The List (bragging rights for R. Sparks)

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 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?).