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The New Christy Minstrels
Biography by Bruce Eder

When the definitive popular history of post-WorldWar II folk music is written, the chances are excellent that the Kingston Trio will be mentioned prominently along with Peter, Paul & Mary and that the the Brothers Four and the Highwaymen will also rate mentions. Less clear will be the fate of the New Christy Minstrels. The group received precious little respect in folk circles in their own time, despite the fact that -- to a significant number of casual listeners -- the Christys were the most familiar folk group in America. After the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary, the Christys' recordings spun on more turntables at the time than any other folk group in America.

Most serious folk music fans held -- and still hold -- the New Christy Minstrels in disdain, if not complete revulsion. Indeed, few successful music acts have managed to alienate the serious fans of their music in the manner of the Christys, even as they sold millions of records and became top concert and television attractions. Despite the disdain, one cannot exclude the fact that they moved future members of the Byrds, the Association, and the Modern Folk Quartet -- not to mention solo performers like Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes -- toward future stardom.

The problem mostly was one of image and repertory. The original line-up of the New Christy Minstrels boasted some of the top folk musicians in Los Angeles, who were already earning a living and respect for themselves. The group recorded for the top label in the country, Columbia Records, and had superb arrangements, often devised by the members themselves. Their difficulty lay in the fact that, as folk music became more confrontational in the middle '60s, the Christys moved in exactly the opposite direction. It also infuriated some onlookers that they managed to sell a lot more records for awhile by entertaining rather than inciting their audiences. While the Kingston Trio evokes images of three earnest young men in striped shirts with a pair of guitars and a banjo and Peter, Paul & Mary call to mind the children of the Weavers by drawing people in to think of serious questions, the New Christy Minstrels, by contrast, seem to evoke 10 smiling young men and women singing songs about hopping freight trains or about Paul Bunyan. In big-voiced unison they sang while fires were lit in the streets of America, ugly crowds started gathering on college campuses, and planes were fueling up for bombing missions over Vietnam. The image and the reality -- like their music -- were never as simple as they seemed.

The story of the New Christy Minstrels began at the turn of the '50s into the '60s with Randy Sparks, a young singer/guitarist. Sparks had started out as a solo performer, mixing folk and folk-style songs with Broadway material in the middle-late '50s. By 1961, he was leading a trio with his wife Jackie Miller and a colleague, Nick Woods, but he saw a need for a group bigger than a trio. Folk music had become extremely popular from 1958 on through the work of such acts as the Kingston Trio ("Tom Dooley") and the Highwaymen ("Michael, Row The Boat Ashore"). By 1961, folk songs were being picked up by popular choral groups such as the Norman Luboff Choir and Les Baxter's Balladeers, whose ranks included a young David Crosby.

Sparks saw the possibility of putting together an ensemble of 10 voices, big enough generate a huge sound together but also able to retain the more personal, rough hewn, basic sound of a folk trio. He accomplished this task by breaking the group's performances down into smaller units. With Jackie Miller and Nick Woods aboard, he combined his own Randy Sparks Trio with another trio, the Inn Group -- consisting of John Forsha, Karol Dugan, and Jerry Yester -- and added banjo man Billy Cudmore, folk-blues singer Terry Cudmore, folk singer Dolan Ellis, and Art Podell -- formerly of the Greenwich Village duo Art & Paul.

Sparks controlled the group's repertory and recording agenda, and he knew exactly what he wanted -- rousing, memorable, broadly sung, generally upbeat songs, closer in spirit to the work of Mitch Miller & the Gang -- the pop-vocal ensemble of the era that was racking up an enviable array of hits -- than to the Kingston Trio. It had been Sparks' goal to use this 10-person ensemble roughly as the professional equivalent of a school chorus, whence he would find his most promising soloists, duos, trios, and quartets, which would take on a life of their own and be the real focus of his work.

The group was named the New Christy Minstrels, derived from Christy's Minstrels, a performing institution founded by Edwin Pearce Christy (1815-62). In 1842, Christy, a Philadelphia-born showman, organized Christy's Minstrels, an ensemble that turned Negro spirituals, contemporary popular songs, and seemingly anything else with a tune that could be carried, into a huge sensation. Immensely popular in New York and then around the country, they were among the earlier performing groups to work under a licensing agreement following their founder's retirement. Their act relied heavily on white singers working in blackface, helping to popularize the image of the minstrel show, with all of its attendant racial baggage. Christy's Mintrels continued performing into the '20s, outlasting their founder by more than 50 years.

