SPARKLETONES: All the boys are back in town
By Gary Henderson
Joe Bennett (top), Jimmy Denton (left), Wayne Arthur (right) and Howard "Sparky" Childress were the original Sparkletones.
As the four boys from Cowpens waited backstage to perform at Spartanburg's Memorial Auditorium one January night in 1957, they could only hope that their dreams of becoming teen-age rock 'n' stars were about to come true. Like many other amateur entertainers from all over the Carolinas, the four - Joe Bennett, Jimmy Denton, Wayne Arthur and Howard "Sparky" Childress - had responded to a notice of a talent call, directed by CBS talent scout Bob Cox.
It was a long list of hopefuls who performed that night before a crowd that had paid 99 cents each to see the show. When it was over, the four young Cowpens High School students from Cannon's Campground had won the first-place prize. Their Cinderella journey into the 1950s world of rock n' roll music was about to begin. "Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones" were on their way. After fleeting fame with their No. 1 hit single, "Black Slacks," and long tours across country for several years, the four went their separate ways professionally. Their leader, Joe Bennett, has come back to Spartanburg and to music after a stint in the Air Force and retiring as an air traffic controller. Bennett teaches music at Smith Music Company.
Now, all four of the original members of "Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones" are back in the Upstate. Childress, who did a little work in the country music field in the early '60s after leaving The Sparkletones, is a sales representative for Milliken & Co. Arthur sings with a gospel group and works for Hoechst Celanese. Denton owns and operates Twin States Auto Parts in Chesnee. Gene Brown, who joined the group when Childress left and later replaced Denton on the drums, became a paratrooper and is now director of security for TW Services. Donnie Seay, who replaced Childress, is a professional musician on the west coast.
For the original group, that amateur night in Spartanburg led to their own time in the spotlight of 1950's rock 'n' roll. But for an elusive second hit single, they could still be recording. Talent scout Bob Cox was impressed with their talent from the beginning. He was so sure he could get them a recording contract, he agreed to quit his job at CBS to be their manager. "We had never even been on an airplane," remembers Bennett, "but within about two days we were on the way to New York with Box Cox." Shortly after their arrival there, Cox made good on his promise. The boys signed a recording contract with ABC Paramount, and "Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones" had their first recording session the next day.
First, they waited for another young performer to complete his recording, a song called "Diana." Paul Anka stayed around to watch and listen as the boys from Cowpens High School recorded "Black Slacks," co-written by Bennett and drummer Denton. It would be their biggest hit, and one that Walt Disney Studios would revive almost 40 years later for the movie "Rescuers Down Under." Listen carefully next time you hear it - Anka becmae more than just an observer; his voice can be heard singing background. For the four teens - Bennett, 17; Arthur, 15; Denton, 16; and Childress, the youngest at 14 - the world changed. Cox became their legal guardian. They quit school to meet the demands of a heavy concert tour. Visits home became less and less frequent.
In the 1950's, rock 'n' roll performers promoted their records through concerts. The mega-FM radio stations weren't playing rock 'n' roll then, Traveling to the larger cities across the country and getting their records played on the AM stations was the way it was done. With a little luck, they might be interviewed by the disc jockeys. "There was one time we were interviewed by phone, and we all had to get into the same phone booth," Denton says. Spartanburg radio stations were good to The Sparkletones. Longtime morning radio personality Cliff "Farmer" Gray played "Black Slacks" on WSPA, making him the first DJ in the country to play the record.
Later, The Sparkletones took their place at the top of Billboard's Hot 100 as radio stations across the country began to play the single. "I remember the first time we heard the song played on the radio away from Spartanburg," Arthur says. "We had performed in Chattanooga and we had heard the disc jockey was going to play 'Black Slacks' that night. As we drove away from town, we began to lose the station on the radio, so we just turned around and drove back toward town, until we could get the station clearly again." Within days of recording "Black Slacks," Cox had signed the group up for a nationwide concert tour. With costumes made by their mothers and in a 1949 Desoto "family car" bought from a funeral home in North Carolina, The Sparkletones set out on a 10,000-mile tour that would take them to the west coast and back.
