Homage to Melvin Sparks Hassan
" An Extremely Versatile Guitarist "
March 22, 1946 to March 15, 2011
Melvin Sparks-Hassan passed away on March 15, 2011, at his home in Mt. Vernon, New York, of complications from diabetes and ultimately heart failure. He was one week shy of his sixty-fifth birthday.
Along with Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Charles Earland, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Idris Muhammad, and others, Melvin Sparks was one of the originators of soul-funk-jazz, and R&B music. Utilizing his Grant Green-like guitar style, Sparks recorded and toured on a solid bunch of soul-jazz and organ combo recordings of the late 1960s and early '70s. Melvin comfortably hung and recorded with jazz as well as R&B and blues musicians. The Houston, Texas-bred Sparks started playing guitar at eleven and was just thirteen when he sat in with the great B.B. King. From 1966-1967 he joined the Upsetters, an R&B show band that backed Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and well known stars. Sparks moved to the New York area where he was very much in demand in the late 1960s through the '70s.
When soul-jazz's music fell out of fashion in the mid 1970s, the guitarist wasn't working as much. The only album Melvin recorded as a leader in the 1980s was '81_s Sparkling for the Muse record label. Yet he was featured prominently as a sideman on (for the most part Bob Porter-produced sessions) by Houston Person, Jimmy McGriff, and Hank Crawford. The 1990s saw a lot of renewed interest in soul-jazz, and in 1997 Sparks returned to the studio for his Ron Levy-produced Cannonball disc (Remember the rattling ball in the spines of those discs?) I'm a 'Gittar' Player, a fine album that also featured Levy's B3, Stanley Banks' (George Benson) bass, Idris Muhammad on drums, and others. Sparks also delivered his 2002 What You Hear Is What You Get, (liner notes by yours truly) then followed up with 2004_s It Is What It Is, 2005_s This Is It, and his last album the 2006 Groove On Up, all on Joe and Barney Fields' Savant Records.
Though mostly known as a jazz player, Melvin's Texas guitar playing had firm roots in blues. Melvin often talked about his early influences: Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Joe "Guitar" Hughes, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Clarence Hollimon, T-Bone Walker, and his (then Houston-based hometown friend) Johnny Copeland, (who once barked at Melvin from the floor of a Harlem club for playing in a low-rent, low-profile venue.)
Sparks has eleven albums credited to his name. His first recording was on the Prestige Record label signed by Bob Porter in 1970. Sparks has also recorded on more than one hundred albums as a sideman with the likes of Jimmy Witherspoon, George Benson, Jack McDuff, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Reuben Wilson, Charles Earland, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Stitt, Idris Muhammad, Rusty Bryant, Houston Person, Hank Crawford, Jimmy McGriff, Arthur Prysock, Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, Ron Levy, Joey & Papa John DeFrancesco, Etta Jones, Lalo Schifrin, Grover Washington, Karl Denson, Red Holloway, Irene Reid, Johnny "Hammond" Smith, Big John Patton, and other big-time groovers.
Melvin lived about two miles from my home and would drop by from time to time to talk about current projects and the old days when he was coming up. I was very fortunate to have known him. He taught me a lot. Some of my most memorable moments were his telling stories about being on the road with Johnny "Guitar" Watson speaking about how Watson would always travel in large buses loaded with prostitutes with him to make extra money on the circuit. Melvin was in his teens and always laughed about how Watson told him he was too young to dabble.
When Melvin's guitar was stolen, the New York Blues & Jazz Society organized an event to pay for a new guitar. It turned into a who's who night of stellar guitarists, who donated their time. First and foremost, the great "Gatemouth" Brown eventually took over the proceedings with Melvin by his side. The highlight of their set was (as expected) a torrid "Okie-Dokie Stomp" that in a blink of an eye and right on cue segued into "Honky Tonk."
It was an amazing moment, even Bob Porter's mouth dropped, a rarity in itself!
