Johnny Parker: Versatile pianist who helped the Humphrey Lyttelton band move away from their staid New Orleans sound
Friday 02 July 2010
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.
John Robert Parker, pianist, bandleader: born Beckenham, Kent 6 November 1929; married Peggy Phango (deceased; three daughters); died London 4 June 2010.
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