Saturday, October 30, 2010
Bobby Parker Part 1
What follows is part one of an interview we did with blues guitarist Bobby Parker, who will be headlining the College Park Blues Festival, scheduled for 7 p.m. on November 6 at Ritchie Coliseum at Route 1 and Rossborough Drive in College Park. The festival is being held by the D.C. Blues Society to raise money for Anthony “Swamp Dog” Clark and his Blues Allstars to travel to Memphis to compete in this year’s International Blues Challenge. Clark’s band will also perform at the festival.
Parker has lived in the Washington D.C area since the early 1960’s, when he stayed after playing a gig there one night with the Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams band.
He gave us so much good stuff that we decided to divide the interview into two parts. In part one he talks about how he got into music, about becoming Bo Diddley’s guitar player and about playing The Ed Sullivan Show, a television program as popular with 1960’s audiences as American Idol is with today’s.
BBP: Tell me how you started out in music. What I heard was that your father had a vending machine business. You were working with him and it kind of gave you a chance to visit various night clubs where they were playing blues.
Parker: You’re right on target. I don’t know where you read that but it’s true. I was 12 or 13 years old and my dad, he had an arcade on the beach down from L.A., Long Beach. And he had photo machines and pinballs, a bunch of machines, photographs and a bunch of other stuff. But anyway he used to tell me, he said “on Saturday when school is out I want you to hang with me to help service my machines.” So I agreed. I didn’t want to do it but you know kids have a lot of things they want to do. I said “okay I’ll be ready.” He said “we’re leaving about nine in the morning.” And I said “Okay.” So we traveled all over L.A. County and post offices and places of business, you know where they had all of these machines. And so around noon or one o’clock I started seeing a lot of musicians rehearsing in there. Professional blues and jazz artists, you know? And I said, “Wow man, this is cool.” So all day long until maybe rush hour in the evening we were hitting a lot of night clubs, putting in machines and all of that stuff. Of course he had other people helping him. Really, he wanted me to learn the business. So I became very interested when I started seeing all of these great musicians rehearsing, doing their stuff in the afternoon. So I never had a problem going with him again because it was on, man.
BBP: Before this happened did you have an interest in music. I mean, were you listening to records? I understand your father had a record collection.
Parker: Well my father was—I’ll tell you when all of this music stuff was just given to me honestly because he was a blues player. We’re all from Louisiana. I came up from Lafayette, Louisiana to California when I was about seven years old, something like that maybe. And my mother was a gospel singer and she was in church situations. She really could sing. She sang in the choir and those little small groups, you know. Then my dad, he was a honky-tonk piano player and he had a little accordion and we kind of laughed in those days because all that good music turned into what they call zydeco.
BBP: Ah! Okay.
Parker: So it was all kind of given to me by genetics.
BBP: So your father was actually playing zydeco before it was called zydeco?
Parker: Yeah. They didn’t know what to call that, man. It’s just that we were from Louisiana, Lafayette Louisiana. We just did what we did. And I was interested in guitars and stuff like that but—piano too. I play piano and funky organ and stuff like that.
Parker: He was a master of that. But he only did it on Sunday afternoon or when there was a holiday where we could sit around to jam and laugh it up and maybe whatever else. His brother loved blues and jazz too. And his name was Charlie, and my uncle Charlie used to come over there and join us and shake a tambourine and he’d hit on the piano and my dad would get on the accordion and all that stuff, you know. And then I’d see my mom Sunday morning at these church radio shows. That really got to me: she was great, you know.
BBP: Did any of these musicians you saw at the clubs you were servicing, did they take you aside and talk to you and show you things?
Parker: Not really. Not really. I didn’t have time to really meet those people. Those people were really into their set-up if they had to play that night, you know. And you know just like today they were bringing in their gear, setting up and checking everything, making sure it was going to work for the night. And then sometimes they wouldn’t rehearse, they would just set up their gear and leave. But I did see them tuning up and playing a few licks and might play a song or something like that, you know.
BBP: Do you remember who they were, do you remember their names?
Parker: Lowell Fulson, Johnny Guitar Watson sometimes. To me he was a kid. They called him young John Watson.
BBP: Johnny Guitar Watson of “Real Motha For Ya” fame?
