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Bobby Parker 1937-2013

Bobby ParkerWhen my son was home on holiday this summer, I got him to put down the Fender Jazzmaster I bought him for his birthday a few years ago and listen to a 45 that had, I told him, the greatest guitar sound ever committed to wax: Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step”, recorded in 1961 for the V-Tone label and released in the UK three years later on Island’s Sue imprint. It was gratifying to observe his response. Here is the record in question, in all its explosive, spine-tingling glory.

Parker died last week, aged 76, one of the last of his kind. “Watch Your Step” was a key recording of the early ’60s, particularly among young musicians forming beat groups. Like Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” or Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man”, it taught us the power of the riff and the power of distortion. Lots of people learnt and adapted Bobby Parker’s jolting two-bar figure, but none more effectively, to my mind, than Robbie Robertson when he was coming up with a lead guitar part for Bob Dylan’s “Tell Me, Momma” on that celebrated world tour in 1966.

Parker was born in Lafayette, Louisiana, but spent most of his life in Washington DC, which is where “Watch Your Step” was recorded. A very nice obituary in the Washington Post tells his story, including the tale of an unsuccessful visit to the UK. It turns out that Parker got the idea for his riff from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca”, which makes perfect sense — just like Pee Wee Ellis being inspired by Miles Davis’s “So What” when he came to finish off the James Brown jotting that became “Cold Sweat”.

“Watch Your Step” was one of those rare great 45s that boasted an almost equally valuable B-side. “Steal Your Heart Away”, another Parker composition, was a slice of gospel-blues that would have fitted very nicely on to Ray Charles’s classic album The Genius Sings the Blues, alongside “I Believe to My Soul”. Parker sold both copyrights for practically nothing to Ivan Mogull, the owner of V-Tone, so he never received the rewards he deserved, or the status to bring him level with such contemporaries as Albert and Freddie King. But we’re still listening to him, and marvelling at the sound he made.

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15 Comments Post a comment
  1. paul@tickell.demon.co.uk #

    ‘Watch Your Step’ surely gave the Beatles the riff for ‘I Feel Fine’?

    November 6, 2013
    • Yes indeed.

      Sent from my iPhone

      November 6, 2013
    • Phil Shaw #

      Not to mention Led Zepp’s intro riff on Moby Dick and very possibly The Seeker by The Who. Great track, excellent piece

      November 6, 2013
  2. boursin@wippies.fi #

    The V-Tone label was owned by one Venton Caldwell (thus the “V”). Ivan Mogull was one of the Brill Building music publishers in New York.

    I’m very glad to see the great “Steal Your Heart Away” get some appreciation and not just “Watch Your Step”, whose influence on Merseybeat tends to grab all the attention. The Moody Blues’ debut single back in 1964 was a cover of “Steal…”, and hearing that many years ago was in fact my own first contact with the talent of Bobby Parker.

    November 6, 2013
  3. planetmondo #

    A belter and a beauty. John Lennon claimed ‘Step’ was the son of ‘What’d I Say’. He’s got a point,

    There’s more on the Watch Your Step/Beatles connection here – by way of an Adam Faith B side (on Parlaphone) – which could supply the inspiration for The Fabs feedback intro

    http://planetmondo.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/putting-beat-girl-in-beatles.html

    November 6, 2013
  4. Alan Codd #

    I’m glad you liked this, it’s something we used to play in our Rock and Roll/Blues Band in 1964. I suppose I’ve been listening to it ever since.

    Bobby Parker was Interviewed on Youtube and he is a very modest person who just thought that he should have got some ‘recognition’ (not royalties) for his song’s having been the backbone of ‘I Feel Fine’. He confined himself to playing in the local Washington area I think, and stuck to authentic blues. The B Side, ‘Steal Your Heart Away’, is a ‘Gas’. Terrific point about ‘Steal Your Heart Away’’s being akin to ‘I Believe to My Soul’, Richard. I’ll spend several years thinking about that.

    November 6, 2013
  5. Killer riff, great song. Can’t believe I never heard it before!

    November 6, 2013
  6. Sid Griffin #

    The Washington Post obit of Bobby Parker errs in Jefferson Airplane never cut Watch Your Step but did Watch Her Ride.
    My pal Ken Barnes points out Bo Diddley spent a lot if time in DC with Bobby Parker in the 1950s. This was when & where Bo discovered both Billy Stewart and a group called the Marquees, who did one single Ken reckons was on either Epic or Okeh and included a young local singer named Marvin Gaye…on drums and high harmony.
    Fatigue and fatigue only prevent me from sharing the story here & now about the time circa 1985 I took Bo Diddley’s home phone number out of Eric Burdon’s open personal phone diary and impulsively called Bo up.
    Bo Diddley was living in New Mexico at the time and was a Sheriff of some thing or other out there. He graciously took my call and we talked at length but I forgot to ask about Bobby Parker.

    November 7, 2013
  7. Alan Balfour #

    My pocket diary for Friday 29th November 1968 tells me that I went to see him at the Marquee, he was back by Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation. The following month Mike Vernon recorded him.

    November 7, 2013
  8. Ebdon Fload #

    A few details:
    Bobby Parker DID NOT sell the copyright to Ivan Mogull.Mogull`s Marcia Music advanced Bobby $1000 on the royalties…..but never saw him again. Mogull took 75% of the royalties under his pseudonym Phil Belmonte in contrast to the contract that states Bobby should have been paid 100% of the writer`s share.. (I have this contract).We spent the last few years trying to get Mogull to talk about it. He was understandably reluctant ! Please sue me, Mr Mogull!!!

    That situation had followed on from the mysterious adoption of the B.Parker composition “You got what it takes” by Berry Gordy for Marv Johnson`s million seller.
    Bobby`s Vee Jay version a year or so earlier had nothing to do with B.Gordy.
    Bobby had played it though on a tour that involved Jackie Wilson who at that point did have links to Gordy and Bobby assumed that was how he had got to hear it.

    Justice in USA was not available to the poor or black at that time.

    The Beatles and Led Zepp continued where these other pirates had been….each openly admitting their plagiarism….but volunteering no royalties.

    Bobby lived in poverty and only recently began to receive dues thanks to a new version of “Steal your heart away” by Joe Bonamassa….and the Eagle Rock dvd with Santana.

    He was a master guitarist.
    His early soul records ,which few people have heard were also vocally incredible .
    The gospel style was natural to him.He was part of the Highway QCs for a while and his mother was a gospel singer.

    One other error in the obituaries is that he played with Otis Williams. He did not. He played with the Charms after they split from Otis.This was his first job before joining Bo Diddley and then the Paul Williams Ork.

    It is such a truly sad loss . Bobby`s passing comes at a time when the plans were beginning to materialise to get new recordings together and bring his band to Europe next year.

    Contributions to the cost of his funeral are being taken by Madam`s Organ, a Washington DC blues bar where Bobby played once a month for the last twenty years.

    November 8, 2013
  9. Bruce M #

    Is there a good recording of Watch Your Step & Steal your Heart Away on CD? Do the master tapes exist? This was such a powerful 45. Very rare to find one where both sides are so impressive!

    May 22, 2016
    • Bruce, you’ll find it on the Ace Records album: The UK Sue Label Story: The World Of Guy Stevens
      A great selection of tunes regardless

      May 22, 2016
    • Martin #

      To Charlie and BRUCE Ace put out the V-Tone 45 and did not in the end use the licensed version of Watch Your Step ( pretty similar but distinguishable by not having the fanfare at the beginning). In late life, Bobby told me that his re-recording of the tune for Black Top was his own favourite version….And to RICHARD : Try Bobby`s guitar solo on Billy Clark`s record “Hot gravy” ….easiest to find as the b side of Lucille Brown and Billy Clark “Both eyes open”….utterly incredible. We may well be making all Bobby`s stuff available soon so keep in touch if interested.Ebdon Fload is on Facebook.

      May 22, 2016
      • Thanks, Martin…that’s helpful and I will stay in touch through FB👍

        May 23, 2016
    • ….and also on Ace: The UK Sue Label Story Volume 4 for Steal Your Heart…

      May 22, 2016

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