Randy Sparks (1933-2024)

Pilawt

Final Approach
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Pilawt
This one hurts.

Not only was Randy Sparks, who died Sunday at the age of 90, an innovative and creative genius in the music business, he was a close friend.

Randy was a prolific songwriter and up-and-coming folksinger in the late 1950s and early 1960s, performing in clubs and venues up and down the west coast, and recording albums solo and with his group, "The Randy Sparks Three".

In 1961 Randy decided to form a big folk group to perform and market his vast inventory of songs, much as songwriter Stephen Foster had done a hundred years earlier with a group from New York City called "Christy's Minstrels". Accordingly, Randy named his new group "The New Christy Minstrels," and began recruiting members. His goal was to combine the rough-hewn folk sound of The Kingston Trio with the rich, finely-crafted harmonies of The Norman Luboff Choir.

The new group's first album, "Presenting The New Christy Minstrels", mostly featuring Randy's own compositions, was released in 1962, and promptly won the Grammy for best album by a choral group. Right away NCM was selling out appearances at folk clubs and was signed for a season-long stint on The Andy Williams NBC variety show. In 1964 they had their own summer-replacement network TV series, which included a commercial filmed at the New York World's Fair, in which the group musically introduced a new Ford car called the Mustang. Radio stations played NCM's recordings of Randy's compositions such as "Today", "Green, Green" and "Saturday Night".



The New Christy Minstrels, 1963:


Back Row: Nick Woods, Clarence Treat, Barry Kane. Middle Row: Barry ("Eve of Destruction") McGuire, Art Podell, Larry Ramos, Dolan Ellis. Front Row: Jackie Miller; Randy Sparks; Gayle Caldwell.

1964 recording of "Today". Randy is the soloist:


Randy sold the group in late 1964 to the managers assigned to him by Columbia Records. He preferred to stay in California to operate his own folk music night club, "Ledbetter's" in Westwood. There he formed yet another folk group, The Back Porch Majority, and auditioned new young talent including The Carpenters, Steve Martin, and a skinny kid from Texas by the name of Henry John ("Little Johnny") Deutschendorf, Jr. Randy suggested he change his last name to "Denver" (the name of one of Randy's popular NCM songs), so that (a) it would fit on the marquee, and (b) keep the same initials so John wouldn't have to buy new luggage. John objected, but that night "John Denver" was on the marquee, and nothing was ever said about it again.

From 1965 and for the next thirty years, Randy was the writer and opening act -- and closest friend -- of his own childhood folk music inspiration and hero, the great Burl Ives.

After Burl's death in 1995, Randy re-acquired the rights to The New Christy Minstrels, and gathered as many as six of the original ten NCM members, along with some great younger talent, for concerts around the country and recording new albums -- in Randy's words, "to do it right this time." He also said, "If we weren't so damn old we'd have a future!"

****

I was a teenager in the 1960s, but never got on the Beatles train. I loved the early 1960s acoustic folk groups, especially The New Christy Minstrels. Their album "Today" was the first record I ever bought with my own money. I collected all their albums in vinyl, and again when they came out in CD. The first concert I ever attended was in 1965, The New Christy Minstrels at the Greek Theater in Hollywood. The opening act was a young comedian named Woody Allen.

Fast forward to fall 2002. Randy appeared on the PBS special "This Land Is Your Land" with a couple of other members of the old group, under the name "Randy Sparks & The Minstrels". That was the first I knew they were still alive, let alone performing. I looked online to see where I might be able to catch them in concert. It would be in late January 2003, in Modesto, California, a mere 663 miles from my home in Vancouver WA. I told my wife, "You can go with me if you want, but I'm going."

I met Randy after the show. I told him we'd driven all the way from Vancouver WA (as if anybody had ever heard of it) to be there. He said, "Vancouver! That's where I started the group in 1961." Who knew?

A couple of months later I sent Randy an e-mail, suggesting he consider doing a "Homecoming Concert" in Vancouver. Ten minutes later the reply: "Rent a theater and we'll be there." At that moment I became a concert producer. It was my show -- advertising (radio and print), promotion, ticket sales, program design -- everything.

The funny part of that was, during the months we were putting the Vancouver show together, the movie A Mighty Wind came out. If you didn't see it, it was a comedy about a reunion concert of '60s-era folk acts, including one called "The New Main Street Singers", an obvious parody of NCM. My son saw it and said, "Dad, you're living a movie!"

The concert was in September 2003. We sold out all 546 seats. The story on the front page of the local paper was headlined, "A Mighty Coincidence."

I put together a few more shows for them in the Northwest, and one here in Phoenix after we moved here in 2017.

Whenever I showed up at one of their concerts, Randy had me come up with my guitar and join the group for the finale, "This Land Is Your Land". Once I even was with them on the main stage of a Carnival cruise ship. Whoda thunkit?

Redding CA, 2007 yours truly second from right, with six of the ten original NCM members:



Randy Sparks' music is fun, positive, and always historically accurate. He was one of those people I admire, who are in awe of their surroundings and observant of everything. I once told him I learned more of American history and geography from his music than I ever did in school (true!).

This morning I got out that vinyl "Today" album that I bought back in 1964, and played it on a real phonograph. Scratches and all, it still sounds great.



Randy Sparks -- singer, songwriter, raconteur, curmudgeon, innovator, rascal, entertainer, and friend. He was one of a kind and will be greatly missed.
 
Thanks a fitting salute to a friend, his music and life.
 
Thank you for sharing this... as this strikes a chord (pun) with me. The original Philadelphia Folk Festival was held on our neighbor's farm in Paoli, PA. I have always had a liking for folk music and was a regular at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, PA during my teenage years.
 
