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Published: 2002/03/20
by Mike Wilt

Melvin Sparks: A Resonant Voice

In the late 1960s, Melvin Sparks laid down the guitar tracks for two notable acid jazz records Charles Earland's Black Talk and Lou Donaldson's Everything I Play Is Funky. A careful listen to these albums exposes the genesis of the jamband revolution: although his style may now seem commonplace, having thoroughly permeated the scene today, 30 years ago his riffs were as fresh as they were innovative. Jazz, funk, R&B, soul- these genres are equally indebted to Melvin’s masterful modulations.

Given his inventive style combined with his unparalleled technical acumen and prolific musical career, it is no wonder why Melvin Sparks has been embraced by younger fans and musicians alike. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this new coalition is the fact that Melvin continues to alter and reinvent the music he defined decades ago. Having shared the stage with the likes of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, and Galactic, among other bands, his influence will not be soon forgotten.

When I caught up with Melvin last week, we talked about his storied history, his relationship with the Greyboy All-Stars, and his band’s forthcoming CD, tentatively titled, What You Hear Is What You Get.

MW: What was it like growing up in Texas in the 1950’s?

MS: Well, I come from a musical family. Two of my brothers played music professionally, Danny Sparks Jr. (drummer), the oldest one, who just passed away, came to New York first and he worked with all the top musicians, most of whom were just starting out then too. He was in the company of Roy Haynes, Charlie Rouse, Horace Silver and Junior Cook. When my other brother, Alfred (Sunny) Sparks (electric bass, trombone, and drums) finished high school, he and Albert Collins started out playing together and my mother was a gospel singer.

MW: It sounds like your family was a major influence.

MS: Basically, yeah. Particularly my older brother, because he was in New York City working with all the jazz musicians. My mother would give me money to go to the store and buy a record, and later I’d be talking to my brother on the telephone asking him if he knew these performers and he’d say, Yeah I know this one or I know that one.’ And it was true because when I came to New York in 1966 I would throw his name around to get the musicians to let me perform with them. I would say, Hey, do you know Danny Sparks? That’s my brother, I play guitar. Let me play with you.’

MW: After you graduated from high school, but before you moved to New York City, you played in a R&B band called the Upsetters. What was that like?

MS: The Upsetters were Little Richard’s backing band. Although Little Richard came from Macon, GA, his band was originally from Texas. Any time the band needed a musician they would come back home and see who was there first before they would look elsewhere. When I auditioned for the job, they actually hired Joe Hughes before they hired me. Joe Hughes stayed with them for about six months, then he quit and that is when they called me. Originally, the Upsetters were a band that backed Little Richard, but when I joined the they were on their own backing up a host of entertainers such as Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson, Jerry Butler, Otis Redding, The Impressions with Curtis Mayfield, and many others, including some Motown acts.

MW: After playing with the Upsetters you settled in New York City. Who were some musicians you played with during this stage in your career?

MS: I developed a friendship with George Benson and through him I met Brother Jack McDuff and joined him for 2 years in 1967, then I started working with Dr. Lonnie Smith in 1969, and then Lou Donaldson in 1971.

MW: I know you play guitar on the Karl Denson CD Dance Lesson #2. How did your relationship with Karl come about and how has it developed over the years?

MS: I was working in Norwalk, CT and some people told me about this band that was playing a lot of the music I recorded. I asked what the name of the group was and they said it was the Greyboy All-Stars. That name sounded very funny to me, it sounded like it was a bunch of rock cats, you know, long-haired guys with Jimi Hendrix-style guitars. I didn’t believe they were really playing my music. Finally, my manager at the time told me, These guys are down at the Wetlands and they want you to come down. You need to go down there. They are playing all your stuff.’ So I went down there, and sure enough [laughs] When I was down there, I sat in with them and I really liked it. They had their own spin on the music, they weren’t playing songs exactly the way I recorded them. They had their own spin on it and that impressed me.

MW: When you’re playing with all these young guys who are pretty talented, is it difficult to maintain your edge?

MS: Without bragging or anything like that, most of the bands are playing the music that I recorded not all of it, now don’t get me wrong but even the stuff I didn’t record, since it came out of my era, I am familiar with it enough just to be able to play it. I sat in with Galactic once and they were playing some Dr. Lonnie Smith songs that I had recorded with him in 1969 so it wasn’t a problem for me to figure out.

MW: I guess that explains how you make it look so easy [laughs]. Despite this familiarity with the style of music you still manage to drop some pretty stunning riffs.

MS: I come from a school where you have to do the best you can all the time. Lee Morgan did a Blue Note record with Dr. Lonnie Smith of which I was the musical arranger and he was the one who told me that Always be the best you can be. I still haven’t changed this attitude.

MW: In early December you played a gig with the Wizards of Jazz in San Francisco. [Editor’s note: The line-up featured Melvin Sparks on guitar, Idris Muhammad on drums, Dr. Lonnie Smith on Hammond B3, Babbatunda Lea on congas and Robert Mercurio on bass.] When you take a young guy like Robert Mercurio from Galactic and blend him with a legend like Idris Muhammad, what happens? I suspect it is a learning experience for everyone.

MS: With me I don’t know about the others it is a learning experience because today’s young people are doing things their way. Even though the music is from my era, I’m learning their way. I’m keeping my ears open listening to what they are doing and learning from what they are doing, that is without a doubt.

MW: Later in December you did a few gigs with Mike Clark’s Prescription Renewal and again there was a co-mingling of new and old blood with someone like Fred Wesley playing alongside Skerik.

MS: Of course you know myself, Mike Clark and Fred Wesley we have a lot of similarities, and the younger guys Skerik and Andy Cleaves were picking our brains. When we did the soundchecks for that group, we did mostly fast, straight ahead standards and those guys were sitting around asking, What are the changes to this one? How do y’all play that?’ Then at night when we did the gigs, we played with more of today’s style.

MW: Regardless of age, all the players you jam with seem like top-notch musicians.

MS: As far as knowing music and stuff, Skerik is one of the best ones I’ve seen so far in terms of having a good handle on the old stuff even though he might not always play it. I don’t like to rate musicians, but he is almost in the same class as Karl, Karl Denson that is. Karl is very, very good. He knows the old school, plus the new school, plus some other stuff. [laughs]

MW: Did you ever think your career would experience a kind of renaissance thanks to all these new bands emulating your style?

MS: I never thought this would happen, but I am enjoying it. I am having the best time of my career right now.

MW: Do you consider yourself more as a musician or an entertainer?

MS: I guess I think of myself as a combination of both. I was working with a guy named Big Nick Nicholas in 1984 and he was teaching me about Louis Armstrong. How Louis Armstrong was a great musician, but in order to present what he was doing he became a very good entertainer. He also talked about Jonah Jones and Bobby Short and how they were excellent musicians but even greater entertainers.

MW: I understand you have a new CD in the works. How did the recording sessions for the disc go?

MS: I thought they went very well. We recorded it at Tedesco Studio in Paramus, NJ. I used the musicians who are in my current band: Joe (Herby J.) Hrbek on alto saxophone, George Papageorge on Hammond B3 organ Tim Luntzel on electric and acoustic bass (on the recording only, Derek Layes is the current bassist in The Melvin Sparks Band) and Carter McLean on drums. These guys are all familiar with today’s jamband style. So I combined what I did in the past with what I’m doing today.

MW: I hear the album has a few special guests.

MS: Topaz (tenor sax) plays on three of the tracks and the other special guest is Reuben Wilson (Hammond B3 organ) who plays on three tracks. It was a lot of fun. Reuben, he is another guy from back in the day. In fact, almost every jamband I’ve ever heard plays this one particular song I recorded with Reuben Wilson called Orange Peel.’

MW: Yeah, I think I’ve hear a few bands play that song [laughs]. Given this blend of old and new players, one of the things I like best about it is there seems to be a lot of respect all the way around.

MS: Yes and it results in something new. We can all it old school or new school or whatever, but the end result, when the dish is finally cooked there is a whole new concept. You know, something that has never been done before and that is pretty exciting.

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