Still Sparking After 50 Years
By Antoinette May Herndon
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, “Merry Christmas Volume II.”
Sparks will share many of his new songs at a New Year’s Eve concert, beginning at 9 p.m. at the Mokelumne Hill Town Hall. Tickets may be reserved by calling 286-1331.
The album, a follow up of Sparks’s amazing hit of 43 years ago, features Randy’s new songs sung by His Minstrels and the Missoula Children’s Theatre choir and the - Gilroy High School Choir.
A lively raconteur, the silver fox speaks candidly of a career that began in December 1954 when he was 21. Stepping stones included playing the bongos for Maya Angelou in her earlier incarnation as a Calypso singer and warming up the crowds for Phyllis Diller at San Francisco’s famous Purple Onion.
The following year, he broadened his musical horizons, taking his one-man show to Los Angeles. Against all odds, the man who’d gotten off the bus with just $6 to his name, landed a singing job in a nightclub where Julie London was headlining.
Randy’s second week, a customer advised him: “Give it up, kid. Go back to wherever you came from. You don’t have what it takes and you’ll be saving yourself a lot of heartache.”
The young singer nodded politely but kept his own counsel. “Who was that guy?” Randy later asked the cook. “He looks familiar.”
The man looked at him in astonishment. “That’s Gordon MacRae. He’s in town to do “Oklahoma.”
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. (No mention was made of their earlier conversation.)
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 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 with egos so outrageous that I saw myself as a Clyde Beatty character, keeping the tigers at bay with a whip and chair.
“I wanted t be liked, but that was impossible, so I opted for success. I can actually remember the day, the very moment, when I grew up—when I finally stopped trying to be everybody’s friend and became the boss. It wasn’t a happy decision but it couldn’t work any other way. Oddly enough, now it does, even with the same people—the older, original minstrels. Guess we’re all easier to live with these days.
The minstrels’ first concert contract was the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles where they opened for Henry Mancini and Andy Williams. Over the years the New Christy Minstrels provided an early training ground for Kenny Rogers, Barry McGuire,and actress Karen Black.
Sparks gave John Denver his first job and a new name. (The original was Little Johnny Deutschendorf.) The singer lived rent free in the Sparks’ Bel Air home his first year in show business. When he moved on Steve Martin moved in. Sparks also gave Martin his start, saying today: “He came to me a banjo player and left a comic.”
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 more than 300 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.’
“‘But I was in your group,’ they say when I look blank. Now 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 $2.3 million. So there, Gordon MacRae!
Sparks was Burl Ives’ writer and opening act for more than thirty years. The two were lifelong friends and Sparks was with Ives when he died. Randy also wrote for Glen Campbell and Ann Murray and continues to tour and do studio work.
In 1968, he purchased a 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 Jergens, 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. We are too fortunate as a nation to be unhappy about anything. Yes, we need to improve the system—but not by throwing out all that’s good. That’s what my recording, “This Land is Your 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 we did the Jonathan Winters Special. Guess who booked us? 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.”
1) Music man Randy Sparks plays the guitar in his famous Mokelumne Hill saloon, the Hold in the Wall 2) Randy Sparks and his singing partner Becky Jo Benson will perform Dec. 31, in Mokelumne Hill.