On another occasion there was a CD release party for the Society. Many well-known artists were in attendance, most notably Sparks and the legendary Hubert Sumlin. I looked on at Melvin who was almost in trance watching Sumlin perform. I asked Sparks, "What are you thinking, where are you?" He looked at me and said, "Do you think Hubert will do a guitar duo with me, just him and me, no bass, no drums, no other players?"
I asked Hubert, and he said, "Sure!"
Now Melvin never considered himself a bluesman. We always disagreed about this topic, but Sparks started to throw all kinds of complex Delta blues chords at Hubert and brought emotions out of Sumlin that were downright fascinating. It was another special moment. On another occasion, Luther Kent was in town, and we asked Jerry Vivino to assemble a band for Big Luther. Vivino already had a playing relationship with Sparks and employed him for Luther's gig, as well as the great Bernard "Pretty" Purdie on drums. What a night, as this band hummed like a Northeast version of The Meters. What a groove!
Melvin Sparks-Hassan (his Muslim name) was also the recipient of the 2006 Westchester Arts Award for his artistic contributions. Bob Porter made an interesting comment at the funeral services when he said that Melvin was so very good at anything he chose to do in music, but perhaps that was part of the dilemma. I concur with Porter, having seen Sparks play in many different settings. You see, Melvin Sparks always fit in, always raised the bar for himself and everyone he played with and always delivered the goods, all with that captivating smile that lit the many rooms he performed in.
Melvin's favorite living guitarist was Pat Martino. From time to time Melvin would ask me to go with him to see Martino perform. Melvin would say, "I need a Pat Martino guitar lesson" and would focus on Pat's hands as he performed. Note Martino's loving quote below.
Quotes from those who knew Melvin Sparks-Hassan:
Pat Martino www.patmartino.com
I'm terribly sorry to hear about Melvin's departure at such an early age. I recently had the pleasure of spending a few moments with Melvin when both of us joined with Monnette Sudler here in Philadelphia for an event that took place on September 26, 2010, called "Guitar Summit."
There's not much that I can offer as a quote, other than my response to some lovely moments shared with Melvin at that time.
There's something about an individual who decides to shape his or her life around a specific instrument, a vehicle they use and respect as the main source of their creative fulfillment. No matter what style or path the instrument leads them through, they remain attached, and by doing so reveal to others the intensity of that relationship. Melvin Sparks was an individual who enhanced the magic of the guitar and as such shall always be missed and remembered".
Melvin Sparks was my right hand on many recording dates. If something was wrong, he knew how to fix it."
Joe Fields, HighNote & Savant Records www.jazzdepot.com
Melvin Sparks was a perpetual smile and a sunny attitude. A pleasure to work with, his guitar was exciting. Melvin was one of the masters of the "groove." For me, he was born at the wrong time when it came to his playing. He excelled at playing the blues and could have been one of the great ones, bar none.
Seleno Clarke, Harlem Groove www.selenoclarke.com
Hell, when Melvin Sparks started I was the first band he played with when he came to New York. After playing with my band he asked me to play with him, so I joined his band, toured, and recorded with him in Detroit. I will admit I learned a lot of music from him. He was a teacher as well as a good player. He will truly be missed and may he rest in peace.
Yes! I am shocked and still distraught about his demise! Melvin and I were in Lou Donaldson's band and roomed together on the road during the 1972-1973 years. Melvin recorded my Hail Caesar album with me and was very instrumental in helping me prepare for the album. I recorded on his Texas Twister album. Melvin with his always down-to-earth ways and smiling face will always have a special place in my heart. He will always be a charter member of our musical fraternity from the golden era of the music scene of the 1960s and '70s. God will take care of our brother!
