Black Slacks

Centuries (maybe months?) from now, if space travelers from some far-off planet should land on Earth, barren and devoid of life yet littered with obvious indications of a civilization that once existed here, they'll likely search through artifacts from various time periods and cultures. Their feelers may twitch when hearing (on hand-crank record players, no doubt) the music (or whatever name they have for the tones and clanking sounds they're accustomed to) of the third rock from yet another nearly-burned-out sun. The vernacular of certain time periods will warrant study of some of the peculiar slang terms used in particular years...1957, for example: 'Black slacks make a cool daddio...when I put 'em on I'm-a-rarin' to go!' or, from the same flat, audible chunk of synthetic resin: 'I'm the cat's pajamas...'cause I run around with crazy little mamas!'...what might the meaning of these strange phrases be?

Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones, a rock and roll combo from Spartanburg, South Carolina, frequently used the trendiest expressions in the lyrics of their songs, which dated the band's output very quickly...a great reason their recordings are premium, time-capsule-ready representations of the late 1950s. They got together in '55, led by 16-year-old guitarist Bennett, his drummer buddy Jimmy Denton, who was 15, standup bass player Wayne Arthur, age 14, and 12-year-old Howard "Sparky" Childress, who played rhythm guitar and sang harmony behind Joe. In early '57, talent scout Robert Cox showed up in the northern part of S.C., and the group showed off their stuff, which led to a June audition in New York for ABC-Paramount brass. They went into Bell Sound Studio that very evening and tore through two original songs: "Black Slacks," Joe and Jimmy the authors, and "Boppin' Rock Boogie," penned by Joe and Wayne. Both songs featured rapid-reflex lead guitar by Bennett, one of the swingin'est electric axe handlers of the era, and the finished masters were rough enough around the edges to pass for the real thing.

Producer Don Costa mainly just stood by (or was blown back against the soundproofed walls), making the occasional suggestion while Joe and the boys flapped their lips in a 'B-b-b-b-b-black slacks!' stutter, plowed ahead at a breakneck pace and made their fashion statement: 'Man, you oughta see me with my derby on,' plugging the noir peg 14 pants, finishing off the look with '...a red bow tie...' and '...a cat chain down to my knees' and revealing some ego: 'I ain't nothin' but a real cool breeze!,' as the guys used the latest teenage slang to full advantage. The single quickly made the national charts, pressing onward to the top 20 in September '57. Then Bennett and the S'tones took their hyperactive stage moves on the road, wearing glittery jackets and making TV appearances on Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show...they were one gone group!

The not-quite-top 40 follow-up hit, "Penny Loafers and Bobby Socks," flipped the fashion focus to a teen dreamgirl ('...she wears her catty blue jeans and a sloppy shirt') while celebrating her conversion to R&R: '...sweet sixteen and she's really tops...she's got that crazy rhythm and she never stops,' an improvement over her previous fixations: 'I got a girl that used to be a square...she thought that Toscanini was-a everywhere...she said that Beethoven was the top of the pop...until she heard the news about roll and rock!' It was kind of rude picking on classical conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had passed away earlier that same year, but hey...crazy-coolness comes with attitude!

Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones

Every song they recorded was original, written by one or more, or all, group members. So how do you figure the guy billed first can still take a back seat to the band itself? The records by Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones are the only ones I recall seeing where the leader's name, mentioned first, was shown in smaller print than the band name! "Cotton Pickin' Rocker" and two other appropriately juvenile singles were pressed up by ABC in 1958, but a lack of melodic diversity may have been partly responsible for the shortage of radio airplay. Regardless, the foursome's energy level never wavered! But then in late '58, Denton and Childress called it quits to concentrate on school, while Bennett and Arthur moved forward with replacements Gene Brown on drums and Donnie Seay on guitar, waxing four singles for the Paris label. "Bayou Rock" was, predictably, a driving rocker, followed by change-of-pace single "Boys Do Cry," a sentimental ballad ('You've cried a million tears, sighed a thousand sighs...'), though by Sparkletones standards that means it has a midtempo beat. It momentarily appeared on the charts in the fall of 1959.

Joe joined the Air Force in 1960, temporarily putting an end to the band. In 1963 a girl group called the Sparkletones had a good one-shot single ("Just One Chance") on the Pageant label, then disappeared back into the shadows in plenty of time for the group, its name edited down to just The Sparkletones for the one and only time, to stop slackin' and shoot for a comeback...on ABC-Paramount! "Run Rabbit Run," a more mature-sounding, garage band-type track from '65, lacked any sonic connection to the '50s material; still, they should have made more than just that one single. Later, Joe Bennett became a teacher and taught guitar. At some point the nice folks in Spartanburg, South Carolina embraced the Sparkletones-inspired nickname "Sparkle City," which has been commonly used to describe the 'burg ever since. It's the ultimate tribute to the hometown boys who have a solid spot in history as one of the earliest hitmaking rock and roll bands.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Black Slacks