|
|
|
|
The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • On this 'musical journey': Life's been full of high notes for former LV resident

    • email print
    • "Peculiar, if not mind blowing" highlights from...

      • Colonel Sanders personally cooked chicken for Tennessee Ernie Ford and me.
      • I became a rare statistic in 1957 when I walked off "The Ed Sullivan Show." The only other performer...

      » Read more
      X
      "Peculiar, if not mind blowing" highlights from Randy Sparks' life, as he describes them:

      • Colonel Sanders personally cooked chicken for Tennessee Ernie Ford and me.

      • I became a rare statistic in 1957 when I walked off "The Ed Sullivan Show." The only other performer to do the same was Frank Sinatra, and he later shook my hand.

      • I sang the title song in Robert Mitchum’s movie, "Thunder Road."

      • I bought the first Big Mac sold in Norway.

      • My first Grammy (and I intend to win more) was presented to me by the person who, eight years earlier, had advised me to “go back to where you came from, as you don’t have what it takes, and you’ll save yourself a lot of heartache.” That was Gordon McRae.

      • My first 21 years was lived as Lloyd Sparks. I was given the name Randy by Henry Willson, the Hollywood agent who also named Tab Hunter, Rory Calhoun, and Rock Hudson.

      • Because I wrote a song titled "Saturday Night In Toledo Ohio," I was appointed musical ambassador of Toledo, Ohio (not-in-residence).

      • Howard Hughes was a long-term fan of mine.

      • Our first invitation to The White House was received from JFK, and we were to

      have been there when he returned from Dallas. That invitation was later honored by LBJ.

       • I served as Burl Ives’ opening act for more than 30 years, and he was my dearest friend. I was holding his hand when he took his last breath.

      • My world-famous group, The New Christy Minstrels, has been honored with a star on The Walk Of Stars in Palm Springs, Calif., and we have our own signature guitars by Martin.

      • I’ve been married to the same beautiful lady, actress Diane Jergens, for 52

      years, and we have four honorable offspring. We also have assorted grandchildren, five in number, as I recall.

  • Later this month will be a homecoming, of sorts, for Randy Sparks, a former Leavenworth residents and accomplished folk musician.
    He and his band, The New Christy Minstrels, are slated to play June 20 and 21.
    In this Q5, Sparks talks about his life and career, which has included performing with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.
    1. Randy, after growing up in Leavenworth, you put together the first "big group" of folk musicians back in 1961, The New Christy Minstrels. What and who inspired you to be one of the pioneers of popular folk music?
    "When I was 7 years old, I lived on Pawnee Street, between 12th and 13th, and my family’s prized possession was a Zenith console radio, a real piece of 1940-modern furniture. One day, I heard a voice and a song that mesmerized me. This was in the ‘big band era,’ and the voice was unaccompanied, except for a few guitar chords and notes.
    "The song was rustic and lovely. 'I am a poor Wayfarin’ Stranger, travelin’ through this world of woe, and there’s no sickness, no toil or danger in that bright land to which I go. … Hello, everybody, my name is Burl Ives, and I’m The Wayfarin’ Stranger.' He sang so beautifully that my life was changed forever. I no longer wanted to be a fireman or a policeman or a pilot, I wanted to be a Wayfarin’ Stranger.
    "My father worked at Abernathy Furniture where he earned $18 for a 40-hour week, and when my cousin called from California to tell my father that he could make no less than a dollar an hour on the West Coast, we moved to Oakland. We had a ’41 Chevy Club Coupe, and we pulled a 20-foot National trailer, as we’d been warned that affordable housing was scarce.
    "It was a culture shock to be uprooted from sleepy Leavenworth and plunked down in the melting pot of wartime Oakland, but I was blessed by the changes. I was taught to behave in Kansas, and I was urged to compete in California, two of life’s most important lessons, I believe. Most of my friends are dead now, as they hadn’t learned to behave.
    "My mother told me about the magic of poetry when I was maybe 4. She explained how words rhyme, and that was exciting to me. Still is. My seventh-grade science teacher was a wannabe songwriter, and he inspired me to create new songs. It’s the best job anybody could ever want. I still work at it every day.
    "I officially became a performer in 1954, when I was 21, just old enough to sing and play in nightclubs and coffeehouses. I was in my fourth year of college at the time, UC Berkeley."
    Page 2 of 3 -  
    2. With more than 100 performances in the last four years and numerous standing ovations, why do you think so many people are still smitten with folk music and why is it important young people are aware of the lyrics and melodies of this genre?
    "Older people still have very positive feelings about our music, and the times were indeed magical. We are able to take folks on a musical journey back to when gasoline was 29 cents a gallon, and life was easier then.
    "It was also more fun, I think. I don’t begrudge young people their own kind of entertainment, but I feel they’ll be the losers if they never know the beauty of poetry and joy of simple songs that we all sang together in station wagons."
     
