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Published: 2011/03/16
by Annabel Lukins

Melvin Sparks: 1946-2011

Melvin Sparks, a legendary figure in the Acid Jazz movement, died peacefully in his Mt. Vernon, NY home from heart failure yesterday. He was 64 years old.

Sparks made his name in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as a soulful guitar player (or “gittar” player, as he called himself) accompanying Jack McDuff, Sam Cooke, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy McGriff and countless other soul stars. But for the last two decades, it was the jamband scene that cherished him as a hidden treasure. As the acid jazz style he helped to pioneer enjoyed a revival in the ‘90s, its new generation reached out to Sparks with heartfelt reverence. He made regular rounds at venues around the Northeast, including multiple shows at the Wetlands. He was a father-figure and a groove guru to music lovers and musicians alike, mentoring Karl Denson, Eric Bolivar, Eric Krasno, Jen Durkin, Robert Randolph and Eric Kalb, to name just a few. His heart-pounding boogaloo style was fundamental to the super groups he formed with Mike Clark, Idris Mohammad, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Rueben Wilson and more.

With a ferocious approach that was nothing short of a phenomena, Melvin could play notes faster than imaginable, yet he never lost his stoic stature. Then, every so often, he’d lift his head, look at the crowd and let that huge signature smile light up the room. It was a natural gesture that paid off in instant smiles in return, not unlike his signature teasing of the theme from “The Flintstones” in the middle of a jam. Simple, yet packed with joy no matter the situation, Melvin’s catch phrase was, “It’s All Good.” His status on his MySpace page was permanent: “Blessed.”

Sparks not only leaves behind a large traditional family, but an immeasurable musical family that will forever be better off for having been touched by his inspiration.

This piece written with love by Annabel Lukins. Annabel and Melvin befriended each other in 1997 and went onto support each other’s lives in profound and meaningful ways. Not only did Annabel help plan Melvin’s 55th birthday party at Wetlands in 2001, but he returned the love years later by playing her birthday party at The Lion’s Den. Those are just two of the countless moments they shared. Annabel’s life is better because Melvin was in it. She says, “While medicine will tell us that his heart failed him, spirituality will tell us that it simply took him to a place where it could beat free. Melvin’s heart was simply too big to be bound by the confines of this Earth. We grieve his loss, but his memory and music live on and, truly, it’s all good.”


There are 17 comments associated with this post

Brett Bickley March 16, 2011, 15:28:36

That was a wonderful tribute, Cheech

Elizabeth C. McCorvey March 16, 2011, 15:31:13

Rest in peace Brother Melvin…your gift of music was awesome and like no other…...didnt know you lived so close in Mt. Vernon, NY to me….I hope to meet you in Heaven one day – tell our Heavenly Father hello for me….May God richly bless and keep your entire family

Rob March 16, 2011, 16:18:45

I had Melvin play many times when I booked the Stanhope House and again when I started booking Mexicali Blues. I was shocked last night when I heard the news. It had been too long since I’ve seen or heard him. He always just seemed to do it for me and he was one of the kindest people I ever met. I had him open up for BB King at a theater in Dover, NJ one night. I remember the crowd was almost silent when he came out. One song in, he gave a look over to me with the smile of his that could light up a room. The crowd gave him a long standing ovation that night that I’ll never forget. He tore that stage up. RIP Melvin.

John March 16, 2011, 16:28:02

I became aware of Melvin via his playing on Ron Levy’s Wild Kingdom CD. “Greaze Is What’s Good” is one of my favorite songs.
Sorry to see him leave please RIP Melvin.

colonelburnel March 16, 2011, 16:52:06

RIP Melvin, only saw you a few times but enjoyed them immensely. Really sweet guy too. Thanks I’ll enjoy your music for many years.

Tim Reyes March 16, 2011, 17:44:49

My friend and I met Melvin at a Popeyes fried chicken spot on 48th street back in the 80s. He was so kind. Shared so much info with us and invited us to a jam at smalls paradise in Harlem. God rest his soul.

Chris Friday March 16, 2011, 17:48:35

Great piece Annabelle. He will be missed greatly but his legacy will be cherished forever.

Tom Baggott March 16, 2011, 18:42:38

Thank you, Annabel. You said it all. Thanks for the call today, too. We are all better for having known him and damn could he play gittar! Thanks for all of the music and smiles, Melvin. Rest in peace.

guyforget March 16, 2011, 19:43:34

I saw Melvin rip apart the stage sitting in with the 20th Congress in 2001ish in Chicago at the Metr, and even donned my Elvis shades for a jam. That glow he had with his smile came across in his tone and he made me an instant fan. I treked across the city for a Silver Wrapper late night show with a bunch of artists in town for Jazz fest. A rotating stage of George Porter, Cheme, Robert Walter, and others fed him grooves all night that he never dominated though he was more than capable, he was an easy musician to instantly adore. Rest in Peace Melvin, your playing can’t be replaced.

74Jer March 17, 2011, 00:06:07

R.I.P. What a monster guitar player! I was fortunate to see Melvin twice. I’ll never forget him bringing the house down with Robert Walter’s “There Goes the Neighborhood Band” (Robert Walter, Stanton Moore, Red Holloway, Chuck Prada, Chuck Rainey, Melvin Sparks) at the Bluebird Theater in Denver on 5/10/02. What a show!

