To the uninitiated, "folk music" might conjure up visions of the Kingston Trio pondering where all the flowers have gone, or Peter, Paul and Mary questioning if
the answer to world peace and harmony is blowing in the wind.
But folk music goes back hundreds of years, to songs that have spanned generations and centuries. Songs that were passed down from a singer to his son,
songs whose original composers and authors have been lost to the mists of time. It has its roots in the gospel spirituals; in the work songs of the farmer and the
fisherman; in the mandolin melodies of the traveling troubadour.
In the late 1950's, interest in folk music increased, mostly on university campuses and coffee houses, where the music of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly were
rediscovered by discerning college students. Bands like the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four found receptive audiences who wanted to hear simple voices, a
simple guitar or bass, and well-written, provocative lyrics that looked into the past as a way to envision a peaceful future.
From that era came the New Christy Minstrels, a manufactured folk-pop group whose catalog included renditions of those early songs of freedom and life,
working songs and spirituals and old traditional favorites. The Christies sang these melodies of Americana with such enthusiasm and gusto that their audiences
clapped and stomped and danced with every note. Yet these songs were also performed in a non-threatening manner - no controversial drug use or salacious
behavior, no racial slurs or offensive movements, no lyrics that might question a war or a presidential decision or anything like that, nothing that would offend
your parents or your ministers or your teachers. Even though their folk-pop background came more from the audition stage than the coffeehouse stage, and
despite their ever-volatile lineup (with over 20 members between 1961 and 1971), the Christies became both a successful folk-pop group - and the audition and
training ground for future musical superstars.
How ironic it was that the fresh-scrubbed, clean-cut New Christy Minstrels took their name from a 19th-century performance troupe that invented the archaic
and insensitive concept of blackface minstrelsy. The original Christy Minstrels were created by Edwin Pearce "Pops" Christy in a Buffalo, New York tavern in
1842. By 1847, the group's blackface performances of Negro spirituals became a national sensation, and its repertoire included the latest compositions of writer
Stephen Foster. The Christy Minstrels later moved to New York City, and their sellout performances on Broadway made Pops Christy a wealthy man. Pops
retired from performing in 1856, and made a second fortune as owner of a chain of circus properties and theaters (and licensing the "Christy Minstrels" name for
a similar group in Great Britain). When the American Civil War began in 1860, Christy feared that his businesses and incomes would be lost. In 1862, that fear
drove Pops Christy to commit suicide, leaping from a window of his New York City home.
But Christy's Minstrels would survive into the 20th century, playing Broadway for the next sixty years, providing Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson with their first
stage exposures. The Christy Minstrels also provided America with a new form of entertainment, the "minstrel show," as white artists performed in blackface for
appreciative crowds. The Christy Minstrels gave their last performances in 1921, and the racially-offensive performances died out.
Forty years later, Randy Sparks, an actor-composer whose film credits included Thunder Road and College Confidential, formed a new version of the Christy
Minstrels. This new group would eschew facial lampblack for clean-scrubbed, All-American youthfulness and enthusiasm. "In the fall of 1961," said Sparks to
writer Tom Pickles, "the frustration of being a single performer and working with my trio started to get to me. I was critical of [choral groups] invasion of the
folk field, so I purposefully sat down to designing a group that would be a compromise between the Norman Luboff Choir and the Kingston Trio. And that was
Working with producer Jim Harbert, Sparks created a clean-cut lineup from two existing groups, his own Randy Sparks Three (Randy Sparks on guitar, Jackie
Miller on plectrum and five-string banjo, and Nick Woods on guitar); The Inn Group (Jerry Yester on five-string banjo, Karol Dugan on guitar and John Forsha
on six-string and twelve-string guitar); and added performers guitarists Terry Wadsworth and Art Podell, Billy Cudmore on five-string banjo, and Dolan Ellis on
six-string and twelve-string guitar. The original plan was that the New Christy Minstrels would be a supplemental ancillary project while bands like the Randy
Sparks Three and The Inn Group established themselves.
That plan changed when their debut album, Presenting The New Christy Minstrels: Exciting New Folk Chorus (Columbia CS 8672 / CL 1872), spent nearly two
years on the Billboard album charts, peaking at #19 and earning a Grammy. A single from that album, a performance of "This Land Is Your Land," tapped the
Billboard charts at #93, and the New Christy Minstrels went from backup project to main attraction.
