“I’d like to dedicate this song to Little Junior Parker
A cousin of mine who’s gone on, but we’d like to kinda carry on in his name…”
- Al Green, in spoken introduction to “Take Me To The River”
I’m quite sure, when hearing Green’s intro, a good number of listeners asked “who”? (And those who cared enough did the appropriate digging to acquaint themselves with Little Junior Parker and his recordings).
In answer to the question, to put it succinctly, Junior Parker, (AKA Little Junior Parker), was a seminal force in the birth of Rock & Roll. But Parker hasn’t held the commensurate level of regard with the general musically attuned public. There are a number of plausible reasons for the lack of recognition, but the one seemingly obvious reason is that his light – that shone brightly – was extinguished far too early when he succumbed to a brain tumour at 39 years of age.
While it might be viewed as conjecture, the timing of his passing should be taken into account as it provides some context to this point of view. Specifically, Parker passed in 1971 when a Blues revival – supported by the, (mostly white college level), record buying public – was still in full swing. It was a time that these same record buyers were in search of the originators of works that they first heard as covers by primarily white interpreters. Aided by festivals such as Ann Arbor and Newport – as well as the advent of FM radio stations that played their songs – musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt, and others were featured, and thereby “discovered” by newly minted fans. These same artists were afforded the opportunity to take advantage of exposure provided not only by the festivals and radio play themselves, but also any additional fame and fortune realized through subsequent bookings and record sales. Accordingly, Parker, having passed, wasn’t available; and he was thereby deprived of the same prospect for notoriety.
Various other opinions have been voiced. Some critics, while acknowledging his Top 10 R&B charting hits – like “Feelin’ Good”, “Next Time You See Me”, and “Annie Get Your Yo-Yo” – will point to Parker’s reliance on covers later in his career; including Beatles covers(?) – that diminish any earlier accomplishments. (In all fairness, it should be stated that the covers serve more than simply credible remakes – like Parker’s version of “Sweet Home Chicago” that rivals Magic Sam’s as the definitive urban take on the Robert Johnson classic). Others question Parker’s fit with the “hard” Blues that was prevalent and welcomed among the general audience. There was indeed a distinction in that Parker tended towards a more urban R&B sound rather than a rural sound more akin to raw Country Blues. Further, regardless of the weight of the material at hand, Parker wasn’t an “in your face” shouter. Rather, his honey dripping vocals mirrored his harp playing and overall approach that was one marked by precision, and was presented in a laid back, almost understated attack.
While acknowledging all of the above, it should be noted that Parker emerged out of a Blues environment with unquestionable Blues credentials. Plus, it should taken into account that, in his time, Parker stood shoulder to shoulder with artists like B.B. King and Bobby Bland as a major draw in African American Chitlin’ Circuit venues – venues found generally in southern areas of the U.S. that were played almost exclusively by African Americans for African American audiences).
The story begins with Herman Parker Jr.’s birth on the Eastover Plantation near Bobo in Coahoma County Mississippi in 1932. (Bobo is about 10 miles south of Clarksdale). Parker lived with his mother and grandfather, picked cotton, and sang at Mount Moriah Baptist Church as a pre teen. In 1944, when Parker was 12, he and his mother moved to West Memphis Arkansas; (located across the Mississippi River some 15 miles west of Memphis).
A musical breakthrough of sorts arose for the young Parker not long after his move north. Having already developed an interest in playing harmonica, Parker listened regularly to Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) on the King Biscuit Time, a daily 30 minute long radio program on KFFA out of Helena Arkansas. Williamson, who Parker would cite as a major influence on his harp playing, would perform live in the studio, (with a band that included at various times both Robert Jr. Lockwood and Pinetop Perkins).
As it happened, some time later, Williamson would personally play a role in Parkers’s musical development. Williamson came though town for a concert appearance and in the course of his performance he asked if anyone in the audience played harmonica. In response, a 15 year old Parker came leaping up on stage and proceeded to demonstrate his skill on the instrument. Willamson was impressed enough to offer Parker a job with the band, and Parker ended up touring with his idol for the rest of the calendar year. Included in the dates were instances that Parker substituted for the band leader when Williamson, with other commitments, wasn’t available. Very heady times for a teenager!
