Bobby Parker

TrackSingle / Album
TitanicTitanic ... CD
Blues Get Off My ShoulderVee Jay 279
Watch Your StepV-Tone 223
Steal Your Heart AwayV-Tone 223
Stop By My HouseAmanda 1001
It's Too Late DarlingSabu S-100
I Won't Believe It Till I See ItShrine SRG 107
Don't Drive Me AwayFrisky FR-912
It's Hard But It's FairBlue Horizon 57-3151
Bent Out Of ShapeBent Out Of Shape

 

Watch Your Step

 

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Bobby Parker photo 1

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Not so long ago, with tongue firmly in cheek, I introduced a new category – the Didn’t-Make-Its or to extend it to a more meaningful length, the Didn’t-Make-Its-But-Damned-Well-Should-Haves. We all have artists we’d put in that category. Mine today is Bobby Parker who died in 2013 and is remembered, that’s if he is remembered, as the man who made one soul blues monster of a record in 1961 which got ripped off by the Beatles.

Okay, it was only the riff that saw reuse by the Fab 4, but, only the riff? Under the heading of I Feel Fine in The Beatles Bible there’s a quote from John on the subject of the short repeated phrase from Watch Your Step:

“I wrote I Feel Fine around the riff which is going on in the background. I tried to get that effect into practically every song on the LP, but the others wouldn’t have it. I told them that I’d write a song specially for this riff. So they said, ‘Yes, you go away and do that,’ knowing that we’d almost finished the album. Anyway, going into the studio one morning, I said to Ringo ‘I’ve written this song, but it’s lousy.’ But we tried it, complete with riff, and it sounded like an a-side, so we decided to release it just like that.”

Notwithstanding any of that, I Feel Fine was a fine, fine record, maybe even as good as Watch Your Step. But the boys went further, they only went into that famous studio again and generated a rather splendid derivative of that riff which they used to embellish, nay, dominate Day Tripper.

Bobby Parker himself used to say the riff came from Dizzy Gillespie’s 1947 record Manteca and the rhythmic propulsion was based on the blend of R&B and latin as used by Ray Charles on What’d I Say. That’s all as maybe but Watch Your Step still sounds highly original, even when listened to today. The record got to #51 in the US Hot 100 which might not sound much but there wasn’t a lot of precedent. Soul blues heroes James Brown and Ray Charles had started making inroads into the charts but were hardly mega-sellers, apart from What’d I Say of course. There were plenty of covers, mainly in the UK, and there were more users of the riff (see Footnotes).

I’ve not mentioned the fact that Watch Your Step featured a long instrumental intro à la What’d I Say and had some ladies doing call and response, again in line with that record. Constructive cribbing maybe but the record still sounded distinctive, partly because of the prominent guitar work – Charles rarely featured guitar in his records – but more so because of the voice. It had all the churchy fervour of Brown and Charles but without being a copy of either.

The flip side, Steal Your Heart Away, a slow gospel inflected blues, was almost as good. Big punchy horns provided plenty of drama, with Bobby showing off a scream that was up there with Bobby Bland, and the Bobbyettes – my invention I hasten to add – were doing their thing again. There was more sterling guitar work but with restraint and subtlety this time.

For reasons unbeknown to me most biographers never even mention this number though I recall playing it as much as the A-side of my Sue single. This was the ’64 re-release of the record on the Guy Stevens’ helmed UK Sue Records. Unlike Mr Lennon I don’t recall the original release on London in the UK so I guess it would have received minimal airtime. 1964, though, caught the UK Mod movement in its prime, so ensured plenty of DJ attention in the clubs. Perhaps because of the delay to the second release it didn’t seem odd that there was no follow-up. But with hindsight it does seem peculiar that the record appears to exist on its own, with hardly anything before or after. Check out Bobby on 45cat to see what I’m talking about. A little digging though reveals the fact that the Parker recording career was a mess, both in terms of appearances on a succession of minor labels plus the reporting of the same – I haven’t found one complete discography, and the creation of such a thing shouldn’t have been too difficult because he didn’t actually make that many records. Indeed, for someone with the skills apparent on that single it’s shocking that there were so few.

