ALL THAT GLITTERS By Antoinette May Herndon
RANDY SPARKS ALONG
Randy Sparks is having a birthday of sorts. Better yet, he’s inviting anybody and everybody to enjoy it with him.
Singer, song writer, entrepreneur, the silver fox began his wonderful career 50 years ago this month. He will celebrate the anniversary with a New Year’s Eve concert beginning at 7 p.m. in Mokelumne Hill’s Town Hall.
Sparks began as a roving troubadour and 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 wanted a mix of the Norman Luboff Choir and the Kingston Trio,” he says today. What he got was 14 soloists who sang in harmony and could each play an instrument. Silver-tongued Sparks, the friendly front man, was its heart and soul. The combination worked beyond his wildest dreams.
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, running, and providing a training ground for future stars Kenny Rogers, Barry McGuire and John Denver.
A more recent discovery is the lovely Becky Jo Benson who will be sing with Sparks at the New Year’s Eve concert.
Over the years Sparks heard thousands of wannabe singers. So, he wasn’t too enthused when a junk dealer friend, Gene Benson, said, “You oughta hear my wife sing.” Sparks held off as long as possible before suggesting that Benson bring his wife to the club where he was performing.
Becky passed the appearance test with flying couples. She sparkles. He decided to let her sing one song.
Becky Jo ended up doing the whole show.
“Would you like to get paid next time?” he asked afterwards. It was 1996. A singing partnership had begun.
At this time, Gene Benson was critically ill, growing weaker with each day. In February 1997, with much effort he came to a Minstrels concert. Becky Jo stopped the show when she sang, “I Will Always Love You.” The following June he died. “I know I’m living the life Gene wanted me to live,” she says today.
Randy and Becky Jo are excited about the upcoming concert. “When you’ve been performing a long time, people have favorites and want to hear them,” Sparks says. “This time I’m going to make a deal with them. They’ve got to hear one new song for every old one.”
Sparks has been a resident of Mokelumne Hill since 1968. His home, originally built in 1854, is a classic example of Gold Rush history and architecture and is thought to be the oldest three story building in the state. It still bears the plaque, Adams & Co.—the express line that evolved into Wells Fargo.
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.” The building bulges with stuffed buffaloes, vintage guitars, boxing gloves, and mining tools.
Sparks’ wife, the former Diane Jurgens, tends bar downstairs in Adams & Company—now a saloon. Above her head on the ceiling is a voluptuous nude culled from another 19th century bar. 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.”
* * * Tickets for the Jan. 31 concert are $15 for adults, $5 for accompanied children and $50 for non-accompanied children. They are for sale at Adams & Co. and at the door. Reservations may be made by calling 286-1331.