My condolences to Randy Sparks family and to you having lost a good friend.

I grew up to the New Christy Minstrels; my parents had every album they released and absolutely loved the group.

I have a lengthy song list on my ipod that goes where I do, and Today among other songs remain favorites thereon.

What a legacy he left. God speed.



This one hurts.

Not only was Randy Sparks, who died Sunday at the age of 90, an innovative and creative genius in the music business, he was a close friend.

Randy was a prolific songwriter and up-and-coming folksinger in the late 1950s and early 1960s, performing in clubs and venues up and down the west coast, and recording albums solo and with his group, "The Randy Sparks Three".

In 1961 Randy decided to form a big folk group to perform and market his vast inventory of songs, much as songwriter Stephen Foster had done a hundred years earlier with a group from New York City called "Christy's Minstrels". Accordingly, Randy named his new group "The New Christy Minstrels," and began recruiting members. His goal was to combine the rough-hewn folk sound of The Kingston Trio with the rich, finely-crafted harmonies of The Norman Luboff Choir.

The new group's first album, "Presenting The New Christy Minstrels", mostly featuring Randy's own compositions, was released in 1962, and promptly won the Grammy for best album by a choral group. Right away NCM was selling out appearances at folk clubs and was signed for a season-long stint on The Andy Williams NBC variety show. In 1964 they had their own summer-replacement network TV series, which included a commercial filmed at the New York World's Fair, in which the group musically introduced a new Ford car called the Mustang. Radio stations played NCM's recordings of Randy's compositions such as "Today", "Green, Green" and "Saturday Night".



The New Christy Minstrels, 1963:


Back Row: Nick Woods, Clarence Treat, Barry Kane. Middle Row: Barry ("Eve of Destruction") McGuire, Art Podell, Larry Ramos, Dolan Ellis. Front Row: Jackie Miller; Randy Sparks; Gayle Caldwell.

1964 recording of "Today". Randy is the soloist:


Randy sold the group in late 1964 to the managers assigned to him by Columbia Records. He preferred to stay in California to operate his own folk music night club, "Ledbetter's" in Westwood. There he formed yet another folk group, The Back Porch Majority, and auditioned new young talent including The Carpenters, Steve Martin, and a skinny kid from Texas by the name of Henry John ("Little Johnny") Deutschendorf, Jr. Randy suggested he change his last name to "Denver" (the name of one of Randy's popular NCM songs), so that (a) it would fit on the marquee, and (b) keep the same initials so John wouldn't have to buy new luggage. John objected, but that night "John Denver" was on the marquee, and nothing was ever said about it again.

From 1965 and for the next thirty years, Randy was the writer and opening act -- and closest friend -- of his own childhood folk music inspiration and hero, the great Burl Ives.

After Burl's death in 1995, Randy re-acquired the rights to The New Christy Minstrels, and gathered as many as six of the original ten NCM members, along with some great younger talent, for concerts around the country and recording new albums -- in Randy's words, "to do it right this time." He also said, "If we weren't so damn old we'd have a future!"

****

I was a teenager in the 1960s, but never got on the Beatles train. I loved the early 1960s acoustic folk groups, especially The New Christy Minstrels. Their album "Today" was the first record I ever bought with my own money. I collected all their albums in vinyl, and again when they came out in CD. The first concert I ever attended was in 1965, The New Christy Minstrels at the Greek Theater in Hollywood. The opening act was a young comedian named Woody Allen.

Fast forward to fall 2002. Randy appeared on the PBS special "This Land Is Your Land" with a couple of other members of the old group, under the name "Randy Sparks & The Minstrels". That was the first I knew they were still alive, let alone performing. I looked online to see where I might be able to catch them in concert. It would be in late January 2003, in Modesto, California, a mere 663 miles from my home in Vancouver WA. I told my wife, "You can go with me if you want, but I'm going."

I met Randy after the show. I told him we'd driven all the way from Vancouver WA (as if anybody had ever heard of it) to be there. He said, "Vancouver! That's where I started the group in 1961." Who knew?

A couple of months later I sent Randy an e-mail, suggesting he consider doing a "Homecoming Concert" in Vancouver. Ten minutes later the reply: "Rent a theater and we'll be there." At that moment I became a concert producer. It was my show -- advertising (radio and print), promotion, ticket sales, program design -- everything.

The funny part of that was, during the months we were putting the Vancouver show together, the movie A Mighty Wind came out. If you didn't see it, it was a comedy about a reunion concert of '60s-era folk acts, including one called "The New Main Street Singers", an obvious parody of NCM. My son saw it and said, "Dad, you're living a movie!"

The concert was in September 2003. We sold out all 546 seats. The story on the front page of the local paper was headlined, "A Mighty Coincidence."

I put together a few more shows for them in the Northwest, and one here in Phoenix after we moved here in 2017.

Whenever I showed up at one of their concerts, Randy had me come up with my guitar and join the group for the finale, "This Land Is Your Land". Once I even was with them on the main stage of a Carnival cruise ship. Whoda thunkit?

Redding CA, 2007 yours truly second from right, with six of the ten original NCM members:



Randy Sparks' music is fun, positive, and always historically accurate. He was one of those people I admire, who are in awe of their surroundings and observant of everything. I once told him I learned more of American history and geography from his music than I ever did in school (true!).

This morning I got out that vinyl "Today" album that I bought back in 1964, and played it on a real phonograph. Scratches and all, it still sounds great.



Randy Sparks -- singer, songwriter, raconteur, curmudgeon, innovator, rascal, entertainer, and friend. He was one of a kind and will be greatly missed.
 
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