The List (bragging rights for R. Sparks)

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In 2007, when I was about to lead my restored group, The New Christy Minstrels (still under the direction of Randy Sparks) in a hugely important concert at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, I was worried about filling all the seats, so I got in touch with an old friend, a former waitress from my nightclub (rehearsal hall with an audience) Ledbetter’s on Westwood Blvd. in Los Angeles.  She had by then morphed into a very successful flack, a Hollywood publicity agent, and I wanted to hire her for a few weeks to help the people, our audience, remember us fondly.  She told me as tactfully as she could that I couldn’t afford her services, and when she mentioned how much her well-healed clients paid to get their familiar names in the paper, I agreed; I couldn’t afford her.  But she did give me some sage advice.  For free.  

“Instead of offering your readers the same-old boring bio that they always get from an act or an entertainment personality, give them something different.  Make a list of your accomplishments or things that have happened in your life that set you aside from all the other people in Tinsel Town.  Sit down and think of those things that others have not done.  You ought to be able to come up with at least a dozen.”   I am beholden to her for that bit of guidance, and what fun it was to think about my various merit badges.  

The Bible says in Proverbs 27:2, ‘Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips,’ and I fully realize that some of these items shall be seen as violations of my life-long personal pledge of humility, but I’m simply following orders.  And, by the way, these aren’t necessarily in any order of importance… 

I’m not going to mention ALL of the items on my personal list of bragging rights, nor have I been able to accurately place them in order of importance, but here are some…    

Discovered and named John Denver (against his will, and his daughter recently thanked me that her name wasn’t Deutschendorf).  He lived rent-free with my family his first year in showbiz.  Recorded him for Capitol Records long before he recorded for RCA.

Steve Martin became a stand-up comic on my stage (I had hired him as a banjo player) in just 34 weeks. 

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition came out of The NCM, and I gave them their first job as The First Edition.  Kenny was just a bass player back then, not even leader of the group. 

Invented The New Christy Minstrels (on paper) in 1961, thereby creating the very first BIG FOLK GROUP.  Got the act on record and on stage in 1962, won a GRAMMY for our very first album.  Single-handedly rescued the word ‘minstrel’ from the landfill of Political Correctness.  Successfully fought Columbia Records who refused to allow “racist word” to be associated with the label.

Several later-on-important performers got their start with me: Michael Martin Murphey, Michael Johnson, The Hagers, Gary Mule Deer, Richard & Karen Carpenter (they were members of a group billed as The Spectrum, their first job), Michael Nesmith (sent him on the interview for The Monkees), Barry McGuire, of course, Gene Clark (later of The Byrds), The Back Porch Majority (originally The NCM ‘farm-team’), George McKelvey (big in Denver forever), etc.   

Performed at Carnegie Hall and The Latin Quarter (for Barbara Walters’ father Lou Walters) in NYC.

Wrote JFK’s favorite song, ‘Last Farewell,’ and that earned us our first invitation to The White House.  Also wrote Hi Jolly, the Official town song of Quartzsite, Arizona. 

Discovered by Bob Hope (at The Blue Angel in NYC), toured with him.  

Bob Hope brought Del Webb to see me perform at Paul Shank’s French Quarter in Scottsdale in the early ‘seventies.  “He’d be perfect to perform at Sun City,” Bob said, and Del replied, “Much too young.”  Am I old enough now?  (actually, been there, done that a few times already).

Was Burl Ives’ writer & opening act in concert for more than thirty years, and he was my dearest friend.  As I serve as custodian for nearly all of the Ives memorabilia, recently created a mobil museum, and shared it with family and friends on his 109th birthday (June 14th) at Newton, Illinois, Burl’s hometown.

There’s a dentist in Cincinnati, OH, who loves my song ‘Today’ so much that he has the lyrics written on the ceiling of his office (“This,” he says, “for the benefit of the patients in the chair, looking up”).  My words reportedly helped him through some hard times, and he’s into sharing. 

Owned a huge cattle ranch with Tennessee Ernie Ford, and worked with him quite often.  He invited me to his show one day, but this time I didn’t have to bring my guitar.  “This is for you,” he said, “not for me.  My guest today is Colonel Sanders, and he’s going to personally cook chicken for me.  I want him to cook chicken for you too.”   

My trio (RS3) was the first folk act to work the Vegas strip.

Gave Tony Bennett his first (and likely only) guitar lesson.  

‘Mama Cass’ Eliot and David Crosby still owe me money.   

Was Phyllis Diller’s opening act the first time she ever walked onstage, anywhere. 

Served as Maya Angelou’s opening act, and personal bongo player.  

Was Lenny Bruce’s opening act and he became one of my dear friends, but never bothered me with his many problems.  

Was Jonathan Winters’ long-time friend and opening act.  

Still married to the same old woman, 56 years, and counting!  She’s still looking good, but of course, my eyes aren’t what they used to be (that’s a joke between us, okay?).  

THERE ARE TWO LADIES IN THE NCM AGAIN!

