JOE BENNETT AND THE SPARKLETONES
This group is back on the rock 'n' roll scene in its original line-up: Joe Bennett (lead singer, lead guitar), Howard "Sparky" Childress (vocals, rhythm guitar), Wayne Arthur (upright bass) and Jimmy "Sticks" Denton (drums). Recently they have played Viva Las Vegas 2003, Hemsby (May 2003, their debut performance in the UK) and, just a few days ago, the 5th Rockabilly Rave (11-14 March, 2005).
When the group formed in 1955, their ages ranged from 12 to 16. All four had been raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina, attended Cowpens High School in that town, and came from respectable middle- class families. Indeed, in contrast to a lot of kids who wanted to play music for a living, all four members of the Sparkletones were regular churchgoers, and Joe Bennett was one of the leaders of the Church Youth Movement in South Carolina.
They were discovered in 1956 by Robert F. Cox, a CBS talent scout, who became their manager and featured them on his local TV show. By June 1957, Cox had secured them an audition in the NYC offices of ABC-Paramount. As legend would have it, they were "signed on the spot", with a recording session only hours later, at Bell Sound Studio. Out of this session came "Black Slacks", written by Bennett and Denton, which sported teenage expressions like "cool breeze", "hep cat", "crazy little mama", "cool daddy-o" and "rarin' to go". It became the group's first release (ABC-Paramount 9837) and went to # 17 on the Billboard charts, with a 19-week run in the Top 100. The group went on a nationwide tour (42 performances in 35 days!), appeared on American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show, and then toured with Alan Freed's Rock & Roll Shows. Their follow-up, also an ode to teen footwear, was called "Penny Loafers and Bobby Socks". It peaked at # 42 in early 1958. Not a bad showing, but nothing with the Sparkletone name upon it would ever chart again. "Cotton Pickin' Rocker", "We've Had It" and "Do the Stop" (all on ABC) were all competent rockers, but ABC was now promoting Danny and the Juniors and the Royal Teens. The band broke up in late 1958, because everyone was tired, having been on the road for so long. In 1959-60, four further singles were released on the Paris label, all credited to Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones, but only Joe Bennett and Wayne Arthur sing on those records, backed by studio musicians. October 1957 saw the release of "The King Is Coming Back" (about Elvis) by Billy and Eddie on Top Rank and there has been some speculation over the years that this was a Sparkletones recording. (It is included on the Sparkletone CD mentioned below.) However, though the song was written by Joe Bennett and Jimmy Denton, they do not sing on the record. Asked by Now Dig This who Billy & Eddie were, Joe said that he didn't know. "I believe they were British guys."
Joe joined the Air Force in 1960 and the group members all drifted off in different directions. In 1965 their manager put pressure on ABC and talked them into giving the Sparkletones one more shot"("Run Rabbit Run"/"Well Dressed Man"), but that was their last release. The group is now back on the scene, and intends to record again. Their records have become collector's items over the years, especially for Joe's phenomenal Fender lead guitar playing. Another reason is that the songs (all self-written) remain fresh, containing youthful enthusiasm that was missing in many other recordings from the late fifties.
CD: The Sparkletones : Complete Recordings 1957-1959 (Sparkletone SP-CD 99012). 24 tracks. In spite of the 1995 copyright tag, this was released in 2001 on the Danish bootleg label Sparkletone.
More info: http://www.rockabillyhall.com/JoeBennett.html
Further reading: "The Cat's Pyjamas : The Sparkletones interviewed by Trevor Cajiao" in: Now Dig This, 244 (July 2003), page 19-22.
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