Saturday, 3 November 2012

More about Junior Parker

A bit more information about Junior Parker, his Sun recordings, and the circumstances which led to Sam Phillips claiming a cowriting credit for Mystery Train. I don't know who's who in the photograph below, which is taken from the sleeve of a 1990 Rounder CD collecting Parker's Sun recordings (not enough to fill an album) and related sides by James Cotton and Pat Hare. Does the group assembled below represent the totality of the Blue Flames? And which is guitarist Floyd Murphy?

[Update: James Marshall's thehoundblog identifies this photograph as "Blues Unlimited on the road: Little Jr. Parker, standing (far left), Bobby 'Blue' Bland, kneeling (far left),
Pat Hare, standing (far right). South Carolina, 1952."]
Anyway, here's Feelin' Bad. I had assume this unissued side was intended as Parker's answer record, or sequel, to Feelin' Good. Wikipedia currently suggests it was recorded earlier but that doesn't make sense, as he tells us in the intro "This time I ain't feelin' so good."

The audio on this youtube clip happens to be better than the only currently available clip of the earlier side, which might deceive you into thinking it's a better performance than Feelin' Good. But despite its undoubted verve you - or I - can't quite get away from the fact it's a retread and doesn't quite have the same sense of spontaneous joy, despite the similar whooping. Still pretty darned good, though.


Below, an extract from Colin Escott's standard book on Sun Records, Good Rockin' Tonight, about Feelin' Good and Parker's later Mystery Train:

 Almost as successful [as Rufus Thomas' Bear Cat] on the commercial level - and far more so artistically was a record Phillips produced in the early summer of 1953 by another waiting-to-break local artist, Little Junior Parker.

Parker had hosted his own show on KWEM in West Memphis, and it was there that Ike Turner recorded him for the Biharis [Modern Records] in 1951 or 1952. By that point, Parker had assembled his own band, in which the linchpin was guitarist Floyd Murphy [below, in later years].
The brother of another accomplished blues guitarist, Matt “Guitar" Murphy, Floyd was as technically adroit as any picker who ever set up his amp in Phillips' studio. "He had this tremendous ability to make the guitar sound like two guitars," Phillips remembers - an ability that was showcased on Parker’s Sun debut.
Parker, with Murphy and the band in tow, had auditioned for Phillips at some point in 1953, playing their brand of slick, uptown R&B. But Phillips wanted to hear something a little rougher, so the group worked up a tune called “Feelin' Good," with a nod to the king of the one-chord boogies, John Lee Hooker.
Parker himself apparently despised that simplistic style of music, but Phillips was convinced he heard something marketable in the record; he released it in July 1953. On October 3 it entered the national R&B charts, to Parker`s surprise, peaking at number 5 during its six-week stay.

Called back for another session, Parker brought a moody, elegiac blues called "Mystery Train"—a phrase that appears nowhere in the song but well characterizes the aura Parker and Phillips created in the studio. It is a slow, atmospheric piece in which a loping, syncopated beat, slap bass, and gently moaning tenor sax coalesce to produce a ghostly performance.

But at the time its poise, understatement, and lack of an obvious "hook" were sure predictors of commercial oblivion. Almost as remarkable was the flip side, "Love My Baby," whose pronounced hillbilly flavor might just qualify it as the first black rockabilly reoord. Released in November. the record faiIed to sustain the momentum of "Feelin’ Good and Parker began to get itchy feet.
Parker had joined Johnny Ace and Bobby Bland on the Blues Consolidated tours booked by Don Robey [above] at Duke/Peacock Records. Parker was induced to sign with Duke, prompting Phillips to file a suit against Robey.
When the case came to trial. Phillips won a $17,500 settlement - which must have carried some personal gratification after the loss on "Bear Cat." Phillips also seems to have acquired 50 percent of “Mystery Train" at approximately the same time; when Elvis Presley 's version appeared as his final Sun single almost two years later it was published by Phillips’ Hi-Lo Music with Phillips' name appended to the composer credit.

