Tue 30 Oct 2007
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 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. 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 interpretor, 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 gorgeous "Five Long Years" sets the tone with his languid, delicate phrasing matched by a stripped down, very mellow backing group. Parker takes his time on exquisite versions of "That's Alright", "Tin Pan Alley", "Sweet Home Chicago" and the fluttering vocal of "Man Or Mouse" a revival of a 1967 chart hit for Duke. "Way Back Home" is a funky, infectious soul/jazz instrumental sporting some fine, nuanced harmonica playing from Parker. Neither the album or the recent Blues Discography has a listing for the band but I was told that it was The Crusaders. This jibes with the overall sound, the fact that the song "Way Back Home" was written by member Wilton Felder and that The Crusaders also backed B.B. King during this period.
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."
As befitting his undervalued status, Parker's recorded output seems to slip in and out of print. You Don't Have To Be Black To Love The Blues seems to have been recently reissued on CD and can also be found in it's entirety on Way Back Home: The Goove Merchant Years. I Tell Stories Sad And True has not been issued on CD as far as I know.
Five Long Years (MP3)