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Stepping out with Bobby Parker

Bobby Parker

The blues singer and guitarist Bobby Parker’s fame rests on a single record: the 1961 classic “Watch Your Step”, whose driving riff inspired the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” and Bob Dylan’s “Tell Me, Momma”. I wrote about it here when he died seven years ago. Now there’s a 2-CD anthology of his recordings from 1954 to 1995, called Soul of the Blues and reflecting not only his own career but changes in black music styles during those decades.

It begins with both sides of a 78rpm single by the Emeralds, recorded in Los Angeles in 1954 and released on the Kicks label. Parker’s family had moved to California from Louisiana when he was a small boy; he picked up the guitar in his early teens, formed the Emeralds with friends, and played school dances. In hallowed doo-wop fashion, the A-side is an up-tempo dance tune with a Latin beat, written by the 16-year-old Parker, while the flip is a wonderfully gloopy ballad. It’s a fine start to a lovingly compiled set.

A year later Parker was playing guitar with Bo Diddley: there are three studio tracks here and a version of “Bo Diddley” itself from the Ed Sullivan Show. He moved on to be a featured singer and guitarist with the band of the saxophonist Paul Williams, famous for “The Hucklebuck”: studio recordings from New York in 1956, including “Blues Get Off My Shoulder”, show his proficiency in a variety of styles. Four instrumental tracks, two under Williams’s name and two under that of the tenorist Noble “Thin Man” Watts (including “South Shore Drive”), are perfect examples of the idiom.

“Watch Your Step” is there, of course, is all its incendiary glory, along with an alternate take, and the discography included in the booklet gives me some information I’ve always wanted: it was recorded at the Edgewood Recording Studio in Washington DC in 1961, and the drummer holding down that fantastic Latin rhythm for a very good studio band was one “TNT” Tribble Jr. I’m afraid I’d never heard of him, but I’m glad to know his name now.

Within these 52 tracks you’ll find jump blues, novelty blues, rock ‘n’ roll blues, Chicago-style blues, gospel blues and funky blues. There are some wonderful obscurities, including the philosophical “Talkin’ About Love”, recorded in Columbus, South Carolina for the True Spot label in 1966 or ’67. In 1968 he was in England, recording for Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label: two tracks, “It’s Hard But Fair” and “I Couldn’t Quit My Baby”, were cut with a British band including the saxophonists Steve Gregory, Johnny Almond and Bud Beadle, but the mix is messy and the playing lacks the punch of the best of the American recordings. There are also six tracks recorded in front of a New York audience in 1995 for the House of Blues radio show with a very good five-piece horns-and-rhythm band, in which Parker gets all the space he needs to show that he was a guitarist in the class of Albert and Freddie King and Albert Collins.

The CD case also reproduces the poster for an all-day dance in June 1957 at the Bluefield Auditorium in Bluefield, West Virginia, a coal town in the Appalachians. The bill included the Coasters, Ruth Brown, Bo Diddley, the Drifters, the 5 Satins, Smiley Lewis, the Schoolboys, Paul Williams & the Hucklebuck Orchestra, and “Mr Bobby Parker — Blues Guitar”. The compere was the singer Johnny Hartman. Admission $2.50. “Entire balcony reserved for white spectators,” it says.

* Bobby Parker’s Soul of the Blues is released on the Rhythm and Blues label. The photograph is from the booklet, which states that 50 per cent of the profits from the set will go to the Bobby Parker Foundation.

** In the first version of this piece, I got “TNT” Tribble Jr mixed up with his father, Thomas “TNT” Tribble Sr, also a drummer. Now corrected.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. nick grant #

    I first heard Watch Your Step as the Spencer Davis Group cover on their second album highlighting Steve Winwood precocity on vocals and guitar.

    August 24, 2020
  2. Martin Newman #

    Thanks so much Richard.
    Just a couple of points for you:

    The drummer on “Watch your Step” was TNT Tribble JUNIOR ……..TNT`s son, who unfortunately died quite some time before his father. All the musicians including Bobby were close associates of Lillian Claiborne ,who had recorded TNT Sr. with Frank “Dual Trumpet” Motley and many others for her own “DC” label.

    I have a different view of ” It`s hard but it` fair”. To me, it`s an astonishing achievement to have blended that amount of guitar work with that very British brass arrangement…..like listening to two records at once but it works ! (probably down to Gus Dudgeon ,engineer with Mike Vernon at the time).

    And well spotted re the “entire balcony”.!

    August 24, 2020
  3. Jon Tiven #

    I believe in the 80s or 90s Led Zeppelin gave him some money for “Moby Dick,” which was their rip of ‘Watch Your Step,” which he used for demos that got him to make those last records of his.

    August 24, 2020
    • Martin Newman #

      Where on earth did you hear that ? I`m afraid none of that is true.

      August 24, 2020
  4. Cuneiform / Wayside #

    Richard

    Bobby Parker spend the last 40 or so years of his life in Washington DC, which is where I have always lived (well, on the outskirts).

    I saw Bobby a number of times in the early 80s-00s and he was very great and put on a very STRONG SHOW every time I saw him.

    By this era he was kinda of stylistically somewhere between being an electric bluesman himself with an old-style 60s r’n’b band doing the backing.

    I am glad you saw fit to feature him as I really do remember him very fondly. He was quite a musician and quite a character (I never could decide which was taller – his elevator shoes or his wig!)

    He had a monthly gig for decades at this place [Madam’s Organ in Adam’s Morgan, DC]

    all the best

    Steve Feigenbaum

    >

    August 24, 2020
  5. Pete Fowler #

    I was the guy who set all the questions on Johnny Walkers ‘Pop the Question’ feature on Radio 1 in the 70s. I lost the job because JW decided to quit and go to the States; and his Producer rang me and said ‘we can’t carry it on because J’s successor doesn’t know anything about Pop Music…but, as a treat, we want you to set your final questions for Elton John, he’s agreed to come here for JW’s last show’. Because, I suspect, I was young, I was arrogant, stupid and snotty. So the first question for Elton, which led to near uproar, was ‘Elton, what was the B side of the Bobby Parker classic ‘Watch Your Step’? I don’t think he actually swore but he was extremely loud. It was a disaster, he hadn’t got a clue and when the second question focused on Merle Haggard – ‘I don’t like country music! Why should I know about him?’, JW diplomatically dropped the remaining questions and chatted about Eltons next record. Oh, I still remember – ‘Steal Your Heart Away’. I loved that single and played it to bits.

    August 24, 2020
  6. Colin Harper #

    Glad you sorted out your Tribbles… 🙂

    August 24, 2020

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