Continuing to record for Robey, Parker worked as part of the Blues Consolidated Revue until Ace killed himself backstage in Houston on Christmas Eve 1954. Parker and Bland continued to work together, touring the black lounges and night spots. Parker scored fairly consistent hits in the R&B market for some years; ironically, after leaving Duke, his music edged closer to the primitive blues feel he had disavowed in Memphis. He died during brain surgery in Chicago on November 18, 1971.

Hmm ... is Escott suggesting that a share of Mystery Train might have been signed over to Phillips in part settlement of the court case?  If Phillips owned some of the song by the time Elvis was on the scene, that would certainly help explain why he pushed Elvis towards it - even though there is no doubt that, as Phillips often said himself, it was "the best record I ever cut on Elvis."

Note, by the way, Escott's reference to Bear Cat: this was a copy of Leiber and Stoller's Hound Dog (originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton) and Phillips was successfully sued by Don Robey, which helps explain the subsequent lawsuit when Parker jumped ship for Duke. Phillips later said of Bear Cat: "I should have known better, the melody was exactly the same as theirs." Blimey, there was a lot of it about.

The anonymous introductory notes in the Junior Parker songbook overlap with the above but they are worth quoting in full as they give a broader account of his career as a  whole:
Junior Parker came to prominence during the early and middle 1950’s, one of a group of blues and what later were termed rhythm-and-blues performers - among them Johnny Ace, B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf, Roscoe Gordon and Ike Turner - who for some years had worked in the Memphis-West Memphis-Helena area. Memphis always has been a great blues town, with Chicago one of the busiest and most productive performing and recording centers for the music. It's no accident the modern blues were largely put together in those cities in the years following World War ll.

Parker was one of the earliest participants in this musical adventure. The first crude efforts in the new postwar styles had sounded only a few years before he began recording in 1952, although he had·been performing around Memphis for several years with Howling Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson II. It was the latter, one of the most forrnidable harmonica players in all the blues, who gave the youngster his most important musical instruction and the influence of the older man can be discerned in Parker’s fluent, always musical harp work.

Born March 3, 1927, in West Memphis, Ark., directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis' urban sprawl, Herman Parker was attracted to the blues early in life and by the late 1940’s was performing regularly in the area. Inevitably he came into contact with large numbers of blues performers in his travels through Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee, where he performed in taverns, juke joints, dancehalls, at houseparties and every manner of rude back-country social affair. The postwar rise of several black-oriented radio stations in the Memphis area had created, through broadcasts of "live" as well as recorded music, a great demand for blues throughout the Deep South, and as a member of Howling Wolf’s band and later the Beale Streeters combo, Parker joined in this round of radio broadcasting and live performing. His activities accelerated even more when in 1950 he formed his first band, The Blue Flames, and began touring through the Mississippi Delta and lower South.

Early in 1952 Parker made his first recordings, with Bobby Bland sharing the vocals on the first of two sessions for Modern Records. The following year he cut several sides for Sam Phillip’s Sun Records operation in Memphis, one of which "Mystery Train" was a hit. On the strength of it he was asked to join the Johnny Ace Big-Mama Thornton touring revue, with which he remained until Ace’s untimely death in 1954. Even more important than the national exposure the show brought him was his meeting, arranged by Ace, with Duke Records owner Don Robey. Parker soon signed an exclusive recording contract with the Houston-based label. It proved of great benefit to the young performer, for under Robey’s astute direction and production savvy Parker's recordings improved greatly in quality and, of even greater importance to his burgeoning career, achieved considerable popularity. From the mid-1950's until Apri|, 1961, Parker toured widely with fellow Duke Records artist Bobby Bland in a package show called "Blues Consolidated”, and on its dissolution began touring with his own revue. For the next several years the show criss-crossed the country innumerable times but ultimately the grueling round of almost constant traveling took its toll and Parker was forced to give up the revue. Still, he continued a heavy schedule of appearances at the leading black nightspots, concert and festival appearances and, increasingly, television as well. But finally the long years of one-nighters, ceaseless touring, bad food and accommodations and all the myriad hardships and indignities of the road, giving his all night alter night (as he always did) - it iust proved too much even for a man of his stamina and dedication and in 1972 Junior Parker, barely 45, was gone.

