MELVIN SPARKS-I’M FUNKY NOW.

Melvin Sparks-I’m Funky Now.

Label: Westbound Records.

By the mid-seventies, jazz was no longer as possible as it had once been, and many artists were struggling to make a living.  Record buyers weren’t interested in jazz music, and sadly, disco, had overtaken jazz, soul and blues in the popularity stakes. It was a sad day for music when the insipid, formulaic and bland sound of disco was outselling jazz. 

As a result, many clubs where that had been once graced by the great and good of jazz, were converted into discos. In cities across America, stages where jazz luminaries like Miles, ‘Trane, Bird and Monk once stood and played groundbreaking music were being replaced by a DJ booth. It was a case of how the mighty had fallen.

No longer was it musical titans that entered these once proud musical arenas, instead it was nondescript DJs, whose only musical ‘skill’ was playing one record after another. Sometimes, these non musicians played the latest product of the disco era…the remix.

The remix was another product of a non musician, who sometimes, happened to be a DJ. Most of them, could neither read nor write music, never mind play an instrument. However, they could, often with the help of an engineer, extend a three-minute track to five, six or even sometimes seven minutes. Although this took little talent, the remixer was regarded as a musical saviour by record companies. 

Who better than to boost the failing careers of pop and soul singers than a DJ who can give their artist a dancefooor makeover? It seemed that the music industry was losing all sense of perspective.

Meanwhile, many record companies started to release blues, jazz and soul musicians from their contracts. Other artists didn’t have their contracts renewed, and were left in a musical wilderness. This included experienced artists and musical luminaries like Bobby Womack, who struggled to find a label during the disco era. Sadly, he wasn’t alone.

Another victim of the disco era was jazz guitarist Melvin Sparks, who had released his fifth solo album ’75 on Westbound Records in 1975. After the release of ’75, Melvin Sparks returned to the studio, and recorded seven new tracks, including Disco Booty, which were meant to become his sixth album I’m Funky Now. It was meant to be released by Westbound Records in 1976. 

Despite allowing Melvin Sparks to record his sixth album I’m Funky Now, it was never released by Westbound Records. This spelt the end of Melvin Sparks’ career at Eastbound and Westbound Records, and he was left without a recording contract.

Although Melvin Sparks managed to continue working as a session player, it was five years before he returned with his sixth album Sparkling on the Muse label. By then, disco had been dead for two years, and many insiders thought that the music industry had belatedly come to its senses.

Or so it seemed. By 1981, Melvin Sparks’ I’m Funky Now had spent two years sitting in Westbound Records vaults. However, there was still no sign of the album being released. Little did Melvin Sparks realise that I’m Funky Now wouldn’t be released until 2017, by Westbound Records, who are now an imprint of Ace Records. 

Sadly, Melvin Sparks passed away on March the ’15th’ 2011, and never got to see the release of I’m Funky Now. It’s the album that should’ve been the Houston born guitarist’s sixth album, and maybe the album that could’ve transformed his fortunes.

Melvin Sparks was born in Houston, Texas, on March the ‘22nd’ 1946, into what was a musical family. His two brothers played guitar, and his mother ran a cafe which was a favourite hangout for local musicians. This included Don Wilkerson, Stix Hooper and Cal Green, who would prove supportive of Melvin Sparks and influenced him later in his career.

At the age of eleven, Melvin Sparks received his first ever guitar, and by the time he was in high school, was playing in his first band alongside organist Leon Spencer. Within a few years, seventeen year old Melvin Sparks had left school and embarked upon a career as a musician.

Initially, Melvin Sparks went out on the road with The Upsetters, who had been Little Richard’s backing band, and then went on to back some of the biggest names in R&B. For the next three years, Melvin Sparks served his musical apprenticeship with The Upsetters. The crisscrossed the country, and in 1966, arrived in New York where Melvin Sparks met a man who would transform his career,

In New York, Melvin Sparks met bandleader and jazz organist Brother Jack McDuff, who just happened to be looking for a guitarist. Melvin Sparks fitted the bill and in 1966, he joined Brother Jack McDuff’s band. Over the next few years, Melvin Sparks played on several albums that featured Brother Jack McDuff. This included his 1967 album Do It Now, and the same year, Melvin Sparks played on Do It Now, Jimmy Witherspoon with Jack McDuff’s The Blues Is Now. The following year, Melvin Sparks played on Brother Jack McDuff and David Newman’s 1968 collaboration Double Barrelled Soul. That was just part of the story.

Soon, Melvin Sparks was the go-to-guitarist for anyone who was looking for a jazz guitarist, and played alongside Lonnie Smith on his 1967 album Finger Lickin’ Good. After that, Melvin Sparks played alongside several top boogaloo artists signed to Blue Note between 1968 and 1970, including Lou Donaldson, Reuben Wilson and Lonnie Smith. However, in 1970 Melvin Sparks made the transition from sideman to solo artist.