While the debut album was rising the charts, Sparks was introduced to the management team of Sid Garris and George Greif. Under Garris and Grief's
guidance, the Minstrels were booked for appearances on Percy Faith's television show, Vic Damone's summer program The Lively Ones, and as regulars on the
Andy Williams Show. But by the time their second album, a concert recording at the Troubadour Club called The New Christy Minstrels In Person (Columbia
CS 8741), was released, there were some personnel changes.
The entire Inn Group - Yester, Dugan and Forsha - left after that first album to concentrate on their own career, and Sparks auditioned over 300 people in two
months to find replacements. His new Minstrels included Larry Ramos, a coffeehouse singer in Orange County, California; Clarence Treat, a mandolin player
and former track star; Gayle Caldwell, a singer and former member of the Roger Wagner Chorale, and a popular duo in the Los Angeles folk scene, Barry Kane
and Barry McGuire.
Even within the democratically equivalent lineup, some stars were stepping forward. A Variety reviewer, catching the Minstrels' show at San Francisco's
Fairmont Hotel, wrote in 1964 that although "the nine-member attraction opened with a rollicking 'Down The Ohio,' and the audience began clapping, stomping
and joining in ... Only during the middle of their act, when their democracy carries them to the dangerous extent of allowing each of the members to show his
stuff at the mike alone, does the show seem to drag. Only the lead male vocalist, Barry McGuire, a gutsy, sweating little belter, has the stuff to go it alone."
McGuire later displayed his talents as both a singer and songwriter, as he and Randy Sparks co-wrote "Green, Green," a traveling folk song that reached #14 in
America and was a worldwide smash (the track also received a Grammy nomination as Best Folk Song). Fans who watched the New Christy Minstrels perform
every Thursday night on NBC's Andy Williams Show bought plenty of copies of the song (when the Minstrels left the Andy Williams Show after 26
performances, they were replaced by a new brother act from Utah, the Osmonds).
After "Green, Green" became a hit, the Christies began work on an accompanying album, "Ramblin'" (Columbia CL 2055 / CS 8855). Recorded during a week's
stay at New York's Latin Quarter, the album showed more diversity in song selection, while maintaining the album's theme of traveling songs. For example,
"The Drinking Gourd (The Muddy Road To Freedom)" was a Negro spiritual that doubled as a mnemonic musical map - to find your way North and avoid the
slavemasters in the South, follow the Big Dipper in the sky - the "Drinking Gourd" - to freedom.
In June 1963, as "Green, Green" rose up the charts, original Christies member Dolan Ellis quit. Ellis' replacement, Doug Brookins, was not performing to
Randy Sparks' satisfaction, so Ellis suggested Sparks check out a local folk band, the Surf Riders, for possible new members. One of the guitarists in the Surf
Riders, 18-year-old Gene Clark, caught Sparks' eye, and within a week Clark joined the Minstrels, performing on the album Merry Christmas (Columbia CL
2096 / CS 8896), and the Minstrels' third charted hit, "Saturday Night" (Columbia 4-42887). His most notable appearance was on the B-side of "Saturday
Night," "The Wheeler Dealers" (which became the theme for a James Garner motion picture).
But Clark, a shy boy younger than anybody had suspected (it was not until after his death that it was discovered he had added three years to his birth certificate),
stayed in the background and did not complain loudly enough when he was passed over for solos.
Clark was with the Christies on January 14, 1964, when after a seven-month tour, they performed at the steps of the White House for President Lyndon Johnson
and Italian President Segni. But Clark's unhappiness continued. He submitted songs that he hoped the Christies would record; none were ever considered. He
had been listed as performing on the Minstrels' second Top 20 hit, a song from the motion picture Advance To The Rear called "Today" (Columbia 43000), but
his appearance on this song may be apocryphal; he was ill that day and may have missed the recording session. Clark already heard through the grapevine that
Randy Sparks had hired a replacement; and after hearing a radio station play the Beatles' song "She Loves You," Clark knew his place was no longer with the
New Christy Minstrels. "I knew, I knew, that [the Beatles] was the future," said Clark, "this was where music was going and that I wanted to be a part of it."
A month later, Clark and the Minstrels parted company. Clark would later meet up with Jim McGuinn and form the Byrds; and maintained to his last breath that
he quit the Minstrels (Randy Sparks claims Clark was fired). Clark's last project with the Minstrels, the album Land of Giants (Columbia CL 2187 / CS 8987),
was released months after his departure.
Even though America's taste for popular music now seemed imported from England, the New Christy Minstrels still held their own, performing in sold-out
concerts and television shows. After their year on the Andy Williams Show, the Minstrels appeared in eight episodes of the folk music variety show Hootenany.