Parker: Yeah, um-hum. And Etta James and all of those cool people around….and playing and stuff like that. But we all went to school together. Etta and Johnny, they went to manual arts. And I went to manual arts too sometimes and then I changed and went to Dorsey High School. And that’s kind of where I kind of got my start because we were doing a school play. First of all I was in a talent show at the Johnny Otis show which is….I don’t know if you’re familiar with Johnny Otis from way back in the history. I used to have a little paper route when I was a kid 12 or 13 or 14 years old. It was an elderly guy on the street that just gave me a guitar. I used to stop and listen to him play and I jumped off and would hand him his newspaper in the evening. So he said “kid I like you, I know your daddy. You want to take this guitar down there and see if you can play some?” I said “wow would you do that?” He said “yeah, you go ahead on and take it down there and see what you can do with it.” So I took the guitar down there in a great big old acoustic box and I learned how to play a couple of blues songs. I went to the Johnny Otis show, they had a talent show Thursday night. And there was a song, a real hard basic tune by Lowell Fulson, “Reconsider Me,” and I learned that. And I went down there and got on the talent show and the next thing you know I won it for six weeks straight.
BBP: How old were you?
Parker: I was about 13 or 14, something like that. Going on 15. It was a real inspiration for me because I didn’t know but one or two songs.
BBP: And you played one of those songs and you won…
Parker: Oh yeah, uh huh.
BBP: I understand that your first guitar was a Sears Roebuck Harmony? Was it the guitar the man gave you or ..
Parker: No, that was an acoustic box. I had got an electric guitar from Sears Roebuck and stringed it up and I really learned fast on that. And then when I was 16, my dad took me to the first Fender guitar factory. Which wasn’t a factory, it was just a greasy old car garage where they fix cars.
Parker: Grease spots on the floor and spare engines on the sides of the walls and all that kind of stuff. But they were fixing guitars in there. And I had heard from the kids in school, “say man, this is a place where a new guitar company is coming up.” So my father took me over there one day and I watched them make me a Fender Strat right in front of me. And that was one of the first Fender Strats ever made, man. And a lot of people I tell that story to, they laugh at me, say “you crazy.” I say “It’s true, really true.”
BBP: They made it right in front of your eyes?
Parker: Yeah, they put it together. If that thing were around today it would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I got to be a Fender champion. I mean, after a year or two, I had maybe eight or ten Fender guitars. And I got really good at it. So the Charms, Otis Williams and the Charms saw me in a school play and that’s how I got discovered into the music business. They came back stage and said ‘Man you were great out there with that kid show, you know.” Of course I was nothing but a kid either. Otis Williams and the Charms were something like the Jackson 5. Just a bunch of kids. They could play and sing their ass off. So they asked me, would I like to join it. I said “Whoa, man, you’re right on time.” Because the school kids were kind of getting harassed, kind of jumped on by kid gangs, you know going to school, so I wanted to get away from there.
BBP: How old were you about this time, still about 16 years old?
Parker: Yeah, something like that. Sixteen, going on 17.
BBP: And did you go touring with the Charms?
Parker: I sure did. I left L.A.—my parents thought I was going to school one day. I carried the guitar to school with me anyway and all of those books and stuff and I met the bus. I got on the bus—I felt kind of lonely—but I got on with those guys and within two or three days it was like a family. A musical family. And my parents were worried. They thought I’d been kidnapped or something, you know. And the manager, he called back within four or five or six days, and he said “Robert Junior is alright. He’s on this show here with us and that’s what he wants to do.” And my parents were going to get the guy in trouble and all of that stuff. And then I told them that’s what I want to do. And it was on, we were playing all over the country.
BBP: I do remember hearing that your parents were very upset with you because at the time you had just finished the eleventh grade and they wanted you to finish school.
Parker: Absolutely. You know they wanted me to finish up, go to college all that stuff, you know. Normal stuff, you know. But man, I got struck by lightning: blues, you know. And it didn’t take me long to get into it, and after about a year-and-a-half of Otis Williams and the Charms I met Bo Diddley. And man, he was with Chess and Checker records and everybody who was anybody in blues was there. Howlin Wolf, Muddy, Jimmy Reed, just a bunch of people, Little Walter, everybody was talking and going in and out of Chess and Checker Records every day. I must have been about 17, going on 18 years old. And man it was amazing.
BBP: What were some of these people like? I mean I saw the movie “Cadillac Records.” Was that accurate?
Parker: No. It was contrived. Believe me. Um, Beyonce Knowles did a great job. It really enhanced her career, you know. She’s a nice, good-looking gal and all that, but –even Etta James herself didn’t quite like her portrayal of her. Because Etta James…Beyonce’s portrayal of Etta James was too clean, man. ‘Cause Etta was, you know, she had hot records then, you know, that song “At Last?”