Michael March 17, 2011, 00:45:23

Melvin came down to Kentucky with Idris Muhammad to play my wedding reception in Lost River Cave (they actually drove, in a red Ford Econoline, with Floyd King, Oliver von Essen, & Mansoor Sabree). Wonderful human being…amazing, soulful musician. I feel so lucky to have met him and been blessed by his presence at such an important event in my life. Every opportunity I had to hear him play live was so fulfilling. Someone posted something earlier about a show at the Metro in Chicago with 20th Congress, followed by a late night show with George Porter and others (I wish I could remember who else was involved, right now, besides Melvin and George…some far out keyboardist, I believe). Those were 2 of the best shows ever. I remember feeling so lucky to be a witness…wow!!! What a smile he always had on his face! It seemed to make whoever was playing with him or in the the audience enjoy it even more. Rest in Peace, Melvin! Thanks!!!

Gnizzle March 17, 2011, 01:42:00

I was first introduced to Melvin while sharing a bill as a pianist/organist at a jazz festival in VT years ago. I remember that night well because it changed my life. It was not the last time that we would cross paths and throughout the years, I got to know Melvin the person. Not only did his music speak to me, but the way he approached the music. What made Melvin stand out from other musicians was that he discovered happiness in the simplest form musically. He had a rotating arsenal of musicians – many of which seemed to have jumped on stage with no rehearsal whatsoever. Yet, this did not matter to Melvin. For him, it wasn’t about being the tightest, most intricate band – it was about having fun and projecting that onto the audience. And that he did. As you listen to recordings, you’ll hear clams in the band, tempo corrections on the fly, shouting out chord changes to a confused sax player, and most rememberable were the musical cliches that we all could connect with and adore (Flinstone melody). But, this was Melvin. He had gotten beyond trying to go over the heads of other musicians as many of us attempt with crazy melodies, arpeggios, and far out chord changes. It’s often these attributes that keep a frustrated musician working harder towards the unattainable. But Melvin reminded us all why we play our instruments and love being in the audience. I never knew him without a smile on his face. He showed me a light that I am forever grateful as I would not be the musician and person I am today had we had never crossed paths on that night in June. I’ll (we’ll) miss you terribly and I will always cherish the memories of you on stage with a barstool, fat-body guitar and a warm smile that brought joy to us all. Thank you, my friend.

GuyForget March 17, 2011, 11:04:35

That keyboardist was James Hurt. One of those guys that you never heard of before, and I haven’t heard of since, though I did find out he’s pretty notable in the New York jazz scene, but that guy was a keyboard wizard that I’ve rarely seen someone do to the ivories what he did that night. Chicago Festival of Funk….8.31.01. It appreared on a while back, maybe a few years ago, and I think I got the only source for it. That was one of the best show I ever witnessed. Missed picking up my buddy at Midway the next day with a throbbing Red Bull n Vodka hang like never before. Melvin, you played the soundtracks to one of the best musical events of my life.

CircleLimit March 17, 2011, 09:38:29

“ I’ll never forget him bringing the house down with Robert Walter’s “There Goes the Neighborhood Band” (Robert Walter, Stanton Moore, Red Holloway, Chuck Prada, Chuck Rainey, Melvin Sparks) at the Bluebird Theater in Denver on 5/10/02. What a show!” I was at that show too, the only time I got to see Melvin and he was fantastic. May he rest in peace.

GA March 18, 2011, 08:18:11

that 8/31/01 Chicago show was the Eddie Harris/Les McCann Salute Jam with James Hurt, Cheme, Melvin, Porter and Zach Najor on drums, presented by Silver Wrapper in Logan Square – still one of my favorite live show tapes – what Hurt does on the keys that night is insane (he sat in with Soulive at Brooklyn Bowl at least once last week, btw)
RIP Melvin, we love ya . . .

Flossie March 18, 2011, 17:58:16

Melvin played at a jazz event I had in Colorado – 2002…first with his band, then with Jimmy McGriff (Jimmy requested him to be with his group). What a dynamite addition to our weekend. I have a framed poster of him, with THAT smile, hanging on my wall. He’s left many special memories to many people.

Dennis March 22, 2011, 23:24:07

I was extremely fortunate enough to see and meet Mr. Sparks in Austin, TX in 2005 at the Elephant Room. We arrived early to get a good seat. As we walked up to the club, Melvin steps out of a late model van parked out front on Congress with his guitar in hand. I grapped the door for him and followed him in. (already exasperrated) We sat right up front and grooved out the entire first seat (calling out Boogaloo and Texas Twister, to which Melvin obliged). During the intermission Mr. Sparks came to our table and sat and had a drink with us. Beers for us, cranberry juice for him. We rapped about the old days when he played with Lou Donaldson and Charlie Earland. Even talked with him about growing up in H-town. This was the pinnacle of my concert going ventures. To meet a man of such profound influence, a true living legend in the jazz funk world. He was so down to earth and nice. That fact that he recognized that my friends and I appreciated his music so much that he took the time to come over to our table and sit and talk to us will never be forgetten. RIP Melvin, so will be sourly missed.

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