Category Archives: Blues

Winfield Parker: Gospel Musician’s Return to R&B

Although quite a few of his best-known recordings were done in Philadelphia under the supervision of popular R&B DJ Jimmy Bishop, Winfield Parker was a product of the state of Maryland where he received his early musical training. The veteran soul vocalist has concentrated to a sizable extent on gospel music since the mid-80s, which makes his secular performance at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp particularly special.

Early Years

Though Parker was born in Baltimore, he explains “I was brought up out in Howard County…a little town called Cooksville. And I went to school in a place called Simpsonville, [at] Harriet Tubman High School.”

During this time Parker dabbled on guitar and even joined a doo-wop group called the Tall Cedars, but the instrument didn’t capture his attention for long. One of his cousins hipped him to the joys of the saxophone and by age 14 he was seriously getting into his horn.

“I started in high school with my cousins. I played in the high school band,” he says. “I had about three cousins that went to the same school that I went to. And we started from there.”

Before long, Parker was good enough to join a band that named itself after Chicago’s second-most famous record label: “The Veejays!” exclaims Parker. “You know how we got that name? Off of a record. Because Jerry Butler was on that label, the Vee-Jay label. And we just took that name.” (Since Butler began to record for the logo in 1958, that would reliably date the young combo’s formation.)

Parker wailed on tenor sax while his cousin, Herbert Holland, handled guitar duties. The combo gigged locally until Parker dropped out of high school midway through his junior year. The Veejays wouldn’t exist much longer after that, but Parker’s career was just getting started.

Singer Sammy Fitzhugh and his band, the Moroccans, had made their vinyl debut on the Poplar label in 1959 with the rocking double-sider “Sadie Mae” b/w “Linda Baby,” and they subsequently found themselves one sax player short.

“He was out of Virginia, down near Warrenton, Virginia,” says Parker. “I left the Veejays and went with Sammy, because the Veejays didn’t want to travel. They didn’t want to do anything. Music was my life. That’s what I wanted to do. So the rest of it just fell by the wayside. They didn’t want to go anywhere. So I just went on and joined Sammy and them and played with Sammy for awhile.”

Parker made his first foray into a recording studio while in the employ of Fitzhugh, playing saxophone on Sammy’s 1960 Atco single coupling “I Feel Allright” and “Lover’s Plea” before he moved on. Parker’s next notable hookup came when he crossed paths with rock and roll pioneer Little Richard. Richard needed an additional saxophonist as well, so Parker soon hit the road again with the Wildman rocker.

“Played with him for awhile, and the Upsetters,” Parker says. “It was great for awhile, till Richard got crazy. I’m a young man out there on the road, you know. I said, ‘I can’t handle this!’ So I came on home.”

Coming Home, Finding a Promoter

Home was where promoter John V. Bishop was. Bishop booked bands that Parker had been a part of at some of the nightspots where he promoted the entertainment. He also worked closely with the powerful Rufus E. Mitchell, a regional groundbreaker when it came to working with African-American musicians. Mitchell formed a dry cleaning shop in Baltimore in 1956 and doubled as the general manager of Carr’s Beach, a famous African-American summer resort near Annapolis that housed an amusement park and featured plenty of top-flight live entertainment to bring folks into his facilities.

Parker recalled playing at a club there: “It was called John Brown’s Farm, and [Bishop also booked] the Shamrock Inn. And I used to play all the little clubs, so Mr. Mitchell heard my band playing for John V. Bishop at John Brown’s Farm. He said he wanted to do some booking for me, so we started letting him book us.”

Parker had assembled his own band, the Imperial Thrillers, for local dates. “We won the Battle of the Bands over in Warrenton, Virginia. Out of 40 bands, we came in first place…then I got the chance to go on the road with Little Sonny Warner. Remember him? So we were his backup band.”

The Falls Church, Virginia-born Warner had provided the impassioned vocal on tenor sax blaster Big Jay McNeely’s original 1959 hit version of “There Is Something On Your Mind.” “I think Sonny had left Jay at the time,” Parker says, “and we played behind Sonny.”