Sparks' New Christy Minstrels were anything but controversial. Smiling, fresh-faced young people with a generally upbeat and rousing approach to their repertory, they used folk music as a means of entertaining audiences rather than raising their respective consciousness. Ironically, their very lack of controversy made them controversial, especially in folk music circles, where they were deeply resented and frequently derided. Indeed, critics of the New Christy Minstrels in the folk community -- mostly more serious, more politically oriented performers and writers -- came to place them in the same despised corner of popular culture to which they consigned groups such as Mitch Miller & the Gang.

The New Christy Mintrels recorded a debut album, Presenting The New Christy Minstrels: Exciting New Folk Chorus, in April 1962 for Columbia Records. The label's executives didn't have much faith in the record -- rousing and melodious as it was -- because the group wasn't a performing ensemble. It won a Grammy Award and rose to # 19 on the Billboard charts however, where it remained for two years. The group scored a minor but significant hit that year in the guise of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," sung in a rousing, upbeat fashion that set the pattern for their subsequent releases.

Sparks suddenly realized that his experiment had not only paid off but had grown bigger than he could have hoped for at so early a date. With help from new managers George Greif and Sid Garris, the group was booked onto the Andy Williams Show -- then one of television's top variety showcases -- for the 1962-63 season. It was at this point that the original line-up deconstructed. The ex-members of the Inn Group dealt themselves out, choosing to concentrate on their own careers, as did Terry Wadsworth. Yester later ended up in the Modern Folk Quartet and cut a notable album in collaboration with Judy Henske called Farewell, Aldebaren in 1969. In their place, Barry McGuire and Barry Kane, who'd been performing as Barry & Barry, were added, along with jazz-pop vocalist Peggy Connelly (soon replaced by Gayle Caldwell, an ex-member of the Roger Wagner Chorale), singer/banjo man Larry Ramos, and Clarence Treat on upright bass. For all of their alleged transgressions as a folk group, the New Christy Minstrels immediately won over critics and audiences alike, beginning with an engagement at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in the summer of 1962.

Each member got the spotlight at some point in their shows to demonstrate their particular strengths, and the original Christys proved to be 10 engaging musical personalities. Additionally, Sparks had worked out a system of music-making that was very similar to that of the big bands of the '30s and the smaller traditional-jazz ensembles in England during the '50s. The Christys performed as a full ensemble on a certain number of songs, but their shows also included numbers that spotlighted certain duos and trios within their ranks, resulting with audiences feeling as though they were getting the equivalent of several groups' sounds and performances in the course of a concert set.

The new line-up of the New Christy Minstrels made their LP debut with the live album In Person, cut that summer for Columbia, which captured their concert set in a lively and engaging manner. Their fortunes rose higher during 1962-63, as the exposure that they received on The Andy Williams Show introduced the group to millions of American television viewers. The first studio album by this version of the New Christy Minstrels, Tall Tales, Legends, and Nonsense, appeared in January of 1963, capturing the versatility and charm of the group at their peak. They continued to build audiences and a raft of enthusiastic reviews, seeming on their way to stardom.

In the spring of 1963, the group recorded a new album, Ramblin', which was highlighted by a McGuire/Sparks collaboration called "Green, Green." McGuire had originated the song, which was completed with Sparks' help, and the actual recording was embellished by the presence of a memorable 12-string guitar riff provided by Nick Woods. It was the performance by Barry McGuire on lead vocals, however, that seemed to most capture the public's interest. His singing was a model of rough-hewn exuberance, reportedly modeled on raspy-voiced actor Wallace Beery. "Green, Green" climbed the charts that summer and peaked at #3, the first hit single by the group. In its wake, the Christys were in bigger demand than ever.

They spent 1963-64 mostly playing concerts at colleges and clubs to hugely enthusiastic audiences, earning more money than ever before. Or, that is, Sparks, George Greif, and Sid Garris -- each of whom owned a third interest in the group -- were earning huge amounts of money from the group's work. The other Christys were all on salary, and while that did rise with the burgeoning concert work, there was a real sense among the people making the music every night that they were seeing only a small portion of what they were earning for Sparks and company.