In 1970, Melvin Sparks signed to Prestige, where he was reunited with his old friend and former high school bandmate Leon Spencer Jr, who was also signed to the label. The pair would play on each other’s albums over the next couple of years.

Sparks!

Leon Spencer Jr was part of an all-star jazz band that joined Melvin Sparks when he recorded his debut album Sparks! with producer Bob Porter. He had already established the Prestige soul-jazz sound, which was adopted by Melvin Sparks. 

Later, in 1970, Sparks! critics had their say on Sparks!, which was an album of soul-jazz that heads in the direction of pop. It was well received by critics, and when it was released in 1970, it was hoped that Sparks! would launch Melvin Sparks’ solo career. Despite the favourable reviews, the album failed to find a wider audience. This was a disappointing start to Melvin Sparks’ career at Prestige.

  

Sparks Plug.

The following year, 1971, many of the same musicians joined Melvin Sparks when he recorded his sophomore album Sparks Plug with Bob Porter. This time around, Melvin Sparks showcased a much more laid back, but funky sound soul-jazz sound on Sparks Plug. It was similar to the Prestige “sound” that had evolved over the last few years under Bob Porter. Melvin Sparks was the latest purveyor of the Prestige sound. 

Just like his debut album Sparks! Sparks Plug, was well received by critics, and many thought that Melvin Sparks was one of Prestige’s rising stars. When Melvin Sparks released Sparks Plug in 1971, the album wasn’t the commercial success that Prestige nor Melvin Sparks had hoped.

Akilah!

With neither Sparks! nor Sparks Plug selling in vast quantities,  Melvin Sparks’ third album Akilah! was make or break for the Texan jazz guitarist. By then, Bob Porter had left the label, and Melvin Sparks was joined in the studio by Ozzie Cadena who supervised the recording of Akilah!

When the recording sessions began, Melvin Sparks was joined by many of the same musicians who had accompanied him on his two previous albums. They recorded another album of soul-jazz, which built on his two previous albums, Sparks! and Sparks Plug.

With Akilah! completed, it was scheduled for release later in 1972, and again, was well received by critics upon its release. However, history repeated itself, and Akilah! failed to find the audience it deserved.  This was a huge blow for Melvin Sparks, who left Prestige later in 1972.

By the time Akilah! was recorded, Bob Porter had left Prestige, and joined Detroit-based Eastbound Records. With Melvin Sparks without a label, Bob Porter recommended that Eastbound Records sign his old friend and protegé. This was the start of a new era for Melvin Sparks.

Texas Twister.

Having signed to Eastbound Records, Melvin Sparks began work on his fourth album Texas Twister. Despite being signed to a new label, several familiar faces played on Texas Twister. They were part on expanded band that accompanied Melvin Sparks, while producer Bob Porter helped him build on the sound of his previous album Akilah! The resulting album was a fitting and natural successor to Akilah!, where elements of soul-jazz were joined by Latin, jazz funk and Latin jazz. Was this the album that would transform Melvin Sparks’ career?

Texas Twister was the most ambitious and best album of Melvin Sparks’ four album career, and found favour with critics upon its release in 1973. However, despite the all-star cast, this ambitious album, Texas Twister, failed to sell, and is now one of the rarest albums of Melvin Sparks’ career. This wasn’t the start Melvin Sparks had envisaged to his career at Eastbound Records.

Things were about to get worse for Melvin Sparks when Bob Porter left Eastbound Records. For Melvin Sparks this was a case of déjà vu.

’75.

The departure of Bob Porter meant that Melvin Sparks was without his friend and ally when he began recording his fifth album ’75. Things got worse when Eastbound Records was closed down, and Melvin Sparks became part of Westbound Records’ roster, which included Funkadelic and Parliament. Both were enjoying the most successful periods of their career, while jazz was in the doldrums.

By 1975, jazz albums were becoming a hard sell, and executives at Westbound Records must have known that it wasn’t going to be easy to promote and sell Melvin Sparks’ next album. However, Texas Twister was the best album of Melvin Sparks’ career. Sadly, the album hadn’t found an audience Despite the commercial failure of Texas Twister, Melvin Sparks was promoted to co-producer where he was joined by Bernie Mendelson.

Joining Melvin Sparks in the studio was an array of talented musicians, and vocalist Jimmy Scott who featured on I Got To Have You and If You Want My Love which bookended ’75. Jimmy Scott and the all-star band played their part in the sound of ’75, which was a fitting followup to Texas Twister.

