The New Christy Minstrels

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The New Christy Minstrels
Origin United States
Genres Folk
Years active1961–1971; 1976–present
Labels Columbia
Associated acts
Past memberssee: Alumni

The New Christy Minstrels are an American large-ensemble folk music group founded by Randy Sparks in 1961. From their beginnings as prominent figures in the early-1960s U.S. folk revival, the group has recorded over 20 albums and had several hits, including "Green, Green", "Saturday Night", "Today", "Denver", and "This Land Is Your Land". [1] Their 1962 debut album, Presenting The New Christy Minstrels , won a Grammy Award and was on the Billboard charts for two years. [2]


The group has sold millions of records and were in demand at concerts and on television shows. [3] They also helped to launch the musical careers of several musicians, including Kenny Rogers, Gene Clark, Kim Carnes, and Barry McGuire. [3]


The New Christy Minstrels were formed by singer/guitarist Randy Sparks in 1961. Sparks had been a solo performer in the late 1950s, mixing folk music with pop standards and playing successful club dates on the West Coast and in Manhattan. Twice winner of the All-Navy Talent competition, he landed a number of high-profile television appearances and a recording contract with Verve Records. At the suggestion of Verve founder Norman Granz in 1960, he formed "the Randy Sparks 3" with his wife, Jackie Miller, and singer/arranger Nick Woods. After a year touring with his trio, he realized he wanted a still larger group. At the time, folk music was very popular and choral groups like the Norman Luboff Choir had begun incorporating folk classics in their repertoires, but—in Sparks' opinion—they sang too perfectly, lacking the rustic, earthy character of folk performance. Throughout the latter months of 1961 and into early 1962, Sparks created a 14-voice ensemble – The New Christy Minstrels—by combining his trio with a quartet he met in the Pacific Northwest called the Fairmount Singers (Dave Ellingson, Terry Tillman, Hal Ayotte and Robbie Mills), another trio called The Inn Group (John Forsha, Karol Dugan and Jerry Yester), banjo player Billy Cudmore, folk-blues singer Terry Wadsworth, folk singer Dolan Ellis and singer/guitarist Art Podell. [2] [4] Large commercial folk groups did not exist in those days, and The New Christy Minstrels delivered a robust new sound. An avid historian of Americana, Sparks named his group after Christy's Minstrels, a blackface group formed by Philadelphia-born showman Edwin Pearce Christy in 1842 and known primarily for introducing many of Stephen Foster's compositions. In a similar way, Sparks envisioned his group—with its innovative sound—as a means to attract attention to his own writing, which consisted of original songs and fresh adaptations of folk classics.

At the outset, the original plan was that the group would be a recording act only, and several charter members joined with the assumption that their commitment would be for only occasional studio work to supplement their individual careers. In April 1962 the group, reduced to 10 members after the early departure of the Fairmount Singers, recorded their debut album, Presenting The New Christy Minstrels , for Columbia Records. [4] Eventually, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Performance by a Chorus [2] and sat on the Billboard 200 charts for two years, peaking at number 19. [2] The album included Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land", which entered the pop singles charts in December 1962. [5]

However, prior to the album's release, Irving Townsend, head of Columbia Records West Coast A&R, demanded of Sparks that he turn the group into a legitimate performing ensemble that could make live appearances to promote their releases; otherwise, he would not release the album. Sparks promptly agreed and, at Townsend's request, hired business managers George Greif and Sid Garris (Greif-Garris Management) to help his dauntingly large, unproven group get bookings to generate the revenue stream needed to cover the hefty payroll and business costs. Unfortunately, some of the charter recruits had no interest in committing full-time to what they saw as a high risk project; others had contract obligations of their own and were simply not available. The Inn Group (Jerry Yester, Karol Dugan, John Forsha), Terry Wadsworth and Billy Cudmore all quit the group a few weeks after the recording sessions. Sparks ended up losing half of his charter roster at almost the exact moment that his new business managers landed a major booking for the group to become regulars on The Andy Williams Show , a weekly variety show set to debut in the fall of 1962. Sparks, Greif-Garris and some of the remaining members immediately started looking for replacements. Among the new hires were the folk duo Barry & Barry (folksingers Barry McGuire and Barry Kane), vocalist Peggy Connelly, singer/banjoist Larry Ramos, and tenor Clarence Treat (upright bass and mandolin). The new lineup broke in their act at The Troubadour in Los Angeles in July–August 1962, which included a mix of folk Americana performed by the ensemble (usually Sparks' reworkings of folk melodies), a smattering of vaudevillian humor and step out solos, duos and trios by the members. They were a smash success and garnered rave reviews from both The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

