Leah Harrison | Staff Writer
While the Beatles were making their American television debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, The New Christy Minstrels were performing in the White House.
Forty-eight years later, the folk group will hold another presidential audience, performing during Chautauqua’s “Presidents Club”-themed week at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.
Reminiscent of a band out of Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, The New Christy Minstrels under the direction of Randy Sparks had great success as a folk ensemble in the 1960s, went through several restructured phases, and now resemble their original group again. Randy Sparks founded the group in 1961 in order to perform his music, following the example of composer Stephen Foster in the 19th century, who, when having trouble getting his music played, handed his repertoire over to the Christy Minstrels.
“One day in the Vancouver, WA Public Library,” Sparks wrote on The New Christy Minstrels website, “I read that Foster once had a problem similar to mine. He had written a pile of good songs that nobody wanted, and his solution was brilliant. He leaned on the most popular musical group of his era, Christy’s Minstrels, later dubbed The Christy Minstrels, to get his ditties heard by the public, and my light-bulb moment came along as soon as I connected the dots from his winning formula to my troubled career.
“I would call my group The New Christy Minstrels. E.P. Christy’s ensemble wasn’t a big group, just six in number, but the formula was admirable: Everybody did double-duty, each performer with a solo offering, playing and singing, dancing, doing humorous sketches; then they all joined together for rousing choruses.
“I wanted more people in my group. The original target number was 14. My dream group would have the brash, imperfect excitement of the Kingston Trio, but with enough good singers to rival the Norman Luboff Choir. It worked.”
Though the group emerged in the 1960s, politics and peace were never their subject matter. Lighter songs with happy messages make up their repertoire.
Sparks stopped performing with the group in the ’60s, devoting himself to other endeavors, but rejoined them in the 1990s. The New Christy Minstrels now include three original members.
In 1963, the group earned a Grammy Award for the “Best Performance by a Choir,” reflecting Sparks’ appropriation of the choir-like ensemble for the folk genre. The group has had as many as 14 performers but now registers at eight, if not counting Vecca the show dog. Randy Sparks, Dolan Ellis, Pete Henderson, Eddie Boggs, Becky Jo Benson, Jennifer Lind, Dave Deutschendorf and Greg O’Haver will perform tonight.
Next year, the group will go on a “50th year since the first Grammy tour.”