New Christy Minstrels — still singing and still having fun after all these years
PITTSFIELD — As with many things, necessity was the mother of invention in Randy Sparks' musical career.
Sparks, the founder of the New Christy Minstrels, who are playing the Colonial on Saturday night, was a solo artist in the Vancouver, British Columbia area in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
"I worked pretty regularly," he recalled in a phone interview, "but when I missed a few days, I'd be short of cash. I had a lot of expenses: Travel, lodging, food. I just thought there had to be a better way to do this."
Sparks also had numerous songs that he was trying to sell to record companies, with little success.
Eventually, Sparks came to the conclusion that it might be better to form a musical group, which would command more fees on stage, be able to split expenses and also enable him to perform his songs himself with a group.
"So I sat down and designed my dream group," he said.
But Sparks didn't want a trio, or a quartet, or even a quintet. His final number of performers was, well, 14.
"No, no one had ever seen anything like that," he said in answer to a question. "But the reason I had so many people was because I had a lot of instrumental parts and a lot of vocal parts.
"And," he said, "I wanted perfection."
Thus was born The New Christy Minstrels, named after an 1845 group, "Christy's Minstrels."
The group was dubbed "a folk choir" by critics who marveled at their harmonies. Folk groups were very popular in the early 1960s, and Sparks' large group, with its harmonies and choreography, was an immediate hit.
After a few weeks, Sparks trimmed the roster to 10 performers.
The group's first album, "Presenting the New Christy Minstrels," debuted at No. 19 and stayed on the pop charts for more than two years. The album also won a Grammy for Best Choir Performance in 1962.
The group was immensely popular and very soon began collecting offers to play on television. The Andy Williams Show was the most popular of these. In the fall of 1962, Williams contacted Sparks to book a performance. Sparks quickly agreed.
But with popularity came financial demands. About a week before the Williams show, five of the 10 performers threatened to quit unless Sparks paid them better.
"I couldn't do that," he said. So they walked.
Sparks admitted he spent the next several days rounding up new performers — and holding off Williams' producer, who began begging Sparks to bring the group in for rehearsals.
"I called Andy and said, 'You know what we can do,'" he said. "Don't worry about us."
And Sparks was pretty successful in his efforts. One of his recruits was Barry McGuire — the artist who later wrote the immensely popular pop tune, "Eve of Destruction," as a solo performer.
"Frankly, the fill-in guys I got were better than the originals," he said with a laugh.
In the intervening years, the Minstrels have sold millions of albums and performed numerous hits, including Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and Sparks' originals, "Green, Green", "Today" and "Denver."
And it is still fun, he asserted.
"I'm not in this for money," said Sparks. "This is my craft. I still write at least a song a day. And in my opinion, my best song is the last one I wrote that day. I think you have to look at it that way. You can't slack off and I don't. I love this job too much."
What: The New Christy Minstrels
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
Where: The Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
How: (413) 997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org; in person at Colonial Theatre box office — 111 South St.
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