The New Christy Minstrels was a folk group which met with considerable success commercially in the 1960's. They were the creation of Randy Sparks.
Minstrelsy was a form of music that began in the United States in the 1820's. It was often performed by white performers who used cork to make themselves up in blackface, although there were many black groups also. They were travelling shows which frequently sang songs that were popular with blacks, but the songs might be given a spin by adding a dance or a different version of what the song had been originally. Minstrel acts toured extensively and told jokes, held cakewalks, and encouraged audience participation. Minstrelsy was very high in popularity in the 1840's when Edwin Christy, a nineteenth century minstrel who wrote Goodnight Ladies among other songs, formed the Christy Minstrels. Minstrelsy continued as a part of the American music scene until about the 1950's.
Randy Sparks was born in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1933. He began his career in the San Francisco Bay area of California, and in 1961 he created a folk group and called it the New Christy Minstrels. Contributions of songs and lyrics from members of the group were occasionally accepted, but creative contributions from within the ranks were primarily limited to arrangements for Randy's material -- most often from members Art Podell and Nick Woods. Initially, Randy viewed the group as a vehicle to attract an audience for his own material, and it had ten members. Randy agreed to a contract with Columbia Records and the New Christy Minstrels began recording. In the summer of 1963 their first song to reach the top forty, Green, Green, entered the charts. The lead vocal on Green, Green was done by Barry McGuire, who had co-written the song with Randy Sparks. His booming voice gave the song a distinct sound, and it moved up the charts to number 14. Other minor hits followed, including two that reached the top forty, Saturday Night and Today. The latter was written by Sparks to be used in a comedy western film titled Advance To The Rear. The group had a fresh, original sound that contributed to its popularity. From 1962 to 1965 they issued nine albums, the most successful of which were Ramblin', Merry Christmas and Today.
In January of 1964, the New Christy Minstrels performed for Lyndon Johnson at the White House, in response to an invitation that had been extended originally by John F. Kennedy, a fan of the group. The group briefly had its own television series late that summer on NBC. A short time later Sparks sold his interest in the group to his management team, Greif-Garris Management. Throughout the 60's, some major talent performed as members of the New Christy Minstrels, some of whom went to greater fame on their own. There were the inevitable personnel changes as the group slowly evolved. Barry McGuire went on to perform as a solo act and hit big with his own number one song in 1965, P.F. Sloan's Eve Of Destruction. Larry Ramos joined the Association, and Gene Clark joined others in starting the Byrds. Kim Carnes was with the group in 1966 and fifteen years later would have her own number one hit with Bette Davis Eyes. Musical director for the group, Mike Settle, left in 1967 and took three other members of the group with him, including Kenny Rogers. Together they formed a very successful group, the First Edition. In the early 70's, future Broadway stars Linda Hart and Christine Andreas were both in the group.
In 1964, Randy Sparks formed another group called the Back Porch Majority, which was intended initially to be a farm team for the New Christy Minstrels, but later enjoyed considerable success in their own right and recorded several albums on the Epic label. Later, Randy formed another group called the New Society, which recorded an album for RCA.
In the mid-70's, he recorded two albums as Randy Sparks and the Back Porch Majority (with a new ensemble); later, he formed a group called Randy Sparks and the Patch Fam'ly, who released a couple of singles at the end of the decade. In the 90's Randy assembled a group with some of the original players from the New Christy Minstrels -- notably, Barry McGuire and Clarence Treat -- along with some highly talented newer recruits. They performed as Randy Sparks and the Minstrels in the 90's; then, in 2007, Randy regained leadership and legal ownership of the "New Christy Minstrels" name and is again performing to sellout crowds with some of the original players.
Both Randy Sparks and the New Christy Minstrels had a refreshing sound in the 60's and over the years both have made their mark on the pop music business. For information about the New Christy Minstrels and their current schedule, they have set up a web site at thenewchristyminstrels.com.
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