Has it really been 40 plus years since I began regularly buying those 7" slabs of vinyl in Los Angeles at local used outlets, thrift shops, going-out-of-business record stores, swap meets, record shows, and every other place I could hope to find them? Always, there was a special niche in my heart (and collector's consciousness) for those red and silver/all red/the occasional deep blue/and yellow and black 45s that comprised the entire Spark label. Spark Records was the brainchild of the clever Jerry Leiber and the gutsy Mike Stoller (or, as Richard Berry always called him, Mike Stroller).
I can now confess, the deep all-red label, in some cases a second (sob!) pressing, was my favourite design. Was it because the three explosive blasts around the Spark logo reminded me of a giant firecracker? Still looks like it now, I just checked. Fireworks also describe the musical sounds of the label. 'Automatic' would be my reaction when locating a Spark record. If I found it, I bought it. I didn't have to know squat about the artist, song or sound. That it was on Spark was good enough.
I can pretend I always knew the Willy & Ruth story, but I didn't. When I first played their original Love Me, I knew where Elvis put his singing ears when he redid that classic. Or the growling Honey Bears from the Bay Area...the honking saxophonist Gil Bernal from Watts...or the blues by The Sly Fox, a cat of another breed altogether, never knew them until I played them. Now I can assimilate that Eugene Fox was from the Mississippi Delta with Ike Turner, the Wolf and Junior Parker and the sound makes sense. I can fake a continuous understanding. Back then, the first play just knocked me out. The Spark experience was just that: acquire single after single, as I found them, creating an increased knowledge of what R&B was all about. But that's the story of collecting, under the guidance of one of the best, though sadly short-lived (1954-1955) labels out there.
I'll always remember the legendary Richard Berry gave me an insight into L.A. R&B history that got me in trouble. He revealed he was the lead on the Robins' Riot In Cell Block #9, the second best known Robins release on Spark (Smokey Joe's Caf?© has to be the best known). Berry took the lead as he sounded more like a menacing prisoner than Bobby Nunn. In fact, many a fan of the song thought Richard had really done hard time. He hadn't. I published this factoid in several doo wop collector's magazines ("Time Barrier Express" was one) and got roundly shot down by the East Coast-based doo wop "experts" who doubted this now commonly accepted fact. It's rarely fun to be a prophet in your own land. 'Riot' was Richard Berry's only lead with the Robins, then it was back to Bobby Nunn on bass for the other mighty releases by the Robins on Spark. Bobby Nunn and Carl Gardner, of course, became key members of the Coasters when Leiber & Stoller went to Atlantic Records at the end of 1955.
Maybe the most special record on Spark was by Gene & Billy. Not the great ironically rockin' It's Hot, but the classic L.A. doo wop ballad flip, Zerlene. My old buddy Bill Soon and I would cruise the big city and empty freeways well after two am in his Chevy '56, dash-mounted record player cranking out the sounds of all sorts of delicious 45s. One of the discs we wore out was the Gene & Billy dreamer on that original black and yellow Spark label. Girlfriend then, wife to this day, Sylvia, passed the Zerlene test - she could love the belly rubbers just like this pretty impressionable L.A. cruiser, too.
So, now, for the first time ever, the comprehensive history of Spark Records finally shows up on compact disc. With the variety of styles, attitudes and inspirations included, there's truly something for everyone who loves or wants to know more about true L.A. R&B...and a little Mississippi Delta blues. This is where the careers of Leiber and Stoller really ignited, like that giant firecracker on the Spark label.
By Steve Propes
(Steve Propes is the author of "L.A. R&B Vocal Groups 1945-1965", newly published by Big Nickel Publications. Book enquiries should be made to: firstname.lastname@example.org)