Friday, November 26, 2010

Sacred Steel: Robert Randolph and the Family Band

Growing up in Irvington, N.J., Robert Randolph was so involved in playing the pedal steel guitar—his “sacred steel”—in church that he didn’t hear much popular music. No small irony that since then he has been running and collaborating with many A-list popular musicians, among them Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews and Santana.
Go to one of his shows and you hear the dichotomy. Sometimes it’s like being in church. Other times, it’s like attending a high voltage rock concert or a funk/rhythm and blues show. In all cases, it appears that Randolph has the skill to do anything he wants with his sacred steel.
Randolph was trained on the “sacred steel” in the House of God Church. But his path changed after a friend gave him tickets to a Stevie Ray Vaughan concert, according to his website. “After that, I wanted to play pedal steel like Stevie Ray played his guitar,” the website said.
By 2000, Randolph and his new group, the Family Band were making its mark on the New York club scene, gathering a following even though they hadn’t yet secured a record deal. Their popularity spread to other cities.
Randolph’s reputation continued to grow the following year when he joined the Word, a gospel/blues style collaboration between avant-jazz organist John Medeski and members of the blues/rock North Mississippi All-Stars band. The musicians toured together, with the Family Band opening for The Word.
Randolph and the Family Band released their debut album, Live at the Wetlands, in 2002. It was a recording of an August 23, 2001 concert at the legendary Wetlands night club in New York City, which closed soon after the performance.
That same year, ABC hired the group to write its new NBA theme song. Entitled “We Got Hoops,” the song was used for both NBA and WNBA promotions, even though it only appeared in three telecasts.
The group released its first studio album, Unclassified, in August 2003. That same year, Rolling Stone Magazine listed Randolph as #97 on its list of the 100 greatest guitar players of all time.
“A pedal steel guitarist who made his name playing gospel, Randolph’s family band is one of the most intense live acts in all of jamdon,” wrote the magazine. “His thirteen-string instrument has a chillingly clear tone, and his solos are dotted with howling melodies and perpetually cresting, lightning-fast explorations.”
By this time, Clapton had started to take an interest in Randolph, and the Family Band joined the famous guitarist on his 2004 tour. The following year, Randolph joined Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett to play on “Trinity,” an instrumental featured on Carlos Santana’s All That I Am CD.
Released in 2006, Randolph’s next album, Colorblind, featured guest spots by Clapton and by Dave Matthews, whom the Family Band has joined for some shows over the years. NBC and the Discovery Channel used a song from Colorblind, “Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With That,” for promotional purposes. ABC used another song, “The Thrill of It,” for its College Primetime games throughout the 2007 season.
As a live act,the band began to appear more often before television audiences through venues such as the David Letterman show and “The Jimmy Kimmel Live Concert Series.”
Randolph tapped veteran producer T Bone Burnett for his latest album, We Walk This Road, released earlier this year.
Now 31, Randolph, in the following interview with Beldon’s Blues Point, talks more about where he’s been and where he’s going:

BBP: Robert, tell me what’s going on with you right now, as we speak.
Randolph: I’m just out doing some of these shows with the Experience Hendrix Group right now. Celebrating Hendrix’s 40th anniversary. Also touring and supporting our record that’s been out, the T-Bone record We Walk This Road. So there’s kind of a lot going on.
BBP: So what specifically are you doing with Experience Hendrix?
Randolph: What we do is we go out and uh…I’m just part of the show that is, you know…I just go out and do a couple of songs with me and Steve Vai, me and Jonny Lang, we go out and do a couple of Hendrix tunes. Probably four or five…Purple Haze, Foxy Lady, Them Changes, and I think there’s one more…Red House.
BBP: I see. Is it easy to learn the steel pedal guitar and how did you go about learning it? What drew you to that instrument?
Randolph: Uh, you know, growing up in church, that’s where I learned how to play. I learned a lot of stuff growing up in church and watching other guys before me play. I wanted to be like those guys. Those were basically my Muddy Waters and Jimmy Hendrixes, you know, my world growing up. So I got a chance to witness those guys. I wanted to be like them until one day I started watching Stevie Ray Vaughn play, then I sort of wanted to play like him.
BBP: Yeah I did notice that. And I was wondering, I saw you on the Letterman show one time. How did you meet David? How did that come about?
Randolph: What? Letterman?
BBP: Yeah.
Randolph: He had seen us play. Actually, Paul Shaffer and a bunch of those guys came. They started to come to our shows early on, late at night when we started doing club shows. Because I guess at that time it was sort of like the big buzz thing and New York City and next thing you know we got on Letterman. He wanted us to come and I jammed with Paul and them and then we did a thing with our band. I guess it all kind of works out.
BBP: I understand that when you were growing up you really didn’t hear a lot of non-religious music. You basically heard a lot of religious music and you discovered non-religious when you of came of age. Tell me a little bit about that.
Randolph: I’ve been in church my whole life. My parents playing gospel music and my grandparents were preachers and stuff. Growing up in church. The thing is we had always sort of been—we used to listen, sneak and listen to R and B and things like that and hip-hop growing up. But I hadn’t really heard of rock and roll, I hadn’t really listened to rock or blues or any of that. So I got about 17-18 years old, 19 and I really started to get into it. I’m still being turned on to a bunch of stuff and that’s one of the things that T Bone (Burnett) sort of helped us with this time around, to help me get into American roots music with old blues stuff, going from a lot of the stuff that influenced blues, which is the earliest of the gospel music. You know, Sister Rosetta Tharp and Blind Willie Johnson and a lot of that stuff. So it was a great process to sit with T-Bone Burnett.
BBP: How did you guys come to a meeting and how did he come to produce your album?
Randolph: Really, when we started talking about recording a new record, you know, we started talking about a record, and you know we were trying to look for a producer who understood what gospel was, what blues is and how everything sort of comes full circle, you know with blues rock and gospel and how it all mixes. And T Bone was the guy who understood and when you got an artist like me who comes from a gospel background and you know sometimes a lot of young artists, they sort of get strayed away into this world of “let’s just do what’s on the radio,” “Let’s just do this and do that.” And T Bone’s like, you should just worry about making good music or bad music. Sitting down with him, he had already come to the meeting with this compilation of recordings of all of this music going all the way back to the sixties and the twenties really, you know. When he would sit with Dylan they would all listen to that stuff and let that stuff sort of inspire Dylan.
BBP: At some point do you want to experiment with hip-hop styles? Because I’ve listened to you and you sound more oriented toward the rock side.
Randolph: Hip-hop, I mean especially the older R and B and hip-hop is really what’s, I mean we were just talking about that the other day, me and the guys from Living Color, Steve Vai. You know, the old style R and B and hip-hop, that’s what I grew up on. I mean, I grew up in the inner city..I listened to all of that stuff. Hip-hop is just a new form. It’s just like how blues became rock and roll. It’s like, hip hop is just the most popular music right now. I’m friends with a lot of the hip hop guys. You know what’s funny is that most of the real hip hop guys are all real music guys anyway. You know that’s just how it is. A lot of the producers today, you know when you’re lookin’ at some of the top hip-hop producers you know, everybody was just…you’re looking at Dr. Dre, you look at Pharrell and you look at –a lot of these guys are musicians. A lot of these guys were in their high school bands and their grammar school bands.
BBP: Tell me who some of your earlier influences were. Your band is called “the Family Band.” I hear a little Sly and the Family Stone influence there, not only in the title of your band but in how you play. Am I right about that?
Randolph: Well, Yeah, I mean when you look at it Sly and a lot of us, we all come from church. And it was weird for me to actually listen to Sly, an interview that Sly did. I mean, it’s an old interview, you know. I mean, the Dick Cavett show or whatever it’s from and he was sort of talking about how he had this wacky musical mind, but he was really trying to mix in all of the sounds that he heard growing up in church. But he had this wacky rock and roll sense of mind that it should be a little wilder, you know. I mean, when you think about gospel music in the 60’s, it’s way different. So he came out of nowhere with that, because he heard the harmonies in the way people were singing. And the same with me. That’s why for me, all we ever did really was mix in the sounds that grew up in my tradition, in my church and we would just write different styles of songs. But in terms of the sounds and the way the energy was and the way we would sing and play that all came from my background in church.
BBP: I notice that on Colorblind, you have a guest spot with Eric Clapton and another one with Dave Matthews. How did you connect with them and how did you use them on that album?
Randolph: Well those were the first big guys that actually took me on a tour, you know, Dave Matthews being the first one and Eric Clapton being the second one. And we just all became close to where sitting around after sound check or something, we would all start jamming. Or late night after a show we would start jamming and those things just sort of came into play like that, you know, so like “hey, let’s think about doing something, let’s think about playing, let’s think about doing some tunes together and that’s sort of how it came about. The song that Dave Matthews had sung he had wrote that song for his band and he said “hey man, I think this sounds more like you and the Family Band. Y’all should do this song, you know. So we recorded it and went for it, you know. And it came out to be such a great recording.
BBP: Yeah, I understand also you toured with Pharrell and John Mayer. What was that like? And do you plan any collaborations with them in the future?
Randolph: Yeah, I think so. We’re all pretty much close when I see those guys and talk to them during the course of time. But yeah I mean we sort of had, with this T-Bone record, we had sort of took time and it was sort of cool that all of this time went by and really was able to gather all of this information from hanging around T-Bone and all of the people doing these great sessions with (session drummer) Jim Keltner and …and (guitarist) Robbie Robinson and (songwriter and session musician) Leon Russell and all of these guys sort of comin’ in and talking about music. It’s sort of great where we sit at now because now we still have been creating so much music with so many other artists since then and it’s been great. We got this record out and I’m sure there’ll probably be something out next summer again. And you know, it’s just been a great process.
BBP: You mentioned some of the old blues guys that you’ve been listening to lately. Which one of them has really influenced you the most?
Randolph: Stevie Ray Vaughn is the number one guy. That’s probably the most influential guy to me. It’s probably not a week that don’t go by when I don’t listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan, just Stevie Ray Vaughan. You got him sitting down and like guys like Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, Albert King, you know, I listen to that stuff. It’s sort of cool.
BBP: This is for the musicians out there. I was watching you play and it’s almost like somebody playing an electric..I was watching the electric guitarist to see if he was doing it, but it was you. How do you get that kind of sound from the steel pedal?
Randolph: I guess it’s sort of being a little wild, man. You know, you gotta be a little crazy. You know my thing was always, I was always trying to implement the sound of all of these great singers like Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra, you know, Mahalia Jackson. I’ve been so focused on trying to sound as precise as they are, you know, with the way that they sing, and I’ve always been trying to play those notes, you know, as well as listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn, Duane Allman and the Allman Brothers and stuff like that, you know. So it’s a lot of different, I guess elements that sort of get me going.
