She took piano, violin and accordion lessons and attended the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music in Indianapolis, now a part of Butler University.
She played “Stardust” and “Somewhere My Love” in piano bars in Indiana, places like Sandy’s Town Tavern and the Martinique in Indianapolis, the Patio in Gas City and the Shamrock in Anderson.
Since moving to Birmingham in 2001, Sparkes has taken part in a jazz piano concert, performed on the Wurlitzer organ at the Alabama Theatre and entertained her fellow residents at Episcopal Place on Southside by playing such standards as “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “Stars Fell on Alabama.”
But Sparkes had perhaps her greatest adventure, musical or otherwise, during World War II. She played accordion for USO Camp Shows troupes entertaining GIs in the U.S. and Europe. She was only 17 years old when she began her first tour in 1943 and eventually played in 22 states, plus France and Germany.
In 2008, Birmingham actor and storyteller Dolores Hydock met Sparkes and heard her play, and together the two women have created a program called “Two Suitcases and an Accordion: Traveling with the USO Camp Shows.” Sparkes plays her own lush arrangements of war-time standards, and she and Hydock take turns telling stories of her USO adventures.
The women will give their next performance Thursday, Jan. 21, at 6:30 p.m., in the Arrington Auditorium at the Birmingham Public Library downtown, part of the library’s BPL@Night series. Admission is free.
I saw Sparkes and Hydock do their act in April 2009, also at the Arrington Auditorum, as part of BPL’s lunch-time Brown Bag Lecture Series. The place was packed, and the mostly older crowd gave the two women a standing ovation.
No small measure of the crowd’s enjoyment of the show seemed to come from Sparkes’s renditions of at least a dozen wartime and other vintage hits she played on the auditorium’s grand piano. As Hydock said of Sparkes during her introduction to the show, "When she plays ‘Over the Rainbow’ it makes me weep."
While Sparkes didn’t play “Over the Rainbow” that day, she played a wide range of other crowd-pleasers, including “Anchors Aweigh,” "Sentimental Journey,” “Blue Birds of Dover,” "Don't Fence Me In" and "Thanks For the Memories." Sparkes closed the show with some of the tunes that she said were among her most requested numbers during her years in the piano bars, including "Stardust" and "The Man I Love."
She also seemed to touch the audience—many of whom, like Sparkes, could well remember the dark yet strangely liberating war years—with tales of her adventures as a teenage girl from Anderson, Ind., who went farther from home than she had perhaps ever imagined. “Music will take you places nothing else can," her dad told her during the time she was taking piano and accordion lessons, and he was right.
Sparkes tells the story of going to Chicago with her accordion to audition for the USO tour, accompanied by her mother. She was hired on the spot and joined the troupe, with a pink chiffon skirt that her mom made for her. She would earn $85 a week, she said, a lot more than the $20 a week she was earning working as a bookkeeper at the bank in Anderson.
Sparkes performed with a five-person “tabloid troupe,” consisting of a comic, accordion player, singer, dancer and magician. She helped the magician pull rabbits out of his hat and stayed on stage through the entire show to play her accordion as musical accompaniment for the other performers. Sparkes had no professional experience but, she said, “I took to it like the proverbial duck takes to water."
Sparkes played mess halls, bases, and hospitals during two tours stateside, then—when the war ended in Europe in May 1945—her father allowed her to go overseas. She went first to France. She says that one of her most powerful memories is of the night her ship docked at the port of Le Havre. A radio was playing, she says, a big band playing a live show somewhere in Hollywood. "It hit me how far from home I was,” she said. “’Here I am. No turning back now.’ I'll never forget that feeling."
Sparkes’s last assignment was in Germany, where she performed in U.S. Army base theaters after replacing another accordion player who had an appendectomy. She also visited Berlin, once the capital of the now-vanquished Nazi empire, but now a city in ruins. She went to the Tiergarten, the city’s vast park, which had become a center for black market trade in consumer goods, even for American and Russian soldiers. A carton of Pall Mall cigarettes could fetch $200, Sparkes learned. "The Russians were just passionate for those long, red packages," she said.
Sparkes returned to the United States in November 1945 and pursued a career as a piano and organ player that would span 60 years. During the question and answer session that followed her performance, Sparkes was asked what it was like to play the piano bars. “I miss the people and I miss the tip jars," she said. " Music helped put bread on the table."
But that’s enough, people. I can’t give away the whole act. For more information about “Two Suitcases and an Accordion” or about BPL@Night, call (205) 226-3742 or visit www.bplonline.org.
Sparkes has recorded a new CD called I’ll Be Seeing You: Barb Sparkes Plays WWII Hits and other Standards. It features Sparkes playing 26 wartime hits, many of which are featured in her show with Hydock. Copies will be available for purchase at the show for $15. For a sample, visit the Barb Sparkes page at Hydock’s web site, www.storypower.org. Sparkes’s CD can also be ordered by mail. For details, e-mail Tabitha Lacy, Sparke’s daughter, at email@example.com.