Mitchell liked what he heard of Parker. “He heard me sing a couple of songs, and he said, ‘Just lay that horn down! I’m gonna record you singing!’ So he recorded my first song as a solo, called ‘My Love for You.’ That song was written by Fats Domino’s manager, Bill Boskent. And I used to play it behind Sonny. Sonny recorded it too. He recorded it first, and then I liked it, so I said, ‘Well, here’s an opportunity!’”

On a Roll at Ru-Jac

Mitchell had partnered with Jack Brown in 1963 to form the Ru-Jac label, but they’d only issued a handful of singles by Jessie Crawford and Little Sonny Daye prior to discovering Parker. The Imperial Thrillers wouldn’t be invited to the session to play behind their boss. The Shyndells, a band led by bassist James Gilyard that was already part of the Ru-Jac stable, was recruited to back the young singer on the soulful ballad “My Love for You” and its flip, the self-penned soul rocker “One of These Mornings.” The 1964 single billed him as Little Winfield Parker (the “Little” would be dropped on future releases).

Operating from 427 Laurens Street in Baltimore, Ru-Jac quickly adopted Parker as its flagship artist, releasing nine singles that stretched into 1968. The raucous “Rockin’ In The Barnyard,” was Parker’s encore outing, flipped with the heartfelt ballad “When I’m Alone.” His next Ru-Jac offering coupled two grinding stomps, “I Love You Just the Same” and “My Love.” The Shyndells provided punchy horn-fueled backing arranged by Paul Johns. Mitchell split authorship on “My Love” with composer Wesley Aydlett.

A still-unknown Arthur Conley supplied the plug side of Parker’s fourth Ru-Jac single, the hard-driving “Go Away Playgirl,” which sounds like a lost hit with its tight bank of horns and organ cushion pushing Parker to scintillating heights. “He was singing with a band up in Aberdeen, somewhere up there,” says Parker (Conley cut the original version of “I’m A Lonely Stranger” with saxophonist Harold Holt’s band for Ru-Jac before redoing it the next year for Otis Redding’s Jotis logo). Parker’s own sumptuous ballad “Wondering” sat on the B-side. Arthur was also responsible for both sides of Parker’s next Shydells-backed Ru-Jac single, twinning the relentless “Sweet Little Girl” and a soul-soaked ballad, “What Do You Say?” The single impressed the powers-that-be at Atco Records enough to pick it up for national consumption.

According to Parker, Conley’s subsequent million-selling signature song, an Otis Redding production, was originally meant for him. “I was supposed to record ‘Sweet Soul Music.’ And Mr. Mitchell sent me to the wrong place to meet Otis — Cincinnati,” says Parker. “Otis was waiting for me in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I was upset. I talked to Otis, and he said he had to pay for the studio, so he had to go and do what he had to do. But he was still going to do some recording on me. But just before that, that’s when he had the plane crash.”

So Parker stuck with Ru-Jac, issuing two originals, the devastating rocker “She’s So Pretty” and a gorgeous downbeat “Oh My Love,” back-to-back in 1967. “I wrote a lot of my stuff on Ru-Jac,” he notes. They were recorded in Philadelphia at Frank Virtue’s studios rather than in Baltimore or Washington, D.C., as had been the custom for Parker (Johns returned as arranger). A remake of “I Love You Just the Same” soon followed, with the heartrending “A Fallen Star” — penned by its arranger, Jimmy Dotson — nestled on the flip (both hailed from the Philly date). It was only a one-time visit to the City of Brotherly Love, but it laid the groundwork for Parker’s recording future.

