Bobby Parker 1937-2013
When 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.