Sun 6 Jan 2008
From late 1958 into the early 60s, Junior Parker toured the country with a show called Blues Consolidated with long time running mate Bobby Bland and Willa Mae Thornton with a combo led by Duke Records veteran Joe Scott. Today's show spotlights both of the remarkable singers who rose to prominence in the early 1950's on the fertile Memphis blues scene.
Junior Parker was an extraordinary blues singer and harmonica player who laid down some superb material over the course of a twenty-year career (1952-1971) before his life was cut short just prior to his fortieth birthday. It’s inexplicable, then, why he has such a low profile among blues aficionados. He hit the charts a fair bit through the 1960’s for Duke, retained a strong following among the black club audience but failed to break through to a wider audience. As such he was virtually ignored by the new white blues audience of the 1960’s. If Parker is mentioned at all these days it’s usually in association with his 1953 number “Mystery Train” which was picked up by Elvis.
Parker learned his initial harmonica style from Sonny Boy Williamson II and gigged with the Howlin' Wolf while still in his teens. Like so many young blues artists, Little Junior (as he was known then) got his first recording opportunity from talent scout Ike Turner, who brought him to Modern Records for his debut session as a leader in 1952. It produced the lone single "You're My Angel" b/w "Bad Woman, Bad Whiskey" with Turner on piano and Matt Murphy on guitar. Parker and his band, the Blue Flames (including Floyd Murphy, Matt's brother, on guitar), landed at Sun Records in 1953 and promptly scored a hit with their rollicking "Feelin' Good." Later that year, Parker cut "Love My Baby" and "Mystery Train."
Before 1953 was through, Junior Parker had moved on to Don Robey's Duke label in Houston. It took a while for the harpist to regain his hitmaking momentum, but he scored big in 1957 with the "Next Time You See Me." Parker developed a horn driven sound (usually the work of trumpeter/Duke-house-bandleader Joe Scott) that added power to his vocals and harp solos. Parker's updated remake of Roosevelt Sykes's "Driving Wheel" was a huge R&B hit in 1961, as was "In the Dark."
Parker continued to hit the charts through the 60’s with a mix of blues and R&B scoring with songs like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Annie Get Your Yo-Yo”, “Man Or Mouse”, “Someone Somewhere.” Once Parker split from Robey's employ in 1966 the hits began to wane. From 1966-1968 he recorded for Mercury and its Blue Rock subsidiary and cut sides for Capitol in 1970. Parker died in November 1971 during an operation for a brain tumor. 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” for United Artists which was released in 1972. In 2001, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
For all his promise, Bland's musical career started slowly. He was a founding member of the Beale Streeters, the famous Memphis aggregation that also included B.B. King and Johnny Ace. He cut singles for Chess in (produced by Sam Phillips) and Modern in 1951 that failed to catch on. Bland hooked up with Duke in 1952 cutting a few singles before entering the army. Bland always had a great voice but his early sides were a bit rough around the edges. But his progress upon his 1955 return was remarkable; with saxist Bill Harvey's band providing support, Bland sounded much more assured.
Most of Bland's sides during the mid- to late '50s featured the slashing guitar of Clarence Hollimon, notably "I Smell Trouble," "I Don't Believe," "Don't Want No Woman," "You Got Me (Where You Want Me)," the torrid "Loan a Helping Hand" and "Teach Me (How to Love You)." But the guitar riffs guiding Bland's first national hit, 1957's "Farther Up the Road," were contributed by Pat Hare. Later, Wayne Bennett took over on guitar, his fret work prominent on Bland's Duke waxings throughout much of the '60s. "Farther Up the Road” was a #1 R&B hit, the first of more than 20 R&B top ten records. During this period Bland toured the Southern chitlin circuit incessantly. Joe Scott steered Bland into smoother material as the decade turned; a mixture of blues, R&B, and soul on numbers like"I Pity the Fool," "I'll Take Care of You," and "Two Steps From the Blues" which were tremendously influential. Scott's brass arrangements provided the perfect backing on Bland's rockers like "Turn on Your Love Light" in 1961 and "Yield Not to Temptation" the next year.
In 1973, Don Robey sold his labels to ABC Records, and Bland was part of the deal. Without Joe Scott and his familiar surroundings to lean on, Bland's releases grew less consistent although "His California Album" in 1973 and 1974's "Dreamer" had some nice moments. Bland re-teamed with his old pal B.B. King for a couple of mid-'70s albums. Since the mid-'80s, Bland has recorded Malaco Records. His last album was "Blues At midnight" in 2003.