Friday, October 30, 2020

Watch Your Step - The Music of Bobby Parker

The first time I ever heard of Bobby Parker was when I bought Carlos Santana's Havana Moon album in the early 80's.  That whole album was an eye-, and ear-opening experience for me, as it introduced me to a lot of new sounds and musicians that I'd never really heard before......Booker T. Jones and the Fabulous Thunderbirds would both later become favorites.  There was lots of old school rock n' roll and Tex-Mex included......just a great album that you should check out if you're a fan of Santana or any of the other artists (even Willie Nelson made an appearance).

Although Bobby Parker wasn't on the album, one of his songs was....."Watch Your Step" opened the disc in a big way and quickly became my favorite song on the album.  I did find out that it was a cover of a early 60's hit by Bobby Parker.  Of course, back then it wasn't like old songs appeared on the radio, other than on Sunday nights, when I could pick up WLAC out of Nashville.  They played songs from the late 50's/early 60's frequently and that's where I first heard the original version of "Watch Your Step," which blew me away all over again.

It was next to impossible for me to find recordings of older artists like Parker where I lived.  I listened to what I could find, thanks to a few mail-order places that I was able to track down via the ads in Living Blues magazine, but I was never able to track down any music from Bobby Parker.  I think it was mainly due to the fact that Parker just recorded singles and for multiple labels, so it was hard to collect them all together into a "Best Of" due to licensing issues and such.

Fortunately, my favorite record label at the time, Black Top Records, released Bent Out Of Shape, Parker's first official album, in 1993.  I heard about it via Mississippi's Public Radio Saturday night show, Highway 61.  They played a track off the album (the title track, I think) as part of their set and two days later, I was driving to the record store, where I quickly grabbed a copy.

Bent Out Of Shape was everything I expected it to be.  Parker was the total package....a great guitarist, singer, and songwriter (though I'd never seen him perform, I knew that had to be part of the package as well).  I played that album over and over for a long time, and when Black Top released a follow-up in 1995, Shine Me Up, I played it almost as much.  Both albums are permanent fixtures on my iPod playlist, along with many of Black Top's other albums.

Upon hearing Bent Out Of Shape, my biggest question was why Bobby Parker didn't become a big star then and why wasn't he regarded as one of big stars of his era??  I found out over the years that he was a huge influence on a host of acts, particularly Santana, John Lennon, Spencer Davis, John Mayall, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and Bobby Radcliff, who described Parker as "Guitar Slim meets James Brown," which sums him up about as well as I've ever heard.

Parker was born in Lafayette, LA in 1937, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was a kid.  Bitten by the show biz bug at an early age, he was influenced by a number of big stage acts that he saw locally......Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Mr. B., Billy Eckstine, which made him a fan of jazz early on.  However, when he saw some of the West Coast blues gutiarists.....T-Bone Walker, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Pee Wee Crayton, and Lowell Fulson, he became a man of the blues.

He won a talent contest in the late 50's, which led to a gig with Otis Williams & the Charms, later backing Bo Diddley (even appearing on Ed Sullivan), and Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams before he settled down in Washington D.C., where he became a solo act, recording "Watch Your Step" in 1961 for V-Tone Records.  Some of his other singles included "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" (Parker claimed that he wrote the B-side, "You Got What It Takes," but it was stolen by Berry Gordy) and "It's Hard By It's Fair," both of which he reprised on Bent Out Of Shape many years later.

Parker remained active over the years, but spent most of his time performing in the D.C. area.  Upon the release of his two Black Top efforts, Santana took Parker on the road with him for several shows, one of which was captured for DVD in the late 90's.  

Parker remained active until he passed away in October of 2013 from a heart attack at 76.  If you missed out on Bobby Parker, you missed a real treat.  Luckily, his music is still available via streaming or CD, and there's an upcoming release that collects his 50's and 60's recordings that is on my radar for sure.

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