Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bobby Parker: The Real Fifth Beatle?

1964 was the year that brought Beatlemania to the world at large. It began with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” hitting the American charts, becoming the Fab Four’s first US hit. It ended with the ascent of one of the band’s most memorable hits, “I Feel Fine.” There was something different about this record. The strange opening, for one thing, John Lennon’s deliberate guitar feedback reeling the listener in from the outset. Then there was the riff—that riff. It was bouncy, yet bluesy at the same time, and a certain bittersweet tinge colored its jazzy overtones. There was also something of a Ray Charles feel to the rhythm of the song, adding an extra layer of depth and intricacy. But this was all just a series of brilliant coincidences, right? As nice as that would have been, it just wasn’t the case. While Lennon’s deliberate feedback is generally acknowledged to this day as his innovation and the first appearance of such a gimmick on a rock record, the rest of the aforementioned elements were somewhat less original. In George Harrison’s own words, “The guitar riff was actually influenced by a record called ‘Watch Your Step’ by Bobby Parker. But all riffs in that tempo have a similar sound.” [1] Lennon, who is credited with devising the “I Feel Fine” riff, was more forthright and less defensive than his former bandmate: “’Watch Your Step’ is one of my favorite records. The Beatles have used the lick in various forms. The Allman Brothers used the lick straight as it was.” [1]

Either way, we can thank Bobby Parker (not to be confused with Robert “Barefootin’” Parker) for providing the inspiration for one of the most famous riffs in rock history. The veteran singer, songwriter, and guitarist is now regarded among blues aficionados as one of the finest practitioners of the genre, but he did not always hold such a lofty status. Back in 1961, Parker was in his early 20s and accustomed to playing backup for various R&B and rock ‘n’ roll artists. At this juncture, he recorded his self-penned “Watch Your Step,” a crazed, hypnotic, hard-edged masterpiece with gloriously distorted guitar work and pained, wailing vocals. It was as good a blues, rock ‘n’ roll, or soul record as any that came out in the early 1960s, and upon its release on the small Philadelphia-based V-Tone label it became a minor hit (#51 on Billboard’s Hot 100). It was also released in the UK, becoming a favorite among British record buyers with a hankering for rhythm & blues. The song attracted covers by British artists such as Adam Faith, Manfred Mann, Tony Jackson (late of The Searchers), and The Spencer Davis Group. Its influence was clear on many British Invasion bands; for example, The Yardbirds’ rave-up arrangement of Mose Allison’s jazz tune “I’m Not Talking” bears more than a passing similarity to “Watch Your Step.” Rock artists on this side of the pond were quite fond of it, too. Carlos Santana, who says that Bobby Parker inspired him to play guitar, made the song a staple of his band’s repertoire, and Del Shannon’s 1965 near-hit “Move It On Over” took the “Watch Your Step” template and sent it into proto-metal overdrive. The Beatles were but one of many who tried to recapture the greatness of Parker’s signature tune.

As you may have surmised, the original 1961 recording of “Watch Your Step” was ahead of its time, but just as bands like The Beatles created something different by building on influences from the past, Bobby Parker has admitted that “Watch Your Step” resulted from putting a new spin on old favorites: “It was a take-off on ‘Manteca’ by Dizzy Gillespie. I started playing the riff on my guitar and decided to make a blues out of it. We were influenced by Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say.’” [2] Let’s dissect that statement a bit. Dizzy Gillespie’s 1947 recording of “Manteca” was a landmark in itself, one of the pioneering records in the field of Latin jazz. It was an exciting performance, based on a strong-yet-slippery groove and—that’s right—a hypnotic, circular riff. But Parker didn’t simply appropriate the riff from “Manteca”; he transformed it, filling in all the empty spaces and recasting it in a decidedly sinister fashion. To complement this new lick, the “What’d I Say” rhythm was an obvious choice. Ray Charles’ 1959 classic was, like “Manteca,” a landmark in itself, becoming Brother Ray’s breakthrough on the pop charts and eventually one of the most covered songs of all-time. The rhythm on "What'd I Say" crossed the line between jazz and R&B, galloping along with a proto go-go feel established by the frantic drums and buoyant electric piano. Parker simply retained the drumbeat and pressed his guitar into service to replace the electric piano. This set “Watch Your Step” apart from “What’d I Say” in a remarkable fashion. Whereas Charles’ piano chords drove “What’d I Say,” Parker’s arpeggio-based riffing propelled “Watch Your Step,” creating a greater sense of urgency. That sense of urgency found its way into the grooves of “I Feel Fine,” albeit in a somewhat diluted form—“I Feel Fine” is a happy, feel-good song after all—and Lennon and Harrison’s guitar work cleverly mixed arpeggios with relaxed chording to incorporate a buoyant effect similar to that of Charles’ electric piano. The influence of “What’d I Say” (and “Watch Your Step,” for that matter) was not lost on Ringo Starr either, as he retained the basic rhythm but inverted the drumming pattern: instead of tapping the rim of the snare and then hitting the tom-tom twice, he hit the tom-tom twice and then tapped the rim of the snare. One could say that “I Feel Fine” resulted from a seemingly endless cycle of people ripping each other off, but think about how The Beatles added their distinctive three-part harmonies to the mix and threw in a bridge that totally broke away from the song’s main riff and rhythm. Again, they were simply doing what Bobby Parker before them had done: building on influences from the past to create something new and different.

