Given the machinations of the music business, the powerful currents of cultural and social history and the mysteries of public taste it is entirely possible to be a magnificent singer, to have written and recorded some classic songs covered by giants such as Elvis Presley and to have made wonderful records at every stage of a two decade career (‘Mystery Train’, ‘Next Time You See Me’, ‘Feelin’ Good’, ‘Driving Wheel’) and yet remain a shadowy figure usually referred to only with regard to figures of more popular note.
My Lords, ladies and gentlemen and music lovers everywhere I give you an artist you’ve been longing for – if only you had known he was there – Junior Parker!
Born in 1927 and growing up in West Memphis, Arkansas in the 1930s and 1940s Junior Parker was exposed to a thriving Blues and Rhythm and Blues scene. He learned to play the harmonica at the feet of Rice Miller (the second Sonny Boy Williamson) and in his teenage years he befriended and played with Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, B B King and the mighty Howling Wolf. He also hooked up with bandleader/talent spotter/musical fixer Ike Turner who got him his initial shot at recording with Modern Records in 1952.
However, as with so many artists, it was after he met one of the most significant figures in twentieth century cultural history, Sam Phillips, and recorded at his Memphis Sun Studios that Junior Parker’s extraordinary talent as a singer, writer and performer first blossomed. Sun 187, ‘Feelin’ Good’ issued in 1953 and a sizeable R&B hit is Junior’s calling card showcasing his brilliantly controlled vocal style which combines supple variety with graceful flow.
Backed by guitarists Floyd Murphy and Pat Hare, pianist Bill Johnson and John Bowers on drums Junior takes a John Lee Hooker template and fashions (no doubt with the aid of the sharp eared Sam Phillips behind the desk) a record that pulses with energy and life. The hard wood floor sprung rhythm and the heart lifting guitar lines seem to clear a path for Junior to demonstrate the virtuosity of his singing.
He seems to gloriously glide and pirouette through the song ; now almost whispering hoarsely, now soaring into full throated release, all the while driving the song forward. Every time I hear this record I’m impelled to echo Junior, ‘Well I feel so good – Woooooooh!
Junior brought a song of his own, ‘Mystery Train’ to his next Sun session – one that would go on to be an epochal classic when covered by Sam Phillips’ greatest discovery, Elvis Presley. Junior’s version evokes an almost eerie atmosphere of a train slowly pulling its way in sultry heat through hazy southern fields.
Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black (taking their cue from the urgent, ‘Love My Baby’ the flip side of Junior’s Mystery Train) up the tempo and energy level to evoke a streamlined locomotive blurring past astonished bystanders. Elvis sings with bravura élan and on the spot brings to life the sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll that Sam Phillips had so fervently been searching for. Junior’s version can’t match Elvis though it’s fair to say no one on earth has ever managed to either!
As Sam Phillips, for obvious reasons, concentrated on promoting the careers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, Junior found a home from home at Don Robey’s Duke Records, Memphis’ premier black music label. During his time with Duke Junior made a string of excellent records while relentlessly touring on the, ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ for the black communities throughout the nation.
Junior benefitted in these live shows from a fine band that had attack and colour through a well drilled rhythm team and a punchy brass section. This combination is shown to advantage on the wonderful, ‘Next Time You See Me’ from 1957. This one made the Hot 100 at 74 as well as top 5 R&B.
Essentially a blues shuffle, ‘Next Time’ establishes itself as an irresistible standard from the first few notes. You are swept along by the exhilarating licks and riffs traded between the brass section, the guitar and the piano.
Junior’s vocal has regal command as he tells the old, old story’s folk wisdom – ‘If it hurts you my darling – you only have yourself to blame.’ Junior never seems to strain for effect: his thoroughbred vocals have power in reserve allowing him to cruise through the song while effortlessly stirring the audience.
My next two selections illustrate Junior’s versatility and ability to inhabit the heart of a song to illuminate its overt and hidden dramas. For, ‘I Need Love So Bad’ he draws on the song writing pen of Percy Mayfield, the peerless poet and professor of the blues, and produces a performance that glows with passion.
I’m awestruck by Junior’s vocal here. Listen to the way he wraps his voice round Percy’s melody and lyric in a tender loving embrace. The song is one of those 3am in the locked bar blues expertly anatomising the never plumbed depths of male despair and angst (not to mention self-pity!). Junior manages to sing in a manner that suggests a man who is exhausted and world weary though not, yet, wholly defeated. It’s a wondrous performance that slays me no matter how often I hear it.
Contrast that performance with the almost Sam Cooke like elegance (there is no higher praise for a singer) that he brings to, ‘Someone Somewhere’.
Junior, here, shows what a great soul singer he would have been if he’d followed that path. While the horns mistily wreathe around him and the guitar glistens Junior’s vocal traces beautifully delicate emotional patterns that linger in the mind long after the record has ended.
Perhaps one of the hallmarks of a great singer is the way their voices enter and find a home in our hearts; imprinting themselves on our consciousness ever more deeply as we replay their songs on our turntables or in our waking and dreaming imaginations. Junior Parker belongs in that hallowed company as a singer.
I’ll close with Junior showing how he could take a hoary blues standard and reveal new depths. Eddie Boyd’s, ‘Five Long Years’ has had hundreds of covers but I doubt any have had the deeply affecting power of Junior’s version below recorded soon before his death.
I would call that chamber music blues – relaxed, intimate, exquisitely paced, deeply felt. Though Junior’s vocal seems wholly natural and spontaneous it conceals the craft of an absolute master.
Junior Parker was a great singer who, without grandstanding, artfully achieved total control of his instrument – his glorious voice. Though his life was cut short his legacy will be long lasting. Do yourself a favour and investigate his catalogue. Trust me you will not regret it.
Junior Parker’s recorded legacy is desperately in need of an expertly curated box set. In the meantime look out for compilations of his Sun material and 2 MCA compilation of his Duke sides. Hard to find but wonderful to listen to are the, ‘Lion in winter’ recordings he made in 1970/1971 for Groove Merchant and United Artists.