Mr. Clean

Parker began working on a funky ditty entitled “Mr. Clean” that was written and co-produced by D.C. singer Dicky Williams, who’d waxed a Boskent-produced revival of the time-honored New Orleans anthem “Tee-Na-Na” for Johnny Vincent’s Vin label in 1960. As half of the duo Dickey & Gloria, Williams had already cut a hard-driving version of “Mr. Clean” for the New York-based Diamond logo in 1964. “Mr. Mitchell had sold my contract to this guy in D.C.,” says Parker. “So he got in trouble, and Dicky Williams was his partner. Dicky would write songs for him. So that’s how I got to do ‘Mr. Clean.’” Parker’s two-part 1968 remake of the grooving “Mr. Clean” — with Bruce Friday’s tenor sax featured prominently on Part 2 — would be his next-to-last on Ru-Jac. Parker was clearly unimpressed with Mitchell’s successor. “The guy that was managing me in D.C. called himself a manager. He didn’t know a thing about managing.”  “Funkey Party,” penned by Parker, was his swan song, utilizing the same torrid backing track as “She’s So Pretty.” (In 2016, Omnivore Recordings compiled Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker at Ru-Jac, an essential 23-song CD collection of Parker’s entire Ru-Jac catalog that contains a half-dozen unissued masters, including the original demo of “My Love” by composer Aydlett.)

Hitting his Stride in Philly

Jimmy Bishop, program director for top-rated soul station WDAS in Philly, soon took over the reins as Parker’s manager, and things really began to happen for him. In addition to his on-air duties, Bishop already handled several well-known acts from his hometown and owned Arctic Records, where Barbara Mason had scored a 1965 smash with her sweet charmer “Yes, I’m Ready.” “[Mitchell] hooked me up with Jimmy Bishop,” says Parker. “And Jimmy Bishop hooked me up with Arctic….Bishop had me, Barbara Mason, Honey & the Bees.”

Bishop produced Parker’s 1969 Arctic 45 at Sigma Sound Studios, collaborating with session guitarist Norman Harris and Bernard Broomer to compose “Shake That Thing,” a sweaty slab of horn-driven funk. “I just sang it,” says Parker. “He’d put me up in the hotel and I’d learn it, and we’d go in the studio and do it.” Its arranger, Bobby Martin, was integral to Arctic’s operation as well as the entire Philly soul studio scene. “That was Jimmy’s right hand. Because Bishop, he didn’t know anything about arranging. He could write, but his right hand was Bobby Martin and (bassist) Ronnie Baker and (drummer) Earl Young—guys that could put it together,” Parker says. “He did a lot of arrangements for just about everybody there.” Arctic recycled the backing track for Honey & the Bees’ very similar “Baby, Do That Thing” a few months later. The classy ballad flip “Brand New Start” was a Parker original. “I experienced things in life,” he says. “You go through love affairs and all that kind of crap back in the day, you know. So I just started writing.” Its uptown soul ambiance recalled Parker’s suave cousin, Tommy Hunt. “I used to watch him all the time,” he says. “That’s how I learned how to get my stage act together, watching Tommy and James Brown. Sam Cooke was my main man.”

Hitting the Charts

Arctic starting melting fast, but Bishop knew a livewire act when he saw one and remained Parker’s manager after his label lapsed into inactivity, retaining his production role as well. “All I did was those two songs on Arctic,” says Parker. “Bishop, he was jumping me around.” Jimmy’s first master deal for Parker in 1970 was with Florence Greenberg’s New York-based Wand Records, a label that once had hosted Maxine Brown and Chuck Jackson. Wand pressed up Parker’s sumptuous remake of his Ru-Jac-era ballad “I’m Wondering,” Martin lavished strings and tastefully employed wah-wah guitar on an arrangement that was vastly expanded from the original. The other half of the single, also cut at 919 Sound Studios in the City of Brotherly Love, featured Parker delivering the infectious “Will There Ever Be Another Love For Me.” The tune was supplied by none other than Barbara Mason, who wrote several of her own hits including “Yes, I’m Ready” and “Oh, How It Hurts.” The two also blended their voices at some point behind a studio mic, but their duet went unreleased. “I wish I could find it,” laments Parker. “Jesse James produced the one on me and Barbara.”

Parker’s next stop was Spring Records, another New York outfit with a penchant for unleashing R&B hits, during the summer of 1971.  Joe Simon was the label’s flagship artist, but there was room for plenty more soul standouts, including a young Millie Jackson. “(Owners) Roy Rifkind and Julie Rifkind, they were good people,” says Parker. “That’s where I had my big hit, on Spring.”

