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Published: Thursday, 6/19/2008

'Toledo' songwriter to experience 'Friday night in Maumee, O.'

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Randy Sparks, center, and the New Christy Minstrels celebrate
their Grammy for top album in 1962. Randy Sparks, center, and the New Christy Minstrels celebrate their Grammy for top album in 1962.
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Randy Sparks has a new song about global warming. It goes, "The only thing more ferocious than a polar bear is a bipolar bear."

He's also written "Elders of the Tribe" and "Sluts with Tattoos," from his rambunctious almost 75-year-old perspective.

Granted, the new tunes may not be as long lived as his ballad that was hummed by millions in the 1960s, "Today" ("Today while the flowers still cling to the vine"), or the upbeat "Green, Green" ("Green, green, it's green they say on the far side of the hill") that he co-wrote with Barry McGuire. But chances are good that they'll be entertaining and well sung.

Sparks, who founded the New Christy Minstrels in 1962, a 10-person folk group, brings the reconstituted gang to town tomorrow for 2 and 7 p.m. shows in the Maumee Indoor Theatre. Joining him will be about four other original members of the group and some guest performers, such as Eddie Boggs, Sylvania troubadour, who put together the local shows.

With 10 good-looking young adults who had fine voices and were adept on guitars and banjos, The Minstrels made their national television debut on The Andy Williams Show in 1962 and promptly won a Grammy for their debut recording, "Presenting the New Christy Minstrels." Its 20 songs included "Oh Shenandoah," "I Know Where I'm Goin," and their signature, "This Land is Your Land."

Sparks invented the group's name after reading a biography of Stephen Foster and learning that the songwriter was prolific (as is Sparks), but had no efficient way to market his songs until he teamed up with Christy's Minstrels, a popular black-face singing group, in the mid-1800s.

Unhappy with the group's managers, Sparks sold the band's name in 1964 ("on paper it was $2.3 million; I didn't get that, of course") and stepped out; the new owners continued touring and recording the group. Over the years, nearly 300 people have been members of New Christy Minstrels, including Kenny Rogers, Barry McGuire ("The Eve of Destruction"), Gene Clark of The Byrds, Larry Ramos of The Association, and Kim Carnes.

For the next 30 years, Sparks opened for the late actor/folk singer Burl Ives, and following Ives' death in 1995, began reconstituting the NCM; first leasing and then buying the name back (for $20,000 in 2007).

In addition to Sparks, original members who appear with the Minstrels include Clarence Treat, Jackie Miller Davidson, Dolan Ellis, and Art Podell. New members include Becky Jo Benson and Bill Boycott.

Sparks feels a special kinship with Toledo, a town he wrote a song about (John Denver made it famous) and that irritated city leaders to no end: "Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio" ("Saturday night in Toledo, Ohio is like being nowhere at all. All through the day how the hours rush by, you sit in the park and you watch the grass die.")

It was born honestly one drizzly night in 1967 as Sparks drove a bus full of sleeping band mates out of a disappointing Toledo to Kansas City. Following a Friday gig in Mount Pleasant, Mich., they had the rare pleasure of an open Saturday night.

"I said to the group, because we're a democratic organization, "Where do you want to go on Saturday night?'•"

Chicago! they said. He nixed the idea, reminding them what happened last time they went to Chicago and how it challenged his performance rule: "We are always coherent when we walk on stage."

Ann Arbor! they said. No dice. "I said 'we're going to be there next month. The girls will keep. ... I said, 'Let's plow new ground.'•"

They unfolded the map, found the sprawl labeled Toledo, and since none of them had been here before, headed south. They arrived about 10 p.m., looking for food and nightlife in the dark drizzle.

"We drove around for an hour. It was absolutely closed. We were really angry. It spoiled our whole night out."

The band suggested bombing the city.

"I said, 'We don't know how to make a bomb. Let's do what we do best: punish them with a nasty song.'•"

So, they headed for Kansas; Sparks at the wheel, crafting the song. He didn't record it, but taught it to Michael Johnson, a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio, who taught it to John Denver, also a trio member. A few years later, Denver sang it on the Tonight Show, and later at a concert in Bowling Green where somebody recorded it and began selling bootleg copies from whence it found its way onto the radio. To the mayor's extreme chagrin.

The subsequent mayor, Donna Owens, invited Sparks to Toledo in 1986 to sing in Promenade Park. At the song's conclusion, a hearse backed up to the stage and the "Saturday Night" sheet music was ceremoniously placed in a coffin and slowly hauled away. Sparks was given a key to the city and named a musical ambassador of Toledo.

"That is so much fun I can't stand it!" said Sparks.

Two years later, he wrote "Panda-monium," a song for a video about a pair of pandas being exhibited at the Toledo Zoo. He subsequently wrote "I Want my Maumee, Take me Back to Toledo," which was never as popular as "Saturday Night."

And yes, the New Christy Minstrels will sing "Saturday Night in Toledo, Ohio" tomorrow.

The New Christy Minstrels will perform at 2 and 7 p.m. tomorrow in the Maumee Indoor Theatre, 601 Conant St., Maumee. Tickets, available at the door, are $20 and $25. Information: 419-537-9106 and 419-824-3999.

Contact Tahree Lane at:

tlane@theblade.com

or 419-724-6075.



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