BBP: When you say you’re trying to follow the singers, you mean with your voice or your instrument?
Randolph: Oh the instrument. I would try to play what they would sing. Especially when you get into all that stuff like Aretha, Stevie Wonder and crazy vibratos of Mahalia Jackson and Frank Sinatra. Those were probably some of the main ones that I was really listening to that I would try. The stuff that they would sing, I would try to do those licks. That’s why everybody would go “man, where did you get that guitar lick from?” I’m like: “Well, I’m listening to what the singers are singing that’s what I’m playing. I’m not really trying to play exactly what Stevie Ray Vaughan did. Even though I listen to him, it’s the soulfulness of what those guys do, like Stevie Ray and Albert King. To be able to listen to some of the great guitarists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, it’s a cool thing.
BBP: So it’s almost like your trying to do two things at one time. The singers on one side and the guitarists on the other?
Randolph: Yes.
BBP: Wow. That’s incredible.
Randolph: All of my voicings mainly do come from the main singers, you know. So I’m not spending all day trying to learn BB King licks or Steve Vai licks. I’m trying to learn what Aretha Franklin was doing, Patti Labelle, or you know.
BBP: Also, T Bone Burnett, it’s interesting because he has a little bit of a country bent to what he does sometimes. Are you heading in that direction at some point? Is he trying to take you in that direction?
Randolph: You know I think now especially from really talking and being around these guys like Clapton and being around the Hendrix family and a lot of people that I’ve been able to be around, it’s just more so of being an artist, you know. When you’re an artist or a musician you really don’t think about whether its rock or country you just sort of…it just so happens if I want to play the acoustic slide guitar, it’d be classified as country or folk music. You know it’s like if you hear the old version of Jimi Hendrix… now everybody goes “Oh Hendrix, the rock guy.” But years ago Hendrix just said, “listen I’m just playing the blues, it’s just the way I’m playing it.” You know, so for me, I’m just playing music. Whatever songs I’m singing about or writing about or whatever, it sounds like I look at other people trying to classify it, to me it’s all gospel and blues.
BBP: Let me just get this last question in. In terms of albums, future projects you have going, can you go into that a little bit? What we may be seeing from Robert Randolph in the next year or so?
Randolph: Well we got this thing and then I’m doing a record with all of the guys I grew up with in my church watching. People can look out for that, the Slide Brothers, we call them. You know it’s all the older guys that I grew up in my church watching, the ones that are still alive. So I actually have them out on the road with me doing these Experience Hendrix tours. So people can look out for that and anything else that I’m doing. It’s just fun right now, you know.
BBP: How about the Family Band?
Randolph: We have a live record that will be out I think in December or January that we recorded. We actually trying to choose between what shows, will it be live in Portland or the show we did in Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago? Or one other show, from Atlanta I believe.
BBP: Any types of videos?
Randolph: Probably not any videos.
BBP: And let me ask you this one last question. Who out there do you like? Who out there are you watching?
Randolph: The Black Keyes are great. I like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Bonamassa, you know. In terms of young guys, that’s really who I like to listen to. Of course, Red Hot Chili Peppers, of course Derek Trucks. You know. Those are the guys I like to listen to.
BBP: And of those guys, who would you like to collaborate with on a future project?
Randolph: It probably’d be Prince. You can probably look forward to that because we already been drumming up some ideas.
BBP: You and Prince have been talking?
Randolph: Yeah

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dr. S.O. Feelgood: The Doctor is In

It is Sunday afternoon at the American Legion Post in Silver Spring and a jam hosted by the D.C. Blues Society is in full swing. Among the musicians that come and go, a steady presence holds sway on the drums.
Studied and serious, Chett Hines holds down the bottom through a number of well-known blues standards. But he later shows us another side of himself when he takes the mike and—behind a slow blues crawl from the band—slides into “I’ll Drink Your Bathwater, Baby” a boisterous romp of a song about the virtues of drinking your woman’s bathwater. A burly man, it is personality rather than size that allows him to take control the stage and the house. Men guffaw and ladies squeal as he uses a barrage of slurping noises to emphasize his point that drinking a woman’s bathwater is the only way a real man can show his love.
Better known as Dr. S.O. Feelgood, 64-year-old Chett Hines is a one-man entertainment package. A drummer since the age of 12, Hines is now lead singer for the Dr. S.O. Feelgood Band and Show, a Washington-area based group that plays an average of 140-150 gigs a year in the east and midwest.
“Well, the Doctor I believe is out of the Mississippi Delta and he’s got a lot of those roots in his singing and in his feeling, and it is what he brings to the table,” says guitarist Bill Bates, who plays in Hines’ band along with with bassist Kenny Johnson and drummer Mike Elam. “And what we try to do is back him up to the best of our ability. We’re always keeping an eye on what he’s doing.”
But Hines can also serve as a deejay and master of ceremonies, roles he frequently adopts for the DC Blues Society. In October the D.C. Blues Society tapped him to host “Battle of the Bands,” an annual event held to determine which group will represent the D.C. area at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis next February.
The Pascagoula, Mississippi born Hines admits his love for the blues but adds that his tastes are “all over the map.” With more than 10,000 CD’s and 7,000 albums covering every genre of music, his record collection reflects that statement. “I’m still one of those people with eight tracks and cassettes and reel-to-reel because I listen to where my mood is,” he said.
Still, he has a special love for the singers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. “Simply put, they were characters musically in and of themselves,” he says. “Unlike—and I’m not indicting every musician today—but many musicians today are cookie cutter musicians. An artist comes out today with a hit song, and immediately the record companies feel like their artists have to do that same thing, follow that same track. And I understand the economics of why they do it, but it doesn’t add anything to developing and creating an artist. Whereas those people like Otis Redding, like a Joe Tex, Solomon Burke (who died in October at the age of 70), Teddy Pendergrass, these people had musical signatures in terms of their sound, their personality.”
He uses some original material, such as “Jump Down, Turn Around, Kick a Hole in the Wall,” a lively crowd pleaser which recently drew audience participation when he performed it during Blue Monday, a blues show held weekly at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington. “I tell people you may not know it, but you’re not going to come and see me and sit around and watch me, okay?” he says. “You’re going to get involved in what I do.”
“Bathwater Blues” is not a Dr. S.O. Feelgood original, he says. “Some people come back to me, you know, and say ‘Oh, I bought a copy of that, but it didn’t sound anything like what you did.’ I say ‘well, that’s because, you know, I’ve rearranged it and done some things with it that made it my own.”
The group is working on a C.D. that will feature original material, says Johnson. “We’re going to try and self-produce because it’s hard dealing with record companies. They want to change it. They want to put you commercial.”
Hines doesn’t use a set list when he performs.
“Literally ninety per cent of the time, I don’t know what I’m going to do until the moment that I’m doing it,” he says.
Johnson and Elam figure out what song is coming next by listening to Hines. “And we pick the wrong one,” laughs Johnson. “Most of the time, I can hear the dialogue, and I say ‘okay, this is what we’re going to do.’ And usually I can pick it up through the dialogue.”
When they do get it wrong, “he’ll cut it, and we’ll start all over again,” Elam adds.
After leaving Mississippi at the age of ten, Hines finally came to Washington in 1959 after stints in Greenville, North Carolina and Richmond, Virginia.
At 14 he bought his first drum set, a Kelly Green four-piece, from “Quick Cash Kelly’s,” a pawn shop near the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington.
He began playing professionally at 18. “Up and down 14th Street, H Street, Kennedy Street, I mean young guys could go and ply their trade and learn,” he recalls. “And that was a significant learning ground, unlike the jam situations of today. I went in as somebody who thought they were a young hot shot, knowing what they were doing and the reality was I didn’t know squat. And they were very quick to let you know that you didn’t know squat. But they were just as quick to train you.”
A bass player named Fat Fanny who was well-known around the D.C. area paid him particular attention.
“Fanny was a kind of kick-butt, take-no-prisoners type of person,” Hines recalls. “But when you sit down behind a drum kit with him, in a few minutes he knew whether you had any chops at all and he could run you through crapola that you’d never heard of, and demand that you find a way to keep up, find a way to lock into the groove. As soon as you’d lock into the groove, he would change the groove, send you someplace else, and ask you ‘what’s your problem?’ ”
Hines went on playing the local D.C. club scene: the Blue Angel on 14th Street, the Coco Lounge on H Street. He joined bands with names like Eddie King and his Court and the Royal Tones.
He adopted the “Dr. S.O. Feelgood” persona about 20 years ago. There were other “Dr. Feelgoods” on the scene at the time, and Hines took a couple of extra steps—or, more accurately, added a couple of letters¬—to make his stage name stand out.
“The S-period, O-period is what separates me, as far as identity is concerned, from the rest,” he explains.
“And the ‘S’ does have its significance. But as I often say, when people ask me what does the “S” and the “O” stand for, I only tell women and woman want-to-be’s,” he adds with a laugh. “So, in this particular case, it remains anonymous.”
Once he adopted his stage name, he initially stayed on the drums, but eventually picked up a mike after club owners told him “we would much prefer to have you out front than sitting back there behind a kit.”
In addition to performing and hosting events, Hines coordinates the D.C. chapter of Blues in the Schools, a nationwide program designed to foster appreciation of blues among young people. As coordinator, Hines visits area schools, often accompanied by musicians, some of them nationally known.
But, to Dr. S.O. Feelgood, the stage brings a special passion.
“I want to live out the life of Elmore James,” Hines says. “Elmore James declared that, when he died, he wanted to die on stage. He thought that was the ultimate way to go. Just coincidently, he died on stage. Had a heart attack. But, hey, listen, what better way to go?”

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bobby Parker Part 2

Here is part 2 of our interview with Bobby Parker and, as you will see when you read it, he is pretty much a living reflection of the history modern popular music. Parker, who will headline the College Park Blues Festival this Saturday, has rubbed elbows with musicians ranging from Jimmy Page to Carlos Santana to Jimmy Reed to Chuck Brown. His 1961 hit "Watch Your Step" is believed to have been borrowed from, remade or downright copied by John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, Santana and others. We start this section with him talking about what it was like to be a black musician touring the south in the 1950’s:
Parker: We had nowhere to play back in the 50’s, man. It was dangerous traveling at night.
BBP: Did you ever feel like your life was in danger at some point?