The tour included a 12-week engagement at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas. It was in Las Vegas that they bought their first professional stage outfits, complete with jackets that sparkled under the stage lights. Headliner on the show was Art Mooney, famous for his 1950's hit "Im Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover." "There was one stretch where we did 42 shows in 32 days," Bennett says. "We usually followed 'Gunfight at the OK Corral," Childress adds. As they recently sat around a table in a downtown Spartanburg coffee shop, these men who had viewed the glitter world of rock 'n' roll from the inside remembered fondly their days as teenage idols. "It was funny. They would introduce us and all you would hear was screaming from the audience. I used to wonder if they could really hear us sing," Arthur laughs.
A high point in the Sparkletones career was an appearance on the "Ed Sullivan Show."
"They did not know how much real work was involved," Childress says. "After the shows, we would pack our gear and drive on to the next town, where we were to perform. Sometimes we would not get into a motel until 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning." In addition to the 1949 Desoto, Cox drove his Cadillac sedan on the road trips. All the equipment went into the Desoto, including Arthur's large bass, Denton's drums, amplifiers and guitars played by Bennett and Childress. That left just enough room for a driver and one passenger. The others rode in the Cadillac and they all shared the driving duties. "'Sparky' had to drive late at night, since he was too young to have a driver's license," Arthur recalls, "but he took his turns just like everybody else." "I was so small, I could barely see over the steering wheel," Childress says. In a large red scrap book, Bennett has kept many pages of memorabilia - reminders of his years when he and his friends from Cowpens played in The Band. On one page, autographs of performers with whom they shared the stage when they played on "The Ed Sullivan Show," Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," and the "Nat King Cole Show" reads like a list of Who's Who of the 1950s' teen-age music idols. Bobby Darin, Pat Boone, Don Everly, Jimmie Rodgers and the famous rock 'n' roller from Texas Buddy Holly all signed the book.
The biggest thrill for the four happened while they were performing in Las Vegas. "I will always remember how I felt when I looked out and saw Elvis Presley at our show in Las Vegas," Childress remembers. "Bob Cox knew how much we liked Elvis and he had arranged for him to come to see us. After the show, Elvis came to our dressing room to visit. It was a thrill." The Sparkletones were on the cutting edge of a 1950's musical sound referred to as "rockabilly." The music was a raucous blend of hillbilly, as country music was sometimes called, rock 'n' roll and traditional black music. The sound and the beat of the music were perfect for dancing and kids did dance, for these were the days of sock hops. "I remember we played backup at a sock hop in Connecticut for Fabian. We didn't think he was a very good singer, but he did not have his own band, so we played for him," Denton says.
While "Black Slacks" hit the top quickly, a second hit remained an elusive dream. They wrote and recorded other songs that received frequent airplay, but none became a big hit. "In that business, it is all a matter of timing," Bennett says. "Of course, only the big entertainers like Tony Bennett or Perry Como recorded albums."
After about three years, Cox quit as manger to work on a USO tour, giving Childress a contract, too, to perform at military bases throughout Europe and the Far East. That's when Gene Brown joined. "I remember going to the auditions," says Brown, then a sophomore at Spartanburg High School. "I really was a drummer, but they needed someone to replace Sparky; sort of a 'hot patch' for the band. Joe turned the guitar so I could bar chord to the background. I was about the same size as Sparky, and some people even thought I looked a little like him."
Denton later left to finish high school. Brown put down the guitar and replaced Denton on drums. Donnie Seay, another guitarist, joined the group and the road tours continued throughout the United States and Canada. After three years, the chase for a second hit ended. "If we had been able to have just one other big hit record, we might still be recording," Bennett says. "Actually, we were out there longer than many of the kids recording in the 50s." Before it was all over, The Sparkletones recorded several songs that various members of the band had written. They sold over a million records, including the sales of their famous hit "Black Slacks." The group can be seen now on television shows that have gone into syndication. "My wife and I were in Boston a couple of years ago, and I turned on the television, when we arrived in our hotel room," Childress says. "The old 'Nat King Cole Show' from the '50s was on and The Sparkletones were performing. What a surprise!"
