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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Technician - 1st Line

£19000 - £21000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPOR...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...


£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London