Vintage Guitar - June 2018 - open - 66

MELVIN SPARKS
Groove Master of Acid Jazz
By Wolf Marshall

A

leader in the soul-jazz genre since the
mid '60s, Melvin Sparks may well be the
best guitarist you've never heard of. His
incisive tone and attack, blend of jazz, blues,
and funk ingredients, commanding musical
persona, and growing historical importance
- now an acknowledged legend of acid jazz -
argue convincingly for his inclusion on any
guitarist's list of required listening.
Born in Houston on March 22, 1946, Sparks
was raised in a musical family with fortuitous
benefits. His brothers played guitar and drums
and his mother ran a café that was popular
with local musicians. There, he met local-hero
guitarist Cal Green, who became a childhood
inspiration. Green was a teenager when he became a member of Hank Ballard's band (Ballard
co-wrote "The Twist" for Chubby Checker).
Sparks began on drums, switched to guitar
at 11, and by 13 was skilled enough to appear
onstage with B.B. King. While in school, he
worked in a combo with future collaborators
organist Leon Spencer and saxophonist John
Manning, but left to tour with Hank Ballard
and the Midnighters. He subsequently joined
Little Richard's Upsetters and completed his
education on the road, where he sharpened his

playing and arranging abilities while backing
artists like Little Richard, Curtis Mayfield,
Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke.
Melvin left the Upsetters in '66, moved to
New York City, befriended George Benson,
and gravitated to jazz. He began working in
the studio with organist Jack McDuff and
soon gained prominence as sideman in the
golden age of organ groups on McDuff's Do
It Now (1966) and Double Barreled Soul ('67).
Endowed with a distinctive blues-tinged tone,
jazz-informed melodic palette and strong
boogaloo feel, Melvin's crossover sound was
sought after by numerous acts seeking to
reunite jazz with its dance-music roots. By
the late '60s, his was a familiar name on many
prominent Blue Note and Prestige sessions,
where he added luster to records by Dr. Lonnie
Smith, Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Witherspoon, Rusty
Bryant, Johnny "Hammond" Smith, Charles
Earland, Lou Donaldson, Reuben Wilson,
Leon Spencer, Sonny Phillips, Charles Kynard,
Idris Muhammad, and others.
Melvin's solo career was launched with
Sparks in 1970, a definitive funk-jazz oeuvre
with characteristic horn flourishes, B-3-driven
grooves, and a wide-ranging repertoire that

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June 2018

reconciled standards like "I Didn't Know What
Time It Was" with R&B tunes from Sly and
the Family Stone and the Coasters. Spark Plug
followed in '71, expounding on the formula
and featuring Grover Washington, Jr. as guest
artist. By mid-decade, Melvin had established
a signature sound that balanced soul-jazz,
R&B, and funk idioms. Under new contract
to Westbound, he concentrated on records
with increasingly commercial trappings, slick
arrangements, and thick orchestration, like
75 and the disco-dominated I'm Funky Now.
He pared his ensemble sound to a quartet and
embraced straight-ahead jazz on his 1981 Muse
album Sparkling, then reignited his studio
career, playing on albums by Bernard Purdie,
Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers, Joey De
Francesco, Hank Crawford, Jimmy McGriff,
John Patton, Houston Person, Dennis Day,
Karl Denson, Red Holloway, Etta Jones, Johnny
Lytle, Ron Levy, Dakota Staton, Rhoda Scott,
Alvin Queen, and others.
Sparks was off the scene for a time until the
'90s, when he found renewed interest in soul
and acid-jazz. He re-entered the market with
I'm A Gittar Player, which rekindled the R&Btinged flame he had been fanning since his
earliest years while simultaneously addressing
pop aspirations of the smooth-jazz movement
and hip-hop. In the new millennium, he
signed with Savant Records and released four
albums that exemplified his fully developed
soul-jazz sound - What You Hear Is What
You Get, It Is What It Is, This Is It, and Groove
On Up. His final album was a posthumous
live performance from 2010, Live at Nectar's.
He died on March 15 the following year after
suffering complications due to diabetes and
heart problems. He was 64.
Melvin's career reflects the ascent of black
music in American pop culture. He began in
R&B bands during the era of "race records"
and the birth of rock and roll, joined the
ranks of soul music as it became popular
with integrated audiences and crossed over
in the '60s, was a shining example during the
flowering of boogaloo and funk, revisited jazz
with a wealth of experience, and subsequently
sought to bring new rap, hip-hop, and smooth
jazz into his musical vision. In the process, he
played on more than 100 albums, his output
influencing players in the acid jazz and jamband camps. And he continues to inspire.

INFLUENCES
Melvin's early role models were B.B. King
and Chuck Berry. He was later influenced
by Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, George
Benson, and sax players Charlie Parker and
John Coltrane.

Melvin Sparks: copyright Alan Nahigian.

COLUMN Fretprints


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