The Sparks Brothers

Complete Recorded Works

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The complete recordings of the Sparks Brothers as reissued by Document in 1994 is comparable to 1923, Vol. 1 of the Sidney Bechet Masters of Jazz complete edition in that the photo on the cover was originally taken as a mug shot. Seeing as Marion "Lindberg" Sparks was arrested more than 50 times, it's impossible to tell whether this particular snapshot found him hauled in for fighting, gambling, or violation of the Volstead Act. What's verifiable is the fact that when they recorded as a duo, Marion sang the blues while "Pinetop" Aaron Sparks massaged the piano in a barrelhouse style that makes everything on this collection a pleasure to absorb. Their first records were cut in Atlanta, GA in February, 1932, and the most enduring element that cropped up on that occasion was "I Believe I'll Make a Change", distinctly recognizable today as an essential ingredient in Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom." The rest of the recordings in the Sparks Brothers discography were all made in Chicago. On August 2, 1933, they recorded three duets (including the original "61 Highway"), and Pinetop also backed vocalists Elizabeth Washington, Tecumseh McDowell, Dorotha Trowbridge, and Charlie "Specks" McFadden, whose two titles with Sparks may be found on Document's McFadden collection. Whereas the liner notes to this album contain language that is somewhat dismissive toward the women (speculating that they were marginally talented girlfriends of the male participants), these women sang their blues convincingly, and Elizabeth Washington came across particularly well, sounding like Alice Moore as she sang the "Riot Call Blues" (aka St. Louis Jimmy's "Patrol Wagon Blues") and "Whiskey Blues," which begins with the words "every day I have the blues." This use of the familiar passage predates Aaron Sparks' version (on which that line became the title) by nearly two years. Unless someone else originated the words and melody prior to 1933, the song (credited to Memphis Slim and popularized by Joe Williams and Count Basie) should by all rights be credited to Sparks and Washington, or to Washington as the primary originator. In August, 1934, Marion recorded "I.C. Train Blues" and "No Good Woman Blues" at his only non-Victor/Bluebird session, a Decca date with the instantly identifiable Peetie Wheatstraw at the piano, violinist Bill Lowry, and a clarinetist and a guitarist whose names have since been forgotten. In July, 1935, the brothers Sparks shared their last recording session with guitarist Henry Townsend; this session left us Aaron's only known vocals (tracks 17-20) and Marion's final four, waxed under his new handle Milton Sparks. The pianist on "Erie Train Blues" and "Ina Blues" has been identified as Walter Davis, who was destined to become one of Bluebird's most heavily recorded blues artists. These deeply rewarding historic St. Louis and Chicago blues records from the toughest years of the Great Depression are guaranteed to provide valuable insights and background for much better-known recordings by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Joe Williams, and Memphis Slim.

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