The funny thing is, as a songwriter Junior Parker wasn’t prolific. You could say he didn’t fulfil his early promise. But, to think about it another way, perhaps he fulfilled it right there and then. It’s almost as if he wrote one of the most important songs in rock n roll, and then thought “well, I’m never going to top that…”
Junior Parker was a great singer and harmonica player though.
He began life as a bluesman facing significant adversity by dint of being christened “Herman”. There were surprisingly few German bluesmen in that part of Memphis at the time, by all accounts.
It must have been hellish applying for jobs as a blues singer with a name like Herman. It doesn’t matter how good a singer you are, if your CV reads “Name: Herman Parker” and the other guys are called Buddy, Muddy, Blind Lemon or Jellyroll, they’re going to get the gig.
Overcoming this initial obstacle, as “Little Junior” he played harmonica with Sonny Boy Williamson whilst still a teenager. How this came about is a story in itself. Williamson played a concert in 1948 and asked if anyone in the audience could play harmonica. Parker bounded onstage, not wishing to miss his moment, and he spent the rest of the year touring with Williamson.
He mixed with quite a few other names you will know. He went on to play with John Lee Hooker and joined Howlin’ Wolf’s band (with Ike Turner on piano). In 1950, whilst in Memphis, he became a member of a group called the Beale Streeters, which featured from time to time Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and B.B. King.
That’s not a bad start. “Little Junior” became “Little Junior Parker” and then simply “Junior Parker”.
Junior Parker’s Linked-in profile at this stage of his career was looking pretty spectacular.
In 1952 Ike Turner (presumably via Linked-in, or more likely Howlin’ Wolf’s band) signed him to Modern Records, and after a year he switched to Sun Records, where he recorded “Mystery Train”.
For the next decade or more Junior Parker’s velvety smooth voice (what a voice!) lent itself to a series of RnB hit singles including “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Annie Get Your Yo-Yo” and “Driving Wheel”.
But that’s not what we are looking at today.
By the mid-to-late sixties, the kind of blues music Junior Parker and his peers were making had fallen out of fashion.
Undaunted and still only in his thirties, Parker signed to Capitol Records and – in line with the trend away from releasing singles towards making albums – released three LPs that broke new ground compared with his traditional Memphis blues sound. The first was called “The Outside Man”…
another was called “You Don’t Have To Be Black To Love The Blues” (posthumously re-released as “Blue Shadows Falling”) with a truly magnificent photo concept on the cover featuring a Chinese boy eating a watermelon.
All three of these albums are well worth a listen. Rather than being the last knockings of a once great bluesman, they show an adaptable soulful vocalist coming in to mid season form. Parker’s voice is beautiful. He’s understated, with few histrionics. He sings of real life concerns to a funky backdrop. Of “Workin’ tryin’ to raise a family / so they’ll have more than you.”
And then there are those Beatles covers. “Oh Darling”, “Taxman”, “The Inner Light”, “Lady Madonna” and best of all, the most heavenly version of “Tomorrow Never Knows” that isn’t on Revolver. Parker’s vocal is as light as a feather, and transforms the track from proto-dance to proto-dreampop…
Outside Man shows a man who has been through the mill a little, especially on “Love Ain’t Nothin But A Business Goin On” and the title track “Outside Man”. Parker sings like a man scarred by life, but still able to raise a smile at life’s injustices.
Sadly Junior Parker died in November 1971 during surgery for a brain tumour aged just 39.
This month marks either his 85th or 90th birthday. One bluesman tradition Herman absolutely nailed was having conflicting reports about his date of birth….