Bobby was born in Lafayette, Louisiana in August 1937 but his family moved to East Los Angeles in 1943. He took up guitar three years later and formed his first band in high school days along with Don Harris and Dewey Terry (later to be known as Don & Dewey). His first claim to any form of fame was winning the weekly talent contest at Johnny Otis’ Barrelhouse Club. This led to a guitar backing position with doo wop group, Otis Williams and the Charms. He followed that with a role as second guitarist to Bo Diddley in his touring band. Reportedly, it’s Bobby semi-obscured by Bo in this video from the Ed Sullivan Show in ’55.

In 1956, Bobby joined Paul Williams’ Band who were responsible for backing the stars appearing at New York’s Apollo Theatre. An earlier incumbent as vocal front man for Williams had been Little Willie John (Bobby Parker’s idol) in ’55 (see Toppermost #632). The role also involved touring and, in the online obituary “Remembering D.C. Blues Guitarist Bobby Parker” in the Washington City Paper, Steve Kiviat quotes Andrew Padua, Bobby’s bass player from 1995, as saying: “He was on the Cavalcade of Stars tours back in the ˈ50s when the promoters would take the pop stars out on the road. There was a white-folks bus with Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, and a black bus. The black bus was Bobby with Chuck Berry, Lavern Baker, Ruth Brown, and the band was basically Paul ‘Hucklebuck’ Williams’ band from the Apollo Theatre.”

Bobby’s first experience of a recording studio came in 1956 with a piece of nonsense titled Suggie, Duggie, Boogie Baby which saw him fronting the Paul Williams Orch. and affecting the nom-de-plume of Bobby Parks. There wasn’t anything unusual about the voice apart from strength and confidence. Mind you, the guitar when it burst in on the first break preceded by a scream, positively shook the floor – stinging, vibrant, and just plain loud. Much more recently – 2015 to be precise – a previously unreleased outtake came to light credited to the Paul Williams Orchestra (vocal by Bobby Parker). The record, Titanic, was released on the Soulful Torino label (of Turin – see Footnotes) and its subject was precisely what you thought it might be. Plenty of that hot steamy liquid guitar, a story that got more ludicrous as it progressed, and fabulous narration: “I was raised drinking muddy water, and I’ll drink all the water in the sea.”

Bobby made his first solo single (for the Vee Jay label of Chicago) while he was still with the Williams Orchestra. The self-penned Blues Get Off My Shoulder was a minor key blues sounding like a slooow run through those chords that comprise Hallelujah I Love Her So, with both Bob and his guitar in one of Sam Phillips’ echo chambers. The mood was much more contemplative than anything hitherto with our man chucking in a few delicate jazzy licks instead of the usual incandescent stuff.

Flip this record and you get an interesting story. The song, again written by Bobby, is You Got What It Takes, a slightly laconic ode to his baby (though he does come to life a little on the punchlines). The delivery is close to swingtime with some fruity brass, quite a contrast to the A-side, and the biting solo when it does come is something of a game changer. It didn’t do anything but round about fifteen months later, another version of You Got What It Takes was released, this time from Marv Johnson. Any resemblance to swing had disappeared and been replaced by a form of bouncy teen pop with Johnson adopting a soul-lite style. Marv was the protégé of Berry Gordy who, at that time, already had some of the building blocks for the Motown empire in place but was in need of some chunky hits to help the cash flow. Johnson’s You Got What It Takes was a sizeable seller, #7 in UK, #10 in US. Couple that with the fact that the writing credits for the new version read B Gordy/G Gordy (his wife)/R Davis(his friend) not B Parker, then you’ll gather it didn’t exactly make that cash problem worse. Parker couldn’t even afford a lawyer to fight the case.