WNEW-FM in New York City hosted John Lennon as a guest on September 28, 1974. He played Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step” and revealed that it inspired the riff for a Beatles song called.......”Day Tripper”! [1] But this one is a bit more of a thinker than “I Feel Fine.” For “Day Tripper,” which came out a year after our other Bobby Parker-influenced Beatles song, Lennon essentially did the opposite of what Parker had done with “Manteca.” Lennon took the “Watch Your Step” riff and made it less intricate, reducing it to its bare essence so that it sounded totally different at first. But listen to “Day Tripper” and sing the “Watch Your Step” riff along with it; it fits like a hand in a glove. Of course, the “Day Tripper” riff has become even more of a classic than the “I Feel Fine” riff, widely acknowledged as one of the first licks you must learn if you want to be a rock guitarist. Perhaps somebody ought to start a campaign to get Bobby Parker into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So, the big question remains: how can you hear all of this stuff? At the time of this writing, most of it is easy to find. “I Feel Fine” and “Day Tripper” are, like all Beatles recordings, off limits to the legal digital music services. However, these songs are basically “Beatles 101” and can be found on numerous Beatles compilations and heard all over the radio; if you care at all about The Beatles, you probably already own these tunes. “Manteca” and “What’d I Say” are similarly essential listening for Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles and if you own a “Greatest Hits” or “Best Of” on either artist you are bound to have these tracks. Furthermore, they are available on major digital music services, so you can download them legally and safely. Sadly, finding “Watch Your Step” will be the biggest challenge, but it is far from impossible. There is of course the original 45, but if you’re looking to take advantage of more recent technology, you do have some options. The original recording is apparently not available for legal download, but a latter-day re-recording of the song appeared on Parker’s 1993 album Bent Out Of Shape and can be found on iTunes (but not Napster). This new version is a bit slower and lacks the original’s Ray Charles feel, but it is still quite good and the riff is still there. As for the original 1961 version, it has appeared on a few various artists CDs. Your best bet is to check out Volume 7 of Ace Records’ excellent Golden Age of American Rock ‘n’ Roll series. It’s an import from the UK, but it can be found for a good price at specialty shops and from major online retailers. Like all volumes in this series, it features many bona fide classics that hit the American charts before the British Invasion, and serves as an important chapter in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.

More information and music:

[1] Here, There and Everywhere: The 100 Best Beatles Songs by Stephen J. Spignesi and Michael Lewis, Black Dog & Leventhal, 2004.

[2] Rob Finnis' liner notes from The Golden Age of American Rock ‘n’ Roll, Volume 7, Ace Records (UK), 1998.

Copyright © 2007 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.


  1. A Video of Hard but it's fair & once upon the time (from 1968 & 1958) plus a biography,

  2. Very informative and interesting. Bobby Parker's "Watch Your Step" is on American One Hit Wonders of 1961 Vol. 5 (iTunes); Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca" several versions on iTunes but the Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1994 Remastered is wonderful. Something interesting is Stormy's 'The Devastator' on Eccentric Soul: Twinights Lunar Rotation produced by Johnny Colley (Stormy) and Howard Scott (Midday Music BMI) September 1967 -- Chicago Numero Group sound. Not sure who influenced John Colley but given his collaborations and recording interests I'd think Dizzy/Pozo's "Manteca" and possibly John Lennon's take on 'Manteca' in 'Day Tripper' and 'I Feel Fine.'


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