MELVIN SPARKS-FIVE FRUITFUL YEARS 1970-1975.
Melvin Sparks-Five Fruitful Years 1970-1975.
Although American jazz and blues guitarist Melvin Sparks enjoyed a career that spanned five decades, the most fruitful period of his career was the seventies, when he released five albums between 1970 and 1975. Melvin Sparks’ career began at Prestige Records, where he released a triumvirate of albums between 1970 and 1972. However, after leaving Prestige, Melvin Sparks signed to Armen Boladian’s Eastbound Records in Detroit. This was the latest chapter in a story that began in Houston, Texas, where Melvin Sparks discovered music.
Melvin Sparks was born in Houston, Texas, on March the ‘22nd’ 1946, into what was a musical family. His two brothers both 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 processional 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 what was akin to a musical apprenticeship with The Upsetters, as they crisscrossed America. In 1966, The Upsetters arrived in New York which was where Melvin Sparks met the 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.
By 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.
Having signed to Prestige Records, twenty-seven year old Melvin Sparks soon, began work on his much-anticipated debut album, Sparks! He was paired with producer Bob Porter who by 1970, had already established the Prestige soul-jazz sound. Now they had to choose the songs that suited this sound.
Just like many albums of soul jazz, cover versions were often the order of the day. That was the case with Melvin Sparks’ first album of Prestige soul-jazz, which featured Sly Stone’s Thank You For Being Myself, Rogers and Hart’s I Didn’t Know What Time It Was and Leiber and Stoller’s Charlie Brown. However, Melvin Sparks had decided to record The Stinker which was written by his old friend and now label mate Leon Spencer Jr, who was also part of all-star band that recorded Sparks!
When recording of Melvin Sparks debut album Sparks! began, Bob Porter took charge of production and Rudy Van Gelder was the recordist. Backing guitarist Melvin Sparks was a tight and talented band that featured drummer Idris Muhammad, organist Leon Spencer Jr, trumpeter Virgil Jones and tenor saxophonists Houston Person and John Manning. Once the album was recorded, Sparks! was scheduled for release later in 1970.
Before the release of Sparks!, critics had their say on Melvin Sparks debut album, which was an album of soul-jazz that headed in the direction of pop. Sparks! was well received by critics, and when it was released in later 1970, it was hoped that it would launch Melvin Sparks’ solo career. However, despite the favourable reviews, Sparks! failed to find a wider audience which was a disappointing start to Melvin Sparks’ career at Prestige.
After the commercial failure of his debut album Sparks!, Melvin Sparks went away and wrote Spark Plug, Conjunction Mars and Dig Dis which would featured on his sophomore album Spark Plug. These three tracks were joined by covers of Gene Redd’s Who’s Gonna Take The Weight? and Schwartz and Dietz’s Alone Together. The songs that became Spark Plug were recorded by many of the musicians that featured on Sparks!
Drummer Idris Muhammad, organists Leon Spencer Jr and Reggie Roberts, trumpeter Virgil Jones and tenor saxophonists Grover Washington Jr join guitarist Melvin Sparks. Taking charge of production on Spark Plug was Bob Porter, as a much more laid back, but funky album of soul-jazz took shape. This 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. However, when Melvin Sparks released Sparks Plug later in 1971, the album wasn’t the commercial success that Prestige nor Melvin Sparks had hoped. For both parties, this was hugely disappointing.
With neither Sparks! nor Spark Plug proving particularly popular, Melvin Sparks was well aware that his third album Akilah!, was make or break for him at Prestige. Melvin Sparks was still regarded as one of Prestige’s rising stars, but he had still to make a breakthrough. It was a case of now or never as Melvin Sparks began work on Akilah!
For his third album, Melvin Sparks had written four new tracks, On The Up, All Wrapped Up, Akilah and Blues For JB. They were joined by Leon Spencer Jr’s The Image Of Love and Gene Redd and Kool and The Gang’s Love The Life You Live.
By the time Melvin Sparks recording his third album, producer Bob Porter had left Prestige, and this time, he was joined in the studio by Ozzie Cadena who supervised the recording of Akilah! This wasn’t the only change, as a very different band accompanied Melvin Sparks during the Akilah! sessions.
Familiar faces included Idris Muhammad, organist and pianist Leon Spencer Jr and trumpeter Virgil Jones. They were joined by some new names including alto saxophonists George Coleman and Sonny Fortune, flautist Hubert Laws, percussionist Buddy Caldwell, trumpeter Ernie Royal and tenor saxophonists Frank Wess and Dave Hubbard who also played flute on Akilah! It built on Melvin Sparks’ two previous albums, Sparks! and Sparks Plug, and was the most important album of his solo career.
With Akilah! completed, Melvin Sparks’ third album was scheduled for release later in 1972, and again, just like his two previous well received by critics upon its release. However, history repeated itself, and Akilah! failed to find the audience that it deserved. This was a huge blow for Melvin Sparks, who left Prestige later in 1972.
