THE TWO-NOTE HORN BLAST leads you into a swinging Latin rhythm borrowed from Ray Charles’ What’d I Say, underpinning a distinctive rolling, overdriven riff like a turbocharged version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s One Way Out. Then comes that soulful voice, smooth yet gritty. The tune is Watch Your Step by Bobby Parker, released in 1961 on the V-Tone label. Only a minor hit at the time, it would inspire everyone from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin, Spencer Davis Group, the Allman Brothers and more.
“The best stuff I ever heard is by a bloke called Bobby Parker,” remarked John Lennon, who loaded Watch Your Step onto the jukebox he took on tour in 1965. In fact, Parker’s impact on The Beatles is evident. Listen to 1964’s I Feel Fine or Daytripper released a year later for further proof.
Born in Lafayette, Louisiana, on August 31, 1937, Parker’s natural fusion of soul, rock and blues stemmed from a lengthy apprenticeship that began in Otis Williams And The Charms. He joined Bo Diddley in time to appear on the Ed Sullivan show in November 1955 (although he was largely obscured: see clip below), and then continued to play with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and the Paul Williams Band – the latter famed for his 1949 hit, The Hucklebuck.
Parker’s first single as a solo artist was the smouldering Blues Get Off My Shoulder, recorded and released on the Vee-Jay label in 1958. It was by all accounts the track that urged a young Robert Plant to forge a career as a singer, but failed to provide Parker with a hit – the guitarist continuing as a sideman with the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Parker’s connection with Led Zeppelin would manifest later when the band demonstrated the man’s obvious influence on Moby Dick and then attempted to sign him to their Swan Song label in what proved an ill-fated deal.
While Parker’s recorded output was limited – his most consistent studio stint being the mid-‘90s when he released two albums, Bent Out Of Shape and Shine Me Up, on the Black Top Records label in ’93 and ’95 – he continued to tour. More recently, he held down a regular gig at Madam’s Organ Blues Bar in Washington DC where he lived. His death on November 1, 2013 was widely mourned and his influence lauded.
Indeed, in later life Parker also found himself feted by Carlos Santana, the legendary guitarist acknowledging his debt by covering Watch Your Step as the opening track on his 1983 solo album, Havana Moon. Santana also invited Parker to play a series of blues nights at the famed Montreux festival in 2004 alongside Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown and fellow Louisiana guitar firebrand Buddy Guy. Parker started his set with a version of Straight No Chaser and saved Watch Your Step as the final tune, upon which he jousted with Santana in a typically joyous fashion.