Parker: Absolutely. We were down in Mobile, Alabama and there were signs all over the place, “Welcome to the Home of the Ku Klux Klan” and all that. So the bus broke down and the cops came, and they heard something was going on, there was a busload of black folks there. But we had an Italian white guy driving our bus. I mean, he kind of did our bidding in getting our food and all of that stuff, I mean this is stuff that needs to be put in the movies. You’re talking about Cadillac Records? The movie I would tell would have everybody in it. It would have Fats Domino, it would have Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and T-Bone Walker and blues cats, real cats, you know what I mean? I would tell it straight, just like it is, and it’s not all good. People getting locked up for nothing, and all that stuff, you know. It would be great stories about everything.
BBP: Right. So what happened after the bus broke down?
Parker: The sheriff and his guys were tapping on that door.(Imitating the sheriff's strong southern accent) “Hey, what’s this bus out here, steamin’ and smokin’ like it is here?” And he stepped up in there with dogs. And most everybody in there was asleep: Fats Domino band, Paul Hucklebuck Band, and many other, you know, black soul/blues people. Fats was in there and Chuck Berry was in there and so the bus driver, he was a good friend of all of us, so he said, “Well sir we’re on our way to do a show, we’re trying to get to Mobile to do a show and we broke down here.” He (the sheriff) said “Whatchu got in here?” He said, “Well, we got a busload of Negroes here." (laughs)
BBP: That’s what the bus driver said?
Parker: Yeah. It was dark in the bus, he told the bus driver “boy, turn that light on!” I heard him say it, you know. So he jumped up in the bus, and the dogs come runnin’ up through there and he said “Who are these people in here?” He (the driver) said “Well sir, you have Fats Domino, you got Chuck Berry, you got…” He (the sheriff) said “Ah quit lying,” (Someone else said) “He’s not lying. Chuck Berry’s in the bus back there.” He (the sheriff) said, ”well you come back here and wake him up I want to see if he’s telling a lie.” So Chuck Berry was waking up and that sheriff came back and said “I’ll be doggone, this is Chuck Berry!” (The sheriff) said “Get us a guitar and let me hear him play a song or two!” (laughs). So they gave Chuck an acoustic guitar and he started playing and singing a little bit. He (the sheriff) said “Whoa, this bus here is full of great people in here! I love this kind of music.” He said “What we’re going to do is fix this here bus and get you boys on your way.” I said, “Wow. We escaped that bullet!” (laughs) Yeah. So daybreak, seven or eight or nine o’clock in the morning and the bus was fixed and we were down the road, man.
BBP: So if you hadn’t been who you were it may have had a different outcome, is what you’re saying, right?
Parker: And then some. All that stuff is real, man. It’s scary, not just talk, you know.
BBP: I was curious, you were a young guy, did any of those musicians ever take you aside and show you things on the guitar, or talk to you about show business? Was there one you got really friendly with?
Parker: I learned how to read music by sitting there next to the piano player. In those days, everybody didn’t have a little band. They had music charts, sheets, ‘cause in the band we sit back there behind them and played all of the music. Like Jackie Wilson, he was a great singer. You know about him, right?
BBP: Yeah. (Sings) Your Love Is Lifting Me Higher….
Parker: Yeah. All those great guys could really sing good. And we had the music charts and we played a lot of, what was her name, that gal who (sings) "Jim Dandy to the Rescue?" But she sings great. So there were about eight or ten cats we’d play the music behind. The white artists, Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello and the Fabian, you remember him?
BBP: Yeah, he was in a lot of movies, I remember.
Parker: (laughs) yeah. And then there was the Buddy Holly story. That was terrible. All of those shows were put on by Mr. Irving Feld, whose whole family, even now, fifty years later runs Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. They’re the people that own it. Irving Feld put these first rock and roll shows on, man. Nobody else would try it, because they were scared to put all people together.
BBP: You mean different races together.
Parker: Yeah, as you can see, it worked out great.
BBP: What was Buddy Holly like?
Parker: I didn’t really know him that well. We were sort of…our accommodations were different.
BBP: Right. Yeah, I forgot. (both laugh)
Parker: When we got up there to play and sing, we sort of were together, you know, but offstage, not so much.
BBP: Yeah, everybody ran in different circles, based on race.
Parker: Yeah, kind of.
BBP: Jimmy Reed, a lot of people consider him the guitar player’s guitar player. What was it like to work with him?
Parker: He was amazing. He was a real hip little cat. Women liked him, he looked good as a young dude. He just drank himself to death, man. You know when you heard him (simulates someone singing in a drunken manner), you know the way he used to sound on the records. That kind of singing man is a guy who's addicted to whiskey. You know (again simulates someone singing in a drunken manner)he was addicted, man. He was an alcoholic. Everybody loved him, man. He would strap his harmonica around his neck and get out there and tear the show apart. People never heard nothing like that before. And his records were hot! So, he was a great artist, man. He just could not stop that drinking that alcohol.
BBP: Was there a lot of drug abuse during that period? I mean in the fifties, with musicians? Or was that something that came later?
Parker: Well you mean, uh…
BBP: Well in the fifties, I mean, everyone knew about what happened in the 1960’s.
Parker: I had to a lot to do with all of that, man. I started what you call the British Revolution, where everybody began to imitate little Bobby Parker’s song “Watch Your Step (released in 1961).”
BBP: I heard about that, yeah.