The group members were doing well for themselves musically and in terms of their egos. The exposure on television and the touring allowed them all to step forward in featured spots so that within the context of the broader folk listenership the individual members became known by name, much as the individual members of the Kingston Trio or, later on, the Beatles, would be known to the fans. But they were also working under contracts, and, thus, regardless of how high their ticket prices might've gone, how many performing venues they could work into a tour, or how popular they became individually, the members could only earn a fixed amount. This particularly disturbed Podell and Woods, who contributed extensively to the group's arrangements and had been part of the original studio outfit put together by Sparks before his partners were in the picture. Additionally, there were control issues, as far as their repertory, that would grow more pronounced as the folk music world and its audience around them changed.

The first to exit from the group was, oddly enough, Randy Sparks himself, who was weary from the obligations of touring, writing and adapting material for the group's repertory, and generally supervising their sound and performances. He bowed out of performing on stage with the Christys in May of 1963. It was his exit that precipitated the next break in the ranks, when he chose McGuire -- who had emerged as the star of the group thanks to "Green, Green" -- as his replacement as de facto leader on stage. Though it was the logical decision, with McGuire's voice having been featured in thousands of radio plays of the song, but it rankled Podell and Ellis. It was Ellis who quit as much over his weariness from the group's obligatory traveling as any disappointment over McGuire's promotion. At the time, the group worked six nights a week, with new concert dates extending past whatever season they were in thanks to the swelling sales of "Green, Green." Still, the groups was making straight salary, regardless of the actual record sales. When initial choice Doug Brookins faltered, Ellis's eventual replacement, named Gene Clark, was recruited out of a group called the Surf Riders. Clark seemed like a promising prospect and was subsequently featured prominently on one of the group's soundtrack recordings, the title song for the comedy The Wheeler-Dealers, and on the group's holiday album, Merry Christmas. A follow-up single, "Saturday Night" (credited to Sparks, but owing a lot to an earlier song called "Everybody Loves Saturday Night," credited to Terry Gilkyson, Richard Dehr, and Frank Miller and recorded by their trio the Easy Riders), was released and rose to #29.

Clark, however, never developed as the performer that Sparks had hoped he would. He submitted songs to the group only to have them rejected. As a singer and guitarist, he seldom tried to step into the spotlight, a shyness problem that would afflict his subsequent role in music as well. It was during appearances at a series of shows on the East Coast that Clark saw the future of popular music, after hearing a new record, "She Loves You," which was not yet a hit in America by the still-not-yet established Beatles. His revelation didn't lay well with the New Christy Minstrels. He headed off to a rendezvous with Jim McGuinn and David Crosby in the Jet Set and the Byrds. With Clark exiting the line-up in early '64, other personnel changes followed. Sparks' wife, Jackie Miller, and the group's other female singer, Gayle Caldwell, left in early 1964 to form the duo Jackie & Gayle, appearing in the movies Wild Wild Winter and Wild On the Beach and cut songs for United Artists and Mainstream Records before Caldwell eventually went solo. These two were replaced in the group by Karen Gunderson and Ann White, who became among the most popular members of the group. Clark was succeeded by Paul Potash, the former partner of Podell in Art & Paul. Meanwhile, Sparks busied himself with other activities, including his club, Ledbetters -- named in honor of the man known popularly as Leadbelly -- and an offshoot group of the Christys' activities called the Back Porch Majority, which basically had been founded around the remains of the Surf Riders when Sparks had pulled Clark out of the latter group.

For a time the group was reinvigorated by the new members. Their Live From Ledbetters recording, released in late 1969 but recorded in 1964, showed a still vital and exciting ensemble. Fewer people seemed to take notice, however, for the Christys' image now put them on the wrong side of a schism that had appeared in society and in the folk community alike. In 1962, the Christys had always been regarded as "folk-lite" by serious listeners, but by 1964 the passions on all sides were greater. Bob Dylan, picking up on a tradition going back to Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers, was writing songs that grabbed headlines and issues and rammed them down the throats of listeners. He was joined by Phil Ochs and a growing cadre of topical singer-songwriters. Even Peter, Paul & Mary, who were arguably the successors to the Kingston Trio, were putting moral and political reflection into their music. The youngest, most active and visible part of the folk audience, especially on college campuses, were coming to expect this in folk music. This kind of music was anathema to Sparks, who still ran the group with his partners. He wanted to present music that made people forget about problems. In fact, both visions of folk music are valid and have long histories, though adherents of the Left would vehemently dispute the legitimacy of folk music entertainers, while those with Rightist sympathies would say that the activist-singers corrupted the music.

