Randy Sparks had one bad night in Toledo that defined the city for decades. Sparks authored “Saturday Night In Toledo Ohio,” the infamous song with such lyrics as “Saturday night in Toledo Ohio/Is like being nowhere at all/All through the day, how the hours rush by/You sit in the park, and you watch the grass die.”
The song caused a local uproar as public officials protested and citizens bristled. Eventually, Sparks made amends, but the song has stuck in the national litany of Toledo impressions.
The 75-year-old doesn’t hear as well as he used to, and conducted the following interview by e-mail.
Toledo Free Press: Come on, you like Toledo, don’t you?
Randy Sparks : Yes, but that wasn’t necessarily always the case.
TFP: What inspired you to write about Toledo?
RS: The tale is told in the song, almost completely. I have been on the road for 53 years, and on one of my tours, in 1967, I think, I was in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. (a place which is neither mountainous nor pleasant), and I found to my amazement that our schedule showed that we had a Saturday night off. I wanted to be diplomatic, so I said to the other musicians, “Where would you like to go to spend a rare Saturday night?”
Some wanted to go to Old Town in Chicago, but we had just been there a few weeks earlier, and three of my boys went somewhere with Jackson Browne, and when they came back, they didn’t know who they were. I would not allow that to happen again. Somebody else opted for Ann Arbor, and I reminded the group that we’d be there in a couple of weeks, so we began looking at the map, and it was decided that we’d break new ground, finding a place we’d never been.
There it was, Toledo, a large glob of yellow, urban sprawl in my atlas, and we were launched the next morning. We drove all day, making several unscheduled stops at antique shops and gas stations, and we didn’t arrive [in Toledo] until about 10 p.m. The place was closed. True story. Somebody in the back of the bus yelled, “Let’s bomb this place,” and I pointed out that none of us knew anything about making a bomb. I suggested writing a nasty song about Toledo. That, after all, was my vocation, and while everyone else slept, I drove the bus on down to Kansas City, writing “Saturday Night In Toledo Ohio.” True story.
TFP: How much reaction have you received from Toledoans over the years since writing and performing the song?
RS: I sang it the next morning for the people on tour with me, and we all agreed that I’d done the job of punishing those responsible for closing the town too early, and basically it was forgotten. It was just a joke. Then I sang it again for the audience at Ledbetter’s in West Los Angeles (where John Denver and Steve Martin and Kenny Rogers all got started), and Michael Johnson, one of my gifted musicians, asked if he could sing it with his group called The Troika, which I owned. I really didn’t care, so I said yes, and the next time we heard about the song was when John Denver sang it on “The Tonight Show.” That performance of my joke song caused all kinds of problems. The mayor was going to sue John, and he said, “Don’t shoot the messenger; Randy Sparks wrote it!” The reaction, over the years, has been somewhere between genuine anger and absolute humor. The song stirred much controversy, and it is credited for much of Toledo’s progress in becoming a cosmopolitan, progressive community. For a time, the town’s motto was actually a message to John Denver and me: “Take A Look At Us Now!”
TFP: Where did you stay when you were in Toledo and where did you eat?
RS: Everywhere, but not that first night. Nothing was open, not even White Castle. Maybe it was, and we just didn’t find it. Later on, I was invited back to town, and I stayed and ate in all the fancy places.
A grand event occurred when Donna Owens was the mayor. I was invited back to town, and I was reluctant to accept, as I thought it might be a trick to serve me a summons to court. Turns out that they wanted only a concert in the park overlooking the water, and the stands were filled, mostly with folks with a sense of humor. They told me I could sing the song one last time, and I noticed that the mayor and city manager were holding a giant scroll with the lyrics. I was thinking that seemed unnecessary, as everyone in the audience knew all the words, and the whole crowd sang along. But as the song was finishing, a hearse backed onto the stage, and the scroll of my song was hauled off to the cemetery and buried! True story.
TFP: Any plans that you might revisit Toledo and give us a follow-up song?
RS: I have written several follow-up songs, but they didn’t get to be famous. If John were still with us, they’d have a better chance, I think. I also wrote: “Holy Toledo (On A Sunday Morning, Everyone’s In Church Or On The Way” and “I Want My Maumee (I Wanna Go Back To Toledo).”
TFP: Why is John Denver always getting credit for the Toledo song?
RS: He sang it on the record, and I’m grateful. I still get paid as the publisher and writer. By the way, I gave John his start in the music business. I also named him. When he came to me looking for work as a folksinger, his name was Henry John Deutschendorf, and that was a long time before Arnold Schwarzenegger. He needed a new name, and I named him after a piece of sheet music framed on my office wall, one of our hits, “Denver.”
TFP: Where do you live and make your living now?
RS: I guess I mostly live in California, but I have more houses than John McCain, and I’m reaching you now from Harlingen, Texas. Why? Because it’s warm and I’m old. I’m 75, and my government takes good care of me, but I still work. If you’ll accept that singing and playing and having more fun than anyone deserves is work. I’m still doing major concerts all over the country, this with my world-famous group, The New Christy Minstrels, and I still write music every day.
TFP: Would Toledo be a good place to retire?
RS: My mentors, Bob Hope and Burl Ives, didn’t retire, and I can’t imagine anybody wanting to do that. It’s so much more fun being alive and productive. Would I like to live in Toledo? Yes, but only in the spring and the fall. I learned from the wild birds and Native Americans that migration is the answer to hot, humid summers and cold winters.
TFP: Tell me one thing you liked about Toledo.
RS: I like the people a lot. I also like Bob Evans and chicken pot pie, and Eddie Boggs, Toledo’s favorite entertainer, and Dr. Ron, my favorite kidney specialist/banjo player, and Preacher Ron, the non-conformist. There’s a lot to like about every community, really. All we have to do is get to know the place.
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Back then, I was a techie… A road tech…. I knew John in the very early years in LA. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. And his singing about Toledo, where I worked and which I loved while there, was strictly humor… fun and at the expense of no one personally.
John poked fun at everyone once in a while, as did Randy, in those days. We all… writers, singers and crew… poked fun at everyone and everything we encountered. It was a way of coping with the stresses, the frustrations, the nights when it “just didn’t work” … We used humor to stay sane.
And thanks, Toledo, for giving us such a rich source of that humor…. no one meant any harm.
This comment was posted on December 28th, 2008 at 12:26 am