When ‘75 was released by Westbound Records in 1975, interest in jazz was at an all-time low. Critics were impressed by an album that featured some of Melvin Sparks’ finest performances and two deeply soulful vocals from Jimmy Scott. Sadly, when ’75 was released, the album flopped. That meant Melvin Sparks’ first two albums for Eastbound Records and Westbound Records had failed commercially. The big question would Melvin Sparks be allowed to record a followup to ’75?

I’m Funky Now.

While many record companies would’ve called time on Melvin Sparks’ career, Westbound Records allowed him to record I’m Funky Now. It featured seven tracks, including the Melvin Sparks’ composition Disco Booty. Even Melvin Sparks had decided to jump on the disco bandwagon. He knew his career was at stake, and had to climb onboard the disco bandwagon. The other six tracks on I’m Funky Now were Sam Kennedy, Lulu Laurent and Cole Simon, and recorded by a talented and versatile band.

Very little is known about the band that played on I’m Funky Now, but it’s thought that some of the musicians were from the Funkadelic and Parliament family. They were able to seamlessly switch between musical genres, as Melvin Sparks embarked upon a musical adventure. Over the seven tracks, Melvin Sparks and his band flit between soul-jazz to disco, jazz-funk, funk and jazz. It was an album that hinted at previous albums, but saw Melvin Sparks’ music moving forward in search of commercial success.

I’m Funky Now opens with the über funky and dancefloor title-track. It gives way to Disco Booty where Melvin Sparks embraces disco and combines it with funk on what should’ve been a favourite amongst DJs and dancers. Make It Good finds Melvin Sparks’ scatting as he and his band lock into a groove, before he embarks upon a  musical duel with the horn section. All the time, the rhythm section keep things funky, as Melvin Sparks unleashes a musical masterclass. It’s all change on Love Tones, where the tempo drops and a much smoother, dreamy and jazzy sound emerges. It was meant to close side one.

On The Truth Hurts, the rhythm section lay down mid-tempo beat before the horns and Melvin Sparks’ guitar play starring roles. You’re Gonna Make It is a laid-back, genre-melting track where Melvin Sparks and his band combine elements of funk, proto-boogie and jazz. Melvin Sparks is responsible for much of the jazzy sound, when he lays down a fleet fingered guitar solo.  I’m Gonna Funk You Up, which features a vocal from Melvin Sparks, marks a return to the über funky dancefloor friendly sound of the title-track, which bookends I’m Funky Now. 

With the help of a tight, talented and versatile band Melvin Sparks had recorded an album that he hoped would appeal to his old fans, and also the legion of record buyers that had embraced disco over the last couple of years. DJs and dancers would’ve been won over by I‘m Funky Now, Disco Booty and I’m Gonna Funk You Up. Melvin Sparks hoped that tracks like Love Tones and On The Truth Hurts would appeal to his old fans, who had followed his career since his 1970 debut album Sparks!

With the I’m Funky Now completed, the album should’ve been released later in 1976. However, Melvin Sparks and his fans were in for a nasty surprise.

Despite allowing Melvin Sparks to record I’m Funky Now, Westbound Records decided not to release the album. This spelt the end of Melvin Sparks’ career Westbound Records, and he was left without a recording contract.

For Melvin Sparks this was a huge disappointment, as I’m Funky Now had the potential to launch his career. Melvin Sparks’ five previous albums had failed to reach the wider audience that they deserved. When Melvin Sparks set out to record I’m Funky Now, he knew his career was on the line, after his first two albums for Eastbound Records and Westbound Records failed commercially. It was make or break for Melvin Sparks, and maybe executives at Westbound Records lost their nerve? 

Westbound Records must have lost money on Melvin Sparks’ first two albums, which failed commercially. To make matters worse, Eastbound Records had closed its doors just after the Texas Twister in 1973,  and maybe Westbound Records weren’t willing to take chances on albums that may not make them money? That was despite Funkadelic and Parliament releasing albums that were certified gold and silver. Maybe when it came for Westbound Records to decide whether to release I’m Funky Now, caution got the better of the executives that ran the label. They decided to pass on I’m Funky Now, which had the potential to launch and transform Melvin Sparks’ career. 

Sadly, it wasn’t to be.  After Westbound Records decided not to release I’m Funky Now, the Texan guitarist left the label.  For Melvin Sparks it was the end of an era, and he didn’t release another album for five years.

Now some forty-one years album Melvin Sparks recorded I’m Funky Now, Westbound Records, which is now an imprint of Ace Records, have issued this long-lost hidden gem of an album.  I’m Funky Now is an opportunity to discover another side of Melvin Sparks, and album that had it been released in 1976, might well have transformed the Houston born jazz guitarist’s career.

Melvin Sparks-I’m Funky Now.

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