Wed 20 Feb 2008
I first came across the Sparks Brothers some twenty years ago on The Piano Blues Volume Twenty: Barrelhouse Years 1928-1933, the second to last installment of the Magpie label's groundbreaking piano blues series. Featuring the arresting, high pitched vocals of Milton "Lindberg" Sparks and the sensitive, rolling piano of Aaron "Pinetop" Sparks, the songs, "Down On The Levee", "Louisiana Bound" and "East Chicago Blues", made a strong impression on me. I believe it was in the 1990's when Document got around to issuing their complete recorded works on CD.
Aaron and Marion (he changed his name to Milton in 1929) were twins born to Ruth and Sullie Gant in Tupelo, Mississippi. Soon after the twins were born Ruth married Carl Sparks. According to Cleveland Sparks, uncle of Aaron and Marion: "Piano player Aaron he learned how to play piano before he could holler and shout…it was a coloured fellow teaching him. He had a joint y'know selling bootleg whiskey back in the corner. He just had a crowd there all the time and he just learned to play. His name Arthur Johnson and he been dead so long nobody down there would know him–'cause he was a old man when he was teaching that boy." Henry Townsend, who often accompanied Marion, had this to say: "He just kept getting better and better and got to playing for illegal joints y'know. …Pinetop was doing a lot of house-party playing and uh 'cause this was a trend then. We would go from house-party to house-party and make some money to pay the rent. We'd go from place to place like that I mean it'd be announced at this party before it was over that there would be such and such a place to get their rent paid and Pinetop would play for those kind of parties where they had a piano–and I kinda went around him quite a bit." Now at that time Milton wasn't singing, Pinetop was the star when it come to singing. And so just out of nowhere Milton decided he was going to sing and he'd start. …Aaron got the name Pinetop because "He was very good at the number that Smith made [Pinetop Smith's "Pine Top's Boogie Woogie"]. Yeah he was very good with that number and as most guys do he just started to call himself Pinetop himself y'know. The nickname "Lindberg", Townsend suggests, was probably due to Milton's prowess in dancing the Lindberg or Lindy Hop. In addition to the recollections of Townsend and Cleveland Sparks, biographical background on the brothers was gleaned from their thick police files; Milton was arrested some 50 times for fighting and gambling and other minor offenses while Aaron was picked up 18 times.
The brothers cut four sessions, the first for Victor and the other three for Bluebird, between 1932 and 1935. Milton cut two songs for Decca in 1934 under the name Flyin' Lindberg. Aaron backed a number of St. Louis artists at their second session: Elisabeth Washington, Tecumseh McDowell, Dorotha Trowbridge, James "Stump" Johnson and Charlie McFadden. The brothers' led rough and tumble lives reflected in songs that dealt with gambling, jail, alcohol, woman, hoboing and railroads. In spite of their lyrics and rough background, the music the brothers made was surprisingly tender and wistful. Milton possessed a strong, nasal voice that is extremely appealing while Milton had a warm, sensitive vocal that occasionally dips into a mellow falsetto. Aaron was an exceptional and versatile piano player as Chris Smith appraises: "Aaron's playing features the steady chordal basses typical of St. Louis, and a very inventive right hand, endowed with melodic grace and propulsive energy. He was also a capable boogie player, with a singing line and a fondness for medium tempos."