There had been dissension within the group over songs from the beginning, mostly from Art Podell, who had been a Greenwich Village folksinger before joining the Christys and had regularly argued with Sparks about broadening the group's repertory. Podell was a good enough musician and important enough to the group to endure despite challenging Sparks wherever he could. Sparks, on the other hand, respected Podell enough to keep listening, and the relationship worked. They continued to turn out high quality music, regardless of their differences, and as long as that was true, all parties were reasonably satisfied. As it happened, the group's style of ensemble singing didn't lend itself to the newer, more activist brand of music. Their rendition of "Blowin' In The Wind," for example, is more entertaining than thoughtful or provocative. An extended engagement on the ABC folk music showcase, Hootenany, boosted their popularity on college campuses, leading to their own summer replacement network series on which the Christys premiered the Mustang, the newest product of their sponsor, Ford. They were at or near the center of popular culture.

Dylan was capturing headlines and the imagination of an ever-growing legion of younger fans, and Peter, Paul & Mary had played to 300,000 people at the legendary Civil Rights rally in Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King made his "I Have A Dream" speech. Even the Kingston Trio had enjoyed a hit with a Pete Seeger song, "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," that was distinctly pacifist in nature, while the Christys were singing about riding rails, tall tales, and legends. The money was good, and the travel was first-rate, but the members were increasingly concerned about what they were doing to themselves professionally by remaining with the group. Sparks sold out his interest in the group in 1964 for $2.5 million and concentrated on Ledbetters and the Back Porch Majority, who were intended as a sort of farm team for the Christys.

McGuire exited the Christys after a tour of Europe in early 1965 to pursue a solo career, and that was the beginning of the end for the original conception of the New Christy Minstrels, though they still had one chart hit in them, a cover of the Disney-spawned song "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from the movie Mary Poppins, which made #20 in 1965. That song showed the direction that Greif and Garris wanted the group to move in as they saw the market for folk music -- or their brand of it -- dissolve toward novelty and pop tunes. The group was so talented that even this material -- in which few of them had any real interest -- was sometimes gorgeous.

Garris and Greif now saw the group as more of a variety act, doing popular tunes and even comedy, ironically closer to the original Christy's Minstrels of the 19th century in every respect except for the old group's blackface entertainment. Their goal now was to keep the group going with a fresh infusion of young talent as older members left. Barry Kane departed in the spring of 1965, being replaced by Bill Teague, and Clarence Treat was succeeded by a pair of performers, Skiles & Henderson, whose skits became part of the group's stage act. Nick Woods left in September of 1965 and was succeeded by Rusty Evans, and Larry Ramos quit in January of 1966 to join the Association, to be replaced by Mike Settle of the Back Porch Majority.

Podell, Gunderson, White, and the other longtime members were gone by the end of that year. Their replacements included an astonishing array of talent that was later recognized, including Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, her husband Dave Ellingson, and Karen Black. When Mike Settle tried to move the group back toward a folk sound and was rebuffed, he and fellow members Terry Williams, Thelma Lou Comacho, and Rogers quit to form The First Edition. Black later emerged as a major actress, while Carnes -- after a period in a duo with Ellingson -- became a major pop-rock star in the '80s.

Astonishingly, the Christys -- now with membership changes on every tour -- carried on under Garris' management. They tried their hand at one piece of psychedelic folk-pop, "I'll Coat Your Mind With Honey," and even cut a folk-pop album of Motown hits called On Tour Through Motortown, as well as more Disney covers. The Columbia Records contract ended in 1970, but strangely enough, their next album, You Need Someone To Love, released through their own management company's label that same year, managed to chart. The group became inactive in 1971, but five years later the New Christy Minstrels were revived as a pop group to make one record, and by 1978 they were working again at resort hotels.

The originals are long scattered to other lives. Some retired and some members, such as Woods and Clark passed on, but the appeal of the group lingers, whether out of nostalgia for the early (i.e. pre-drug, pre-Vietnam) '60s or a respect for their best work. "Green, Green" remains one of the most popular original songs to come out of the early '60s folk boom, regardless of one's feelings about the group. Sparks -- who moved to Northern California with his second wife, the former actress Diane Jergens, and wrote plays as well as ran his song publishing business -- has even performed in recent years as a member of the revived New Christy Minstrels, under the auspices of Greif and Garris.

Content provided by All Music Guide. (C) 2009 All Media Guide, LLC.
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