Blues singer Bobby Parker dies at 76
Bobby Parker, a soul-blues singer and guitarist whose recordings from the late 1950s and 1960s -- notably the propulsive groove of "Watch Your Step" -- influenced performers as varied as John Lennon, Carlos Santana and Led Zeppelin, died Thursday at an emergency care facility in Bowie, Md. He was 76 and lived in Temple Hills, Md.
The cause was a heart attack, said a friend, Omar Ashaka.
The Washington-based bluesman cut a swaggering figure on stage with his preacher-like exhortations to "say yeah, children," his shiny suits and his lacquered, James Brown-style hairdo. His tenor voice both caressed and screamed the blues over his powerful, stinging -- and sometimes over-amped -- lead guitar. And he loved to walk the bar or walk through the crowd as he worked the strings.
Reviewing a 1993 nightclub performance, music critic Peter Watrous of The New York Times wrote that Parker would "play beautifully formed blues ideas, then throw in be-bop lines worthy of George Benson. . . . Though slightly ruffled by distortion, his notes, pearly and fat, skip along to their own undulating rhythms. And his singing, a high tenor moan, conveys more musical authority than emotional weight. . . . He was showing off his virtuosity there, as well."
A veteran of the "chitlin' circuit" of black theaters, Parker wrote two much-covered hit recordings on the rhythm-and-blues charts, "Blues Get Off My Shoulder" (1958), a somber blues ballad enlivened by his trenchant guitar work, and "Watch Your Step" (1961).
"Watch Your Step," recorded at Edgewood Studios in Washington for V-Tone records, was a hit in the United States and England. The song's insistent riff, which Parker said evolved from the Afro-Cuban jazz composition "Manteca," caught on with the mod subculture in London.
Jefferson Airplane, Santana and the Spencer Davis Group (with singer Steve Winwood) all covered the song. Its guitar motif was reprised in Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick" and the 1962 instrumental "The Black Widow" by fellow Washington guitarist Link Wray.
The influence of "Watch Your Step" extended to John Lennon of The Beatles, who acknowledged in a 1974 radio interview that "Day Tripper" and "I Feel Fine" were attempts to write songs built on variations of the "Watch Your Step" riff. (Parker's record had been released in Germany while the Fab Four were paying their dues at Hamburg's Star-Club.) However, Parker reaped few rewards from the song's success. He sold the copyright to V-Tone records owner Ivan Mogull for a pittance in the early 1970s.
"I didn't do my homework when it came to copyright protections," he later told The Washington Post. "We just cut songs. And all of them got away from me."
Parker's career was dogged by bad business decisions. During a Led Zeppelin tour that came through the Washington area in the early 1970s, band guitarist Jimmy Page sat in with Parker at the Bolling Air Force NCO club. The band, then searching for acts for their Swan Song record label, loaned him money for a tape recorder. However, Parker -- perhaps fearful after having sold a major copyright away -- never turned in the demo tape.