Indeed, Parker finally cracked the R&B hit parade on Spring by raiding Edwin Starr’s mid-‘60s Ric-Tic catalog for the irresistible dance floor outing “S.O.S. (Stop Her On Sight).” With Bishop again in the producer’s chair and Martin arranging, the number made a three-week appearance in the middle ranges of Billboard’s R&B charts. “I do it on shows now, and people still love it,” says Parker. Bishop teamed with fellow Philly producer extraordinaire Jesse James to brainstorm the swaggering flip, “I’m On My Way.” “Jimmy, he was the guy,” Parker says. “He was good. I liked him.”

Bishop turned his artist over to producers Bunny Sigler (whose Philly-style mashup of Shirley & Lee’s “Let The Good Times Roll” and “Feel So Good” had crashed the R&B Top 20 in 1967) and Phil Hurtt for his Spring encore in the spring of 1972. Sigler and Hurtt wrote the Vietnam-era throbber “Starvin’,” aggressively arranged by guitarist Roland Chambers with Parker proving he could scream every bit as savagely as Starr himself. Philly keyboardist Lenny Pakula arranged the opposite side, “28 Ways (She Loves Me),” a minor-key pounder penned by Carl Fisher, the longtime leader of the extraordinarily agile Vibrations of “The Watusi” and “My Girl Sloopy” fame. “Jimmy cut a lot of stuff on me that was never released on Spring,” says Parker. “He cut a whole album.”

Parker was on the move again later in the year, this time landing at another New York imprint, GSF Records. “That was Lloyd Price’s label,” he notes (and not Price’s first — the New Orleans émigré had previously operated the KRC, Double-L, and Turntable imprints). Instead of commissioning fresh creations, Martin had Parker cover Mac Davis’ then-current pop chart-topper “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” and try Bobby Womack’s “Trust Me” on for size as the opposite side. Martin provided his usual impeccable arrangements for both songs. ‘Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me’ was done in Philly,” says Parker. “(Jimmy) was picking the songs, so he thought it was a good song. So we did it.”

New Directions

After having Bishop hold his production and management reins for three years, Parker was ready for the brand new start he’d sung about at the beginning of their professional relationship. “Jimmy got so he was more interested in what Barbara was [doing],” he explains. “And by me being on fire, I was ready to keep going. I didn’t want to sit back. I wanted to keep going. So we departed. We were still friends.” It took some time, but by 1975 Parker had come up with a proper vehicle to reenter the studio: a self-contained unit with himself installed as the front man. “The drummer (Ralph Fisher) and I just went on and put a band together,” says Parker. “It was three white guys and three blacks, so we called it the Best of Both Worlds. A friend of mine that owned a clothing store in D.C., he produced it, Clayton Roberts. And Nate McCalla that owned Calla Records, they put it out.” Not only did Calla issue a Best of Both Worlds single coupling a silky “I Want The World To Know” and the funk-steeped “Moma Bakes Biscuits,” the firm issued an entire album by the band, titled after the plug side of the 45. “I was crazy about Nate,” says Parker. “He was like a godfather to me.” Unfortunately, the group wasn’t fated to endure. “We lasted for about a couple of years,” says Parker. “We didn’t last long. Everybody wanted to be the chief. Then the guys got to griping about the money when we went to talk to Nate, so Nate got angry with all of ‘em and paid ‘em off. And all of them came home. Then it was just me and Nate. We never did get a chance to do any more recording.”

In 1985, Parker decided to travel a different musical path, wholeheartedly embracing gospel music. “When the disco came out, it was knocking us out of work,” he says. “And I got into a little trouble. I said, ‘Well, I’ve got t o turn this thing around.’” He made several CDs of spirituals for the BP label and Sending Up My Timber with his group, Praise, for Philly’s Guyden Records in 2003 (the same company that had distributed Arctic more than three decades earlier). Parker’s long and winding career has taken him all over the planet. “I’ve been to London, Wales, Amsterdam, Holland, Skegness,” he says. Before long, he’ll be able to add New Orleans and the Ponderosa Stomp to that lengthy list of prime destinations.

–Bill Dahl


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