Parker: (Sings a little from it) I mean we was the house band at the Regal in Chicago, the Apollo in New York and Paul Hucklebuck in Baltimore. Then when we got here to D.C. at the Howard Theatre, there was a big show here, man. We came here and it was so tremendous. People loved it so well I decided to stay in D.C.
BBP: But you’d had a big hit before that, right? There was a song you did called “Blues Get Off My Shoulder(released in 1958)?”
Parker: Yeah, and “You Got What It Takes”
BBP: Right
Parker: I recorded that in Chicago when I was about 18, 19 years old.
BBP: I’ve heard a lot about “Watch Your Step.” John Lennon apparently used the riff for “Day Tripper.”
Parker: “I Feel Fine.” “Day Tripper” too.
BBP: Yeah. And Led Zepplin took it later and did the song “Moby Dick,” I think it was?
Parker: Jimmy Page, and..
BBP: Did anyone ever pay you for taking that song?
Parker: No, man. I always had a funny saying—it’s not funny, but it’s called “The Goldfish In the Ocean.” Can you imagine one little goldfish in the ocean, how big the ocean is and one little fish: me.
BBP: Yeah.
Parker: You have to have a lot of money to start litigation. And, I don’t know. I just got the bad end of the deal.
BBP: Right.

Parker: A lot of us did. Black artists, we didn’t never get paid no money, man. You see all of those stories with Little Walter. I mean, you saw Cadillac Records right?
BBP: Yeah.
Parker: I mean, those people didn’t have no money.
BBP: Was that guy really giving away Cadillacs like that? I mean was that true?
Parker: He just did that to appease the artists. To make them look good, and make them feel like they got something valuable, you know, a car. And they owed everybody money. But they didn’t really get a lot of money paid, you know.
BBP: Well I got the impression from the movie that he was giving them cars and I remember there was one scene where Muddy Waters asked for some money and Leonard Chess said Cadillacs cost money.
Parker: Yeah…
BBP: That part of the movie was accurate, right (laughs)?
Parker: Yeah, Well, Muddy Waters at Chess Records was the..before he got really big he knew a lot about electricity in the building. Setting up things and getting a good sound and music, you know? I know when I recorded with Bo Diddley there was a elevator shaft with a—you know how you see an elevator with pads up on the inside?
BBP: Uh-huh.
Parker: They used to set the drum set in there, and at night, turn the elevator off. And set the drum set up in there man, in the padded elevator. And that’s how they got a real good drum sound.
BBP: They used to pad the inside of the elevator car?
Parker: Yeah. Turn it off so nobody would use it and mike it up, and the drums would sound good, man.
BBP: That was Muddy’s idea?
Parker: There was someone there when I got there who was doing it. Put the amplifiers around the front of the elevator.
BBP: Oh, I see, and the rest of the band would form around the elevator and play.
Parker: Uh-huh. So it was really something man, how they did stuff in those days because they only had small Ampex recorders, you know.
BBP: Right.
Parker: Two track. But they were great, great recorders in those days. I mean with those two-track Ampex you could imagine recording Frank Sinatra and all of those people, you know? All of those songs they did were brilliant!
BBP: Wow. Did you ever meet Willie Dixon?
Parker: Yeah. Upright bass player Willie.
BBP: What was he like? I wanted to ask you about Little Walter too because the movie kind of portrayed him as a hothead.
Parker: All of them were sort of like watching their own back. Angry all of the time and in and out of problems. Not much money and accommodations. I mean when you live like that, man, you’re walking on thin ice all of the time. And all of those cats only got big when Clapton and Page and all of those kind of people made them superstars. Because they were not big superstars. Eric Clapton and all of those people start imitating those songs and that’s when they got a break.
BBP: Wow. I understand that you went to England in, I think it was ‘69. Fleetwood Mac brought you over there?
Parker: Yeah.
BBP: Tell me how that happened.
Parker: Well Mick Fleetwood started a nightclub right over here in Alexandria, Virginia. And it was a great big nice place, man.
BBP: What was it called?
Parker: Uh, Mick Fleetwood’s.
BBP: (laughs) What else!
Parker: Yeah. Over in Alexandria. So, uh—I mean I influenced a lot of people, man. Mick Fleetwood, and I influenced Clapton and Jimmy Page and Santana and, just a lot of people. You know the thing about it that’s so bad is, I’m still not up there with those kind of cats. I mean I’m famous, but—they won’t let me on some of those shows that they do. You know? I mean when you got John Mayer, who comes out in the last ten years and makes millions, you know. I’m not saying that he can’t play, but it’s not fair to the cats that have been around, like myself. Joe Bonamassa, he took one of my songs and made a big hit on his last album.
BBP: Which one?
Parker: Last year, it was “Steal My Heart Away.” It was cut on the flip side of “Watch Your Step” in the sixties. Good blues song, even Robert Plant recorded it. Sang it way back in the day, you know.
BBP: You ever speak to Joe Bonamassa about that?

Parker: Yeah, I played a gig with him a few months back down at Lisner Auditorium in D.C. It was a good show. He invited me to come down there and play with him and I went down there.
BBP: I mean, if you wanted to call Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or any of these guys could you pick up the phone and call them?
Parker: No I cannot. I know how to get in touch with Carlos. But I don’t call him just for’s got to be something important you know.
BBP: Yeah. Because I had heard that when you were over there you were actually jamming with these guys. You were on stage with Clapton and Page.
