Beating the Odds

UPDATED 12/23/1996 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 12/23/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

KEVIN SHARP FLASHES A SMILE AS he kicks back in his record company's Nashville studio and takes an accounting of his stunning good fortune. Since last year the 26-year-old country singer has gotten married, landed a record deal and released a solidly successful album, Measure of a Man. What's more, his first single, "Nobody Knows," is rising fast on Billboard's country chart. "I never quit dreaming, and now I think I am dreaming," Sharp says. It's a classic success story—with a twist. Sharp's big break didn't come because of an agent or talent scout. Rather, he was introduced to a record producer by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which grants requests from terminally ill kids and teenagers.

Sharp's life took a frightening turn seven years ago. Back then he was a senior at Bella Vista High School in Sacramento, a star football player and a baritone with the Sacramento Light Opera Association. Then, gradually, his strength started to ebb. "I lost weight and looked pale," he says. "There'd be days when my leg and back hurt and I could hardly walk."

Sharp consulted orthopedists who told him the problems were the result of old sports injuries. But during the next eight months the 5'8" teenager dropped from 175 to 135 pounds and was so weak that "I was pretty much stranded on my parents' living room floor." Kevin's father, Glen, the retired owner of a printing company, and his mother, Elaine, a retired schoolteacher, felt helpless as they watched the seventh of their eight children struggle to walk. "When you see your kid go down in weight and his whole body is racked with pain," says Glen, "all you can do is hug and hug."

After Kevin developed breathing problems and made two visits to a hospital emergency room within 8 hours in September 1989, the ER doctors decided to investigate. Eventually he was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that usually begins in the pelvis or legs. By that time the cancer had spread from his left leg to his lungs. Sharp's new doctors prescribed aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. "We didn't tell him he was going to die," says Dr. Vincent Kiley, a pediatric oncologist, "but we told him the odds were against him."

Sharp was a few months into his treatment when the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which found out about his case through hospital staffers, contacted him. Sharp says he first thought of asking for Super Bowl tickets or a meeting with a movie star. "But when my thoughts cleared," he recalls, "what came to my head was David Foster." Though not a household name, Foster, 46, is a 12-time Grammy winner who produced Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable." Sharp had been reading about Foster for years. "The man," says Sharp, "was creating music that made a difference in my life."

Foster welcomed Sharp to his Malibu home in January 1990 and had the ailing teenager back several times. But music was "never in the forefront," Foster says. Sharp was simply too sick to think about a career, and the visits, he says, "were like being with family." Meanwhile, says Dr. Kiley, Sharp was "going through hell" with powerful chemo and radiation treatments—but not in vain. In March 1991, the cancer went into remission. That year, Sharp made a demo tape of country songs and played it for Foster. "It wasn't good enough to help him get a record contract," says the producer. But Foster encouraged Sharp to keep working, and the two stayed in touch. In 1993, after honing his craft, Sharp sent another tape, which Foster says blew him away. "Kevin's music is effective," says his mother, "because he knows the pain, the fright, the loneliness in people's lives." Two years later, Foster had shepherded Sharp to a deal with Asylum records.

Gone are the days when Sharp sold homemade tapes. Not that he didn't meet some interesting people that way. One customer in 1994 was Monique Amasio, a Hawaiian-born high school student, then 17. The two struck up a conversation, started dating a month later and married in September 1995. "I knew, regardless of what the future might hold, we should be together for the time we're supposed to," says Monique. In fact the future looks bright, and doctors expect Sharp's remission to continue. "I feel like I'm here for a purpose," Sharp says. "I've learned to love unconditionally, to appreciate life." Foster says he can hear those qualities in Sharp's music. "Kevin's got talent, charisma and something to say," he adds. "He has the tools to be around a long time."

STEVEN LANG
JANE SANDERSON in Nashville

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