Randy Sparks, Founder of the New Christy Minstrels, Dies at 90

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Randy Sparks, a creative impresario whose musical ensemble, the New Christy Minstrels, helped to jump-start the folk revival of the early 1960s and launched the careers of performers like John Denver, Steve Martin and Kenny Rogers, died on Sunday at an assisted-living facility in San Diego. He was 90.

His son Kevin confirmed the death. Mr. Sparks had been living on his 168-acre ranch in Jenny Lind, Calif., northeast of San Francisco, until a few days before his death.

Before Beatlemania and the British invasion revolutionized American popular music, folk music dominated the airwaves — and perhaps no group was more ubiquitous than the New Christy Minstrels. They were a nearly constant presence on television and sold an estimated two million albums in their first three years.

Mr. Sparks was already well known as a singer, songwriter and actor in Southern California when he drew together nine other musicians in 1961 to form the group, which took its name from a popular stage show in the 1840s led by Edwin P. Christy. Mr. Sparks was quick to note that his group otherwise shared nothing with its namesake, a white group that had promoted the music of Stephen Foster in blackface.

His group was a hit from the start; its debut album, “Presenting the New Christy Minstrels” (1962), won the Grammy Award for best performance by a chorus and stayed on the Billboard chart for two years.

Under Mr. Sparks’s direction, the New Christy Minstrels quickly won the public’s attention for their blend of tight harmonies and casual, upbeat material. They played both classic folk songs, often with modern upgrades, and their own original works, many of which were written by Mr. Sparks, including three that made the Top 40: “Today,” “Saturday Night” and “Green, Green,” which he wrote with Barry McGuire.

“The Minstrels maintain the sort of bubbling good spirits that ought to be bottled and sold at every supermarket in the land,” The New York Times wrote in 1964. “They suggest a Norman Rockwell portrait of nine youths who are smiling their way through song and life.”

The folk scene played out primarily in coffeehouses and on college campuses; Mr. Sparks’s innovation was to bring his group to national attention by getting it on network television.

Between 1962 and 1963, the New Christy Minstrels appeared on 26 episodes of “The Andy Williams Show,” a popular variety series on NBC, and eight episodes of the folk-oriented ABC show “Hootenanny.”

In 1964, they even had their own 30-minute summer-season show on NBC, “Ford Presents the New Christy Minstrels,” complete with comedy interludes by Tony Hendra and Jackie Mason. That same year, they performed on the steps of the White House, at the invitation of President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Mr. Sparks demonstrated a keen eye for talent. In addition to the rotating roster of the New Christy Minstrels, he maintained what he called a “farm” group, the Back Porch Majority, which he stocked with promising performers.

After watching a young Steve Martin win second place in a banjo competition at the Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park near Los Angeles, Mr. Sparks invited him to join the Back Porch Majority and even let him live in a spare room about the Sparks family’s garage.

Mr. Sparks also hired a budding singer-songwriter named Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. as an opening act for the Back Porch Majority, but insisted that Mr. Deutschendorf pick a shorter stage name. He chose John Denver.

Among the other stars who began their careers under Mr. Sparks’s tutelage were Kenny Rogers, who went on to sell more than 100 million records as a country star; Kim Carnes, best known for her 1981 hit “Bette Davis Eyes”; Mr. McGuire, whose 1965 record “Eve of Destruction,” like “Bette Davis Eyes,” reached No. 1; Gene Clark, who became a founder of the Byrds; and Larry Ramos, who became the first Asian American to win a Grammy while a member of the New Christy Minstrels in 1963 and went on to join the Association.

As the group’s popularity and touring schedule expanded, Mr. Sparks stepped back from performing to focus on managing the ensemble. He also opened his own club in Los Angeles, Ledbetter’s, which he used as a testing ground for potential musicians.

Mr. Sparks sold his interest in the New Christy Minstrels in the mid-1960s for $2.5 million, the equivalent of about $24 million today, and moved his family to rural Northern California. There he began a 30-year working relationship with his idol and mentor, Burl Ives. Mr. Sparks wrote songs for Mr. Ives and often performed as his opening act.

Lloyd Arrington Sparks was born on July 29, 1933, in Leavenworth, Kan., though his family soon moved to Oakland, Calif., where he grew up. His father, Lee Sparks, built furniture and later worked in a shipyard. His mother, Pearl (Arrington) Sparks, ran the home.

He briefly attended the University of California, Berkeley, but left to write songs, which he had begun doing as a teenager. However, not long after relocating to San Diego and starting to perform under the stage name Randy Sparks, he was drafted into the U.S. Navy.

During his assignment aboard the aircraft carrier Princeton, he kept writing songs and playing music. He won a Navy talent contest twice, an accomplishment that got him a spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and a part in a touring entourage of Navy musicians.

After leaving the service, Mr. Sparks signed a contract to appear alongside the comedian Bob Hope on television and on tour. He also recorded two solo albums, “Randy Sparks” (1958) and “Walkin’ the Low Road” (1959), and made movies: He had the lead role in the 1960 crime thriller “The Big Night” and a supporting part in the drama “College Confidential” that same year.

Clean-cut and square-jawed, Mr. Sparks had a face for television, and he became a regular on the many variety shows that were common fare on 1950s TV. At first he played calypso, but he soon shifted to the folk music that was increasingly popular in the bars and clubs around Los Angeles.

His marriage to Jackie Miller, who was briefly in the New Christy Minstrels, ended in divorce. He married Diane Jergens, an actress, in 1962, and they were together until her death in 2018. Along with his son Kevin, he is survived by another son, Cameron; his daughters, Melinda and Amanda; his sister, Naomi Allen; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Sparks formed a folk trio with his first wife, Ms. Miller, but he aspired to a bigger, richer sound. He persuaded two other folk groups to merge with his, and, after he added a few more musicians, the New Christy Minstrels were born.

After Mr. Ives, his mentor, died in 1995, Mr. Sparks reconnected with the New Christy Minstrels, who were still performing with a new generation of members. Mr. Sparks bought back control of his creation, and for the next 25 years he managed, wrote music for and performed with his old ensemble.

The venues were much smaller, mostly around Northern California, but Mr. Sparks didn’t mind.

“I don’t even care that there’s no market for what I write,” he told The Stockton Record in 2019. “I still write songs that are fun to sing, and I’m still committed to teaching history with ditties.”



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