After headlining a Ford-sponsored "Folk and Jazz Wing-Dings" concert series on college campuses, the Minstrels hosted their own summer replacement
Produced by Garry Smith, whose credits included The Judy Garland Show, Thursday nights at 9:30 were time for Ford Presents The New Christy Minstrels.
During the show's five-week run, Randy Sparks, Barry McGuire and the rest of the Minstrels sang and danced for their televised audience, and interacted with
guest comedians Jackie Mason, Tony Hendra and Nic Ullett. Two shows aired from the site of the 1964 New York World's Fair; the Minstrels filmed a
Western-themed episode at Knott's Berry Farm in California; a nautical-themed show at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica; and a tribute to Stephen Foster at
Disneyland. They even premiered Ford's new car, the Mustang, on their show. The premiere episode featured the Minstrels bouncing through folk songs in
seven different languages, including Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, German and Hawaiian. They ended the show with what can only be called a Beatlesque version
of Shakespeare's Hamlet soliloquy ("To Die, Yeah Yeah; To Sleep, Yeah Yeah...")
But barely three years after creating the group, Randy Sparks wanted out. He had already stopped performing with the Minstrels, concentrating exclusively on
overseeing their personnel roster. In 1964, Sparks sold his interest in the New Christy Minstrels to his managers, George Greif and Sid Garris, for $2.5 million.
Attempting to start another band as a possible training ground for future Minstrels, Randy Sparks created the Back Porch Majority. This group included Mike
Crumm, who played with Gene Clark in the Surf Riders; Mike Clough, who once teamed with David Crosby in Les Baxter's Balladeers, and guitarist John
Denver, who later left the Back Porch Majority to join the Chad Mitchell Trio, and eventually a superstar solo career. They recorded four albums for Columbia's
subsidiary Epic label before eventually disbanding.
With the new management group in place, the New Christy Minstrels continued their hitmaking ways. Five of the Minstrels - Barry McGuire, Karen Gunderson,
Art Podell, Paul Potash and new musical director Barry Kane - were booked by Brian Epstein for a British concert tour in 1965. They appeared on the British
concert show "Sunday Night at the London Palladium" and the BBC newsmagazine "Tonight," both to enthusiastic crowds and thunderous applause. They
received international acclaim and standing-room concerts in London, Stockholm and Amsterdam. Their excursion through Europe concluded with an
appearance at Italy's San Remo Festival, where they won top honors with their songs "Si Piangi, Se Ridi" ("If You Cry, You Laugh") and "Le Colline Sono in
Flore" (The Hills Are Full of Flowers").
But even during that concert tour, all was not well. Barry McGuire saw the crowds that filled concert halls for the new British bands, and he grew increasingly
discouraged that his own compositions were rejected in favor of such homogenized songs as "Three Wheels On My Wagon." By 1965, he had left the Minstrels,
and would later score a #1 track with the protest song "Eve of Destruction," about as far away from a New Christy Minstrels song as could be.
The Minstrels still recorded and performed through the 1960's (even hitting the charts with a folk version of the Mary Poppins song "Chim Chim Cher-ee"). But
their lineup continued to change. Larry Ramos left the group in 1966, and accepted an invitation to form an association with the Association. Jackie Miller and
Gayle Caldwell left to form the duo Jackie & Gayle; who later starred in the motion picture Wild Wild Winter and sang "Our Love's Gonna Snowball" (their
other musical co-stars were Jay and the Americans, the Beau Brummels, Dick & Dee Dee and the Astronauts). They also recorded some singles for the United
Artists label, including the track "Right Now." Gayle Caldwell later went solo, releasing an album that was produced by Chad and Jeremy's Chad Stewart.
Greif and Garris replaced the departing singers with new performers as a football coach might replace a halfback. Mike Settle, who previously performed with
the Cumberland Three and whose songs were performed by the Limelighters, the Brothers Four and Peter, Paul and Mary, became the main musical director.
Kenny Rogers, a Houston native whose last paying gig was as a jazz bassist with the Bobby Doyle Three, also joined the Christies.
The ever-changing Christies lineup - singers and musicians auditioning and joining and singing and touring and leaving - did not give the New Christy Minstrels
the same folk credibility offered to groups like Peter Paul and Mary, who would march in a protest rally with the same fervor and commitment as they put in their
songs. The Minstrels were as non-threatening as sunshine, and their music was designed to entertain - not to invoke controversy. And as for its origins as an
manufactured group - other bands, e.g., the Monkees, were born from auditions and tryouts, and had successful careers. But while the Monkees challenged their
own managers for artistic creativity, the Minstrels seemed content enough to record and sing whatever they felt the public wanted.
But even though the Minstrels continued to tour and record, not everybody in the band was able to perform on the albums. Kenny Rogers, for example, was not
allowed to participate in the album New Kick!, even though it was recorded and released during his time as a Minstrel. He did, however, make fast friends with
two other Minstrels, singer-songwriter Kim Carnes and her husband Dave Ellingson (who would later leave the Minstrels and form their own duo, Kim and
Dave, before Carnes herself wrote and sang a series of pop and rock hits in the 1980's).
Mike Settle also thought the Christies should change - he thought the band should sing more contemporary material, perhaps written within the group. Perhaps
even make a statement about the world today, like so many other folk singers with homegrown folk credentials. Settle met with Greif and Garris, and made his
pitch. The offer was rejected; Greif and Garris did not want to mess with a proven moneymaking operation.
So in 1967, Settle and three other Minstrels - Terry Williams, newcomer Thelma Lou Camacho, and Kenny Rogers - left to form the First Edition, a group that
mixed their New Christy Minstrels folk sound with a dash of psychedelia and a string of pop hits. Rogers became the lead singer for the First Edition, and later
went on to a superstar solo career.
Meanwhile, Randy Sparks tried one more time to create a new folk group, the "Green Grass Group," with minimal success. He later moved to Calaveras,
California, where he began work on a museum of Western Americana. He still performs today, playing folk and contemporary music thoughout Southern
California as Randy Sparks and the Patch Family.
The Minstrels' lineup changes were also causing credibility problems with their fans and record buyers. In later years, the band's albums were recorded by
session musicians; their tours almost became audition sessions. The front cover photos were later reduced to representative drawings of the songs; the back
covers containing little more than puffery prose from Randy Sparks about how the Minstrels were going to interpret their latest collection of songs.
During one tour, a crowd booed and jeered when the lineup that appeared for a University of Minnesota concert contained only one member from the same
Minstrels show that visited the Gopher State a year earlier. "We can only guess at reasons for the change of all but one member who previously had been in
Minneapolis," apologized James S. Lombard, the university's concert and lecture director, to the local newspaper. "It may be that their new management has
decided that they will try and emulate the Katzenjammer Kids, who stayed the same age instead of letting the public see that even the likes of them grow older."
As the 1960's wound down, the New Christy Minstrels' catalog veered even farther away from its folk roots. Their 1968 album On Tour Through Motortown
was filled with Motown covers (including a Minstrels-like take on "Where Did Our Love Go"); their next album contained songs heard in the Chitty Chitty Bang
Bang movie. A 1968 track, "I'll Coat Your Mind With Honey," was a radical departure from the Minstrels' folk-pop background; drifting more toward the
Electric Prunes and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. "I'll Coat Your Mind With Honey," with its psychedelic orchestration and trippy lyrics, were the Minstrels
trying to recapture their place on the pop charts; the song alienated more fans than it gained. By 1971, the band was no more.
Meanwhile, alumni from the New Christy Minstrels alumni had monster hits. Gene Clark with the Byrds. Larry Ramos with the Association. Jackie Miller and
Gayle Caldwell as a duo. Barry McGuire and Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes with their solo careers. Ex-Minstrel Karen Black didn't have a successful
post-Minstrel singing career, but she did turn heads with her performance in The Exorcist.
And like its namesake, who performed for sixty years after the death of its creator, the New Christy Minstrels have a life of their own. In 1976, Greif-Garris
Management announced a new lineup of Minstrels would record a pop single with the Soviet band Pesnyary (the New Christy Minstrels' albums were one of the
few "Western" recordings legally available in the former Soviet Union at the time). By 1978, a version of the New Christy Minstrels were playing in Reno hotels,
their 45-minute sets containing a Stephen Foster medley, a Japanese version of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and a melange of hit songs by Minstrels alumni.
And even today, Sid Garris of Greif-Garris Management still holds open tryouts for male and female vocalists, ages 18-25, who can write their own material and
play a popular folk instrument (guitar, mandolin, bass, etc.). "The right artists will have a vision of future folk music," reads the new advertisements, "they will
sing from their hearts and souls, and not from their wallets and egos."
So if you think you have what it takes to bring the New Christy Minstrels into their third century, you can contact Sid Garris with your demo, photo or resume at:
Mesquite Canyon Estates
2112 Casitas Way
Palm Springs, CA 92264
And when you apply, remember all those other artists that were once New Christy Minstrels - and after they left the band, went on to much bigger gigs. A
Minstrel's as lucky, as lucky can be. Or you could just stay a Minstrel... and that's lucky too.
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