Wiki lists the next Parker single as Foolish Love / Stop By My House but was it? I’ve found nowt out about the label, Amanda Records, though one of the comments against the single suggests it might have something to do with a lady called Lillian Claiborne, who owned a recording studio and a record label (DC Records) based in Washington D.C.. Bobby moved to Washington sometime between ’59 and ’61. Getting back to the record, there’s no sign of a guitar on either track. The A-side has Bobby, if indeed it’s him, in medium tempo relaxed and restrained doo wop mode using the usual progression. Only a falsetto leap right at the end really connects to the sort of Parker sound we’d previously heard. The flip is much more of a jumper, and, yes I’m coming off the fence here, it is him and it’s good. There’s not just mild falsetto, we get full blooded screams. Great dance floor stuff.

While we’re on mystery records and doo wop, there was a group in L.A. called the Hi Tensions (sometimes with a hyphen) who, in 1960, recorded a single coupling The Clock with So Far Away. Their lead singer was a gent called Bobby Parker. I’m dismissing this one on the grounds that (a) the lead had a lighter voice than our Bobby and (b) reports state that the boys had recently emerged from high school – Watch Your Step Bobby was older than that. Nice record though, and you’ve probably gathered that I prefer the flip though the A is also on YouTube. Don’t be misled by the mention of Leon Peels. He joined the group after this record was released and they subsequently released further singles.

This brings us up roughly to ˈ61 and Watch Your Step / Steal Your Heart Away. The record was released by V-Tone, yet another small label formed in 1958 and based in Philadelphia. Watch Your Step was one of three charting singles from the label. V-Tone was discontinued in 1962 and, disappointingly (and surprisingly) never produced a follow-up to Watch Your Step.

Possibly around about this time or a few years later, there was a record issued on Sabu Records by a Bobby Parker entitled It’s Too Late Darling / Get Right and this time, from the extended scream that introduced the A-side, there’s absolutely no doubt it’s our man. James Brown style soul blues along the lines of Try Me or Please, Please, Please. The choice of minor key just adds to the despair. There’s enough individual strength here to mark this out as a Parker track and while Bobby and the team maintain the intensity, it’s solid but not quite up there with Steal Your Heart Away.

Following the oft-used pattern of coupling a slowie with a rocker, Get Right was the up tempo one. Riff based but nothing too exotic this time. Instead this was not unlike the Just A Little Bit riff which was another that had seen plenty of reuse.

1964 saw the release of another mystery disc, I Won’t Believe It Till I See It from a Little Bobby Parker. The issuing label Shrine Records was Washington D.C. based, strengthening any connection with “The Real” Bobby Parker who is known to have stayed in the city apart from any touring work. While the sound is more evocative of the mid sixties than earlier material I’ve featured, with a definite nod to Motown included, that just has to be Bob on vocal. He’d almost patented those falsetto screams. As good a dance floor filler as Watch Your Step and accordingly appreciated by the UK’s Northern Soul audience. The only negative on this was the lack of guitar. And I did find one blog, Funky16Corners, that equated the two Parkers: “Parker would record sporadically through the 60’s, waxing a 45 (‘I Won’t Believe It Till I See It’ as Little Bobby Parker) for the ultra-rare DC soul label Shrine, where the Cautions would record a version of ‘Watch Your Step’.”

The B-side was given to another artist entirely, the Enjoyables group, but at least there was another Bobby Parker single released that year with no “Little” present this time. On yet another label – I must have said that a few times – Southern Sound. The record coupled Do The Monkey with Gimmie A Little Lovin’. The flip’s not on YT and Do The Monkey is something of a throwback. Don’t think Bobby was doing himself any justice on this one.

Another mystery record, Don’t Drive Me Away, appeared in ’65, or maybe not in ’65, there’s some vagueness, but the real mystery this time wasn’t the identity of the singer – it was clearly our Bob – but, rather, it’s the identity of the label – Frisky Records. The contributors to 45cat got into quite heated debate about this topic in August this year (2017) though they didn’t come to any conclusions other than floating the possibility that the intriguing Lillian Claiborne might have had some involvement, possibly in a production role. Whoever was in the production booth certainly deserves much credit for the record, it’s a peach of a slow soul blues burner quite the equal of Steal Your Heart Away. And Bobby indulges himself in a Joe Tex or Solomon Burke live style recitation and gets away with it without the listener chucking virtual eggs at him. I can forgive a Do The Monkey if we get the occasional one like this.