Ron Levy www.Levtron.com
Mel-vine ,as I always called him was one of the best-est people I've ever known, ever. Mel has been on all my Wild Kingdom records going back since the early '90s. He, Otis Spann, Lloyd Glenn, Professor Longhair, Charles Earland, Jack mcDuff, Albert King, Papa Willie Mitchell, along with my parents and people in my family that I've lost, were so, so special and will always be with me and inspire.I cried my eyes out last night playing, thinking, and dedicating a song to his life and our friendship. I could always make him laugh, and he had the best-est smile, evah...as we say in Boston. There's not enough vodka in Russia to drown out my sense of loss of such a wonderful person and friend
As a "born-again" Muslim, and me a Jew, he was so proud of me when I acquired a condo in Israel and congratulated me one hundred percent (as much as my Rabbi). As talented a musician, friend, and a man...as well as a genius, he was one heck of a man. I miss his laugh and smile, but it'll always be with me. Thanks, Melvin. Love you. You know that. Melvin was class one hundred percent. Itsaulgood.
told a great story at Melvin's funeral (paraphrasing)Melvin and I grew up together in Houston, Texas. We both thought that at least one of us was going to make in the music business and made a pact that whoever got there first would employ the other guy on their first recording. That pact was fulfilled when Melvin got signed [by Bob Porter] to Prestige around the fall of 1970, and I returned the favor when I got signed to Prestige during the winter of 1970.
Bobby Watley Funk Inc.
Melvin Sparks, besides being an accomplished and talented musician, was always positive, never saying anything negative about things and or people. He wore a twenty-four-hour smile, and I can hear him saying, "It's all good." It has been a pleasure knowing Melvin Sparks for forty years and I will never forget him. Rest in peace, my friend and brother. My condolences to his wife and family.
Jerry Jemmott www.jerryjemmott.com
Bob, I called Melvin at least twice a month for at least the past thirty years. We just always stayed in touch. I talked to him Monday and we talked for an hour. He always gives me great musical info...always...I was due to call him back so he could guide me on how to send music over the net. Melvin: Crazy rhythm, insane chops, oh what a smile. Ride on, Mr. Sparks-Hassan.
Frank-John Hadley Downbeat magazine
Sparks' playing connected with several generations of listeners, no easy feat. Many guitarists aspire to having soul, but the man really possessed it. He should have spent his last years being transported everywhere in a plush sedan chair for his all his wonderful service to Hank Crawford, Etta Jones, Houston Person, McGriff, Spoon, on and on. He held his own among these notables. And let's not forget his appealing feature records.
Jerry Vivino saxophonist
No matter what stage Melvin performed on and with whomever he shared those stages with, the spotlight always found its way to shine upon him. Rest in peace, my friend.
Michael Hill Michael Hill's Blues Mob
I'm really sorry to hear about Melvin's passing. What a cool, fine gentleman and amazing, inspiring guitarist! Our paths didn't cross often enough, but I miss his presence on the planet already. Be well, sweet friend.
The last time I saw Melvin was at Bob Porter's birthday. We were hanging out and I told him one of my all-time favorite albums was The Blues Is Now with Jack McDuff and Jimmy Witherspoon. I told Melvin that the solos he took were mini-masterpieces. What I didn't know was that was his first record.
I met Melvin through my friend Bernard Purdie, but then found out that he played guitar on many of my favorite records. He always encouraged the younger players around him to find their own muse and take chances. His legacy will live on, but his sweet generosity be sorely missed."
Luther Kent www.LutherKent.com
It was a great pleasure to work with Melvin the few times we did. He was a true gentleman and a great guitar player. He will be missed by all. R.I.P., Melvin. Would have loved to have had a chance to work with again, maybe in the big band in the sky!!!
Nikki Armstrong,Singer/Songwriter/Bandleader/DJ www.nikkiarmstrong.com>
It's such a huge loss. And it is tough for me to make a simple statement, as there is so much to say about Melvin. He was my dear friend, mentor, writing partner, and a major inspiration to me, as well as to many musicians. Melvin gave one hundred percent every time he played, and he always sounded like Melvin, totally unique and distinctive.
When his trusty L5 was stolen, he was slated to play on a gig with me later the same day. When I found out, I called him and offered to replace him for the night. He refused, showed up with a practice Epiphone guitar, and you would never know what had happened. Neither his attitude, nor his sound was changed, it was "all good." It was great! It was always great when Melvin was playing and even better when he was smiling.
Bob Putignano: www.SoundsofBlue.com