Fortunately, he left us a large legacy of music, and this book offers a hefty sampling of |unior’s middle- and late-period Duke single recordings. The emphasis is on Parker's exciting, personal handling of the conventional 12-bar blues which in his hands was never just conventional but, rather, always charged with a deep, thrilling, persuasive emotionalism that is both the cornerstone of his own distinctive vocal style and the very fundamental essence of the blues. Direct and unaffected in their perfect sincerity of expression, these performances require nothing in the way of analysis or explanation. They speak immediately to the heart, which is not at all surprising since that's where they came from. In them Junior Parker lives still.

A recent CD compilation on the public domain Fantastic Voyage label seems to be the first comprehensive collection of Parker's work - at least, up until the cutoff point of 1961, after which tracks would have to be licensed. I have only listened to a few tracks so far on spotify so can't really comment on sound quality but it collects the Sun and the Duke sides up till that date along with the early recordings for Modern. Click here for the relevant page on the Fantastic Voyage website.  

A review of this collection by Tony Watson concludes:
From the late 1950s on, Parker would score respectable hits with the likes of 'Next Time You See Me' (1957), 'Sweet Home Chicago' (1958), 'Five Long Years' and 'Driving Wheel' (1961), but most of these were covers and perhaps it was this, along with his propensity to combine his down-home harmonica playing with sophisticated band arrangements that limited his appeal by alienating both the camps of country blues purists and fans of modern soul-based blues? Whatever, despite further mid-chart placings throughout most of the 1960s, his recording career continued to spiral downhill despite switches to major labels such as Mercury and Capitol.
 An article by Jeff Harris on his Big Road Blues site discusses his final recordings - you can read the whole article here.
Before he passed he sailed into the 1970's in promising fashion cutting a pair of terrific albums; You Don't Have To Be Black To Love The Blues circa 1970/1971 for Groove Merchant and I Tell Stories Sad And True [below] for United Artists which was released in 1972. 
 Parker's singing on these albums, to quote critic Tony Russell, "could be used as a manual of blues singing;" his singing is a model of control and phrasing, almost delicate with it's high, fluttering range, with every line placed perfectly for maximum effect. His harmonica playing is quite and melodic, parceled out in small but effective doses.

It sounds old fashioned, maybe even trite, but Parker really knew how to put across a song. He was a marvelous interpreter, a skill ably demonstrated on You Don't Have To Be Black To Love The Blues a collection of mostly standards and revivals of his old numbers. [...]

The date on I Tell Stories Sad And True is 1972 which means this must have came out posthumously and marks this as Parker's last date. As such it makes one acutely aware of what a loss Parker's untimely passing really was. Parker's singing is every bit as good as the previous album as he once again puts his deeply personal stamp on a set of blues standards and stretches out quite a bit more more on harmonica which is certainly welcome. He's backed by crack band including Wayne Bennett on guitar, Phil Upchurch on bass and a horn section that includes James G. Barge and Willie Henderson. The highlight is easily the nearly eight minute cover of Joe Hinton's "Funny How Time Slips Away." Parker delivers this as a hip, spoken rap, intermittently singing the song's poignant lyrics in a hushed, gorgeous delivery. As the album opener it nearly overshadows the rest of this fine album. Parker puts across everything else in classy, intimate fashion including the Percy Mayfield numbers "Stranger In My Home Town", "My Jug And I" plus standards like "Going Down Slow" and "The Things I Used To Do."
To close, here is that cover of Funny How Time Slips Away, a wonderful extended workout which gives a whole new meaning to the Bear Cat man's Walkin' the Dog.

Related posts: 

Junior Parker's reworking of the Soul Stirrers' Stand By Me Father
From Boogie Chillen to Old Folks Boogie While the Young Ones Twist
Final post

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