Prior to the debut of the Williams television show, the group appeared with Andy at the Greek Theatre in September. When the Williams Show debuted in October, the New Christy Minstrels quickly became one of the most popular features of the program. Several weeks into the Williams season, Connelly was replaced by vocalist Gayle Caldwell. This became the group roster that the public would come to know throughout the 1962–63 television season and the line-up most closely associated with the group's subsequent hit recordings: To review, that roster is: Randy Sparks, Jackie Miller, Nick Woods, Dolan Ellis, Art Podell, Barry McGuire, Barry Kane, Larry Ramos, Clarence Treat and Gayle Caldwell. The new group was starting out at a stunning pace. In early December, they appeared at the Coconut Grove with comedian George Gobel, and over the holidays they appeared at Carnegie Hall with singer/comedian Allan Sherman—a stunning accomplishment for such a new ensemble.

The group's second album, The New Christy Minstrels in Person, was released in February 1963 (recorded in September 1962 while Connelly was still in the line-up). In January 1963, the group recorded The New Christy Minstrels Tell Tall Tales! (Legends and Nonsense), which was released in May shortly after the Andy Williams Show had wrapped for the season. By now the group's fame had grown considerably, and they received "a raft of enthusiastic reviews". [3] In April 1963, following a successful appearance at the Latin Quarter in New York, the group recorded another studio album, Ramblin', which included "Green, Green", a McGuire/Sparks composition that became the group's first hit single, peaking at number three on the Adult Contemporary Charts. [5] "Green, Green" sold over one million copies in 1963, and was awarded a gold disc. [6]

In May 1963, Sparks stopped touring with the group to focus on developing material for the group and opening a night club in Los Angeles called Ledbetter's which he intended to use as a magnet for fresh talent and a training ground for future minstrels in the event he needed replacements. By the end of the year he had formed The Back Porch Majority, [7] which was positioned initially as the farm team for the New Christy Minstrels. It proved to be a wise move. He passed the role of frontman for the group on the concert trail to McGuire, who had an engaging warmth and charisma that had charmed audiences in concerts and on the Williams appearances. Soon after McGuire's promotion, Ellis left and was replaced by Gene Clark. Clark was hired before the Back Porch Majority had taken shape, so he went straight into the Minstrels—an exciting, but terrifying challenge for a shy country boy. (He had been discovered at a local club in Kansas City while the group was on tour.) Although a talented singer, Clark was inhibited by the cocky confidence of his new bandmates and was hesitant in lobbying for a turn at the mike, so on stage he tended to withdraw to the side and had a low key presence. Sparks was not satisfied with his lack of spirit on stage and, by the end of the year, had concluded he needed to find a replacement. In part because he saw the writing on the wall, but also because he was losing interest in folk music (amidst the British Invasion triggered by The Beatles), Clark quit the group early in 1964 of his own volition. Within a few weeks, he joined Jim McGuinn and David Crosby in the Jet Set, and later The Byrds. Clark was replaced by Paul Potash, a former singer partner of Art Podell (in Art and Paul, a successful folk duo back in 1960–1961). At the about the same time, the group's two female singers, Jackie Miller and Gayle Caldwell, also left, tired of the group's grueling concert schedule. They were replaced by alto Karen Gunderson, formerly a featured vocalist in a folk trio called The Sherwood Singers, and soprano Ann White. [3] All three replacements were "graduates" of The Back Porch Majority farm team program, promoted to the Minstrels in late February 1964. (Miller and Caldwell launched a successful career as a pop/folk duo called Jackie and Gayle, quickly landing a recording contract with Capitol Records and a spot as semi-regulars on ABC's Shindig in the fall of 1964. In fact, Jackie and Gayle were the first artists to take the stage on the premiere episode of that influential show.)

Late in 1963, Sparks had been contracted to create a film score for Advance to the Rear , featuring Glenn Ford and Stella Stevens. The corresponding soundtrack performed by The New Christy Minstrels was released in May 1964 as Today and Other songs from 'Advance to the Rear'. [8] It was the first complete soundtrack ever made in the folk music style. The score is notable for the hit standard "Today", which was written by Sparks. [9] The "Today" single reached number four on the Adult Contemporary Charts and 17 on the Billboard Hot 100, [5] and the album cracked Billboard's Top 10.