In what might be a nod to Parker’s sublime vocals, it remains interesting that an accomplished harp player like Sonny Boy Williamson would employ another harp player, (and a relative novice on the instrument at that). But the situation would reoccur the following year when Howlin’ Wolf would hire Parker as well. Incidentally, it may also be of interest that all three of the harp players mentioned – Sonny Boy, Wolf, and Parker – played acoustically or unamplified. That is, unlike masters such as Little Walter who played while mic’d though a dedicated amplifier, they blew directly into the house P. A. system mic, cupping their hands on the harp for extra effect.
Not long after leaving Wolf’s band, Parker settled in Memphis. There he became acquainted with a loose affiliation of musicians that came to be known as The Beale Streeters. The Beale Streeters often backed one another, and included at one time or another Bobby Bland, B.B. King, singer / piano players Johnny Ace and Roscoe Gordon, drummer Earl Forrest, and sax man Adolph Duncan. (Various Beale Streeters would play on Parker’s early recordings; and Parker and Bland would join forces in the not too distant future).
Matters started to unfold musically for Junior Parker when he formed his first band, The Blue Flames, in 1951. A year later guitarist and piano player Ike Turner – who was working as a talent scout for Modern Records – was passing through Memphis and caught a performance by Parker and his band. Parker has long been viewed as a Turner discovery because it was Turner who introduced Parker to the Bahari Brothers’ Modern Records and thus kick started Parker’s recording career. (Independent record companies were responsible for the bulk of R&B releases at the time, and Modern was the most prominent of the independents).
Parker and The Blue Flames cut 4 sides for Modern – including 2 featuring Bobby Bland – with 2 being officially released: “You’re My Angel” B/W “Bad Women, Bad Whiskey”. Both Parker co-writes failed to crack the charts. However, the 21 year old Junior Parker was just getting started in his recording career; and new opportunities would soon present themselves. The next such break would prove to be one that put Parker on the R&B / Rock & Roll map when Turner brought Parker to Sam Phillips and Sun Records.
Proceedings at Sun were originally stymied when Parker and The Blue Flames auditioned some of his material for Phillips. The Blue Flames were a brass heavy polished R&B band, and, as mentioned previously, Parker showed himself to be more of an R&B singer than a gut bucket Blues singer. Conversely, Phillips had other thoughts in mind – he wanted something rough and gritty along the lines of John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen”, a 1948 hit on Modern.
Parker took Phillips’ comments literally, and arrived the next day with a variation of the one chord “Boogie Chillen” that he called “Feelin’ Good”. Phillips’ instincts were proven right as “Feelin’ Good” reached # 5 on the charts and stayed in the Top Ten for 5 weeks. Parker had his first hit and “Feelin’ Good” would go down in the annals of Rock & Roll as a pivotal recording of the genre.
Phillips and Parker were hoping to capitalize on the success of “Feelin’ Good” with the follow up single, “Mystery Train” (backed with “Love My Baby”) in 1953. The song – a pure Rockabilly classic written by Parker – didn’t hit for Junior; but it had an impact on Pop music and Pop culture as it helped popularize the train and associated lost love themes prevalent in Blues and Country. Sun label mate Elvis Presley in particular was intrigued by the release, and recorded a version in 1955. The record was a big hit for Elvis, and just missed the Top Ten, peaking at # 11. Also, the song enjoyed lasting longevity as a staple of Elvis’ live shows through till the end of his life.
“Mystery Train” would mark the end of the Sun Chapter of Junior Parker’s recording career. Following Bobby Bland’s lead, Parker elected to join Don Robey’s Houston based Duke label in 1953. But Parker’s change of labels was one filled with controversy due to the fact that Junior was still under contract with Sun. The courts sided with Sam Phillips, who claimed “contract interference”; and ordered Robey to pay Phillips $!7,000. In addition, Phillips was awarded 50% of the songwriting credit for “Mystery Train”. (A major royalty win for Phillips given the success of Elvis version of the song in 1955).
