Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Guitarist and vocalist Melvin Sparks is a pioneer of the soul-jazz sound who recorded widely in the sixties and seventies. After falling out of fashion, Sparks's career revived after younger audiences rediscovered his ability to stir up a groove when they heard hiphop samples of his earlier work.
Sparks was born on March 22, 1946 to Daniel and Jessie Lee Sparks in Houston, Texas. His mother ran a café that was a stopping point for scores of itinerant musicians, and Sparks cites her jukebox as one of his first and most important influences.
Sparks's oldest brother Danny was an active jazz drummer whose career included stints with Sonny Rollins and Charlie Rouse, before personal issues forced him to stop performing in 1957. Alfred “Sonny” Sparks, also several years older than Melvin, is a multi-instrumentalist now located in San Antonio, Texas who has performed mostly blues and gospel. Melvin remembers watching Sonny and Nesbit “Stix” Hooper, later of Jazz Crusaders fame, perform together in high school marching band.
Sparks recalls the Houston of his formative years as bustling with all kinds of African-American music - blues, jazz, and r&b - performed by national stars such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker, as well as regional journeymen. Sparks cites the early influence of his guitar teacher, Cal Green, who performed with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Charles Kynard, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and “Big” Joe Turner.
In 1964, Sparks began performing with an r&b band, The Upsetters. Prior to his arrival, the Upsetters had been Little Richard’s backing band, and during Sparks’s tenure they supported a dazzling array of soul and r&b singers, including Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, the Impressions, the Four Tops, and Martha and the Vandellas.
Sparks also served as an arranger, composer and musical coordinator for the group. At one point, Motown producer Barry Gordy attempted to sign the group as the official Motown Review Band, but the proposed name change and Gordy’s desire to maintain exclusivity over the band caused the negotiations to disintegrate.
Sparks left the Upsetters briefly in 1965 and relocated to New York City. However, he had little success in securing musical employment and so returned to the band in 1966. At the time, the Upsetters were touring as part of a large package stage show, and Sparks frequently shared a bench on the bus with the then-unknown guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who was performing with Gorgeous George.
When Sparks returned to New York City in late 1966, his luck started to change. According to Sparks, during his first week as a resident in New York, he was introduced to and befriended King Curtis, Grant Green and, most importantly for his career, George Benson. Benson was delighted with Sparks’s guitar playing and championed him to other New York musicians. Ultimately Benson’s recommendation landed Sparks a spot in organist Jack McDuff’s ensemble.
Sparks recorded for the first time with McDuff in December of 1966, and over the next three years he recorded prolifically as a sideman with David “Fathead” Newman, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Jimmy Witherspoon, Charles Earland, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Stitt, Reuben Wilson, Sonny Philips, Charles Kynard, Rusty Bryant, Leon Spencer Jr., and Idris Muhammad. Of the many albums he recorded, two standouts are Sparks's work on Charles Earland’s “Black Talk” and Lou Donaldson’s “Everything I Play is Funky.” which were hits with both black and white audiences.
At this time Sparks recorded almost exclusively with organ trios and horns. Although the recordings Sparks made in the late 1960s and early 1970s are now described variously as “acid jazz” and “boogaloo,” at the time only the terms “soul jazz” or “fusion” were used.
According to Sparks, “They didn’t want to call it jazz because it wasn’t straight ahead, but they didn’t want to call it rock and roll because it was jazz.” Sparks recalls. “Believe it or not, back then they actually called that music fusion, because it was James Brown rhythms with jazz fused on top. But it was before what everyone thinks of as fusion now.”
However, Sparks stresses this singular representation is more the result of record companies’ directives than a severely stratified music scene, or his own personal tastes. Sparks has performed with many jazz-identified artists, including Pharoah Sanders, Babatunde Olatunji, Paul Chambers, Harold Ousley, Cedar Walton and Sam Rivers, but none of these projects were recorded for release.
In 1970s, Sparks toured with Lou Donaldson and recorded with Johnny “Hammond” Smith, Caesar Frazier, Houston Person and Etta Jones. He also recorded several solo albums, which brought him little fame and less fortune. “Entertainers and musicians of my era caught the very last of what we call ‘slave contracts,’” Sparks has said. “The record company gives you two cents royalties on the albums you sell and from that you’ve got to pay back the recording costs and your little advance…just imagine how many records you have to sell to pay back the studio cost.”
Several of Sparks’s solo albums have been reissued on CD, but the guitarist claims he was never consulted about their releases, nor compensated.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Sparks recorded with Jimmy McGriff, Hank Crawford, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Leon Thomas, Arthur Prysock, Johnny Lyttle, Houston Person, Pucho and Bernard Purdie, Sparks but performed much less frequently.
Distressed by a severe shortage of gigs at the turn of the 80s, he built a recording studio in his home and directed much of his attention to sound engineering. There was little demand at the time for the earlier styles of music he had played, but Sparks earned a living as the founder and front man of a successful wedding band.
The late 1980s saw a revival of interest in soul jazz. The gritty vamps of the late 60s and early 70s had ended up in record stores’ bargain bins, and began to catch the ears of hiphop DJs and producers. Sparks’s guitar, as recorded on the Lou Donaldson album Hot Dog,can be heard sampled on tracks recorded by hiphop artists Mary J. Blige, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul.
The organ band format, too, has returned as groups such as The Greyboy Allstars and Soulive gained popularity performing in a style heavily indebted to the soul jazz recordings of the 60s and 70s.
Yet, as Sparks tells it, there was a single moment that inspired him to resume his career as a public performer. “I found out that they discovered my music in Europe,” says Sparks. “Pucho came back from a tour in England and said ‘don’t you know that your music is just burning up in Europe?’ He brought me an imported CD of my music.”
Sparks has since recorded five solo albums and appeared as a sideman on many others. He performs primarily in the Northeastern U.S., and occasionally tours more extensively with either a quartet or trio.
Sparks grew up in an environment where jazz, blues and r&b happily coexisted, and his sound on the guitar reflects this. In his own group, Sparks allows his solos to develop over several minutes and several dozen choruses. He sticks primarily to the jazz/funk side of the soul jazz spectrum, performing blues tunes such as “Miss Riverside” and “Alligator Boogaloo” in an accessible style. Sparks’s quick, straight, and sometimes hoe-down-ish solos have made him popular with audiences several generations younger.
On the other hand, Sparks credits much of his enduring appeal to the busily syncopated comping patterns he began to master during his tenure as a r&b rhythm guitarist with the Upsetters. Like many of the soul jazz albums on which he has recorded, Sparks’s comping is a fusion: while more repetitive than a pianist's chords, his comping locks the band into a groove, rather than a ceaselessly repeating ostinato.
Contributor: Bill Carbone