In the summer of 1964, The New Christy Minstrels were featured in the television series Ford Presents the New Christy Minstrels, a weekly variety show sponsored by the Ford Motor Company and broadcast as a summer replacement for Hazel . Each episode had an outdoor setting, with two filmed at the 1964 New York World's Fair and three at popular venues in the Los Angeles area—Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and Pacific Ocean Park. A guest comedian appeared with the group in each episode. Ford Presents the New Christy Minstrels ran for five weeks, from August 6 to September 10, 1964, airing on NBC from 9:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. ET on Thursday throughout its run. [10] [11]

In late summer of 1964, Randy Sparks decided to sell his interests in the group to his business partners, Greif-Garris Management (George Greif and Sid Garris.) He shifted his focus to Ledbetters, reviving his solo career, and launching the careers of other groups. By this time, the name "Randy Sparks" had become a magnet for aspiring talent, so Randy's club soon became a showcase for performers who later went on to major fame. Among these were John Denver, the Carpenters, the Hagers, Gary Muledeer, comedian Steve Martin and many others. His farm team for the Christies—the Back Porch Majority—were soon launched on a successful career of their own.

In January 1965, the New Christy Minstrels, now under the leadership of Greif-Garris, embarked on their first European tour, appearing in London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam and, finally, at the prestigious San Remo Festival in Italy where they performed the two winning songs. One of these songs, "Le Colline Sono in Fiore," which featured a romantic duet by Nick Woods and Karen Gunderson, became a No. 1 hit single in Italy early in the spring. [12] Upon the group's return to the States, McGuire left to embark on a solo career. Because he had been the group's front man for 18 months by then—and the familiar voice on "Green, Green," their biggest hit—his departure spelled the end of the original New Christy Minstrels in the minds of the fans. Greif-Garris had roots in the big band era and never had any interest in folk music (which was fading fast anyway,) so they started to move the group towards more of a variety act, doing "novelty and pop tunes" and a little comedy. Reflecting this shift, they had a Billboard Top 100 hit in the spring of 1965 with a cover of "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from the Disney film Mary Poppins . [5] They also performed the song "live" on the Academy Award telecast the night it won "Best Song."

Turnover in the group's roster started to accelerate through 1965, and at an even faster rate in the years that followed. Paul Potash had left the same time as McGuire in early February. They were replaced by pop/folk singers Bob Buchanan and Michael Whalen, respectively, both performers on the LA club circuit. In April 1965, Barry Kane quit and was replaced by Will Teague; in late July, Clarence Treat was replaced by Bill Skiles and Pete Henderson, aka Skiles and Henderson, a comedy duo that broadened The New Christy Minstrels's stage act. In September, Nick Woods was replaced by Rusty Evans, and, in January 1966 Larry Ramos left, eventually joining The Association, and was replaced by noted folksinger/songwriter Mike Settle. In late February, Art Podell, Karen Gunderson and Michael Whalen left. Among their replacements were singer/songwriter Michael McGinnis and pop/folk singer Ede Mae Kellogg (sister of Lynn Kellogg, of the Broadway cast of Hair). In July 1966, Ann White left—the last player to leave who had worked in the group during the Sparks era. She was replaced by Kim Carnes (later of "Bette Davis Eyes" fame). Ann White's departure was part of a major personnel shake up. She, Skiles and Henderson, Will Teague and Bob Buchanan all left at about the same time. Among their replacements (in addition to Kim Carnes) were folksinger Mark Holly, former Fairmount Singer Dave Ellingson, tenor Terry Williams and a pop singer from Texas by the name of Kenny Rogers. In 1967, Williams and Mike Settle made plans to leave the Minstrels and form a folk/rock group back in Los Angeles. They recruited Kenny Rogers into the project late in the spring along with another minstrel, Thelma Camacho, a soprano who had been classically trained, but had a bluesy edge to her sound. Together as a quartet, joined by drummer Mickey Jones, they debuted as The First Edition in August 1967 on the Ledbetter's stage. In the years that followed, Rogers broke out and became a huge success in country music. In the spring of 1980, he reunited with old band-mate Kim Carnes for a duet, "Don't Fall in Love with a Dreamer," which became a No. 4 hit on the Hot 100.

The rapid turnover took a toll on the group's sound as an ensemble. While the group almost always featured top talent throughout the Sixties and into the early Seventies, the constant churn made it effectively impossible to hone a group blend. During the days on The Andy Williams Show, the group roster was more stable and the group had the key advantage of working with the show's musical/choral director, George Wyle. Week after week, they would work with him on new choral arrangements to back Williams and his guest stars, in addition to performing their own spotlight material. As a result, they honed a beautiful sound as a chorus in their own right—which was on full display on their "Ramblin'" album in particular, which was recorded in Columbia's 30th studio, once an old church and known for its superb acoustics. None of the line-ups in later years had such an advantage. The concerts were entertaining, but—with a couple of fleeting exceptions (spring 1965 and late 1972)—the group sound never matched the quality they had achieved with George Wyle at the outset.

