Howard County native, Winfield Parker, reminisces about playing alongside Little Richard. He’s among the performers at Saturday’s Maryland Traditions Folkilfe Festival at the Creative Alliance. (Chris Kaltenbach/Baltimore Sun video)
Thank goodness singers get all the attention. Were it otherwise, Winfield Parker, a man who has worked with and toured alongside such greats as Little Richard, Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner and Barbara Mason, might have spent the past 57 years playing saxophone or guitar behind someone else's vocals, depriving popular music of one if its finest voices.
The time was the late '50s, and a teenage Parker and his cousins, students at Harriet Tubman High School in Clarksville in Howard County, had started their own band, the Veejays. Parker had been introduced to music through the gift of a guitar, and had started playing the saxophone. But that wasn't where the attention, or the money, was. And he wanted both.
"The side man didn't make no money, the front man was getting all the glory," Parker, 73, says with a laugh during an interview in the basement of his Sykesville home. "Everybody, even the girls, they were just after the front man. And the money jumped from $25 and $30 a night to make $150 a night? Oh yeah, I figured I got to get singing."
Which he did. And nothing has stopped him — not changing musical styles, not a run-in with the law, not a bout with throat cancer a few years back.
Winfield Parker is still singing — better than ever, in his own opinion. Saturday, his performance is guaranteed to be one of the highlights of the Maryland State Arts Council's sixth Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival, set for noon-8 p.m. at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown. The annual celebration brings together the diverse strands, stretching from the streets of Baltimore to the mountains of Asia, that are woven together into Maryland's rich cultural tapestry.
It's a safe bet that no performer Saturday will have a better or more extensive backstory than Parker. The native of Cooksville has been singing, touring and making records since he was 16. His story reads like a road map of the past half-century of regional R&B: playing sax behind Little Richard ("Never got to know him real well," Parker says, "but the musicians, now I really had fun with those guys"), cutting singles in his early days for Baltimore-based Ru-Jac Records, one of the country's first African-American-owned record labels; performing all over the East Coast and beyond, achieving a modicum of chart success (his most successful single, a 1971 cover of Edwin Starr's "S.O.S. (Stop Her on Sight)," reached No. 48 on the Billboard charts); and once, thanks to a cruel twist of fate he can smile about today, barely missing out on what could have been rock immortality.
That would have come in the mid-'60s. His band, known as the Imperial Thrillers, backed an up-and-coming soul singer named Otis Redding during a show at Carr's Beach, near Annapolis. Redding liked what he heard, so much that he took much of the band out on the road with him ("I gave him half of my band," is how Parker remembers it). Later, Redding agreed to produce Parker, as well as another young singer looking to make a splash, Arthur Conley.
"Otis was supposed to record me, but [my manager] sent me to the wrong location," Parker says. "Arthur Conley was already in Muscle Shoals, Ala., ready to record. I was supposed to record 'Sweet Soul Music.' But the studio has been paid for, and since Arthur Conley was there and I wasn't. ... So, that's how that happened."
So OK, Winfield Parker missed becoming an oldies staple, like Conley and his 1967 single. But he's not complaining. His voice remains strong, his reputation among R&B aficionados stellar (a recently released CD with a photo of a sharp-dressed 22-year-old Parker on the cover, "Mr. Clean: Winfield Parker at Ru-Jac," includes such favorites as "My Love for You," "I Love You Just the Same" and "Mr. Clean," which doubled as his nickname).
He's been happily married to his wife, Sarah, for 22 years. He's got a part-time job as a tour bus driver, and he loves it. And since a rough patch in the 1980s, including a drug arrest in Montgomery County and a stint in prison, he's found renewed vigor as a minister — he's an assistant pastor at Cooksville's Full Gospel Baptist Church — and gospel singer. Parker's performances these days are split between R&B and gospel; he'll be concentrating on R&B at the Folklife Festival.
Not even a bout with throat cancer beginning in 2013 that cost him a half-dollar-sized piece of a lung has stopped him. His singing remains a treasure.
"It just came naturally," Parker says of the silky smooth voice that wraps itself around his audience like a warm hug. "I just started listening to different singers, put my own little style to it. Some people say I sound like Sam Cooke, some people say I sound like Jerry Butler, some people say I sound like Lou Rawls. But I'm me."