Mystery Train : Little Junior Parker ©2002JCMarion


Herman "Little Junior" Parker was born in either 1927 or 1932, and in either Clarksdale, Mississippi or West Menphis, Arkansas according to many sources that are available. The major consensus seems to believe that 1932 in Clarksdale is the likely facts on file. He acquired his taste for music as did so many of the R & B performers in their younger years from the gospel music of the Black church in the South. He never publicly showed his musical talents until his teenage years. By then he had drifted along the west bank of the Mississippi River to West Memphis, Arkansas, just over the bridge from the big town in Tennessee. In the late forties he became an acquaintance of Rice Miller known as Sonny Boy Williamson (the second-named after John Lee Williamson the first "Sonny Boy" who died in his mid thirties in 1948). By 1950 he was quite proficient on the harmonica also known in blues circles as the "Mississippi Saxophone", and most commonly, the harp. He sat in with a group known as The Beale Streeters, among whose members at various times included B.B. King, Johnny Ace, Rosco Gordon, and Bobby Bland. Parker was also befriended by Howlin' Wolf (Chester Burnett) and soon did some club dates with him and his band.

With all these new connections in the blues community centered in Memphis, Parker was soon seen and heard by Ike Turner. Turner was one of the originators of the R & B sound coming out of Memphis in the early fifties, and his band The Rhythm Kings were a top notch combo. Soon Turner had set up a recording session for Parker in Memphis, and in mid 1952 Ike Turner on piano, Matt Murphy on guitar, Raymond Hill on tenor sax, and L.C. Dranes on drums recorded as Little Junior Parker & His Blue Flames for Modern records. The songs were "You're My Angel" and "Bad Women, Bad Whiskey" and released on #864. The record got good airplay and sales in the region but failed to move out from the central Memphis area, and so Junior Parker remained known only locally. Parker continued to gig in and around the city with the Beale Streeters and Howlin Wolf.

About a year later he was in the recording studio in Memphis again, but this time for Sam Phillips at 706 Union Avenue, the home of the Memphis Recording Service and Sun Records. Raymond Hill and Matt Murphy were again in the backing band, but this time Bill Johnson replaced Ike Turner on piano, Pat Hare on guitar, and John Bowers on drums. The band was listed on the label as Little Junior's Blue Flames and "Feelin' Good" and "Fussin And Fightin'" were released on Sun #187. This record got very little regional notice, but in late 1953 another release from that recording session made a lot of people sit up and take notice. "Love My baby" and "Mystery Train" were released on Sun #192, and from the beginning the sound and feel of "Train" gave Parker his first taste of fame and name recognition. A student at Humes High School in Memphis also sat up and took notice, as a young Elvis Presley heard the record on Dewey Phillips "Red, Hot, And Blue" show and on the Black aimed radio station WDIA. This was one of the songs that fired Presley's imagination and was manifested some months later in a Sun Records cover of the tune.

As Sun Records shifted their attention from Black R & B and blues, many leased to other companies (most notably Chess Records in Chicago), to the new sound of White Southerners originally called "rockabillies" - Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and others, Parker drifted around the area when he soon got the attention of Don Robey in Houston, Texas. He now began a recording affiliation with Duke Records that would last for a decade. In late 1953 Parker went out on tour with Johnny Ace, Willa Mae Thornton, and the C.C. Pinkston Orchestra all from Duke Records. The first recording session took place in January of 1954 and included Bill Johnson on piano, Pat Hare on guitar, Hamp Simmons on bass, and Sonny Freeman on drums and was listed as by Little Junior Parker & Bill Johnson's Blue Flames. The tunes "Can't Understand" and "Dirty Friend Blues" was released on Duke #120. The band and Parker went out on tour now as a separate unit throughout Texas and Louisiana in support of their recording efforts. In March the combo tours the Southeast, and in April a new singer from Georgia joins Parker on tour. He bills himself as Little Richard. Don Robey sends a number of recordings by Parker to France and the result is a rush of requests for more. In June Parker, Johnson, and the combo head for a series of one nighters in the Midwest. Also in late June Duke #127 is released - "Please Baby Blues" / "Sittin', Drinkin', And Thinkin'".

