“I knew exactly the sound I was looking for, but had never heard it before,” Sparks, founding member of The New Christy Minstrels (TNCM), said in a phone interview from Leavenworth, Kansas. “I heard a sound in my mind, and envisioned a group that would be as entertaining as The Kingston Trio, but have the choral power of The Normal Luboff Choir.”
In Sparks’ mind he heard 14 talented voices coming together, creating magnificent harmonies with multiple voices hitting all the high and low notes. That’s how The New Christy Minstrels began and how the group rehearsed, right up until their first recording session when four members couldn’t make it.
So 10 did the work of 14 and the rest is history; one of the group’s first gigs was at the Greek Theater and its debut album “Presenting The New Christy Minstrels” won a Grammy Award in 1962 and stayed on the Billboard charts for two years.
Over 50 years, 20-plus albums and countless hits later, the sound remains the same as audiences hear during two shows at 1 and 6 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday, October 30. Over 300 different musicians have been a part of the Minstrels during the past 50-plus years but Sparks says the current seven-member lineup is the best yet in presenting the group’s signature folk sound.
That’s saying something because probably no group in history has spawned more careers than The New Christy Minstrels. Kenny Rogers, Barry McGuire, Kim Carnes and Gene Clark are but a few of the group’s alumni; others include late actress Karen Black, Barry Kane who was with The Association, many others.
The current lineup also has star power; Dave Deutschendorf is the late John Denver’s uncle and Dave Rainwater is Brenda Lee’s cousin. Sparks toured with the great Burl Ives for 30 years, playing many charity functions, when he wasn’t minstreling. Besides him Becky Jo Benson is the longest tenured Minstrel at almost 20 years with the group. Greg O’Haver, Tholow Chan and Jennifer Lind all have lengthy ties to Sparks and The New Christy Minstrels.
“For over 50 years we have been the best talent show ever,” Sparks likes to say. “We’re still alive, we’re still creative, and still eager to please. We’ll do all the old songs you came to hear, if you’ll allow just a couple of newer ones.”
The list of hit songs is nearly as long as that of people who have performed them. “Green, Green” written by Sparks was one of the Minstrels’ favorites. “It was our biggest hit in the rock and roll market and really put us on the map,” Sparks said.
Then there’s “Last Farewell,” a 1963 song from the album Ramblin’. “It was (President John F. Kennedy’s) favorite song,” Sparks recalled. “We were invited to The White house to sing it for him and then he was killed before we got there. (President Lyndon B. Johnson) honored the invite anyway. His daughters were fans.”
Songs like “Saturday Night” and “Today” take audiences on a folk music journey bound to bring back memories. For Sparks it’s been an incredible trip indeed and he’s seen the music industry’s good, bad and ugly throughout his career. Yes there were hit songs but The New Christy Minstrels were also muscled away from him at one time by a greedy record company with “hoodlums in suits,” he said.
Finally Sparks was able to lease back the name and group he created before eventually purchasing it outright. He donated the name to the New Christy Minstrels foundation. “It’s all about keeping alive old-fashioned music,” he said. “Songs had lyrics, stories were told and wonderful tales and yeah, they had rhythm and beat too.
“I’ve been a songwriter since I was 13,” Sparks, who has played Carnegie Hall and had fried chicken personally prepared for him by the Kentucky Colonel himself on television, said. “I write songs every day. It doesn’t matter that they’re no longer in demand.” Perhaps, but The New Christy Minstrels still are, playing some 250 concerts since 2010. After the show stick around for autographs in the lobby; how many groups do that? Tickets are $25.
Call the Big Bear Lake Performing Arts Center at (909) 866-4970.