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Now, here’s something that doesn’t happen to everyone.  In 1959, I wrote a song titled ‘Julianne.’  It was crafted like an ancient folk ballad, and people liked it right away.  I’d made-up the story, and also the title, as I didn’t know anybody named Julianne.  It was simply a folksy name that seemed to fit my tale.  Twenty and thirty years down the road, I began meeting young women named Julianne, and they all seemed to have a need to credit me for their mothers’ choice of names.  My music, it seems, had touched people, real people, and though its not quite the equivalent of solving problems in physics, I was beginning to feel a wee bit more important.  When we worked Preacher Ron’s Cabin-In-The-Woods near Wauseon, Ohio last November, we met one of these Juliannes at the autograph table after our concert, and she magically showed-up for the jam session at Dr. Ron’s house in Toledo a day later.  She’d brought along her guitar, and that was amazing.  I had never before met a Julianne who could play and sing so well. When we performed in Burl Ives’ hometown of Newton, IL on Burl’s 109th birthday, our special Julianne was there, and she asked if she could join us onstage.  By now, she’d learned and rehearsed most of the songs we’d sung and played at Wauseon.  Wow!  Her sister and mother were there also, and that was another first for me.  I’d met perhaps a dozen of these Juliannes over the years, but never had I met any of the mothers who’d made use of the name I’d contributed.  I was able to tell this story, and also introduce the lovely older lady who’d honored my creativity.  The audience appreciated the moment.  Julianne then told one and all that she’d been shocked to learn that her name was gleaned from such a sad song, and she’d asked her mother why.  “I liked the song and the name,” came the answer; “I didn’t listen so much to the words.”

Randy Sparks wrote this for his mom. (Click here to see the player, then click on the triangle to play the song)

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Randy Sparks wrote this song for his mom and sang it to her on Mother’s Day.  ‘Take Your Mother To Brunch’ is on The New Christy Minstrels’ CD titled ‘NICE TIME TO BE ALIVE’ and is for sale at all the live concerts.  This CD was recorded, and mixed by The NCM Sound Engineer, Becky Jo Benson, and Mastered by Fab Dupont of Pure Mix Studio, New York, New York.

The Burl Ives Mobile Museum

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The New Christy Minstrels Foundation is presenting a precious collection of Burl Ives memorabilia in this moving museum to celebrate the life of singer, performer, actor, and dear friend of Randy Sparks, the late Burl Ives.  First stop for viewing will be Burl Ives birthplace of Newton, Illinois in Jasper County, June 14th (which would have been Burl’s birthday).  For details, please click on UPCOMING EVENTS and scroll down to June 14, 2018.  Then the moving museum will travel to be parked next to the River Inn, Brownville, Nebraska during The New Christy Minstrels’ concerts there on Father’s Day, Sunday, June 17th and Monday, June 18th for the 2:00 PM concert in the Brownville Concert Hall, Brownville, Nebraska.

Who wrote ‘Mighty Mississippi’?

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April 26, 2018, Steve (Slim) E. asked:  Who wrote Mighty Mississippi?  I searched the web and didn’t find its author.

RANDY SPARKS wrote Mighty Mississippi while on board the airplane that was bringing The New Christy Minstrels back from their concert at Carnegie Hall, New York City, New York.  The Captain of the airplane announced that they were flying over the Mighty Mississippi and folks could see it if they looked out the window.  This view inspired Randy Sparks to start writing and singing the song, Mighty Mississippi, which he completed before they landed the airplane.  Then he started teaching the song to the group, and they recorded Mighty Mississippi shortly after.

LAND OF GIANTS . . .Question and Comments from Randy Sparks, Casey J., and John H. April 24, 2018

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Randy Sparks writes:

One of the advantages of folk music happens to be that so many of the beloved stories told in song belong to all of us, that is, they are in the public domain, free of copyright protection, and every folksinger worth his keep is allowed, even expected, to make improvements in the retelling the tale.  One of my goals in life is to keep old-fashioned music alive and entertaining.  ‘The Land of Giants’ album was a favorite project of mine, and I wanted to celebrate the American spirit through some of its heroes.  The John Henry song had been sung to death by nearly everybody, and I simply wanted to create a better vehicle to carry the message.  Columbia Records wanted no part of my entertaining ‘painless history’ lesson, but I ran my own group, and didn’t take direction very well.  History teachers over the past 54 years have thanked me for the effort, and that’s much better than money.   

Question from C. Jones, about the John Henry song in The Land of Giants:

Hi!

I am working on an empathetic research paper centered on an American folk song, and  I chose your version of “John Henry and the Steam Drill” for it. However, I can’t find any information on WHY you guys wrote and recorded the John Henry song or why you made the Land of Giants album. Could you tell me what inspired you guys to make the song?

Thank you!

Comment from John H.

Hi, I just wandered through your Web site here thinking of how much I used to love listening to the group’s Columbia LPs back in the 1960s. I discovered a lot of Americana and the joy of harmony in those records. I loved “Land of Giants.” I always hoped the group could have its own movie, something about the backstage personalities and how they all came together on stage. Just wanted to say thank you to Mr. Sparks for giving me that. God bless you for keeping this music alive.

