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In 1992, when Bill Duggan was looking for musicians to play his new club, Madam’s Organ, he got a call. The person on the phone said, “My name is Bobby Parker and I am the blues.” Duggan hired him. “We opened on Halloween 1992 with Bobby Parker,” the owner says, “and he died 21 years to the day later.”
As reported by Washington City Paper and other outlets this week, Parker died at age 76 last Thursday, on Halloween. The cause of death was a heart attack. Parker was best known for his influential 1961 single “Watch Your Step,” a song that was covered by The Spencer Davis Group and Santana, and whose opening guitar riff cropped up in songs by The Beatles, Link Wray, Led Zeppelin, and The Allman Brothers.
Born in Lafayette, La., in 1937 and raised in Los Angeles, Bobby Parker ended up in D.C. in 1961 after stints in New York City and elsewhere. Before coming here, a young Parker toured as the guitarist for the doo-wop group Otis Williams and the Charms. He played with Bo Diddley on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955, and subsequently became part of the Apollo Theatre house band led by saxophonist Paul “Hucklebuck” Williams. He also toured with Sam Cooke.
Parker’s latest band included bassist Andrew Padua, who joined the group in 1995 after seeing a want ad in Washington City Paper. “He was one of the guys who invented rock ‘n’ roll,” Padua says of Parker. “He was on the Cavalcade of Stars tours back in the ‘50s when the promoters would take the pop stars out on the road. There was a white-folks bus with Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, and a black bus. The black bus was Bobby with Chuck Berry, Laverne Baker, Ruth Brown, and the band was basically Paul ‘Hucklebuck’ Williams’ band from the Apollo Theatre.” Parker told Padua and Duggan that he’d been on the road when Buddy Holly and others from the tour took a plane and died in that fateful crash.
After moving to D.C. and recording “Watch Your Step,” Parker spent much of the 1960s here leading his own band and playing briefly with the James Brown-influenced R&B performer Little Royal at various African-American venues in the area. In 1969, Fleetwood Mac‘s producer brought Parker to London, where he played with the likes of Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. When Padua asked Parker about playing with people who would go on to become huge celebrities, Parker said, “We were just a bunch of dumb kids playing guitar, drinking, chasing chicks. I didn’t know that anyone was gonna get famous.”
Burned out by the music business, Parker returned to the area, later sold off his copyright to “Watch Your Step,” and was barely heard from until he—-still wearing his trademark James Brown-style hairdo—-began playing Madam’s Organ. In 1993, he signed with independent label Blacktop Records and released his first album as a singer and bandleader, Bent Out of Shape, the first of two albums with that label. Parker also toured Europe, played major blues festivals, and did a special guest concert with Carlos Santana and Buddy Guy in 2004 in Montreux, Switzerland, but he still performed monthly at Madam’s Organ.
“He would leave people with their mouth hanging open. He was a force of nature. His singing was amazing. He was almost like a preacher,” Padua says. “He had so much music in his head. He grew up with music.” Parker had been a bass player himself, which meant Padua had to exert himself to meet the bluesman’s standards. “I had to try to imitate Bobby Parker playing the bass,” he says. “When you played with Bobby, you played what Bobby wanted you to play.”
While Parker’s band mostly played loud, electric, 12-bar blues with flashes of rock and soul, in recent years the group also played a couple of gigs with D.C.’s godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown. It was on days like that the band was “going in a new and different direction with the music,” Padua says. “Half of it was a tribute because Chuck Brown and Bobby had known each other since they were teenagers. Bobby had been leaning more towards a part homage to Chuck, a go-go blues kind of thing. But it was like a psychedelic blues. They were not doing extended improvised jams. It was a unique genre of music, but unless someone has cell phone recordings of it, that stuff is lost. The essence of Bobby’s playing is lost.”
Duggan has numerous fond memories of Parker at Madam’s Organ. He says that Parker used a cordless pickup on his guitar, which allowed him to move around as he pleased. “I’ve got pictures of him at the first Madam’s [location] in ’92 outside on the sidewalk. He’d be like a pied piper,” Duggan says. “If things got slow inside, he’d go out and lead them in.”
Then there was the time in 2005 when the Hungarian prime minister came for a state visit and left the White House early so he could see Parker, who played a solo right in front of him. Hungary’s then-ambassador to the United States, András Simonyi, was a guitarist who arranged the visit. Simonyi, who ended up playing guitar with Parker several times, says “Parker was a gracious man. I have met kings and queens and presidents, and meeting Bobby was right up there with those times.”
More recently in February 2013, D.C. Councilmember Marion Barry joined Parker onstage in a performance of T-Bone Walker‘s “Stormy Monday.” “You never knew who was going to stop in and listen when Bobby was there,” Duggan says.
Parker became family to Duggan, the bar owner says, and when the musician experienced medical problems over the last decade, Duggan sent him to his older brother, a surgeon, gratis. Duggan gets a little choked up talking about the last time he saw Bobby perform, just a few weeks ago on Oct 19. It was Duggan’s birthday, and Parker did three 70-minute sets. “After I went home at three in the morning, I found out—-he at 76 years old—-stuck around and was trying to turn it into a dance party.”
Duggan wishes that Parker had better luck with the music industry, but then again, Parker was playing the music he loved for almost his entire life. “Not many people in their 70s are doing what they always wanted to do,” he says. “He gave me legitimacy that I had someone of that caliber as a regular performer on my stage. I owe a lot to him. I am having a hard time with it now.” On the day we speak, Duggan says he’s purchasing Parker’s cemetery plot. “Hopefully we’ll give him a good sendoff.”
“Watching those fingers fly on the guitar, it was a thing of beauty. He played with a joy right till the end,” the bar owner says. “He was a sweet man. People would come in and not realize what a major talent was in front of them. I’d say, ‘Soak it up. We don’t know how much longer we’ll have him.'”
A “homegoing” service for Parker is scheduled to take place Nov. 16 at New Smyrna Missionary Baptist Church. 4417 Douglas Street, N.E. A viewing from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. will be followed by an 11 a.m. service. A life celebration, musical tribute, and fundraiser will be held at Madam’s Organ, 2461 18th Street NW, from 2 p.m. till close. An account has been set up at Suntrust for those who would like to contribute to Parker’s funeral expenses. Donations can be dropped off or sent to Madam’s Organ, payable to Madam’s Organ Bobby Parker Fund.