Bandleader, sideman, artist and composer Robert Parker died at his Roseland, Louisiana home on January 19 from natural causes. He was 89. Best known for the infectious, international hit “Barefootin’,” he was elected to the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2012, he received the OffBeat Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement Award along with Frankie Ford, Jean Knight, the Dixie Cups, Frankie Ford, Ernie Vincent, Al Johnson and Clarence Henry.
Joseph Irrera, who managed the awards ceremony, remembered the night Parker was honored: “Each of the artists was supposed to do one song with Ernie’s [Vincent] band. Robert was sitting at a table next to the stage looking really old and frail. When it was time for Robert, I thought ‘How am I going to get him up on stage?’ As soon as the band started playing ‘Barefootin’’ he transformed into a younger version of himself, wowing the audience.”
Born at Charity Hospital on October 14, 1930, he grew up in Central City along with several future musicians/artists including Danny White, Huey Smith and Sugar Boy Crawford.
“I wanted to play saxophone because Louis Jordan inspired me,” recalled Parker in 1999. “I played in the band at Lafont and Booker T. Washington High School. Professor Longhair was playing at the Caledonia Inn. I’d go down there on Sunday evenings when they had jam sessions. Fess asked me if I wanted a job because he needed a saxophone player. When he got a contract to record , we did the first version of ‘Mardi Gras In New Orleans.’”
Parker also played on the Professor Longhair classics “Baldhead” and “Tipitina,” staying with Fess up until 1953. At that point he was hired to lead the band at the legendary Tijuana Club.
“I was there five years. My job was to warm up the house and back the featured artists. I walked the bar and played under table on my back. Talent agents came to the Tijuana. That’s where they found Guitar Slim, Huey Smith and Bobby Marchan,” Parker once said.
By 1955, Parker was starting to get calls for working down at Cosimo Matassa’s Studio on several Specialty and Ace sessions. Parker was also hired by Huey Smith and he played on the road and on several of Huey’s early hits.
In the late 1950s, Parker was hired by booking agent Percy Stovall to lead a band to back out-of-town artists.
“We had a strong front line. Stovall hired us to back people like Roy Brown, Big Joe Turner, Solomon Burke and Amos Milburn. We played in every city between Florida and Texas. We made $25 a night on the road,” Parker said.
Parker did wax a couple of instrumentals but they didn’t really move the needle. By the mid-1960s, R&B bands and artists were beginning to suffer due to the British invasion. Stovall still booked the band most weekends, but to make ends meet Parker also worked as an orderly at Charity. But then fate stepped in—barefooted, no less.
“We were playing a dance at Tuskegee University. The girls all took off their shoes before they danced. [Later] we played a date in Miami with a comedian. His opening line was ‘Everybody get on your feet, you make me nervous when you’re in your seat.’ That was my opening line and I worked on the rest. I finished ‘Barefootin’’ and took it to Wardell Quezerque [NOLA Records]. I recorded it but they offered the song to other artists.”
“Barefootin’” remained on the shelf for a year, but in 1966 the record “busted open” on New Orleans radio and quickly spread. The record zoomed up the national charts. His first date out-of-town was as headliner at the famed Apollo Theater in New York City for a week before going on the road with Joe Tex and the Temptations.
A hastily assembled LP was issued as were several sound alike follow ups but predictably they stalled. After NOLA Records imploded [costing Parker much of his royalties] Allen Toussaint recorded Parker in 1969 for Silver Fox, but his singles languished. By the early 1970s, Parker was playing in Clarence Henry’s band six nights a week at the La Strada on Bourbon Street.
In 1974, Parker reunited with Quezergue for a session at SeaSaint Studio. A great single “Give Me the Country Side of Life” was leased to Island Records and did well locally and “bubbled under” in the national charts. By then the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was gaining steam and Parker appeared there every year for decades.
By the 1980s, he caught a couple breaks when “Barefootin’” was used in a Spic ’n’ Span television commercial. The song was also reissued in 1987 in the UK and charted, both of which were money makers.
In 1999, fortune again smiled on Parker when one of his NOLA compositions, “Where The Action Is,” was used in the promotion of the opening of Harrah’s Casino. By then, Parker actually was enjoying the country side of life, as he and his wife of 40 years had moved to the Northshore and were living in a spacious double-wide in Roseland.