After the tour ends, Robey and Parker set up a new backing band in early 1955 still to be called The Blue Flames. The new combo consists of Jim Stewart on trumpet, Joe "Papoose" Fritz and Jimmy Johnson on tenor saxes, Ray Fields on baritone sax, Dale McGown on piano, Pat hare on guitar, Hamp Simmons on bass, and Sonny Freeman on drums. The session in April contains two unissued tunes - "Bachelor's Blues" and "Can You Teach Me Baby", but Robey does release Duke #137 - "Backtrackin'" and "I Wanna Ramble". By May "Ramble" is selling well in New Orleans and Atlanta as well as Houston. The band goes out on tour to capitalize and the good sales of the record. By October the same group record again and this time they are listed as by Little Junior Parker & His Orchestra. Duke releases "Driving Me Mad" and the wonderfully titled "There Better Not Be No Feet (In Them Shoes)" on #147 during the month of October. Junior Parker was at the center of a lawsuit in late 1955 against Don Robey and Duke Records. Sun Records charged that Robey induced Parker to break an exclusive contract with Sun to go to Duke and filed for damages. The judge ruled in favor of Sun Records and Robey was liable for unspecified damages to be paid to Sun.

In 1956 Junior Parker joins forces with Duke artist Bobby "Blue" Bland for a series of one nighters across the South. After that tour ends, it was determined that the success on the road prompts a first visit to the West Coast in May and June. About this time Parker records for Duke with the Bill Harvey band. The leader, Harvey, is on tenor sax, with Joe Scott on trumpet, Puma Davis on trombone, Connie McBooker on piano, Pat Hare on guitar, Hamp Simmons on bass, and Sonny Freeman on drums. The songs "Mother In Law Blues" and "That's My Baby" are released on #157. In the fall Buddy Ace, another Duke Records performer joins Parker and Bland on tour in the Southeast. Duke #157 sells well in the South through November and in mid December Little Junior Parker and Bill Harvey's band record "Dolly Bee" and "Next Time You See Me" on Duke #164.

In early 1957 many of the established R & B acts that blossomed from the early fifties seem to fade from view as the music is taken over by teen idols, rockabillies, and doo-wop groups. In the midst of this changeover however, a simple straight forward medium tempo blues wail appears on radio all over the country. It is Junior Parker and his tune "Next Time You See Me" that has captured the ear of a great part of the listening public throughout the country. The catchy, loping tune with its irresistible hook is a winner for Parker and Duke Records. Pat Hare does incredible work on guitar especially in trading licks on the instrumental break with the band. The memorable sound on this tune is the backing riff by the band's brass section behind Parker's vocal on the final chorus, which is one of the finest pieces of work on any R & B single I have ever heard. When they fade out at the end with the band still chugging, you don't want the moment to end. It was a real bit of magic produced that day in the recording studio. It could be that it was the idea of Joe Scott (who was the leader of the Duke house band) or a collaborative effort, but whoever came up with that classic arrangement produced one of the greatest R & B recordings ever. (That is most likely the reason for the killer cover version of the song by the Grateful Dead sung by R & B fanatic Ron "Pigpen" McKernan in the late 60s).