Parker: Yeah. I did a lot of that. I played Albert Hall in London. Played all over the United Kingdom, Amsterdam, back in the late sixties. The thing I wouldn’t do, I only had a couple of nice little guitars, and they wanted me to break ‘em up and throw them all over the place and all that. I said “I ain’t doing that.” (laughs) You know. Break up my guitars, I don’t know, Hendrix and all them was doing that. So I wouldn’t do that. So they got mad with me and I came back here.
BBP: That was the main thing they got mad at you about, that you didn’t want to break up your guitars?
Parker: Yeah, right. I mean, I would have done it if—I mean they had guitars stacked there, Fenders, just to bust down on the stage. New ones. But I’d rather play my own guitar, because you like your own guitar. They were setting the stage on fire and kicking the speakers in and busting up guitars all over the floor and stuff. I said “come on, man. This ain’t real blues, man. I’m going back there to the states.”
BBP: I was curious, did you ever meet Hendrix?
Parker: Well, he was with singing groups too, you know. Playing behind people before he got his thing going.
BBP: So you kind of met him here in the states when he was with the Isley brothers and those groups?…
Parker: He was a guitar player for a lot of groups, you know. Getting it together, though.
BBP: Did you ever talk to him or play with him?
Parker: No, I never did talk close to him. You know he was cool.
BBP: Actually Jimmy Page heard you play here in D.C. once, right.
Parker: Sure did.
(Parker then excused himself for a seconds)
Parker: I used to play on the military circuit, all around D.C., Fort Myer (Virginia), Fort Meade (Maryland), Fort Belvoir (Virginia), Walter Reed (D.C.), Bolling (D.C.), Andrews (Maryland) and all down through the south. And when we came to Fort Meade over hear, Jimmy Page called me on the phone. He said “Bobby, it’s Jimmy.” I said “Jimmy who?” He said “It’s Page, man.” I didn’t believe him because he wasn’t really pushing the word hard, you know. I said “Hey Jimmy.” He said “When you came over here I wanted to talk to you but you left and I didn’t get a chance to. They said you did some great things over here, man.” I said “Well, man, that’s great. I’m glad you heard it.” He said “What I want you to do is go out to Washington Music Center—I just bought you a recorder. Is that cool with you?” I said “Sure.” He said “Well go out and pick it up and it’s a Teac four-track machine,” and uh, I still got it. The heads are all worn down but of course I have a studio full of stuff anyway. I went out to Chuck Levin’s (Washington area music store) and picked it up and there it was. He said “you ready to write a song?” I said “Yeah, I’m always ready.” He said “Put some stuff on tape, Bobby and send ‘em to me, will ya?” I said “Yeah, I’ll do that.” And that kind of started our relationship, you know, him and I calling each other from the United Kingdom back to the states.
BBP: Right. So what happened? Did you put it on tape?
Parker: Yeah. I put a lot of stuff on tape.
BBP: Did you send it to him?
Parker: I put a lot of stuff there and sent it over there to him. And they heard it, and I went back to England and we did some recording with, um, what’s the name of that label?
BBP: Yeah, uh, I think I remember the label, it was a labeI that Led Zeppelin had.
Parker: What was the name of that label? I was on it.
BBP: Swan Song Records?
Parker: Yeah, Swan Song. That’s what it was.
BBP: You did a couple of songs for them?
Parker: Yeah. “Hard but it’s fair” and about four or five other blues tunes.
BBP: Did they try to release that record? What happened to that record?
Parker: Something happened to our communication. And I ended up coming back. And some other cats heard some of those songs and started recording them. But anyway, I just came back because there was so much going on and they weren’t really talking prices. Giving me numbers, you know. So, uh—
BBP: You didn’t see the money you were hoping to see.
Parker: Yeah. Had to get paid for doing stuff, you know.
BBP: Tell me a little about the D.C. scene. What was it like then?
Parker: Well, I’m going to tell you something, man. I don’t know how people make it sound, but I brought blues to the D.C. area. And it’s still like that. I’m the one that really laid it down. You know there are a bunch of cats here now. I mean, come on, this is 2010. But it took forty or fifty years to get quite a little handful of people around here. And they all learn from copying me. Even Jimmy Thackery told me the other day. You know him.
BBP: Yeah.
Parker: (He said)”Bobby I learned everything I know from watching you.” He put it on Facebook the other day. It’s on there. Just what I just said. And uh, Chuck Brown. Just scores of others, man, copied my lick.
BBP: Wow. But at the time in the early seventies or during that period were there a lot of clubs to play in?
Parker: There were a lot of places to play but there weren’t no real guitar blues cats. It was more Motown music.
BBP: Okay.
Parker: And I’m going to be honest with you, I integrated D.C. When I came here in the sixties, folks wouldn’t come uptown to the black section to hear jazz and blues, and there were just hundreds of clubs. And that song “Watch Your Step.” We went downtown on F St. and a place called Rands and the Hayloft, and man I just got hundreds of thousands of fans. Young people from downtown and Rands and the Hayloft began to come uptown looking for me, and I’d get booked all over the area and a phenomenon happened that had never happened in the D.C. area. Because white people just wouldn’t come up town. It was dangerous, you know. And vice versa.
BBP: You seem to have this relationship with a lot of musicians who are still out, like Carlos Santana. I was just listening to a tape you guys did together at Mystic Theatre in 1995? Where did you first meet Carlos?
