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”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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 the..it’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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.