Melvin Sparks

What they say…

“Musicians a generation older hired him because he could hang with their repertoire, but also for the funky chicken-scratch rhythm guitar that kept their music fresh. In short, Sparks brought the funk!”

Wax Poetics issue 34


Melvin Sparks (March 22, 1946 – March 15, 2011) was an American soul jazz, hard bop and jazz blues guitarist. He recorded a number of albums for Prestige Records, later recording for Savant Records. He has collaborated with numerous jazz behemoths, is credited as one of the founding fathers of the bebop-funk dialect, and has been sampled countless times.

Sparks was born in Houston, Texas, and raised in a musical family. He received his first guitar at age 11, and began working in the rhythm and blues genre as a high school student, first with Hank Ballard and The Midnighters, and then with The Upsetters, a touring band formed by Little Richard, which also backed Jackie Wilson, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye.

But Sparks gave up his seat on The Upsetters‘ bus in New York City, where a chance introduction to George Benson led him to a place in soul-jazz history, working as a session musician for Blue Note and Prestige Records. As part of the burgeoning soul-jazz scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sparks often backed organists like Jack McDuffDr. Lonnie Smith and Charles EarlandSparks released his debut album, Sparks!, for Prestige in 1970. He also played and recorded with Lou DonaldsonLeon SpencerBernard PurdieJimmy McGriffIdris MuhammadGrover Washington Jr.Reuben Wilson and so many more.

Even during the quietest years of soul-jazz Melvin stayed relevant through hip- hop and r&b; a quick search at WhoSampled turns up more than 150 samples of his funky chicken scratch. And Melvin‘s legacy is heard in contemporary soul/funk bands like The New Mastersounds, Soulive, and The Greyboy Allstars, all of whom he also guested with several times before his early departure from this realm in 2011.

As one of the most unsung heroes of jazz history, it’s high time Melvin Sparks got the mainstream recognition that is his due, and his recently resurfaced last recording “Live At Nectar’s”, to be released on One Note Records, is here to do just that.