The Duke years would prove to be the high point of Junior Parker’s career. A total of 10 of Parker’s 14 charting singles were on the Duke label including 4 Top Ten releases, (among the 40+ sides he recorded for the label):
“Next Time You See Me” (1956, # 7 R&B)
“Driving Wheel” (1961, # 5 R&B, a Roosvelt Sykes cover)
“In The Dark” (1961, # 7 R&B)
“Annie Get Your Yo-Yo” (1961, # 6 R&B)
It was also during Parker’s tenure at Duke that he would team up with label mate Bobby Bland for a very successful 5 year union. Bland and Parker displayed their respective talents as “Blues Consolidated”** for a number of sold out tours in the U.S. South fronting Parker’s Blues Flames. Although Parker and Bland shared the spotlight, there were clearly defined roles. That is, Bland, as a support act, did the driving, set up the bandstand, and opened the show.
**Don Robey at Duke did his best to capitalize on the Blues Consolidated success by releasing an album of the same name. The album featured 12 songs with equal representation by both Parker and Bland on dedicated sides of the album. Containing songs such as “Next Time You See Me” (Parker), and “It’s My Life Baby” (Bland); the release stands as a tidy snapshot of the two singers, and is well worth searching out.
Bland stayed with Parker till 1961 before he went out on his own. While the cause of their split was Junior’s refusal to give Bobby a weekly $10 raise, Bland held no ill feelings. Bland said of Parker: “But I must say Junior was very vey beautiful, and he taught me a hell of a lot about the business”. (It goes without saying that Bland’s career far surpassed Parker’s).
Junior left the Duke label in 1966 at 34 years of age. There’s nothing on record as to reason for the split; (although it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was as a result of Robey’s famed domineering dictatorial posture, and strong arm business tactics). Even so, it must be said that similar to Bobby Bland’s time at Duke, Robey knew good material and what material suited Junior Parker best. And that point is amplified in that, although Parker continued to record and to tour regularly, Parker lost direction and his star dimmed considerably after leaving Robey’s employ.
Parker would record for 3 more labels in the last 7 years of his life, and managed only 3 charting singles. The last of which was “Drowning On Dry Land”, a collaboration with organist Jimmy McGriff that was released on Capitol Records in 1971, and placed #34 on the R&B charts.
As previously stated, Junior Parker wasn’t as widely heralded as his peers (for whatever reason). Still Parker is regarded by knowledgeable critics and the cognoscenti to be one of the finest R&B / Blues vocalists and harp plyers of his era. In addition, his material and approach typified a wide pallet of styles. Junior Parker blurred the genre lines with touch points of Blues, R&B, early Soul, Doo Wop, and Rock & Roll. An important figure in the development of Blues and R&B, Parker had milestones to his credit in Rock & Roll / R&B history (“Feelin’ Good”, “Mystery Train”) and Blues / R&B history (“Next Time You See Me”).
Junior Parker died in 1971 in Chicago in the course of brain tumour surgery. As all fortunate great artists Junior Parker has not been forgotten. He was elected to both the Blues Hall Of Fame and the Mississippi Music Hall Of Fame in 2001. And in 2011 Parker was honoured with a Blues marker on Mississippi Blues Trail in Bobo.
As you read this, if you listen really closely, you might just hear from up on high:
“Weeeellll…. I feel so good; we’re gonna boogie till the break of day”
JUNIOR PARKER PLAYLIST
- You’re My Angel
- Bad Women, Bad Whiskey
- Feelin’ Good
- Mystery Train
- I Wanna Ramble
- Next Time You See Me
- Mother-In-Law Blues
- Stand By Me
- Annie Get Your Yo-Yo
- Driving Wheel
- Seven Days
- Yonder’s Wall
- In The Dark
- Sweet Home Chicago
- That’s All Right
- Barefoot Rock
- The Things I Used To Do
- Five Long Years
- I’m Holding On
- Strange Things Happening
- Ain’t That A Shame
- Drowning On Dry Land
- Rico Ferrara April 2023