The Blues of Denis Parker
For over three decades Denis Parker has been one of Newfoundland and Labradors most admired blues performers and a commanding presence in the live music scene of St. John's. Having known and played music with Denis since 1974, the thought of interviewing him for this article at first seemed like an exercise in reviewing what I already knew. One tends to assume a great deal about long time friends. I was very surprised, therefore, by the many revelations I heard during an interview I conducted with him on the evening of January 27, 1998. In particular, I was fascinated to hear details of the origins of Denis's lifelong excursion into the blues, details which provide insights into the roots of his last recording project, Snowman Blues, a CD of acoustic blues recorded by Don Walsh at Dadyeen Studios in St. John's.
Denis was raised in Fulham, a working-class residential area on the Thames River in west London adjacent to Chelsea. As a youngster he was educated at local schools. At age twelve he attended a new form of "Comprehensive School" in Hollam Park with 2000 students. Denis explains, that unlike "single stream" schools, his triple stream Comprehensive School "gave a bloke a chance; you could work your way up." Denis proudly recalls moving up from the "Central System" to the "Grammar Stream." His interest in music, however, predominated.
At school we had a singing group, my friend Bill and Colin and myself and we were called The Haystacks. And we did a lot of Impressions' songs, Curtis Mayfield, like "People Get Ready" . And we used no instruments, cause of course we couldn't play anything, although I was taking trumpet in music class. But we loved singing and we sang three part harmonies on these songs just around the schoolyard and around the playground.
Shortly after his involvement in a cappella singing, Denis took up the guitar and began playing rock and roll; he started off with Buddy Holly and assorted rockabilly. Next, he was attracted to the "cool" blues-jazz sound of vocalist-pianist Mose Allison. It was at this juncture that he was "converted" to African-American blues. Denis vividly remembers his musical epiphany.
The first time I heard the blues was on BBC radio in the late fifties early sixties. It was a BBC show and it was Memphis Slim and he did three songs, I'll never forget it! He did "Going Down Slow" and he did "El Capitan." Oh God! That just slayed me. You know it was late at night. You're not supposed to have the radio on and here you are listening to this and when I heard that "El Capitan!" "Big Legged Woman" was the other one. That's when I just said "This is it!" I didn't need to look any further. I stopped buying everything [rock]. As soon as I heard those tracks; it was piano but it was still the feeling and the sense of the music all came together, the form of it. I said, "That's it!" and I didn't look any further.
While BBC radio provided occasional inspiration, it was a series of lectures by blues historian Paul Oliver, probably sponsored by the British National Blues Federation, that provided Denis with a framework for understanding the development of blues as an African-American form.
I used to listen to BBC radio a lot. Of course that was one of the only radio stations on the go in those days really, except for the pirate stations and they didn't really play the kind of music I was trying to find. So I was listening to this BBC show and Paul Oliver had these books out, Conversation With the Blues, Blues Fell This Morning. I had read one or two of them at that time. And I heard this thing on the radio with him and it was excellent. He was playing all these old 78s. And he had an exhibition down in Grosvenor Square where the American Embassy is in London just off Park Lane. So anyway, I went down there on a Sunday on my own. So I wanted to catch this. What it was, well in the lobby they had this magnificent photo exhibition of blues artists. Mostly rural blues artists. And a few of them like Howling Wolf, a bit of Chicago stuff. And then right as I got there. I didn't realize this but he was doing like a lecture and it was over a period of three weeks. And I caught the last two weeks. You'd go down into this lecture theatre and there is Paul Oliver with this old gramophone and a stack of records. And he was just talking and going on about everything and then playing examples. And I was spellbound. There was only fifty or sixty people in this place that could hold four or five hundred. It was just what I was looking for. It wasn't long after that that I was going to the clubs and seeing Howling Wolf and Slim Harpo and Jimmy Reed.
Not content with simply playing with school chums, Denis began performing publicly as a soloist at various folk clubs: "You'd put your name down and you'd get up and play two songs, kind of like Wom/men Jammin' at The Fat Cat [Tuesday nights] or the Folk Club at the Blarney Stone [Wednesday nights]." The contacts Denis made at his folk club appearances spawned a group named Special Streamline, after a Bukka White song recorded in 1940 (Vocalion). From 1966 through 1967 he also jammed with a blues group featuring Gary Compton (harmonica) and Brian Strachan (guitar)the Panama Limited Jugband, also named after a Bukka White song (Victor 1930). The band was based in the Richmond area of London, which at the time "was kind of a hotbed for blues, especially acoustic style blues." Shortly thereafter, however, Denis became disenchanted with the music business.
I hung up the guitar then and got a straight, steady job for two years cause I figured, "This is no life for DP. I've got to get something straight here or else I'm not going to go to heaven" [laughs]! For two years I managed a company that made lights which attached to picture framesLinoLight.
But then one day in 1969 Denis received a fateful phone call "out of the blue" from someone in the Panama Limited Jugband which spelled the end of his day job.
They asked me to go and have a practice with them because they had gotten a recording contract with EMI records, Harvest Records. Knowing Brian and knowing the rest of them I'd say the contract was more of a fluke than anything else. They're not like the best business people on the planet!
Armed with a recording contract the Panama Limited Jugband initially gigged at a large number of London coffee houses, the best known being the Troubadour at Ellis Court. One night at the Troubadour, PLJ played on the same bill with Stefan Grossman, a performer of acoustic blues guitar instrumentals and the author of many blues guitar instruction manuals which provide note-for-note transcriptions of classic downhome blues recordings. Brian Strachan's negative appraisal of Grossman's playing that evening, a sentiment with which Denis obviously concurs, reflects PLJ's commitment to the emotional feel of blues music.