Junior Parker now had his signature song, and he and Duke Records rode the tune throughout most of 1957 across the country. Duke releases a compilation LP called "Like 'Er Red Hot" with all the hitmakers on Duke and Peacock which includes "Next Time You See Me". Later in the year Duke #168 is released as by Little Junior Parker & His Combo, a stripped down group with Connie McBooker, Pat Hare, Otto Jackson this time on bass, and Sonny Freeman. The tunes are "Pretty Baby" and "That's Alright". Soon the Midwest area shows strong sales of "That's Alright" in both Chicago and Detroit, which are usually not areas where Parker does well. In February Don Robey establishes a new office for his recording empire in New York and discloses plans for a Junior Parker LP. Junior appears at a big record hop in Houston held by KCOH dj Clifton "King Bee" Smith which is broadcast live. In March "That's Alright"turns up on the best selling R & B charts in Los Angeles. In April #177 is released by Duke as by Little Junior Parker & The Al Smith Orchestra with Smith replacing Jackson on bass. Don Robey and A & R man Joe Scott record Junior Parker in Cleveland later in the year and the result is #184 as by Little Junior Parker & His Band. The songs are "Sittin' And Thinkin'" and "Wondering". In may Duke releases an LP called "The Barefoot Rock" featuring songs by Junior Parker and Bobby Bland. "Sittin' And Thinkin'" is a top seller in Atlanta and New Orleans, while the flip side is big in the Chicago area and picked a top five seller by dj Hal "Kool Gent" Kent.

In July of 1958, "Barefoot Rock" and "What Did I Do" are released as a single on Duke #193 as Junior and Bobby Bland tour the West Coast and do big business at L.A.'s 5-4 Ballroom, a long time R & B nitery. Duke Records launches a big ad campaign for "Barefoot Rock" calling it America's newest dance sensation. In August Don Robey and Joe Scott set up a recording session in Nashville with Junior Parker. Over Labor Day weekend Junior Parker and Bobby Bland get together with B.B. King for a big show at Houston's Municipal Auditorium. In November parker records the old time blues standby "Sweet Home Chicago" on Duke #301. The flip side is "Sometimes". By year's end, "Chicago" is a big seller in, where else ?, Chicago. It is also selling well in Detroit and Cleveland.

"Sweet Home Chicago" continues to sell in early 1959, and in April Duke releases "Five Long Years" (originally titled "Seven Long Years") and "I'm Holding On" on #306. "Years" is a good seller in Houston and Dallas in Texas, and in Louisiana. In August "Stranded" and "Blue Letter" are released by Duke Records on #509. Late in the year Junior Parker records "Dangerous Woman" and "Belinda Marie" which are released on Duke # 315.

From late 1958 into the early 60s, Junior Parker consistently toured the country with a show called Blues Consolidated which included long time running mate Bobby Bland and Willa Mae Thornton, and the combo led by Duke Records veteran Joe Scott. With the onset of early 60s pop music changing and with the British Invasion sound, Little Junior Parker continued presenting his great sound of classic R & B. In 1961 he had a hit with a version of Roosevelt Sykes "Driving Wheel", and "In The Dark" the following year. In 1965 Parker cut a remake of "Barefoot Rock", and also had a good seller with "Crying For My Baby". By 1966 after a most prolific decade with Duke Records, Parker went to Mercury and their subsidiary label Blue Rock. In 1969 Parker was on Capitol Records where he did an unusual cover of the Beatles "Tax Man". During the 60s Parker also had some LPs released including "Driving Wheel" and "Blues Consolidated" for Duke, "Junior Parker" for Bluesway in 1964, "Baby Please" for Mercury in '67, "Best Of . . ." for MCA that same year, and "Blues Man" for Minit in 1969. Junior played the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1970, and hooked up with jazz and blues styled organist Jimmy McGriff in 1970.

As the new decade began, Junior Parker had been a top R & B performer for two decades with no signs of slowing down. However in late 1971 he entered a hospital in Blue Island, a suburb of Chicago, where he was discovered to have a brain tumor. He passed away on November 18 of that year, and before he reached his fortieth birthday a great voice of R & B was stilled . Luckily much of the work of Little Junior Parker is readily available on CDs. Some of the best of them are - "Mystery Train" on Rounder, "The Mercury Recordings" on Collectables, "The Complete Mercury and Blue Rock Recordings" on Mercury, and most importantly "The Duke Recordings Vol. 1" released in 1992, and Vol. 2 released in 1998. Little Junior Parker packed into his too short life, twenty years of great music much of which defined an era in American culture. For that he will never be forgotten.

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