In Mokelumne Hill
RANDY SPARKS FINDS “A PLACE TO HIDE AWAY”
By Antoinette May
Randy Sparks, who celebrates fifty years in show business this month, isn’t planning a come back because he’s never been away. Home again in Mokelumne Hill after performances in Los Angeles, he’s excited about a new Christmas album.
A lively raconteur, the silver fox speaks candidly of a career that began in December 1954. Sparks, then 21, got off a bus in Los Angeles with $6 in his pocket. Against all odds, he landed a singing job in a nightclub where Julie London was headlining. His second week, an unknown customer advised him: “Give it up, kid. You don’t have the voice. Save yourself the heartache and go home.”
“Who was that guy?” Sparks asked another performer.
The man looked at him in astonishment. “You don’t know Gordon MacRae?”
Some might call it destiny. Sparks loved singing and wasn’t about to quit no matter what anyone thought. Eight years later it would be Gordon MacRae who presented him with his first Grammy.
In the meantime, Sparks continued as a roving troubadour. He played the bongos for Maya Angelou in her earlier incarnation as a Calypso singer and warmed up the crowds for Phyllis Diller at San Francisco’s famous Purple Onion.
All the while, Sparks augmented singing with writing—song after song. Most of them went unnoticed. The connection that changed his life happened in a library. Thumbing through a biography of Stephen Foster, Sparks discovered that the beloved 19th century composer had suffered from the same problem.
Foster’s breakthrough eventually came through an association with Edwin Christy (creator of “Goodnight Ladies”) and his Christy Minstrels. The exposure of his songs by the popular group immortalized Foster’s work in the 1860s. Couldn’t the same miracle occur in the 1960s?
Randy Sparks believed it could and, in 1961, created the New Christy Minstrels. “I was striving for a compromise between the Norman Luboff Choir and the Kingston Trio,” he says today. His blue eyes sparkle as recalls the original group—14 of them, all soloists who could sing in harmony and play an instrument. Silver-tongued Sparks, the friendly front man, was its heart and soul.
The minstrels’ first booking was the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles where they opened for Henry Mancini and Andy Williams. By the summer of 1963, Randy’s classic, “Green, Green,” reached the top forty. The group was off and running.
Over the years the New Christy Minstrels provided an early training ground for Kenny Rogers, Barry McGuire, actress Karen Black and John Denver. In fact, Sparks is responsible for Denver being Denver. The singer was born Henry John Deutschendor Jr. and only changed at his mentor’s insistence.
Those were the enduring stars, but countless others also got a chance at the big time. The group functioned like a major league team with “farm players” honing their skills while waiting in the wings. That talent mill has an alumni of some 500 performers. “I meet new people all the time,” Sparks confides today. “’Hi, Randy,’ they say, ‘I was a member of your group in such-and-such a time-frame, I sang tenor or alto or soprano, and my solo was this song or that.’
“Sometimes these folks think I should know who they are, even though we’ve never met before. ‘But I was in your group,’ they say. I ask you, is Henry supposed to know the name of everyone who ever drove a Ford?”
Though the group continued for years, Sparks sold his interest in the New Christy Minstrels in 1964 for $2 1/2 million. So there, Gordon MacRae!
Sparks wrote for other singers including Burl Ives, and continues to tour and do studio work. In 1968, he purchased his home in Mokelumne Hill. The building, erected in 1854, still bears the plaque, Adams & Co.—the express line that evolved into Wells Fargo. It’s a classic example of Gold Rush history and architecture and is thought to be the oldest three story stone building in the state.
The place is filled with western memorabilia that Sparks continues to acquire on his travels. “I’ve been on the road for 50 years,” he says, “collecting all the time.” Intended as a permanent museum, the building bulges with stuffed buffaloes, vintage guitars, boxing gloves, and mining tools.
Randy’s wife, the former Diane Jurgens, tends bar downstairs in the Hole in the Wall Saloon. Above her head on the ceiling is a voluptuous nude culled from another 19th century saloon. Diane, who was once David’s girlfriend on the “Ozzie
and Harriet Show,” James Stewart’s daughter in the “FBI Story,” the girl next door in the “Bob Cummings Show” and the smart girl on the “Dobie Gillis Show,” has a circle of loyal admirers.
The couple enjoys the bar’s cluttered ambience and colorful clientele. Both have a passion for historical preservation and are active in the Joe Walker Historical and Benevolent Society which Sparks founded. They want not only to save as many historic buildings and relics as possible but to bring history to life for children through musical presentations.
Sparks is particularly proud of his classic album, “Land of Giants,” and wants to share its heroes with today’s children. “Years ago when I made Giants some people didn’t think Paul Bunyon was relevant,” he recalls. “They wanted protest songs. That wasn’t my thing. I’m not a politician or a preacher. I want to bring people together not pull them apart. That’s what my recording, ‘Your Land is My Land’ was all about.”
Entertainment is what Sparks is all about. A warm, spontaneous performer who gives as much of himself to a small, intimate group as he does to an audience of thousands, he continues to encounter enduring fans in surprising places.
“Years ago I did a single in a small Beverly Hills club,” he recalls. “The first show was packed but when I started to go on again, the manager stopped me. ‘Don’t bother, there’s only one guy out there.’ I told him, ‘As long as there’s an audience, I’m going on.’ And I did. The man was very responsive and even did a sing along with me.
“Years later I did the Jonathan Winters Show. Guess who booked me? My one guy audience was the show’s producer. It blew me away, as the kids say now. Guess it’s just one of those bread on the water things. We never know how we influence people, what will come of it or when.”
Randy Sparks’s home in Mokelumne Hill, which houses the Hole in the Wall Saloon, is thought to be the oldest three story stone building in California.
Randy Sparks and his lead singer, Becky Jo Benson, emerge from a “secret passage” in his Hole in the Wall Saloon. There’s room filled with memorabilia on the other side.
An avid collector, Randy Sparks is particularly proud of his World War 1 era roadster.