Parker: That was a big hit, man. But she was kind of into a lot of chemicals. And Beyonce was a little too clean an artist. I mean the way it looked on screen. But the one thing it did, it opened the eyes of millions of kids a year-and-a-half ago. They say “man we saw that movie. Beyonce was in it man! And we started liking blues.” I said you dumb motherf—I said, “well you know it’s cool”-Anyway, but it gave them an insight into what blues and those original guys, what they were about. So I’ve been trying to get a movie made on my life. Because I was there when all of these people, I mean I was in Fats Domino band. That was when I was a teen-ager too. I was bass for the Fats Domino group. And all of these shows that went out every year. Then I joined the (saxophonist) Paul Hucklebuck (Williams) orchestra, which was about 18 cats in one band playing blues, man. It was real amazing.
BBP: How did you meet Hucklebuck?
Parker: Well, just being on a lot of shows. He wanted me to be on the show with him and I could play and sing really well. And join his big orchestra, man. And then we started going out every year with what they called the Top Ten and Fifteen Revue. And that’s where I met Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and what’s his name, in that plane that went down, man. That was a sad thing.
BBP: Richie Valens?
Parker: Richie Valens. Fats Domino was on this show and Chuck Berry and all of those people and….
BBP: What were those guys like? What was Chuck Berry like?
Parker: He was wild, man. Good player, and kids loved him, man. He was sort of like—black cowboy, you know. And he did a funny little walk like he was riding a horse with a guitar.
BBP: You mean that “duckwalk” where he sticks his leg out in front and he kind of hops along?
Parker: Back in those days, it was like he was going to ride a horse. Scooting across the stage, kids were just crazy about him. But that thing would go out every year and we would run a lot of shows, man. Ed Sullivan show. All that. In those days he was the big time, Ed Sullivan.
BBP: What was Bo Diddley like? I understand that you were on the Ed Sullivan show with him.
Parker: A funny thing happened. Bo got superbig all over the country and the show comes on Sunday afternoon and the biggest song in the nation wasn’t Bo Diddley, it was “Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get?” So Ed Sullivan says “Bo Diddley” I want you to sing “Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get.” Bo looked at me and said “the man thinks I’m crazy.” He thinks he’s crazy because he asked him to do “Sixteen Tons,” which is a country song. He wanted to sing his song, “Bo Diddley.” So he got mad. He got angry and next thing you know we were on. The show started, and they had big signs up because Bo Diddley couldn’t see that well, he had kind of horn-rimmed glasses. He’s looking past the cameras, and trying to look at those lyrics, “Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get?” He got, maybe, thirty seconds into it, and he says, “Oh shoot, forget about it.” He went on and did “Bo Diddley” anyway. And it was a huge success. Smash for him, you know. He said a few lines of “Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get” but afterwards, Ed Sullivan and his crew were so mad with him, he said “You’ll never be on television, you’ll never”—that was just a hoax. He got bigger than ever.
BBP: Wow. What a story. And what was it like being on national television like that? At the time being a young man, and all?
Parker: Yeah. It was really nice because, the thing about show business man, I’m just going to tell you straight up man, nowadays it’s just too much going on, man. It’s just too many dogs in the fight.
BBP: What do you mean?
Parker: Everybody and their mama and family wants to do this, whether they know how to do it, or not. But in those days there weren’t that many R and B and blues people. But basically man, way back in the fifties and I’ll be straight up with you, man, racism was rampant. It was just crazy. Black artists, we had nowhere to dress, we had nowhere to eat. It was just terrible, man, you know. But we did this thing anyway, you know. Running all over the country and doing the show. When we hooked up with the Paul Hucklebuck band and they were on with all of those white artists, we got a better break, you know.
BBP: What do you mean a better break?
Parker: Well, we were on stages, big time stages and stuff. The only place black artists—Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley, and all of us, thousands of us could play—were tobacco warehouses.
BBP: You mean to actually play, have concerts?
Parker: We played gigs, we played gigs all over North Carolina, South Carolina, you know, the cigarette belt. And they’d move stuff aside and they’d have hundreds of thousands of people in there watching our shows.
Parker: Tobacco warehouses. You know, where they auction tobacco. You know (Simulates an auctioneer trilling his tongue) and all of that junk. We heard a lot of that, just before dark we’d come in there and bring in our gear and be up until two o’clock in the morning. We just…great shows, man. But people had no idea. And you know, the young white kids outside wanted to get in there so bad, they would turn over cars and start fires to let them in there.