Johnny Sparrow & His Bows and Arrows©2004JCMarion


Johnny Sparrow was and still is an enigmatic figure in the history of Rhythm & Blues in America. His is not a household name by any stretch of the imagination and my only memory of him is one of his recordings being featured on radio by Alan "Moondog" Freed. He was thought to have been born in Houston, Texas, about 1920 and spent time in that incubator of jazz and blues, Kansas City. It was there as legend has it that he was the replacement for Charlie "Bird" Parker in the band of Jay McShann. This lasted for most of 1944 until McShann joined the military and his band broke up. Next stop for Sparrow was with Louis Armstrong and his touring unit through 1945 until 1947. He was featured in the sax section with Joe Garland, Amos Gordon, and Ernest Thompson. Sparrow was often featured on the baritone sax although he was proficient in both alto and tenor. He was in the sax section for a famous appearance at New York's Carnegie Hall on February 8, 1947, that featured a surprise appearance by Billie Holiday on vocals.

In late 1947 Sparrow moved to the big band of Lionel Hampton who at that time was playing music that had it's roots in both Rhythm & Blues and modern jazz. Over time it became a very influential unit. Sparrow was part of a driving sax section that included Morris Lane, Jackie Kelso, Ben Kynard, and Bobby Plater. In 1947 the band recorded such tunes as "Red Top" , "Midnight Sun", and "Mingus Fingers" for Decca. In 1949 the band recorded "Hamp's Boogie #2" on Decca #24607, "Beulah's Sister's Boogie" on Decca #24699 ", "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" with Rick Brown on vocal on Decca #24642, and "The Hucklebuck" with Betty Carter on vocal on Decca #24652.Now Johnny felt it was time to go out on his own with his unit, and so Johnny Sparrow & His Bows And Arrows was born in late 1949.

The first recording for the new unit was called "Sparrow's Flight" and was released by Melford Records on #253. It caught the ear of listeners immediately and began to sell in New York and Philadelphia. The band gets an extended engagement at the Blue Room of the Club Orleans in Baltimore where Johnny picks up the nickname "Mad Sax". The band also backs up blues singer Jimmy Clark. In May after a good seller with his record on Melford, Sparrow signs on with National Records coming off huge successes in the pop field. "Who Owns The Joint" and "The Word From Deacon Bird" are released on National #9114. In May of 1950, Sparrow's unit makes a rare and early television appearance in Baltimore on the show "Kingdom of Savoia". Making Baltimore his home base Johnny Sparrow organizes a new unit for an appearance at the Met Theater in late June. With his new edition of The Bows And Arrows are : Warren Scott on trumpet, Ray Shoates on guitar, "Bop" Gibson on piano, and LeRoy Jones on drums. In July, Carr's Beach Pavilion in Annapolis opens for the season and opening night will feature Johnny Sparrow (billed as "the Mad Sax Man") and his combo. Five thousand are expected for the show. The Sparrow unit does little in the recording studio over the next year but are a mainstay at Philadelphia's Club 421. In 1952 the combo becomes the house band at Philly's newest R & B night spot Bill & Lou's.

In 1952 as Sparrow and his combo cement their roots in Philadelphia, they get set for a recording session with home town label Gotham Records. Soon in May "Sparrow In The Barrel" and "When Your Lover Has Gone" is released on Gotham #282. By July "When Your Lover Has Gone" is a big seller for Gotham in Philadelphia with hope of breaking the record along the Eastern coast. In September Gotham follows up their regional hit with a new Johnny Sparrow release of "Sparrow's Flight No. 2" and "Boudoir Boogie" on #284. Late in the year "No.2" is another local favorite and the band are back at Club Bill & Lou where they have become a top Philly draw.

In 1953 the Sparrow band moves to the Red Rooster in Philadelphia. Next stop in town for the band is at the Carver Bar at the Glen Hotel a longtime Philly R & B venue. In May Sparrow & The Bows And Arrows are booked for the summer in Atlantic City at the Paradise Club. Before they set up for the season, they have a two week stay at Grace's Little Belmont Inn in the same city. Through 1954 as the rock 'n roll explosion begins, Sparrow and his unit continue to do good business with personal appearances, especially in the Philadelphia area. Even without a recent record hit, fans still turn out to hear and see the band. The Cotton Club in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, is the latest club to present Johnny Sparrow and his combo. In 1955 Sparrow re-records one of his earlier tunes "Sparrow's Nest" and "Keyhole Special" on RCA's "X" Records label on #0103. Despite a "push" by Alan Freed, the record does not sell. This spells the end for Sparrow as he and his little band fade from the scene. By the mid fifties he had been recording and playing music publicly for more than a decade. But, as many others have discovered, new CD technology makes it feasible to preserve the music of so many artists that would otherwise be lost to history. There are a number of CDs available that span the career and music of Johnny Sparrow.

"New Orleans" on Odeon has some sessions with Louis Armstrong

"Louis Armstrong 1944-1948 on Classics #928 covers the period when Sparrow was a member of the band.

"Carnegie Hall Concert : 1947" on Ambassador is a sound record of the historic show with Billie Holiday.

"Sparrow's Flight" and "His Bows And Arrows" on Collectables (#5332) covers the Philadelphia years concentrating on sessions for Gotham.

That is an admittedly sparse history of Johnny Sparrow and His Bows And Arrows, but there is enough information to keep his name in the written history of the music. Any way that's the whole idea, to not let these performers be forgotten.

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