Their first recording date yielded four songs under the name Pinetop and Lindberg. This was an exceptional session as Milton sings wonderfully in his high, powerful nasal voice on the sing-sing "Louisiana Bound" with superb flourishes from Aaron who lays out with a nice mid-tempo solo as Milton encourages him on. The brothers excelled at thoughtful, mid-tempo blues such as "East Chicago Blues", "4X11=44" a reference to number combination for playing policy and "I Believe I'll Make A Change." Throughout Aaron lays down some mellow, highly inventive piano work, a perfect contrast to Milton's almost wistful vocals with Milton encouraging "Pine" on with some engaging spoken patter. "East Chicago Blues" shares similarities to "Chicago's Too Much For Me" which was cut at their second session and is also notable for making reference to a 1917 riot in East St. Louis where many African-Americans were killed, with a similar riot two years later in Chicago:
I was in Chicago I had my good rags on
I'm in this town, got all my new suits in pawn
East Chicago is on fire, East St. Louis is burnin' down…
The following year the brothers were in Chicago where they cut three sides for Bluebird on August 2, 1933. At this session they cut the enduring "61 Highway" that would pass into common blues currency with it's now familiar verse:
61 Highway, longest highway that I know (2x)
It runs from New York City down into the Gulf of Mexico
"Down On The Levee" was a typically sensitive mid-tempo number featuring Milton's fine, mellow delivery and some wonderful right hand flourishes from Aaron. "Chicago's Too Much For Me" was in a similar vein with with more forceful playing from Aaron with Milton probably sharing the sentiments of many who first visited Chicago:
Going back to St. Louis
Chicago's too much for me
I may get in trouble, people don't you see
In St. Louis I had my glad rags on
Now I'm in Chicago got all my glad rags in pawn
Aaron's fine abilities as an accompanist extend to his backing a trio of St. Louis ladies. Elisabeth Washington was an appealing, slightly nasal singer with a good sense of delivery; "Riot Call Blues" and "Whiskey Blues" are particularly tough blues with the latter opening with the line "Everyday I have the blues" a song that the brothers would debut two years later. Tecumseh McDowell and Dorotha Trowbridge are solid, if unexceptional singers, who stylistically bear some resemblance to the then popular St. Louis singer Alice Moore.
The next year, August 24, 1934, Milton was in Chicago where he cut two songs for Decca as Flyin' Lindburg. Milton recorded with Peetie Wheatstraw on piano, possibly Bill Lowry on violin and unknown clarinetist and guitarist. Milton's powerful vocals easily rise above the small band behind "I.C. Train Blues" (a reference to the Illinois Central) which, while a bit rough and raucous, is nonetheless quite effective. "No Good Woman Blues" is a bit more sedate but equally entertaining.
Milton was absent from a four of the eight songs which comprised their final session on July 28, 1935 which featured guitarist Henry Townsend on seven of the eight numbers. Townsend explained: "Yeah Pinetop sang–Milton was supposed to be the singer of the two when the session was drewed up. Pinetop didn't go there to sing at all–he went to play for his brother Milton. And when we got there, why, just going through measures like musicians carry on, he hummed off a tune or two. So everybody thought he should go ahead and do a number. So he went ahead and did a number. It turned out that his number was the better number after all." Aaron possessed a warm, mellow vocal heard to good effect on the marvelous, melodic "Tell Her About Me", the wistful "Workhouse Blues" and the driving boogie of "Got The Blues About My Baby." The most famous song was "Every Day I Have The Blues" sung in a wonderful high falsetto that may sound surprising to those more familiar with modern versions. Milton's numbers were not up to his usual standards although "Grinder Blues" contains a frank tribute to his wife Janie's charms:
Don't you know I got a little grinder.
She lives in St. Louis, her number is 2721 Stoddard Street.
That little woman grind me to death, boy.
I'm telling you the truth. I don't love nobody but that little woman–her name is Janie.
Hey man I feel a verse coming down
Blues I ain't gonna sing these blues no more (2x)
I got my mind on Janie, mean I swear I got to go
In the 1950's Milton rejoined the church and renounced the blues. He died in 1963. Aaron reportedly died much earlier although no death certificate has been found. There is a hint of an early death in both Cleveland Sparks' and Townsend's recollections.
Louisiana Bound (MP3)
Down On The Levee (MP3)
Tell Her About Me (MP3)
-Russell , Tony and Smith, Chris. The Penguin Guide To The Blues. Penguin Books, London, England, 2006.
-Dixon, Robert M.W., John Godrich, Howard W. Rye. Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943. 4th edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997.
-Rowe, Mike and O'Brien, Charlie. Well Them Two Sparks Brothers They Been Here And Gone. Blues Unlimited no. 144 (Spring 1983): 9-14.
-Oliver, Paul. Blues Fell This Morning. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1960.