Fortunately, by the time Akilah! was released, Bob Porter who had left Prestige Records, had joined Armen Boladian’s Detroit-based label Eastbound Records. With Melvin Sparks without a label, Bob Porter recommended that Eastbound Records sign his old friend and protégé. This was the start of a new era for Melvin Sparks.
After signing to Eastbound Records, began work on his fourth album Texas Twister with his old mentor and producer Bob Porter. Melvin Sparks hoped that renewing his partnership with Bob Porter might kickstart his career.
For Texas Twister, Melvin Sparks wrote four new compositions Whip! Whop!, Judy’s Groove, Texas Twister and Star In The Crescent. They were joined by Bobby Graham’s Gathering Together, Billy Eckstine’s Want To Talk About You and Brian Potter and Denise Lambert’s Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I Got). These seven tracks became Melvin Sparks’ Eastbound Records’ debut Texas Twister.
No expense was spared for the recording of Texas Twister which was produced by Bob Porter and was recorded by band that featured some top musicians. The rhythm section of drummer Idris Muhammad, bassist Wilbur Bascomb and guitarists Ron Miller. They were joined by organist Caesar Frazier, Sonny Phillips on Fender Rhodes and Buddy Caldwell on bongos. A horn section that featured baritone saxophonist Ed Xiques, tenor saxophonist Ron Bridgewater and trumpeters Cecil Bridgewater and Jon Faddis was the final piece of the jigsaw. Melvin Sparks played his trusty Guild guitar on Texas Twister which was meant to be the start of a new era for him.
Texas Twister was released to plaudits and praise, and hailed as Melvin Sparks’ finest album. Although it was a much funkier album than his previous offerings, Melvin Sparks hadn’t turned his back on soul jazz as he led three different lineups of his band on Texas Twister. Sometimes, Melvin Sparks’ all-star band are reduced to a trio, while other times he leads an impressive ten piece combo on Texas Twister. One of Melvin Sparks’ secret weapons on Texas Twister were the bongos which added a Latin sound as he flitted between funk and soul-jazz on his comeback album.
Despite being well received by critics, who thought Texas Twister Melvin Sparks’ finest album, it failed to find an audience when it was released later in 1973. History had repeated itself again, and Melvin Sparks who had just released his fourth album Texas Twister was still looking to make a commercial breakthrough.
Melvin Sparks ’75.
After the release of Texas Twister, Melvin Sparks’ friend and ally Bob Porter left Eastbound Records, and just when it looked as if things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Armen Boladian decided to close Eastbound Records, 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, but Melvin Sparks entered the studio with his band and vocalist Jimmy Scott who featured on two tracks on Melvin Sparks ’75. It was co-produced by Melvin Sparks and Bernie Mendelson and when it was completed, scheduled for release in later in 1975.
When Melvin Sparks ’75 was released by Westbound Records in 1975, interest in jazz was at an all-time low. Despite that, critics were impressed by an album that featured some of Melvin Sparks’ finest performances and two deeply soulful vocals from Jimmy Scott. Sadly, when Melvin Sparks ’75 was released, just like Texas Twister the album failed commercially. The big question was what did the future hold for Melvin Sparks?
Westbound Records allowed Melvin Sparks to record what would’ve been his sixth album I’m Funky Now, which should’ve been released later in 1976. However, Westbound Records decided not to release the album, and this spelt the end of Melvin Sparks’ career Westbound Records.
After recording six albums in six years, Melvin Sparks was left without a recording contract. Westbound Records had decided to cut their loses, as Melvin Sparks had still to make a commercial breakthrough.
That was despite Melvin Sparks being a talented and versatile composer and musician, who had released five albums which were well received by critics. However, he was out of luck as the most fruitful period of his career coincided with jazz being in the doldrums.
Record buyers turned their attention to other genres and many jazz musicians no longer released albums on a regular basis. That was the case with Melvin Sparks who released albums sporadically. This began with Sparkling in 1981, which was followed sixteen years later in 1997 with I’m A ‘Gittar’ Player. After that, Melvin Sparks didn’t release a new album until the new millennium.
What You Hear Is What You Get was released in 2001 and was the start of another fruitful period for Melvin Sparks. It Is What It Is followed in 2004 with This Is It! in 2005. However, when Groove On Up was released in 2006, it proved to be his swan-song.
Five years later, Melvin Sparks, who was one of the great jazz guitarists of his generation, passed away in on March the ’15th’ 2011, just before his sixty-fifth birthday. Jazz music was in mourning at the loss of a talented and versatile guitarist, whose career had spanned five decades. However, looking back at Melvin Sparks long career, the five fruitful years he enjoyed between 1970 and 1975 was when he released the finest albums of his career at Prestige, Eastbound Records and Westbound Records
Melvin Sparks-Five Fruitful Years 1970-1975.