One of the biggest hit records New Orleans ever produced, Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’” was on everybody’s turntable back in 1966. Parker was a rare artist who made the transition from sideman to headliner practically overnight. A saxophonist, who grew up in Central City, Parker got a break when he joined Professor Longhair’s band, the Shuffling Hungarians, in 1949. Parker played joints like the Pepper Pot and the Caledonia Inn with Longhair, and also played on several of his early recordings. Eventually, Parker joined the house band at the Club Tijuana, backing everything from female impersonators to Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Little Richard. He also briefly worked with Huey Smith and the Clowns.
Around 1957, Parker was hired by local booking agent Percy Stovall to lead the band that backed the national artists he hired through his Continental Agency. Robert Parker and the Royals backed Jimmy Reed, Solomon Burke, Ted Taylor, Sam Cooke and more on a circuit that roughly ran along Highway 90 from Florida to California. When back in New Orleans, Parker picked up a few recording sessions and managed to have isolated instrumental singles on Ron and Imperial. In 1963, the bottom fell out of the New Orleans R&B industry and, in order to compensate for the dearth of work as a musician, Parker took a job as an orderly at Charity Hospital. However, Parker would soon barefoot to prosperity.
“Stovall booked a gig at Tuskegee University in Alabama,” recalled Parker in 1999. “The girls took their shoes off and piled them in front of the bandstand before they danced. That stayed with me. Then we went on the road with Chris Kenner. We went to Miami and played a show with a comedian. When he came on stage he said, ‘Everybody get on your feet, you make me nervous when you’re n your seat.’ That rang a bell. When I started writing ‘Barefootin’,’ that was the opening line, then I worked in the other ideas. I took the song to Wardell Quezergue. He was the A&R man for NOLA Records. NOLA was Clinton Scott, Ulis Gaines, Wurley Burley and Wardell. I cut a demo that Wardell liked, but Scott and Gaines didn’t. They offered the song to other artists, but I cut it.
“NOLA sat on the tune for nearly a year. Finally, Hank Sample, the singing deejay [on WBOK] heard it. He had a record shop on Claiborne Avenue. He told Gaines, ‘Man this is really going to go big.’ So NOLA pressed a couple boxes of records and gave them to Hank. They sold right away. Then Gaines took the record to the local stations and it started to bust open. NOLA made a deal with Cosimo [Matassa] to distribute the record through Dover. All of a sudden, my life went from worse to better. My first out of town gig was a week at the Apollo [in Harlem].
“On the first show I did ‘Barefootin’,’ but it didn’t go over. Before the second show, the emcee came to my dressing room and said, ‘Robert, you got a hit record, you got to go out and sell yourself. You got a record out there called” Barefootin’.” Go out onstage without your shoes on.’ I did and the audience gave me a big ovation. After that, I went on the road with the Four Tops, the Marvelettes and Joe Tex.”
“Barefootin’” was irresistible because it combined the old New Orleans syncopated beat with contemporary soul. Along with “Tell It Like It Is,” it briefly lifted the New Orleans recording scene out of the mid to 1960s doldrums. “Barefootin’” missed topping the charts by one place and reached number seven in the pop charts in the U.S.A. It was a huge international hit as well, even reaching the U.K. charts for the second time in 1987.
Parker followed “Barefootin’” with several local hits over the next decade. He continued to perform at a few local oldies shows into the 1980s, and eventually moved to the Northshore. Sadly, he no longer performs, though he says he would under the right conditions. Fortunately, the income from “Barefootin’” allows him to live comfortably.