Rick Sparks - ASCAP 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 Live365.com (The Cove). A lifetime spent as a pianist, broadcaster and teacher has led to five quiet-music albums since 2014: Hushabye (2019), Half Moon Bay (2018), Nightfall London (2017), Matilda's Flowers (2016) and Endless (2014).
"I started pretty early with piano lessons when I was 7 years old. A black '57 Wurlitzer spinet that my parents bought new in Atlanta was my practice piano. After all these years, it's amazing how well that old piano stays in tune. I'll keep it forever."
One of Rick's biggest musical influences 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," Rick says. "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 as a teenager. "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. There's no doubt that those gospel songs helped lead me to faith in Christ when I was 12." Rick's teen years set the pattern for decades of service as a church pianist. Along the way, he earned a master's degree in music and accompanied 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 Rick's repertoire includes gospel, pop and classical styles, a visit to an antique store in 2007 set a new musical direction. "In 2007, my wife and I were visiting Franklin, Tennessee one weekend. We walked into a 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, launching a quiet-music station online 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 Live365.com in just a year. "In the process of getting The Cove on the air, I fell in love with that music," says Rick. "Chris Botti, Kevin Kern, Dominic Miller, Mark Baldwin and many other wonderful artists inspired me to record Endless. Just as with The Cove, I want my recorded music to 'replenish your spirit.'"
In 2014, Rick released 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 & Escape channels, as well as 120+ broadcast & internet radio outlets. The album charted for 4 months on the ZMR (Zone Music Reporter) Top-100 radio airplay chart, peaking at #7 in November 2014. It continues to receive airplay on SiriusXM today.
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 track).
"Endless turned out to be a wonderful surprise," says Rick. "I'm so grateful for these lovely songs that have found a receptive audience worldwide."
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? "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 2016 album, Matilda's Flowers. "Matilda was my grandmother. While I only knew her in her golden years, Matilda's faded 1912 engagement picture as an 18 year old inspired me to do an album of sweet, poignant songs."
Matilda's Flowers features 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. I loved honoring my grandmother's memory with these songs - I think she would have enjoyed them very much."
Rick's 2017 album, Nightfall London, is beautiful melodic night music that "overflows with hope, faith & peace," according to MainlyPiano.com. Nightfall London charted for 5 consecutive months on ZMR's Top-100 Radio Airplay Chart, peaking at #7 in June '17 and earning kudos from multiple reviewers. "Nightfall London must be ranked as one of the best new-age albums I've heard this year - stunning," writes Steve Sheppard, programmer at One Word Music Radio, Europe's most listened-to online radio channel.
Why the title, Nightfall London? "I've been a huge fan of British producer Sir George Martin for many years," says Rick. "His influence on this album are the string & voice arrangements. For me, the album cover of old London at twilight is a perfect reflection of the music inside."
Rick's followup album to Nightfall London debuted in summer 2018. Half Moon Bay was inspired by the musical legacy of legendary artist/composer Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
"I have always loved Brian's music - the melodies, the harmonies and the arrangements are all extraordinary. Brian dared to take pop music of the 1960's beyond simple 2½ minute surfing songs, as great as they were. His music became legendary in the process."
Half Moon Bay features 7 gorgeous originals by Rick and 3 covers of beautiful but lesser-known Brian Wilson songs (Half Moon Bay, Lonely Sea, Summer's Gone). Rick calls the album 'summer chill music.' "The arrangements are atmospheric but still contemporary, mixing electric guitar with angelic voices, strings, piano & flute," says Rick. "The three Brian Wilson songs had a lot to do with the album's sound as a whole: music to fill your heart with hope, faith & peace."
Early praise for Half Moon Bay came from Randall Davis of The Creative Service Company, and former marketing director for Capitol/EMI Records (the Beach Boys' label): "Like putting the sails down on a sailboat or catamaran out on the ocean, slinging a hammock from the masts, and taking a nice long rest. You really hit the sweet spot with this one."
Rick's latest album is Hushabye (2019), 11 quiet lullabies perfect for relaxation, meditation and sleep. It is Rick's most peaceful album ever, a tapestry of strings, piano, flute and angelic voices. According to Rick, “Many of my friends and fans have told me for years that they use my music to relax after a hard day, enjoy some down time or to help their children or themselves get to sleep. With that in mind, Hushabye is designed to help you wind down your day with beauty and peace.”
The wordless vocals on Hushabye were prompted in part by Rick’s love of Brian Wilson’s vocal arrangements with the Beach Boys. According to Rick, “Brian always said his three-part vocal harmonies 'sounded like angels.' I took that to heart by using wordless vocals (oohs & ahhs) singing multi-part harmonies. The voices on Hushabye also remind me of the pure tones of an English boys’ choir.”
Like Brian Wilson, Rick credits God for his music. "Brian always said that God gave him his songs - I feel the same about my music. My ultimate goal is to glorify Jesus Christ in everything I do. He's a big part of my music helping to 'replenish your spirit.' "
Besides his recordings, 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.