Interview by Scott Preston
Melvin Sparks is the Essential Guitar Player! He’s The Master Of The Groove! The Acid-Jazz Pioneer! The Originator of Soul Jazz, Old School Acid Jazz & Barbecue Funk (FUNKJAZZ)
Over the last thirty years he has played with some of Jazz’s greatest musicians: David “Fathead” Newman, Lou Donaldson, Hank Crawford, Reuben Wilson and John Patton (are amongst the many). During the 1970s, Sparks backed up Lou Donaldson on the Funk-Jazz classics “Everything I Play Is Funky” and “Hot Dog”.
Sparks recorded seven albums of his own and played on over 100 other albums. As a session man for Blue Note and Prestige Records, Sparks laid his signature guitar work on many other musician’s albums without ever being in spotlight. It was during this time that Melvin defined the jazz-guitar sound of a generation.
Melvin Sparks is still a much sought-after studio player, both new and old talents seek him out now more than ever. He continues to perform with the greats of this genre such as Leon Spencer Jr., Mike Clark and Idris Mohammed and is now breaking out his legendary guitar wizardry with many younger bands and artists such as Galactic, The Greyboy Allstars, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Derek Trucks and Robert Walter’s 20th Congress.
Cincy Groove: What projects are you working on right now?
Melvin Sparks: Well, there’s nothing in the works right now. I’m kind of in transition, regrouping my band. I may have to do some guest spots with some other bands.
Cincy Groove: Are there any particular moments in your career that stand out in your mind?
Melvin Sparks: I enjoyed everything (laughing). I was with a group called The Upsetters. That was the first of my highlights backing up Jackie Wilson. We also played the last Sam Cooke tour before he was killed. It was very exciting, The Four Tops were on the tour as well. I played behind everybody on the tour except for Sam Cooke. Cliff White who had been with Sam even before he was singing gospel. Cliff was actually one of my teachers on the tour. He would sit down on the tour bus with me and show me stuff on the guitar. I guess he saw something in me, I don’t know what he saw, but whatever it was he thought he needed to teach me to play guitar. As an advanced player he had some stuff he wanted to show me. The stuff he showed me I use to this very day.
Cincy Groove: I read that you played with BB King at age 13.
Melvin Sparks: I had a chance to ask BB about that. Over the years when I was with the Upsetters when ran across BB King. There was always so many people around him, I thought I would never have the opportunity to ask him. Then when I played with Lou Donaldson, we would open shows for BB King. The same thing would happen, as soon as B.B. would be done playing 20 or 30 people would be around him. Then finally in the late 1990’s I had the great opportunity to open for BB King with my band. BB had just turned 70 I believe. After the show was over I did get a chance to ask him. Of course by then it was 50 years ago and he didn’t remember. He told me he meets so many people all the time.
Of course I remembered, I was 13 at the time, it was a big deal for me. I was actually shoved out on the stage. I told the guy I could play the guitar and he said, “Go on out there on stage”. The band saw me and they all looked around and wondered who this little guy was coming out on the stage. B.B. King asked me what I wanted and I told him I wanted to play his guitar. He went on the mic and told the audience this little guy wants to play my guitar and asked everyone if I should let him play. The crowd said yes let him play, because they wanted to throw stuff at me. Kind of like what they used to do to performers at he Apollo Theater. So I played a blues song, he thought it was pretty good, and he told me to play another one. They had it in the newspaper the next day. My father couldn’t believe it, because first of all my parents didn’t even know I was down there. I didn’t say anything to my mother when I got home, because in those days my mother owned a cafe and she would stay open to about 12 midnight. She was closing up when i got home and I didn’t say anything to her. So the next day they pick up the paper and they see me (laughing).
My music teacher wasn’t too happy. He thought it was great, but he wanted more from me. He wanted me to know music theory and how to write charts. So by the 10th grade he had me writing charts. I was able to write big band charts. I also had another great guitar teacher from Houston, TX, who was fairly popular. His name was Conrad Johnson. He just died a couple weeks ago, he was 92 years old. He taught my brother, my sister in law and me.
Cincy Groove: Were other members of your family involved in music?
Melvin Sparks: My three brothers and my mother was a gospel singer. It was through her inspiration that the three boys ended up playing music. My middle brother, Alfred Sparks, started out together with Albert Collins. When Albert put together his very first band, my brother was a part of it. I don’t even think I was 10 years old at the time.
Cincy Groove: Who are some of your favorite artists you have collaborated with?
Melvin Sparks: The most fun I probably have had is playing with Karl Denson. I like Karl because he has kind of the same background I have. Galactic is a great band I have played with. I also enjoyed Soullive. It was easy playing with them because they were playing songs from the era I came from. They were playing songs I had recorded with other artists, so I could play with them with no rehearsal. They have their own songs now but thats what they started out doing.
Cincy Groove: Do you remember the first album you were ever on?
Melvin Sparks: Thats a tricky question. When I first came to New York to live as a musician, I met George Benson. He was playing at a club called Minton’s Playhouse, and I ended up sitting in with him. Columbia Records decided to do a record about Lonnie Smith. I think it was called “Finger Lickin Good”. Both George and I ended up on the record. That was my first recording there in New York. But it wasn’t as significant as what I’m about to tell you about now. One of the most significant first records I did was with Jack MacDuff and Jimmy Witherspoon called The Blues is Now. Jimmy Witherspoon was pretty popular at the time.
Cincy Groove: Do you remember when you received your first guitar?
Melvin Sparks: When I was a kid I told my father I wanted an electric guitar. When he priced the guitar, it ended up being around $40 – $60 . He said $60 are you kidding?? So my mother told my father you have to get him the guitar. I believe I was 11 years old at the time. So since my father ended up getting the guitar for me, he said I had to take lessons and really learn how to play. He didn’t really think I was interested. He probably thought I would do it for 2 or 3 months and that would be the end of it. Wouldn’t he be surprised (laughing). I took lessons for about 8 months until my dad couldn’t afford it anymore. I kept on playing after that, because playing the guitar is what kept me out of trouble.