1968 saw Bobby touring Europe, and British blues expert, studio owner and record producer Mike Vernon took the opportunity to make a single with him. The resulting record paired It’s Hard But It’s Fair with I Couldn’t Quit My Baby. Whether the flip bore any relationship to the Willie Dixon/Otis Rush I Can’t Quit You Baby, I don’t know. It’s not on YT, which was also the case with the flip of the last single, probably an indication of the public lack of awareness about Bobby. Since writing that line I can add that I found a sample of the track on the Blue Horizon Story 1965-1970 3CD set (on the French Amazon site) and can now answer my question: it wasn’t the same song but was, like the Dixon song, a slow 12 bar affair. Add in the fact that Bob had written the A-side and you have quite a remarkable record: he’d written both sides of every single released since he went solo. But I’m ignoring the A-side which was another beaut, medium tempo and rollicking even while the words were sombre. On the clip below we also get an unexpected bonus: the second couple of minutes or so consist of a track featuring Bobby with the Paul Williams Orchestra possibly from 1958 and which I believe was unreleased at the time. The number is Once Upon A Time, Long Ago, Last Night which I’ve managed to track down to the compilation Titanic And 23 Other Unsinkable Sax Blasters. And, you’ll gather from the title, Titanic’s in that set as well.

Which takes me almost back to the beginning. Full circle, you might say. Or not quite. I’ve not made mention of albums, for the very good reason that Bobby didn’t get to record any until thirty-five years had passed since he’d cut his first solo single. That album was Bent Out Of Shape. The label was Black Top. The cause, if I can call it that, was the rediscovery of blues artists and their introduction to the market at large or at least to cult record buyers. Other labels like Alligator and Rounder were doing something very similar. Black Top followed with a second Parker album Shine Me Up in ’95. Both are very crisp and professional. AllMusic awarded Bent Out Of Shape four and a half stars and stated that it was one of the best blues records of the early ˈ90’s. They also commented that “it would have been nice if the production was a little grittier”. I’m inclined to agree. I used to own it on cassette but it disappeared somewhere, often a problem with cassettes. The set included three retreads and Watch Your Step was one of them, which was a mistake – he/they were never going to match the original. Since I find myself with one selection left I’ve gone for the title track which gives a good flavour of the album.

Shine Me Up wasn’t dissimilar, modern blues with tightly drilled horns, several numbers allowing room for Bobby to stretch out on that fretboard. The default was medium tempo blues groovers rather than slow soulful items, though there were plenty of exceptions. The shuffle, Stamps On Your Letter is a good example. Black Top issued a couple of tracks from the set in single format in 1995 (see “The Definitive Bobby Parker US Singles Discography” below).

And that was it in terms of record output. During the seventies and eighties Bobby played D.C. and its environs and hardly anywhere else. The increased attention brought by the Black Top albums in the nineties brought with it a degree of travel to festivals and the like, but D.C. was his home. In 1992, Bill Duggan opened a new club named Madam’s Organ and commenced the search for musicians to play there. He received a call:

“The person on the phone said, ‘My name is Bobby Parker and I am the blues.’ Duggan hired him. ‘We opened on Halloween 1992 with Bobby Parker,’ the owner says, ‘and he died 21 years to the day later.’” (Source: the obituary in the Washington City Paper)

The cause of death was a heart attack. He was 76. In that same Washington City Paper feature, Bill Duggan went on to report that on 19th October, 2013, his (Duggan’s) birthday and shortly before Bobby’s death, he played three seventy minute sets and attempted to turn the occasion into a dance party with some success.

Bobby Parker played and sang the blues. His way.

You better take it easy, baby
Before you go away
You did me dirty
But you’ll get yours one day

 

Bobby Parker photo 2

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Bobby Parker shouldn’t be confused with Robert Parker from New Orleans. He’s the man who received a gold disc for his single Barefootin’ which was a soul cum New Orleans R&B hit in 1965 (see Toppermost #153).

