Thursday April 17, 2014; 11:35 pm EDT
Caught Up in a Whirlwind of Music
Dorothy Gale was caught up in a tornado and wound up in Oz. Ed Sparks was caught up in the winds of a changing pop scene and wound up in the Land of Music.
While Dorothy went home, Sparks is still there, following his own yellow brick road, playing, singing, songwriting, constructing instruments and making friends all over Chesapeake Country and beyond.
Born to Rock and Roll
A tall man with soft white hair falling beneath his ears, a white mustache and a honeyed voice, Sparks was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1955, the year Bill Haley and the Comets urged teenagers to “Rock Around the Clock.” Rock and roll changed the culture, Sparks explains, and set the course for his life.
“Up until then, mainstream music was made by squeaky-clean young white groups processed by record companies. Blacks had their own music that was primitive, raunchy, loud and wonderful, and the white kids really liked it. Producers were looking for someone white who could be that raunchy and who could jump around, and that was Elvis Presley, whose music was incredible.”
As a fourth grader watching Ed Sullivan introduce the Beatles to America, Sparks was hooked. After that “really big shew,” Sparks and his friends got together after school, put a 45 on the turntable and sang “She Loves You” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” while pretending to play the drums and guitars.
Sparks’ parents bought him his first guitar, a plastic instrument made by the Emenmee Toy Company, and he started strumming and trying to pick out tunes. Music lessons bored him, but he had a good ear. Following the chords marked on sheet music, he taught himself to play.
As a teenager in Glen Burnie, Sparks was also into art and graphics, and when his mother bought him a Polaroid Swinger, photography became part of the mix. Sparks enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College in a career program that combined all his interests in an emerging field called multi-media.
Sparks graduated in 1975, but he never left the school. Thirty-five years later, he is a media production designer, creating instructional, archival and promotional videos for the college. He has also produced music for commercials and film soundtracks.
With a Little Help from His Friends
While in college, Sparks and a couple of friends formed a band, called Fresh Produce, which evolved into Free Flight. Their first gig was in 1978 at the now defunct Ox Bow Inn in Arnold.
The minister at Asbury United Methodist Church in Arnold, Bruce Hathorne, approached Sparks and band-mate Patrick Raymond about starting a coffee house. Hathorne passed away before it could open, but Sparks and Raymond went ahead with plans to open the Red Door Coffee House in 1993 and kept it going in his honor for 10 years.
Free Flight ended its run in 2003 when two members left, and the group reorganized as Sparks, Raymond and McCoy.
“What makes us different,” Sparks says, “is there’s not one singer. There’s three of us, and each of us sings lead while the others harmonize. Sometimes we do solos, sometimes duos and sometimes all three of us sing.”
“We call our music acoustic rock,” Sparks explains. “They used to call it folk rock, but when you say ‘folk,’ people think of Peter, Paul and Mary, really traditional folk. When you say rock, they think of Jimi Hendrix. We don’t do anything like that. We like Crosby, Stills and Nash’s acoustic stuff and the Beatles’ acoustic stuff. We do a lot of James Taylor, Cat Stevens, The Eagles and America. We do some old blues.”
-Making Music from the Wood Up
One guitar lead to another in Sparks’ musical evolution. His avocation as a guitar builder began with a simple kit. After owning several instruments, he was ready to make music from the wood up. When it was time to paint the body, he recalled a spot he’d seen on Baltimore television featuring an up-and-coming guitar builder, Paul Reed Smith, who was showing a 12-string electric he had built for Nancy Wilson of Heart.
Sparks’ introduction to the guitar maker was a six-inch replica of Smith’s guitar, the offshoot of his self-instructional method of working in miniature to master the craft.
Smith must have been flattered. He went beyond spray-painting the body of Sparks’ guitar to become his mentor. When Sparks wanted a 12-string Rickenbacker electric that was too costly for his budget, Smith encouraged him to make his own version.
Using an instruction book by Melvin Hyssock and with help from PRS staff, Sparks learned the craft. He continues to build musical instruments, not for sale, but for the pure joy of it.
Sparks’ most recent project was a bass for his son Josh’s 21st birthday in November, 2007. Sparks inlaid Josh’s name in mother of pearl and put a star on the 21st fret. At wife Teri’s suggestion, Sparks also added four nickels from the year Josh was born and a penny from the year of his twenty-first birthday, the five coins adding up to 21.
The next month, Sparks had another surprise for his son. For Christmas Josh received a book Sparks put together that detailed the process of making the guitar, with photographs for each step.
Sparks still makes miniatures as gifts for friends and for artists he admires. One of his miniatures is displayed in Martin Guitar Company’s museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Don Everly of the Everly Brothers and Emmy Lou Harris also own Sparks’ miniatures. He plans to write a book about the art of crafting miniature instruments. That’s part of the circle that links back to PRS, back to his beginning.
Coming Full Circle
The circle has another segment. The Ox Bow Inn is long gone, replaced by Griffin’s Grill. Forty-two years after starting their careers at the Arnold location, Sparks, Raymond and McCoy are back with a standing engagement at Griffin’s on the second Saturday of every month.
But you don’t have to wait to hear them. Come to downtown Annapolis and listen, tap your feet and sing along this weekend at the First Sunday Fine Arts Festival on West Street.