Harley credits Tennessee State for playing a major role in preparing him to work with music greats like Shirley Caesar, George Clinton, Rufus, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Kirk Franklin, The Temptations and Patti Austin.

“While at TSU I started arranging music for the marching band under Dr. Greer,” he said. “A lot of those experiences, just getting up and standing in front of the band over in the music building, prepared me to stand in front of musicians on Music Row.”

He said some of the most important traits a music producer must have are a great ear, objectivity and the ability to recognize a great song.

“I told my class in our last meeting, you can take a great song and a poor artist and a poor performance, and win most of the time. But you can take a great artist with a great performance and a poor song and almost never win. It’s all about the song,” he said.

Dr. Robert Elliot, head of the Department of Music, said Harley has visited the department as a guest speaker prior to this semester, but wanted to do more for his alma mater.

Sanchez Harley with Aretha Franklin and his late mother, Sarah Harley, at Franklin’s annual revival in Detroit in 2010. (Photo submitted)

“He wants to give back to his university, and his university definitely wants him here with us. The students have just plugged in to him in a big way,” Elliot said. “He’s got this history of having worked with performers and doing production in the studio. Too often the thing that is left out of all that instruction is how to get the best performance out of an artist. Well, he’s done that for decades, and he is bringing those skills in to teach our students how to do the same thing.”

Harley said the course he is teaching this fall, Introduction to Music Production, is a course Elliot gave him the freedom to design.

“I find that many young producers have a misconception about what production is. They don’t really understand all of the things that are involved administratively. It’s more than administrative; it’s technical. It’s psychological—being able to get the best performances from your people. It’s accounting. It’s organization. It’s tact. It’s so many things,” he said. “I designed an Introduction to Music Production course to give individuals who are inspiring to produce some background of all of those things.”

Elliot said the university is proud to have Harley as part of its faculty.

“We say that ‘Excellence Is Our Habit’, and this is just one more bit of proof of just how much that excellence has been the habit at TSU for over 100 years, and it is going forward.”

Department of Media Relations

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With more than 8,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs and seven doctoral degrees. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.