Parker: I knew Carlos, I was with the Paul Hucklebuck band. I went through Mexico, okay? Traveling and doing shows and those same shows I was talking about went through Mexico. That’s how he got his spark to play guitar.

BBP: So he actually saw you perform in Mexico?
Parker: Yeah, that’s what he says. He was inspired by that, you know.
BBP: When did you first actually talk to him, or interact with him?
Parker: I didn’t really talk to him in those days. He just saw us play.
BBP: When was the first time you ever played with him?
Parker: In ’95. We did a little tour and ended up out there in California at that theatre. And we did about eight, nine days of just running all over California and places like that. He had left his band behind and he just jumped in and played blues with Bobby Parker because he did it with John Lee Hooker, he’s done it with a lot of people. Blues artists. You know? So stuff can rub off on him.
BBP: And then you played together again in 2004? At Montreux?
Parker: Yeah. Montreux, Switzerland.
BBP: How did that come together? Because I heard Gatemouth Brown was on that. Buddy Guy was there too.
Parker: Yeah, that was a good show. And we did a lot of-three or four shows that weekend and they compiled it all into one DVD.
BBP: I have that DVD. What was it like to play with Gatemouth Brown?
Parker: I’d known him a lot of years too. He’s always been a great artist.
BBP: Who’s influenced you most as a guitar player?
Parker: Influenced me?
BBP: Yes.
Parker: T-Bone Walker. And Lowell Fulsom. Well that’s more when I was sixteen or seventeen years old, and I was telling you about that.
BBP: Yeah.
Parker: In California. He was great. And then I was on a show with T-Bone with the Paul Hucklebuck Blues Band. We used to do a little “Me and My Shadow” blues routine. I did that with him. He was a real classy guy, man. T-Bone. Kind of small like myself and a real classy dresser, man. He was really hip. And his big ol’ Gibson guitar, spread it sideways across his chest. You know. Great guitar player. And you know, he did a lot of tricks. He was a young man. He could get around. He knew stuff.
BBP: Did he actually take you aside and show you stuff?
Parker: Um, not really. I just watched him. And I was sitting in the band behind all of these artists and they’d say “Bobby Parker, come out front! Come on out!” I’d step over the band with my guitar around my neck and jam with them. Play. Another cat was Peewee Crayton. He was dynamite too. I got pictures of all of those cats with me. At the Apollo and Howard Theatre, doing a little show spot on the stage, four or five of us together.
BBP: Tell me about Chuck Brown. You do shows in June with him at that festival in Virginia?
Parker: Yeah, over at the State Theatre.
BBP: How long have you known him?
Parker: Whew! Since…the 70’s.
BBP: Did you guys play together back then?
Parker: Sort of. I mean I was on the scene ten or 15 years before he showed up.
BBP: How did you decide to do this show every year with him?
Parker: We’ve been doing it for quite a few years now. We’ve been playing “Summer in the Parks.” We originated in D.C. what’s known as “Summer in the Parks.” Blues, rock, go-go shows. All through the system around here. And um, I’m going to be straight up with you, as time went along, they just took it from us and gave it to somebody else.
BBP: Actually, I’ve heard you’ve done the Chicago Blues Festival a few years. I used to go to that. How does the Chicago scene seem to you?
Parker: I just played there two months ago, three months ago. And I was next to the headliner on it. And uh, it was a great show, man. And we played Kalamazoo, Michigan the night before that. Then we came up to Chicago to do that, and after the Chicago Blues Festival we went to a place in downtown Chicago called Reggies. And that joint was on fire, man, until daybreak. I mean we set the place on fire, everybody who was on that show. Not everybody, but a lot of people came down and played.
BBP: Do you like playing Chicago?
Parker: Yeah, I do.
BBP: Have you been to some of the other clubs there?
Parker: I play Buddy Guy’s joint all the time. Not recently, but. Buddy Guy has a big picture of me. About three years ago I went to Saudi Arabia and man, you’re talking about something dangerous, because of the war, with all of the Islamic folks. And the show was booked by somebody in London and I had no idea I was getting on a show that was dangerous. Cause there’s wars going on over in Saudi Arabia. Yemen is right there like, D.C. and Virginia. Right there, the borderline. We did a show over there and people were blowing up cars and concert stages and setting fires to anything because they heard that an American show was coming there. Now I had no idea, I was just trying to get on the show and get paid. Trying to survive out here. So we went over there and did the show and they’re blowing up all of these places and cities and stuff, and blew up the concert hall where we were going to play. Just a terrible thing. We were not in such a safe place to be.
BBP: Did you finally do the show?
Parker: Oh yeah we did the show, we did about 10 or 12 days and we got out of there. Because they were scarcely closing in on us. And they rushed us out of Saudi Arabia over there on the American Marine side. If you go to Buddy Guy’s place over there he’s got a great big picture of me being guarded by Marines. So we got out of it just by the skin of our teeth, man, and we left under guard. Getting to the airport, we left out of there on a great big green jet. Wasn’t a passenger plane?
BBP: There were actually threats against the show?
Parker: Americans. Period. They hate Americans, man.
BBP: Who are some of your favorite people to play with over the years?
Parker: Bands?
BBP: I mean to actually be on stage with and be in a band with. Who are some of your favorite people?
Parker: That’s kind of hard to say. Albert King. Albert Collins.