    3. Why do you think there has been a resurgence of folk artists and bands, such as Grammy winners Mumford & Sons and Bon Iver, in the last five years?
    "Some of the interest, I believe, has been inspired by PBS programs. We did one titled, 'This Land Is Your Land,’ one of our hits."
     
    4. Can you tell us some stories about your experiences with the late Maya Angelou, John Denver, Steve Martin, Tony Bennett, Kenny Rogers and Barry McGuire?
    "I’ll touch on a few of the high points. My first meaningful employment in the business of show happened in San Francisco, at The Purple Onion. I was Phyllis Diller’s opening act the first time
    she ever stepped onto the stage, anybody’s stage.
    "Management wanted to add Maya Angelou to our program, but she refused to work without a bongo player, and they couldn’t afford another musician, so they offered me $20 more a week if I would play bongos behind her. I bought a pair of bongos and diligently worked at learning to play them. I was told that I would have to audition for Maya, and she was scary. She was not a poet back then. She’d been a dancer in the road company of Porgy & Bess, and she wanted to be a Calypso singer. She was six feet tall, and her language would startle a sailor.
    "She hadn’t yet reinvented herself to become the gentle lady that we came to know years later. I have deep respect for all that she accomplished in her life. The first time I played the bongos for her she said, 'Not bad for a white boy.' 'Does that mean I have the job?' I asked. 'You’ll do,' she growled.
    "I gave John Denver his start in the music business, his first job, and he lived with my family for his first year away from home and college. I recorded him with a full orchestra in — The Capitol Records session — and when John moved out, Steve Martin moved in.
    Page 3 of 3 - "I had hired Steve as a banjo player, and he evolved into a stand-up comic on my stage in 34 weeks. My house in Bel Air was a mecca of sorts for talented people, especially comedians, and our weekly poker parties were hilarious. The only person who didn’t contribute to the laughter was Steve Martin.  I never heard him tell a joke except onstage.
    "I gave The First Edition their first job as an act. They had come from my group, The NCM, and Kenny Rogers was neither the leader nor the star back then. He’s still a dear friend.
    "Barry McGuire is still a cherished member of my musical family. We still work together whenever possible, but he has his own show nowadays. How he became a performer is fairly interesting, I think.  He was working as a pipe-fitter in San Pedro, Calif., southwest of Los Angeles, and one day on his way to work, driving a Cadillac convertible, a song came on the radio, and he liked it so much that he pulled off the road and parked.
    "The song was sung and played by my trio, The Randy Sparks Three, and it was the very same melody that Burl Ives had sung on the radio when I was similarly smitten some 20 years earlier. Barry, in that instant, made up his mind to become a singer, and I hired him perhaps a year later."
     
    5. What will the fundraiser be for June 21 when the band performs at Unity Temple in Kansas City? How can people get tickets? And, how can people find information and tickets for the Old-Time Music Festival where you will headline in West Plains, Mo., on June 20?
    "If people can get to West Plains, Mo., on Friday, June 20, they’ll save money. As I understand it, the community and the university present the Old-Time Music Festival, and there’s no charge.
    "Our concert on Saturday, the 21st, is a fundraiser for our foundation, supporting the work we do in the schools across the country.
    "Wherever we go, we present free programs for young people, simply making them aware of our kind of music. Tickets to our concert are available online, I believe."
    Bonus question: What has been the driving force behind your love for, and commitment to, performing folk music over your lifetime? You turn 81 in July, will you slow down or continue full speed ahead?
    "I have no plans to slow down. I love being alive and in touch with dear friends and fans, and like my mentors, Burl Ives and Bob Hope, I’ll keep doing it until I can’t."
      • calendar