Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Song A Day: Bobby Parker, "Watch Your Step"

JUNE 8, 2017



RELEASED 1961 ON 7”45

Bobby Parker’s rollicking, bluesy mover “Watch Your Step” was a #51 pop hit that had a much larger impact than its chart placing would indicate.

“Watch Your Step” made a clear impact on British bands of the 1960s. As one of the records in John Lennon’s traveling jukebox, and a part of the Beatles' stage set in the early 60s, it’s the missing link between Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” and “I Feel Fine.”

With its basic bluesy riff, call-and-response vocals, wailing vocal, frenetic tempo, and tough backing, “Watch Your Step” is like an amphetamine-rush take on Ray Charles’ masterpiece. Parker ramps up the drama, replacing the electric piano with a chunky electric guitar that makes clear his bluesy leanings.

The chugging Latin rhythm invokes Charles, too, as does the adventurous jazz of Dizzy Gillespie (an admitted reference), Miles Davis, and even Mongo Santamaria.

Other bands (e.g., Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds, the Allman Brothers) appropriated took Parker’s “Watch Your Step” riff—which, to be fair, is derived both from Brother Ray and from basic blues patterns—and moved it in new directions. At least some acts covered Parker’s songs directly and paid him royalties.

There are some strange little pieces to the “Watch Your Step” story. First off, Parker was a west coast-based artist, but his 45 of “Watch Your Step” was issued by V-Tone, a label out of Philadelphia that had enjoyed moderate success in doo-wop but hardly specialized in Parker’s frenetic R&B.

Parker’s home crew came through, however; the record picked up airplay in Los Angeles and San Francisco in early May. A month later, “Watch Your Step” cracked the Billboard music chart and in five weeks reached #51 in the U.S. before quickly dropping from popularity. By this point, it had also broken out in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, but never seems to have hit out east.

What’s strange is that despite its relatively successful stint on Billboard, “Watch Your Step” did not appear, not even once, on the industry’s other top 100 charts in Cashbox or Record World. Not even as one of their “looking ahead” records. It is really, really uncommon for a song to hit that big on one chart and not trouble the others.

Given that Cashbox and RW data mostly came from record sales, and Billboard data garnered more from radio airplay, perhaps “Watch Your Step” wasn’t distributed well enough by V-Tone to reach a lot of record stores. Perhaps something nefarious was going on. I don’t suppose anyone’s around to tell us now.

More than a decade later, John Lennon shared “Watch Your Step” with thousands of radio listeners, playing it when he was a guest DJ on Dennis Elsas’ program on WNEW-FM. It’s probable that most of the listeners had never even heard of the record.

Bobby Parker died at age 76 in 2013.

1 comment:

  1. The Beatles played this during the Get Back/Let it Be sessions. In a book about bootlegs, the author, unfamiliar with the song, wondered if it was possible that the group had heard Led Zeppelin's live by January of 1969, since they seemed to know "Moby Dick". He thought it unlikely, especially since it's unclear if the song would have even been in their repertoire yet, but didn't know what the song was. I thought that was funny.