We played there with Stefan Grossman. Brian hated Stefan, of course. He thought Grossman was totally hopeless. No feel whatsoever, just guitar licks straight off the record. Brian said that Grossman went to live with [African-American] blues guys, sucking up to them, getting them to show him how to do licks he couldn't get off the record. And Brian was just totally disgusted with him. It was great! Oh he could go on for an hour about Stefan Grossman!
The commercial recording commitment of the Panama Limited Jugband, later Panama Limited, prompted Denis to write songs, a pursuit that he has continued to this day. Performing a mixed repertoire of original and classic jugband songs (Memphis Jug Band, Cannon's Jug Stompers) PLJ landed engagements at universities that brought the band in contact with other elements of the English folksong revival. Shortly after the issue of their second recording, however, the band ceased being profitable.
In '69 we did the Jugband record [Harvest / EMI Records, The Panama Limited Jugband]. Then in '70 we did the next record [Harvest / EMI Records, Indian Summer] which had to be original. So that's when I started writing and I wrote eighty percent of the record. They dropped the "Jugband" part; it was just "Panama Limited" now. And then we weren't doing a hell of a lot after that and it was a tough time. You couldn't get many gigs. We could get gigs at universities like at Cambridge and Canterbury and places like that. I remember we did some gigs like that with the Young Tradition, those guys with their fingers in their ears [cupped hand over ear, a technique for improved hearing of one's own voice, common to ballad revivalists]. They're really good. They were really spine-chilling. I didn't really understand the music because it wasn't blues. I guess it was my own music; it was English music!
The story of how Denis eventually came to Newfoundland is a fascinating combination of serendipity and strategy.
I bumped into a girl from Newfoundland. My mate and me saw these two girls walking down the street at Gloucester Road one Friday night. We took them to a pub. One of them was Karen Stirling, Geoff Stirling's niece. And she was going out with Al Smith who was the bass player with Lukey's Boat. So I met Al and we had a lot in common immediately cause of music. So he says, "you've got to come down and meet Neil [Bishop]." So we went down to a basement apartment in Sloane Square. There were six people sleeping on the floor and a grand piano, that was the only thing that was in the room! [The members of Lukey's Boat had won a free trip to England to record as a result of a band competition in Montreal; many of them stayed in England for a year]. And I met Neil and did some jamming. At this point I had all these original songs that I couldn't use with Panama Limited. And Neil said, "Come on over to Newfoundland and we'll start a band." Panama Limited wasn't doing anything so I said, "I'm going. Shag it!"
Locating first in Gander, Denis originally had a six month work permit but ...
I worked one day over it and they deported me. I was only away for two or three weeks at Christmas time. I applied for landed status as a "rock and roll musician" and got in. I had some pretty heavy references.
After several months in Gander Denis moved to St. John's where he played with a series of groups that loom large in the history of rock in NewfoundlandMantis, Banty Rooster, Garrison Hill, Pinnacle, and TNT.
It was myself and Neil all the way through. Al Smith played with Mantis and Banty Rooster. The drummer for Banty Rooster was Neil's brother Brian. And we were all playing with Garrison Hill and then when Garrison Hill split up Teddy MacNeil, Claude Caines, Neil and myself formed Pinnacle. And they started TNT without me. I went away. I met Christina Kenny [Parker] in '74, '75. She went to Laval to study French. Everything was falling apart for me here so I decided to go with her. I started playing a lot there. I met Gaston [Gagnon] and I met Ricky Weston, a great harmonica player, and we had a duo and then a band on the go. Then we were playing all around the province. That lasted a year. We moved to Toronto and I played on the street for six months. Then at the end of that, that's when Neil called me. He said, "Look, I've got the studio up and running why don't you come back and we're going to record a TNT album with you and the boys with Elaine Kilpatrick [superb blues vocalist from Alabama who lived in Newfoundland for several years and now resides in Toronto]." And I said, "fine." And we moved to Stephenville and recorded the album. Then the group broke up as soon as the album came out [TNT, Quay Records, 1977]. And I moved back to St. John's and I did "Some Slick" [collectively written drama about Hibernia oil discovery] with the Mummers Troupe. And that was back in 1979, '80.
Since then Denis has specialized in blues with a number of well-known electric blues ensembles including Iceberg Alley, The Rhythm Method, and most regularly, the Denis Parker Band. His continuing commitment to acoustic blues has been evident in: an acoustic band, the Cookstown Jukes (featured in an hour concert on Holger Peterson's CBC Radio's "Saturday Night Blues"); duets with Roger Howse (cassette recordings Eagle Ridin' Papas  and Rollin' and Tumblin' ) and Scott Goudie; and regular gigs as a blues soloist. Besides performing in clubs, he has taught guitar and studied blues forms and history. In 1986, he co-hosted a series of CBC radio programmes (with Peter Narváez), produced by Glen Tilley, on the history of the blues entitled "Red, Hot, and Blue." Since August 1994 he has held the position of Executive Director of the Music Industry Association, an organization that has been pivotal in furthering the careers of musicians throughout the province.
Denis's most recent CD, Snowman Blues, was recorded by Don Walsh and mixed by Gaston Gagnon at Dadyeen Studios in St. John's. Highlighting his songwriting, Snowman Blues features Deniss adroit fingerpicking guitar style and inimitable vocals. In addition to four solo tracks including "Whiskey Headed Woman," "Searchin' For My Baby," and "I Don't Want No Trouble," other songs include a number of guest musiciansNeil Bishop (guitar), Patrick Boyle (trumpet), Mike Connolly (guitar), Gaston Gagnon (guitar), Scott Goudie (slide guitar), Rick Hollett (accordion), Patrick Moran (violin), and Peter Narváez (harmonica).