2. Within a year or two after the release of Watch Your Step there were several covers including ones from the Spencer Davis Group and Manfred Mann plus, perhaps surprisingly, Adam Faith. Coming slightly more up to date, there was a good version from Dr. Feelgood. The riff, or something very like it, was used by the Allman Brothers in their version of the Elmore James/Sonny Boy Williamson number One Way Out. There was another “borrow” performed by Led Zeppelin on the instrumental Moby Dick. The same riff also appeared in the Yardbirds’ I’m Not Talking, originally a Mose Allison song. Take a listen also to Link Wray’s The Black Widow. Familiar? Those aren’t the only examples but they give a flavour of its spread.

3. I mention in the text that Watch Your Step had two “lives” in the UK. The second came in 1964 on the Sue UK label which was a subsidiary of Island Records founded by Chris Blackwell and others in 1959. Blackwell set up Sue UK in 1964 as a distributor of US Sue records and as an outlet for US R&B music in general. Day to day running was entrusted to Guy Stevens and much of the output from the label consisted of Guy’s personal favourites. Watch Your Step was one such.

4. Don and Dewey were a rhythm and blues duo based in L.A. who operated in the mid to late fifties. They had minor hits with several numbers – Farmer John, I’m Leaving It All Up To You, Koko Joe – but unfortunately for the pair, these songs often gained more recognition chart wise via cover versions. Don (Harris) is also famous for playing electric violin – where have I heard that phrase? – on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album.

5. Johnny Otis (who has a Toppermost of his own #636) opened the Barrelhouse Club in the Watts area of L.A. in 1947 and operated a Thursday talent night for several years. This was in addition to his roles as bandleader, talent scout, record producer and more.

6. When Bobby Parker first turned up at the talent contest at the Barrelhouse he didn’t even have a guitar so Pete Lewis, Otis’ regular guitarist, lent him his. This continued on a weekly basis – we’re told he won the competition for six to eight weeks running– and Lewis used to hand Bobby the guitar and say “Man, go out there and do it again” (source: Bill Dahl in his review of Bent Out Of Shape in the Chicago Tribune July 23 1993).

7. Otis Williams and the Charms, originally known just as the Charms, were an early doo wop group. Their first hit was Hearts Of Stone which climbed to the top of the national R&B Chart in late 1954 and eventually sold a million copies. The group split in 1955 with Otis going one way and the Charms going the other. The court battle that followed gave Williams the rights to the full name, Otis Williams and the Charms, and the new group notched up another R&B Top Ten seller which crossed over to the pop chart, with a song called Ivory Tower.

8. Paul Williams, or Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams, was a sax player and band leader who was born way back in 1915. The up tempo instrumental Hucklebuck was his big hit in 1949 and it’s received the compliment of a long list of covers over the years. The record was also responsible for a dance craze.

9. The Soulful Torino label is based in Turin, Italy and is run by Luis and Jimmy – that’s what their site says. It also says they “are responsible for a number of wicked releases”. In addition to putting out Italian funk records the label appear to scour the world (both geographically and temporally) for soul and funk product. Soulful Torino is a subsidiary of RecordKicks of Milan.

10. Rather strangely, Soulful Torino launched the record Titanic in two versions, one per side. One side was called “The Popcorn Edit” and was at normal speed, the other which was slightly speeded up was “The Rock And Roll Edit”.

11. In January 1959, Marv Johnson starred on Tamla 101, the first release from what would become Tamla Motown, often shortened to Motown.

12. Shrine Records was a soul and R&B label based in Washington D.C., set up initially by Eddie Singleton and his wife Raynoma Gordy Singleton. Raynoma was the ex wife of Berry Gordy with whom she had previously set up Motown. Shrine operated from 1964 to 1967. Due to a warehouse fire which destroyed unsold stock, Shrine singles are now very sought after although they sold little at the time of release.

13. During his brief pomp (if that’s the appropriate word and the pun is not intended), and for most of the decades that followed, Bobby Parker wore his hair in what’s often called a “magnificent pompadour” which in size put even James Brown to shame.

