Johnny Parker: Versatile pianist who helped the Humphrey Lyttelton band move away from their staid New Orleans sound

Recording at the Parlophone studio in April 1956, Humphrey Lyttelton found himself with time to spare at the end of the session. He decided to fill it by improvising a medium-fast piano and trumpet blues with the band's pianist Johnny Parker. This casual performance become known as "Bad Penny Blues" and Lyttelton recalled that, in an unlikely journey, "it climbed to No 18 in the Hit Parade and then fell back exhausted." But Parker's rolling blues had not escaped Paul McCartney, and the piano part of "Bad Penny Blues" provided some inspiration for the Beatles' "Lady Madonna".

The kind of rolling boogie-woogie the tune featured was Johnny Parker's forte, and it typified the style that persuaded Lyttelton to hire him in the first place. Parker's open playing was the beginning of Lyttelton's progression from the more staid New Orleans jazz that had been epitomised by his first pianist, George Webb. A much more relaxed and fluent player, Parker's versatility across the fields of mainstream jazz, ragtime and boogie woogie became important as the trumpeter's thinking became more radical.

Mainly self-taught, Parker began his career in the late 1940s with a series of bands with funny names – Harry Brown's Inebriated Seven, Beryl Bryden's Backroom Boys and Mick Mulligan's Magnolia Jazz band. The names continued a decade later when he played in Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated (1963) and Long John Baldry's Hoochie Coochie Men (1964). But the best and most substantial of Parker's work was done with Lyttelton's band, which he joined in May 1951. Here he befriended the master clarinettist Wally Fawkes ("Trog" the cartoonist) and though Fawkes tired of travelling on the road and left Lyttelton in April 1956, they remained friends for life.

It was during this period that Parker met and married Peggy Phango, an African singer and actress he met while she was on tour here with a troupe from South Africa. Wally Fawkes remembers playing at a jazz club gig with Champion Jack Dupree in the 1970s. Parker had had an operation on his back that had gone wrong. Not a big man, he had to be carried everywhere. Peggy came into the club and as she carried Parker across the dance floor towards the bandstand, Champion Jack grabbed the microphone.

"There you are!" he shouted. "That's what happens to you if you mess with black women!"

Parker left Lyttelton in September 1957 to form his own band. It lasted for a year. He joined clarinettist Monty Sunshine's newly formed group from February 1961 to August 1962, then played with various rhythm and blues bands until he joined Kenny Ball as a temporary replacement in 1967, becoming a permanent member in 1969. He stayed with Ball until 1978.

He returned to leading his own groups and freelancing in other bands and as an unaccompanied soloist, but his poor health once more held him back. It didn't prevent successful tours in Britain backing American visitors such as the trumpeters Wild Bill Davison and Doc Cheatham and saxophonists Buddy Tate and Eddie Miller.

In the 1980s he worked with bands led by trumpeters Pat Halcox and Keith Smith and toured on the continent with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band. He appeared as a soloist several times at the annual Cork Jazz Festival. From 2000 on he restricted his appearances to London as a soloist or leading a trio, but in 2005 his illness finally forced him to stop playing in public.

Steve Voce

John Robert Parker, pianist, bandleader: born Beckenham, Kent 6 November 1929; married Peggy Phango (deceased; three daughters); died London 4 June 2010.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea