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?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific