He Wrote For Elvis And Performed The Greatest Ever Beatles Cover Version: The Story of Junior Parker

The first thing you should know about Little Junior Parker is that he wrote the song “Mystery Train”, which Elvis Presley covered and made famous. 

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”…

… which was posthumously re-released as “Love Ain’t Nothin’ But A Business Goin’ On” complete with revised cover featuring a sassy working-girl), 

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. 

It looks astonishing until you understand the context as a parody of a contemporaneous advert for Levy’s Rye bread which looked like this…

…and this…

…then there was a team up with jazz organist Jimmy McGriff called The Dudes Doin’ Business (posthumously re-released as Good Things Don’t Happen Every Day). 

The albums all embrace a funkier, soulful and more modern 1970’s direction, and presumably at the behest of the record company two contain Beatles covers.

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….


10 responses to “He Wrote For Elvis And Performed The Greatest Ever Beatles Cover Version: The Story of Junior Parker”

  1. 2loud2oldmusic Avatar

    Great post. I do love the album cover with the Watermelon. I wonder how well that cover would go over in today’s world. I didn’t really know of Mr. Parker, so a very nice introduction to his work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      I know what you mean about the cover. I thought it was really odd – I was baffled until I read the back cover of the album which references these adverts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jude Hernandez Avatar

    Cool write up and what a great cover of Tomorrow Never Knows!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Al Green Call-Out Avatar
    Al Green Call-Out

    Al Green – “Take Me to the River” Intro

    “I’d like to dedicate this song to Little Junior Parker. A cousin of mine that’s gone on, but we’d like to kinda carry on in his name, by singing.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. […] Masters of Reality, punk from Idles, a blues cover of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows from Junior Parker, classic soul from Roberta Flack, lyrically similar themes from classic Hall & Oates, then Paul […]


  5. magicman Avatar

    There’s a terrific LP of the 1950s stuff called Next Time You See Me. Includes my favourite Junior Parker song ‘Feelin’ Good’ which is infectiously exultant, and which reminds me of dear Al Green. Great piece thank you !

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Chris Jay Becker Avatar
    Chris Jay Becker

    As a teenager, Junior was also running buddies with another harp playing Junior from West Memphis, Arkansas, Junior Wells, as well as James Cotton. All three were protegees of Rice Miller AKA Sonny Boy Williamson II, and were heavily influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson).

    Liked by 1 person

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