14. The mysterious Lillian Claiborne has flitted in and out of this essay. I can add another fleeting reference to her. In “The Virgin Encyclopedia Of The Blues”, the writer notes under the Bobby Parker heading, “Sessions for Lillian Claiborn’s DC label and for producer Mitch Corday in the 60s are also rumoured to exist”. The spelling including Claiborn without an “e” is as per the entry.

 

THE DEFINITIVE BOBBY PARKER US SINGLES DISCOGRAPHY? (plus 1 from UK, 1 from Italy)

Suggie, Duggie, Boogie Baby / Once Upon A Time, Long Ago, Last Night (Paul Williams Orchestra, vocal by “Bobby Parks” – Josie Records 1956)

Blues Get Off My Shoulder / You Got What It Takes (Vee Jay 1957)

Foolish Love / Stop By My House (Amanda Records 1959)

Watch Your Step / Steal Your Heart Away (V-Tone 1961)

It’s Too Late Darling / Get Right (Sabu Records 1961)

I Won’t Believe It Till I See It (by Little Bobby Parker) / Shame (by The Enjoyables) (Shrine Records 1964)

Do The Monkey / Gimmie A Little Lovin’ (Southern Sound 1964)

Don’t Drive Me Away / Keep Away From My Heart (Frisky Records 1966)

It’s Hard But It’s Fair / I Couldn’t Quit My Baby (Blue Horizon 1968)

(You’ve Got Me Doing The) Wild Thing / Somebody’s Going In My Back Door (Black Top 1995)

Titanic – R&B side / Titanic – Popcorn side (Paul Williams Orchestra, vocals Bobby Parker – Soulful Torino 2015)

 

Bobby Parker (1937-2013)

Bobby Parker biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens has written over fifty posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #684

5 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 4, 2018

    Dave, thanks for this fascinating and superbly researched piece and what a brilliant riff the ‘Watch Your Step’ one is. The guitar/sax interplay on it also sounds remarkably original to me. Thanks again.

  2. Martin Newman
    Mar 24, 2018

    Well you got most of it right.
    “Watch your Step” by the Cautions on Shrine is not the same song though..
    Bobby took off from Los Angeles with the Charms (NOT Otis Williams, who by that time had split with the Charms.. although confusingly getting a new bunch of Charms together thereafter)
    No doubt whatsoever Bobby played the Ed Sullivan show with Bo Diddley.
    Nor any doubt that Bobby is the voice on AMANDA label, sounding like Little Anthony …. Chicago label who had a gospel release too.
    Bobby`s VERY first record was on the Kicks label… a shop and studio set up in Los Angeles. That was “SALLY LOU” and he gets the writers credit.
    By the way, Ruby Johnson (sharing Nebs management with Bobby) is one of the Watch your Step singers.
    Tragic story of Mitch Corday who, yes made a lot of blues tracks with Bobby and then was severely beaten by gangsters to whom he wouldn`t pay protection money, leaving his club and the music business.
    The gems you have missed – and that you will love – come from his work with Billy Clark…. on GAMA and other labels… and of course priceless productions for Nat Hall… one on Loop label (Lillian`s of course) fetches £1000s. “Why”. Check that one on U-Tube.
    If you`d like to help in preserving his memory, etc, feel free to contact me.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Mar 24, 2018

    Martin, many thanks for your comment. I’m particularly intrigued by what you refer to as the gems I have missed and the more I can find out, the better. Bobby’s memory deserves whatever burnishing we can give it. See also email.

  4. Andrew Padula
    Mar 30, 2018

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to remember and honor one of the greatest guitar players to ever live. I had the privilege of playing Bass for Bobby on and off for almost 20 years. It is truly a crime that there are not more recordings of him in existence. He was more than a legend, he was my best friend and I miss him every day…

    • Dave Stephens
      Mar 30, 2018

      Andrew, I’m very pleased you got in touch and am personally honoured that you see my effort as a fitting reminder of your great friend Bobby.

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