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Bobby Parker: Bluesman whose riff from 'Watch Your Step' was borrowed by both the Beatles and Led Zeppelin


Bobby Parker’s recordings from the late 1950s and 1960s influenced performers as varied as John Lennon, Carlos Santana and Led Zeppelin. The Washington-based bluesman cut a swaggering figure on stage with his preacher-like exhortations to “say yeah, children,” his shiny suits and his James Brown-style hairdo. His tenor voice caressed and screamed the blues over his powerful, stinging guitar, and he loved to walk through the crowd as he played.

A veteran of the “chitlin’ circuit” of black theatres, Parker wrote two much-covered rhythm-and-blues hits. “Blues Get Off My Shoulder” (1958) was a sombre blues ballad enlivened by his trenchant guitar work, while “Watch Your Step” (1961), with its propulsive groove, was a hit in the US and Britain. Its insistent riff, which Parker said evolved from the Afro-Cuban jazz composition “Manteca”, caught on with the mods in London.

Santana and the Spencer Davis Group covered the song, while its guitar motif was reprised in Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” and Link Wray’s 1962 instrumental “The Black Widow”. John Lennon acknowledging that “Day Tripper” and “I Feel Fine” were based on variations of its central riff. (It was released in Germany while the Beatles were in Hamburg.)

However, Parker reaped few rewards, having sold the copyright for a pittance. In fact his career was dogged by bad decisions. During a Led Zeppelin tour in the early 1970s, Jimmy Page sat in with Parker at a club, and the band, searching for acts for their Swan Song label, lent him money for a tape recorder but Parker, perhaps fearful after having undersold a major copyright, never turned in the demo tape.

In the 1990s he returned to the national limelight with two critically acclaimed albums, Bent Out Of Shape and Shine Me Up, and he later toured with Carlos Santana.

He was raised in Los Angeles; his mother sang in a gospel group while his father was a distributor of jukebox records. In his teens, he left home to tour with the doo-wop group Otis Williams and the Charms, and went on to play with Bo Diddley on The Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1969 Mike Vernon, producer of Fleetwood Mac, brought Parker to England but, he said, “They wanted me to act like Hendrix. I had two nice little guitars and they wanted me to break them up. I said, ‘Man, I’m not breaking up my guitars.’”

Robert Lee Parker, musician: born Lafayette, Louisiana 31 August 1937; died Bowie, Maryland 31 October 2013.

© The Washington Post