The New Christy Minstrels - Biography
By J Poet
The New Christy Minstrels were created by singer/songwriter Randy Sparks in 1961 as a vehicle for his own songs and arrangements of traditional American folk songs. They were one of the most commercially successful folk groups and the first “folk orchestra,” but folkies, hippies and freaks frowned on them for their slick, “show biz” approach to the music. With their revolving door membership – players came and went at a rapid pace – it seemed the group was more a franchise than an actual band. They had one monster hit “Green Green,” performed for Lyndon Johnson at the White House, landed their own TV show on NBC, and helped launch the careers of Jerry Yester, Barry McGuire, Gene Clark, Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, and Karen Black.
Sparks named the band after Edwin Christy’s Christy Minstrels, a group that appeared in blackface in the 1840s, not the most auspicious name for a group launched in the 60s during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Sparks had already seem some success in San Francisco with an acoustic trio that included his then wife Jackie Miller and guitarist/singer Nick Woods. He began adding players until he had a clean cut, ten person choral group/orchestra that belted out folk songs with an overwhelming power that was aimed at the heart of Middle America. They eschewed protest songs or any songs that smacked of controversy in favor of a strictly commercial approach. Sparks got them a deal with Columbia before they’d ever performed in public. Their debut Presenting The New Christy Minstrels: Exciting New Folk Chorus (1962 Columbia) stayed on the charts for two years and spawned a minor hit with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Their appearances on Andy Williams Show, one of the highest rated shows on TV, cemented their popularity, even as the band began its never-ending shifts of personnel. In Person (1963 Columbia) and Tall Tales, Legends, and Nonsense (1963 Columbia) followed the same formula. The band broke big with Ramblin’ (1963 Columbia), quickly renamed Ramblin’ featuring Green Green (1963 Columbia) when that track took off. “Green Green” featured new lead singer Barry McGuire. Sparks left the band late in ’63, weary of life on the road and handed over leadership to McGuire. The McGuire led Minstrels made several folk rockish albums Cowboys and Indians (1964 Columbia), Land of Giants (1964 Columbia), and Today (1964 Columbia), which was the Sparks composed soundtrack to a cowboy movie spoof called Advance to the Rear. McGuire left to cut “Eve of Destruction” but the band soldiered on with more new members for Chim Chim Cher-ee (1965 Columbia), (the title track was a minor hit,) The Wandering Minstrels (1965 Columbia), New Kick (1966 Columbia) on which they finally tackled tunes of modern songwriters, including The Beatles and Dylan and On Tour Through Motortown (1968 Columbia), a collection of Motown hits given a folk treatment.
In 1970, the band had no original members left and called it quits. In the 90s Sparks put together Randy Sparks and the Minstrels with former colleagues Barry McGuire and Clarence Treat. The latest reformed version of the group, once again called New Christy Minstrels features Randy Sparks, Jackie Miller Davidson, Clarence Treat, Dolan Ellis, Art Podell, Becky Jo Benson, Bill Boycott, and Chuck Cole is still on the road. They released Recycled (2007 Custom), a collection of their hits, recorded with former members including McGuire on their own indie label.