From the late Sixties, through the Seventies and into the mid-Eighties, the New Christy Minstrels continued to perform across the country—all under the management of Greif-Garris. Within this timeframe they released a few more albums, including "On Tour Through Motortown" in 1968, which in the years since has become a kitsch classic as an album of Motown songs, performed with pop arrangements by a fading folk group, desperately seeking renewed relevance. In 1970, they performed during Super Bowl IV at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans. They were introduced as "young Americans who demonstrate – with guitars." [13] Note: Some sources erroneously report that the group disbanded in the early 1970s and reformed late in the decade. This is not true. Towards the end of 1972, Sid Garris was faced with a revolt among the members who had clicked as an ensemble, earning enthusiastic responses from their audiences. The members confronted Greif-Garris to gain more creative control and more equitable treatment. Rather than acquiesce, Greif-Garris fired the group en masse and started rebuilding from scratch. No doubt, this is the source of the rumor that the group was disbanded in the early 1970s.

In the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, the group's concert activity declined steadily until it stopped completely. Early in the new millennium, Randy Sparks was able to register a trademark on the (dormant) New Christy Minstrels name and once again became the leader of the group he had started almost 50 years before. He launched a revamped, reinvigorated group on a new series of concerts, playing to sold-out crowds and standing ovations—a satisfying renaissance for the man who started it all.

21st century

In 2009, a Golden Palm Star on the Walk of Stars was dedicated to Randy Sparks and The New Christy Minstrels. [14]


The New Christy Minstrels are currently run and owned by the New Christy Minstrels Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to preserving the group's music. [15]


Founder Randy Sparks has spent the most time in The New Christy Minstrels, followed by Becky Jo Benson, who has been an active member nonstop since 1997. The lineup as of 2019 consists of eight members: Sparks, Benson, Greg O'Haver, "Uncle" Dave Deutschendorf (John Denver's uncle), "Cousin" Dave Rainwater (Brenda Lee's cousin), Julie Theroux, Ed Stockton, and Tholow Chan.[ citation needed ]


A partial list of alumni:

Partial discography



YearSingle (A-side, B-side)
Both sides from same album except where indicated
Chart positionsAlbum
1962"This Land Is Your Land"
b/w "Don't Cry, Suzanne"
93Exciting New Folk Chorus
b/w "Liza Lee"
127In Person
"Green, Green"
b/w "The Banjo" (Non-album track)
"Saturday Night"
b/w "The Wheeler Dealers"
29Non-album tracks
b/w "Miss Katy Cruel" (Non-album track)
"Silly Ol' Summertime"
b/w "The Far Side of the Hill" (from The Quiet Sides of The New Christy Minstrels)
92Non-album track
"This Ol' Riverboat" (New recording; non-album track)
b/w "Same Ol' Huckleberry Finn" (Non-album track)
"Gotta Get A'Goin"
b/w "Down the Road I Go"
111Non-album tracks
1965"Chim, Chim, Cheree"
b/w "They Gotta Quit Kickin' My Dog Around" (from The New Christy Minstrels Sing and Play Cowboys and Indians)
8120Chim Chim Cher-ee
"The River"
b/w "Se piangi, se ridi" (from In Italy...In Italian)
Non-album track
"A Little Bit of Happiness"
b/w "Jim 'N I, Him 'N I, Flying in the Gemini" (Non-album track)
Chim Chim Cher-ee
"Born to Be Free"
b/w "Everybody Loves Saturday Night" (from The Wandering Minstrels)
Non-album tracks
1966"Dance My Trouble Away"
b/w "There But for Fortune"
"The Music of the World a Turnin'"
b/w "If I Could Start My Life Again"
"Beautiful Beautiful World"
b/w "A Corner in the Sun" (from New Kick!)
"We Need a Little Christmas"
b/w "O Holy Night"
Christmas with the Christies
"It Should Have Been You"
b/w "Sleep Comes Easy"
Non-album tracks
1967"I'll Coat Your Mind with Honey"
b/w "Night and Day"
1968"Where Did Our Love Go"
b/w "Stop in the Name of Love"
On Tour Through Motortown
"Ballad for Americans"
b/w "Gallant Men"
Non-album tracks
"Alice's Restaurant"
b/w "Summertime Love"
"Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"
b/w "Me Old Bamboo"
114Big Hits from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"
1969"Hey Jude" / "Atlantis"
b/w "Run Wild, Run Free"
Non-album tracks
1971"You Need Someone to Love"
b/w "South American Get Away"
You Need Someone to Love
b/w "I Still Do" (Non-album track)
"You Are Always on My Mind"
b/w "Where Are You Then"
Non-album tracks
1972"Love It Along"
b/w "The Age of Not Believing"
"Hallelujah World"
b/w "The Ballad of Tom Eagleton"

The group was parodied in the film A Mighty Wind , as the "neuftet" The New Main Street Singers.

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