 

Observation from Randy Sparks

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Then, if there’s any time left, please offer a guess about how Native Americans and primitive tribes of Mexico and Central and South America learned how to prepare corn to keep it from killing people.  Did you know that Gene Autry’s mother quite likely died from eating corn?  

When Columbus came to the New World, he was excited to take back with him a miracle food the natives called maize.  It grew rapidly and was wonderfully inexpensive, but Europeans and Asians who eagerly made use of this breakthrough food began to die-off, as in a plague.  So, why didn’t our so-called Indians and indigenous Mexicans suffer?  The answer was in preparation.  They had learned to make hominy, to free the trapped niacin by bathing the maize in lime water or an alkaline solution.  Did they have chemistry classes?  No, but someone obviously had solved the problem EARLY on.  Corn is, in effect, poisonous if it’s over-consumed, and when it’s all that poor people can afford, here comes pellagra.  I’ve learned there was an epidemic of sorts during the Great Depression, hence Gene’s mother’s death.  People without funds grew and ate corn.  It kept them alive for a while. 

Question from one of our fans.

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QUESTION from Konsultan Pajak Jakarta Slattern

Hi! I know this is somewhat off-topic however I needed to ask.

Does running a well-established blog such as yours require
a lot of work? I am completely new to writing a blog however I do
write in my diary on a daily basis. I’d like to start a blog so I can easily share my own experience and thoughts online.

Please let me know if you have any kind of suggestions or tips for new aspiring blog owners.

Thank you!

RESPONSE from Becky Jo Benson Hi!  We are happy that you visited our web site! 

I truly believe that you can do anything in this world as long as there are YouTube instructional videos.  I am using WordPress to build this web site, and my theme is ‘Sydney’ because I like the way it looks, plus there are many YouTube instructional videos on line from which you can learn what the buttons are for.  You already write in your diary, so you are accustomed to writing down your thoughts.  You can DO THIS!  Never give up, and enjoy what you do. . . the rest will follow.  Wishing you all the best!

Becky Jo

From Randy Sparks. The year was 1955. . .

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This is a photo of an OLD man returning to a former haunt. The Victorian building behind me once housed The Florentine Club in Shreveport.  While I was there, a new act was appearing less than a block away at the Civic Auditorium: Elvis Presley.

There were times when my life seemed to be scripted, and this photo recalls one of the most meaningful couple of weeks I ever had.  The year was 1955, and I was working my very first job away from San Francisco home territory, namely Hollywood (actually West Los Angeles), John Walsh’s 881 Club, 881 La Cienega Blvd.  I was the youngest performer, so I opened the show, and the headliners were all ladies: Julie London, Kipp Hamilton and Pat Carroll, over a three week period.  I felt that I was doing well, as the audience liked me, but after one of my best shows, a man sitting alone at one of the front tables called me over as I was exiting the stage, and said I should go back to wherever I came from, as I didn’t have “what it takes,” and I’d be saving myself “a lot of heartache.”  He looked familiar, and Lucien the cook told me it was Gordon McRae.  The very next night, another man sitting alone, one table over from where Gordon McRae had sat, said to me, “That’s pretty good, kid, but your name isn’t Lloyd Sparks…I haven’t yet figured out what it is, but I will, and I’ll come back and tell you.”  “Who’s that, Lucien,” I asked.  “That’s Henry Willson, the biggest independent agent in Hollywood, and his thing is naming people…Rory Calhoun, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, all the actors at Universal…”  Wow!    

The newest lady singer was very nice to me, and one day she said, “How would you like to go to Dallas with me?  We could have a good time.”  I didn’t know what to say.  She was at least five years my senior, and I was just about to turn a very young 22 by then.  She saw my uneasiness, then explained that her agent in Texas was in the process of booking her into one of two hotels, either the Baker or the Adolphus, and it would be her own show, so she got to pick her opening act, she said, and she wanted me to be there with her.  Wow!  She asked for my bio and 8X10 glossies, and I handed them over.  Two or three days later, she said to me, “My agent likes everything but the name.”  It was then I told her about Henry Willson, who had announced that Lloyd Sparks wasn’t my name, and he had come back the night before this, and said to me, “Your name is Randy Sparks.”  I had laughed it off, but now here comes the issue again.  “That’s a much better name,” she said, then collected another copy of my bio and photo, promising to make the changes.  A day or two later, her agent from Texas called me at the club to say, “The job in Dallas probably isn’t going to happen, and I have a much better situation for you at The Florentine Club in Shreveport, Louisiana.  The pay is better, and it’s an excellent credit for your resume.”  Just like that, all in the same few days, I now had my first contract outside California, AND AN AGENT.  Pat Carroll had gone to a lot of trouble in my behalf, and her efforts were sincerely appreciated.  

By the way, eight years later, when I won a Grammy for the first NCM recording, guess who handed it to me…Gordon McRae.