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The Sparks Brothers

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Aaron and Marion Sparks made a small number of records during the years 1932-1935 and deserve wider recognition for having introduced "61 Highway Blues," usually associated with Mississippi Fred McDowell, and "Every Day I Have the Blues," a staple of the genre credited to Memphis Slim and forever linked with Count Basie and his star vocalist Joe Williams. Their "I Believe I'll Make a Change" also established a trope that would soon become an essential component in the blues standard "Dust My Broom." Born to Sullie and Ruth Gant on May 22, 1908 in Tupelo, MS, the boys later took on the surname of Ruth's second husband, Carl Sparks. Aaron was a child prodigy who learned the blues from an elderly backroom whiskey peddler named Arthur Johnson. After the family relocated to St. Louis in 1920, Aaron received formal musical training at school and later developed his abilities as a blues and barrelhouse pianist by performing in speakeasies. The Sparks Brothers were dark-skinned identical twins who grew to nearly six feet tall. Aaron is remembered as fairly docile, while Marion's hot temper often embroiled him in fistfights. Both men dealt in bootleg liquor and had police records to prove it. Marion in particular was busted more than 50 times; mostly for gambling, drinking, and disturbing the peace. Their first records were cut in Atlanta, GA on February 25, 1932, using the nicknames Pinetop (Aaron's way of hopefully identifying himself with Clarence Pinetop Smith) and Lindberg, which spoke to Marion's oft-noted ability to dance the Lindy Hop. On August 2, 1933 the Sparks Brothers and several singers from St. Louis followed Roosevelt Sykes to Chicago for a Victor/Bluebird session during which the opening line from "Every Day I Have the Blues" (sung by Elizabeth Washington on "Whiskey Blues") and "61 Highway" made their first appearance on records. On August 24, 1934 Marion Sparks recorded as Flyin' Lindburg with fiddler Bill Lowry and pianist Peetie Wheatstraw. The Sparks Brothers' last known recording date took place on July 28, 1935. Paired with guitarist Henry Townsend, Aaron recorded as Pine Top and Marion as Milton Sparks. Aaron sang on his own sides (one of which is the earliest recording of "Every Day I Have the Blues" under that title) and two of Marion's performances have piano accompaniment by Walter Davis. Aaron continued to gig throughout the region, working the 88s at innumerable house parties; in St. Louis saloons with names like the Hole in the Wall and the Dirty Inn, and gigging all over Bloomington, IL with fellow pianist Arthur Henderson. Theories abound as to how much longer Aaron lived after July 1935; the most generous estimate suggests he lasted another ten years before succumbing to alcoholism and other occupational hazards. After serving time for manslaughter following a fracas at a dance in 1936, Marion settled down, got a steady job with a construction crew, and became a mild-mannered, churchgoing husband. He passed away in 1963. Aside from two sides on which Aaron backed Charlie Specks McFadden, the complete recordings of the Sparks Brothers were reissued on one CD by the Document label in 1994. ~ arwulf arwulf

Years Active:

'20s, '30s