Rick Sparks - Pianist & Composer
Rick Sparks’ musical influences have been many and diverse, from a grandfather who played Tennessee banjo clawhammer-style, to being an FM-radio DJ in the 70’s & 80’s, to programming a leading new-age music station today on Radionomy (The Cove). A lifetime spent as a pianist, broadcaster and teacher has led to two standout quiet-piano albums, Matilda's Flowers & Endless.
"I started pretty early with piano lessons at age 7. A black '57 Wurlitzer spinet that my parents bought new in Atlanta was my practice piano when I was growing up. After all these years, it's amazing how well that old piano stays in tune. It's been everywhere with us over the last 40 years. Today it occupies a place of honor in my home studio. I'll keep it forever."
One of the biggest musical influences on Rick was his time spent as a radio DJ in the 70's & 80's. "My love of classic Top-40 radio led to a major in broadcasting at the University of Tennessee. But I didn't just play those songs on the air. That Wurlitzer got a workout with Beach Boys & Chicago tunes."
Rick got an early taste of public performance when he started playing piano in church at age 15. "Mom was a church pianist & organist and Dad played guitar & sang in church, so my brothers & I got an early education in the spiritual power of music." Rick's teen years set the pattern for decades of service as a church pianist. Along the way, he picked up a master's degree in piano and had the chance to accompany legendary artists like The 5th Dimension's Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr., gospel great Alvin Slaughter of Brooklyn Tabernacle, and American Idol finalist Phil Stacey.
Although his repertoire includes gospel, pop and classical styles, a visit to an antique store in 2007 prompted Rick to launch into a new musical direction. "In 2007, my wife and I were visiting Franklin, Tennessee one weekend. We walked into this little antique shop and the store owner was playing a CD of quiet solo piano. I remember thinking, 'I'd like to record something like that.'" A few months later, Rick released his 2007 album, Christmas Love.
According to Rick, "I wanted to record a quiet album that would evoke both the joy & longing of the season." Christmas Love is mostly solo piano, with influence from George Winston & Jim Brickman, and contains both traditional Christmas carols and newer classics.
While Christmas Love pointed the way for Rick musically, it took launching a quiet-music station on Live365 in 2013 to set his course as a recording musician.
"The Cove" quickly found a receptive audience, climbing into the top-10 of 138 new-age stations on Live 365 in just a year. "In the process of getting The Cove on the air, I fell in love with the artists we play," says Rick. "Chris Botti, Kevin Kern, Dominic Miller, Mark Baldwin and many other wonderful musicians inspired me to record my 2014 release, Endless. Just as with The Cove, I wanted my new album to replenish the spirit of the listener."
The Cove may now be heard on Radionomy at http://www.thecove.playtheradio.com.
In 2014, Rick recorded Endless, a piano album full of inspiring, melodic songs framed in simple yet powerful arrangements. Endless would go on to receive airplay on SiriusXM's Spa channel 68, as well as 120+ broadcast & internet radio outlets. The album charted for 4 months on the ZMR (Zone Music Reporter) U.S. radio airplay chart, peaking at #7 in November 2014.
Endless opens with Gordon Lightfoot's lovely 1970's hit, Beautiful, and include four Scottish
songs, an Irish hymn and a couple of originals (including the title song). For Rick, "Endless turned out to be everything I hoped for. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to do this wonderful music that feeds the soul."
Of note on Endless is Rick’s choice to include a song from Bill Leslie’s 2014 World Radio Album of the Year, Scotland - Grace of the Wild.
"You always hesitate to send the original composer your version of their song, especially when it’s so different from the original, but Bill Leslie could not have been more gracious," says Rick. "When he heard my recording of Portree, Bill replied, ‘Gorgeous arrangement, Rick - simple elegance! I love the pace and the feel. You captured the magic of the song.’ Coming from an artist of Bill’s stature, that meant a lot to me.”
Why the album title, Endless? "I guess that was prompted by a couple of things. First, God's endless love for us, and second, a magnificent picture of a starry night sky over a tropical lagoon, by starscape photographer Ben Canales. Ben kindly allowed me to use that beautiful shot as the album cover."
A project with deep emotional roots for Rick is his latest album, Matilda's Flowers (2016). "Matilda was my grandmother. While I only knew her in her golden years, Matilda's faded 1912 engagement picture as an 18-year-old created a whole new personality for her that inspired me to record
Matilda's Flowers. It was a privilege to honor her with these songs - I think she would like the music very much if she were still with us today."
Matilda's Flowers is an album of sweet, poignant songs featuring 7 piano originals plus a lovely arrangement of Sting's Fields of Gold & two timeless hymns. According to Rick, "I intend for these songs to take the listener to a place of peace and quiet renewal - they certainly do for me."
When he's not at the piano, Dr. Rick Sparks (Ph.D.) serves as professor of mass communication at North Greenville University, near Greenville, SC. He also plays keyboards in his church worship band near Spartanburg, SC.