THE NEW CHRISTY MINSTRELS

Green, Green

When Randy Sparks decided to put together a nine-member folk group in 1961, he combined three established acts he felt would be a good fit. This strategy got him started, though it began changing very quickly; The New Christy Minstrels under the direction of Randy Sparks, billed that way on its first album, became a stepping stone for ambitious, talented singers working their way towards hoped-for solo success or a more lucrative situation. A couple dozen members enjoyed being part of this high-profile act in those explosive early years and a handful reached those loftier goals while Sparks remained to navigate his project through the audio, video and live perfomance aspects of leading what became a complicated musical phenomenon.

Sparks was born in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1933 and began working steadily as a folk singer during his early twenties. Bob Hope helped him get connections in show biz after seeing him perform at the Blue Angel in New York City. He was an opening act for comedian Phyllis Diller when she debuted at San Francisco's Purple Onion nightclub in March 1955. After serving in the Navy (where his musical talents were put to good use), he landed a part in the 1958 crime/chase movie Thunder Road starring Robert Mitchum and had a few other miscellaneous roles in films and on TV over the next few years. In 1960 he started The Randy Sparks Trio with first wife Jackie Miller and Nick Woods. After about a year, he began "directing" a large choral act: The Inn Group (Karon Dugan, John Forsha and Jerry Yester) and Eugene, Oregon's Fairmount Singers (Hal Ayotte, Dave Ellingson, Rob Mills and Terry Tillman) brought the number to ten, for the time being.

The act was named after Christy's Minstrels, a large, all-male troupe formed in Buffalo, New York in the early 1840s by Edwin Pearce Christy. They performed popular songs of the day (preferring Stephen Foster compositions like "Oh! Susannah" and "Camptown Races") while wearing blackface; this performance style was prevalent through the Al Jolson years of the 1910s and '20s, and even further, before falling out of favor. Sparks' group was connected to the original act in name only. Signed by Columbia Records, the New Christy Minstrels recorded their first album in early 1962. The Fairmount Singers began working with Jimmie Rodgers at Dot Records; the Inn Group also left on completion of the album. The roster remained at ten with the addition of Dolan Ellis, Art Podell, Terry Wadsworth and banjo player Billy Cudmore.

Presenting the New Christy Minstrels was released in April; Wadsworth and Cudmore, like the other components of the act, were there only for the recording session. Spark's trio, plus Ellis and Podell, were left to carry on. Randy found a duo willing to join as regular touring members: Barry McGuire of Oklahoma City and partner Barry Kane, who'd performed together as Barry and Barry. Larry Ramos, Clarence Treat and Peggy Connelly completed the eight-man, two-woman act that would soon become a household name. The New Christy Minstrels made their public debut in July '62 at the Troubadour nightclub in Hollywood. In August, they appeared on two episodes of The Lively Ones, a short-lived summer variety series on NBC hosted by Vic Damone, and within weeks debuted as regulars on Andy Williams' new NBC prime time variety series. Their first single, the 22-year-old Woody Guthrie classic "This Land is Your Land," made a brief chart appearance in December.

Peggy departed and was repaced by Gayle Caldwell just as the group gained a large following through exposure on Williams' show, though their time on the series ended in February '63. A second single, Sparks' western 'ramblin'' song "Denver," was a 45-only studio recording; two more albums (The New Christy Minstrels in Person and Tall Tales! Legends and Nonsense) were issued in quick succession. At the Grammys (awarded in May), the studio assemblage received three nominations and won for their first album in the category Best Performance by a Chorus. Around this time, Sparks stopped performing with the group but continued as its leader. Dolan Ellis left in June; Gene Clark took his place, but only stuck around several months before joining The Byrds.

"Green, Green" ('...it's green they say, on the far side of the hill'), penned by Sparks and McGuire (with lead vocals by Barry), reached the top 20 during the summer and became the song the NCM would be best known for. The album, Ramblin' featuring Green, Green, and its final track "The Last Farewell," was a favorite of President John F. Kennedy and resulted in an invitation for the group to perform at the White House. They were back in the top 30 in the fall with a feelgood original, "Saturday Night," McGuire again on lead vocal. A few more spots in the lineup changed before the next batch of Grammy noms; "Green, Green" received two. Advance to the Rear, a Civil War comedy starring Glenn Ford and Stella Stevens, featured several New Christy Minstrels songs on its soundtrack; one of these, "Today," was a top 20 hit in June 1964.

The New Christy Minstrels

They had a five-episode series on NBC titled, simply, The New Christy Minstrels, a summer replacement for the sitcom Hazel starring Shirley Booth that aired Thursday nights at 9:30 in August and September '64. Each episode was filmed at a theme park location (the New York World's Fair, Knott's Berry Farm, Pacific Ocean Park) and they performed each of their hits at least once over the course of the five weeks. The remaining chart singles included "Silly Ol' Summertime" and the Mary Poppins favorite "Chim, Chim, Cheree." Grammy nominations for "Today" in '65 and Chim Chim Cher-ee and Other Happy Songs in '66 put the total at seven, with the one first-year win.

Nick Woods recorded a one-off solo single, "The Softness in her Hair," for the Epic label in the spring of '64; about a year later the ground-floor Christy singer moved on. Randy's wife Jackie joined Gayle Caldwell, making the scene as Jackie and Gayle (Frank Sinatra later had a hit with "Cycles," a song Gayle composed). Barry McGuire went solo and found instant success with something the New Christy Minstrels routinely steered away from - protest songs - scoring a number one hit with "Eve of Destruction" in September '65. Larry Ramos left to join The Association, one of the top groups of the late '60s. Jim Yester was with The Lovin' Spoonful for a brief time. Houston, Texas-born Kenny Rogers came on board in '66, as did Tulsa, Oklahoma native Mike Settle. After about a year they both left the NCM, taking two other members (Thelma Camacho and Terry Williams) with them to start The First Edition; several hits from '68 to '70, a change that put Kenny's name in front and an eventual long-running country/pop solo career for Rogers leaves little doubt as to which singer had the greatest post-Minstrels success. Other singers who put in time with the group include Keith Barbour ("Echo Park"), Kim Carnes ("Bette Davis Eyes") and '70s country hitmaker Mayf Nutter.

But the famous ensemble that always counted nine-to-eleven-or-more among its ranks never went away. With more than 300 members since the beginning, the durable folk choir ranks high among the world's most heavily-populated and longest-lasting entertainment acts. One person has remained throughout: founder Randy Sparks was still directing and having fun with The New Christy Minstrels at the 60-year mark.

- Michael Jack Kirby


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This Land is Your Land Green, Green