The road show ended with a theater concert in Ocala, Fla. For the last time, The Sparkletones loaded the car and headed for home. For 16-year-old Brown, whose head was still filled with the dreams of hearing the roar of the crowd at the concerts, it was a crushing blow. "My mother and father had always worked in the textile mills, and in my mind I had seen this as a way to make a lot of money. I didn't make a lot of money, but I sure had a good time."
Gene Brown joined The Sparkletones when Howard Childress left.
KNOWN DISCOGRAPHYJOE BENNETT AND THE SPARKLETONES
10659 as by THE SPARKLETONES only
'57 ABC-Paramount 9837 - Black Slacks / Boppin' Rock Boogie
'57 ABC-Paramount 9867 - Penny Loafers And Bobby Socks / Rocket
'58 ABC-Paramount 9885 - Cotton Pickin' Rocker / I Dig You, Baby
'58 ABC-Paramount 9929 - We've Had It / Little Turtle
'58 ABC-Paramount 9959 - Late Again / Do The Stop
'59 ABC-Paramount 10659 - Run Rabbit Run / Well Dressed Man
'59 Paris 530 - Bayou Rock / Beautiful One
'59 Paris 537 - Boys Do Cry / What The Heck
'60 Paris 542 - Are You From Dixie? / Beautiful One
'60 Paris 546 - Softly / Bayou Rock*
*We've heard of the last one listed also with a different flip side "What The Heck"
There's also one later single by a group called the Sparkletones
'65 Pageant 604-Dear Little Boy / Just One Chance
The B-side is on "Pittsburgh's Golden Oldies Volume 1" (Astra ASLP 1002). On the liner notes, Lee Chance writes: "Their big record was "Black Slacks" on ABC. "Just One Chance" was recorded after the group left ABC, and joined Pageant, a division of Cameo-Parkway Records. This record was a moderate success in the Phila., New Jersey area. More information on this group was unavaialable at this time". However, it's a smooth doowop song and nothing like their earlier records, so we're not so sure if it really is the same group with or without Joe Bennett.
There's one reissue flip by the Tempos* Roulette GG-3 - Boys Do Cry / See You In September*
EP's, LP's and CD's
The Sparkletones: "Black Slacks" (MCA-1553) 1983
Side 1: Cotton Pickin' Rocker, Penny Loafers And Bobby Socks, Number One On My Love List (prev. unrel.*), Rocket, Let's Go Rock And Roll (prev. unreleased)
Side 2: Black Slacks, The Boppin' Rock Boogie, Maybe Baby (prev. unrel.), I Dig you baby, Late Again (alt. take)
* "Number One On My Love List" is not previously unreleased. It wasn't released in U.S.A. , but in Sweden and Finland ! There is an EP (Karusell KSEP 3104) which should contain following tracks:
"Boppin' Rock Boogie"
"Penny Loafers And Bobby Socks"
...but obviously someone made a mistake and instead of "Rocket" there is "Number One On My Love List"
Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones: Globe CD 542/7 - bootleg
02-Penny Loafers And Bobby Socks
03-Boppin' Rock Boogie
04-Cotton Pickin' Rocker
06-I Dig You Baby
08-What The Heck
09-Are You From Dixie 10-Little Turtle
11-We've Had It
12-Do The Stop
14-Boys Do Cry
15-Number One On My Love List (shown as Number One One On My List)
16-Let's Go Rock And Roll
17-Maybe Baby 18-Late Again (alternate version)
The Sparkletones (Paris 33-7281) bootleg
02-What The Heck
03-Are You From Dixie
05-Boppin' Rock Boogie
07-Penny Loafers And Bobby Socks
01-Cotton Pickin' Rocker
02-I Dig You Baby
04-We've Had It
05-Do The Stop
07-Run Rabbit Run