Ask Denis Parker what it is, exactly, that he likes about the blues, and you might as well be asking him for the meaning of life.
“I’m not even going to bother answering that one,” he says, chuckling, after pausing for a second. Maybe he means the question is just so vast, he doesn’t know where to start. Or maybe it’s just the way it is, no explanation necessary.
It was his cohort, fellow blues guitarist and close friend, the late Peter Narváez, who managed to get the details of Parker’s musical epiphany, in an interview with him in 1998.
“The first time I heard the blues was on BBC Radio in the late fifties, early sixties,” Narváez quoted Parker as saying in an article on the RowdyBlues website. “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.
“That’s when I just said, This is it. I didn’t need to look any further. I stopped buying everything (rock). As soo 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.”
Parker, who grew up in London, came to Newfoundland in November 1971, having met the members of Lukey’s Boat across the pond who convinced him to move here and start a band. At this point, Parker was a well-established musician, with two records on the EMI label with Panama Limited Jug Band under his belt (the albums, by the way, have been remastered and re-released and are available at Fred’s Records on Duckworth Street).
Landing in Gander, Parker and the other members of Mantis — Neil Bishop on guitar, Al Smith on bass, and an English bloke, Peter Huish, on drums — rehearsed for a few months, then opened for Chilliwack in St. John’s. Parker eventually moved to St. John’s, and over the years played in a series of groups, including TNT, Garrison Hill and Pinnacle. Most regularly, Parker performs with the Denis Parker Band.
Parker and Narváez, himself an accomplished guitarist, are known as the fathers of blues in Newfoundland — a moniker of which Parker is proud.
“I’m stoked about that, because no one was doing blues when we came here,” Parker said. “He got here at the same time as me, and we started hanging out and got to be very good friends and solid mates. We both obviously loved that blues genre. Now we’ve got young musicians like Nick Earle and Joseph Coffin, who are keeping the blues flame alive.”
Parker’s newest musical endeavour is Modern Saints, a band with Mick Davis, Elliot Dicks and another longtime musical partner, John Clarke. The guys have just finished recording an album of original tunes, written by Parker over the past couple of years, which they’re planning to release before Christmas.
“The songs that I’m writing just demanded more than an acoustic kind of setting, because the album is electric,” Parker explained of his recruitment of Davis and Dicks. “It’s real magic happening between the four of us.”
Parker said he’s already started thinking about the next Modern Saints album, and is also working on a solo record, with a more folky-blues, singer/songwriter feel, which he hopes to release in a year or so.
In August 1996, Parker took over as executive director of the province’s music industry association (now MusicNL), playing a keen role in advocating, for and furthering the careers of local musicians.
It’s a position he held right up until the end of June, when he announced he was retiring. Though he’s had some heart trouble over the years, most recently in 2010, when he suffered a heart attack, his health is good, he said, and he’s retiring simply to refocus on his music career, which he considers to have taken a back seat.
As of Sept. 2, Bonnie Fedrau, a music industry professional from the mainland and part of the team that signed Great Big Sea to Warner Music Canada, will take up the position at MusicNL.
“I’ve been there 17 years, and that’s long enough. Probably a bit too long,” Parker says with a laugh about his long-held position with the association.
“Since I’ve been at the helm I’ve been pleased with what I’ve accomplished, but now it’s time for somebody else to take it over. I’m no spring chicken. It’s time to get back to what I think I do best, and that’s writing and performing music.”
Thursday night, MusicNL will hold “A Night for Denis Parker” at the Rockhouse on George Street in St. John’s, with performances by Modern Saints, Chris Kirby and the Marquee, Darryl Cooper, Duane Andrews and Craig Young, and Low Yo Stuff.
“The province of Newfoundland and Labrador has known no greater advocate than that found in Denis Parker,” MusicNL president Peter Daniel Newman said in a written statement.
“He has been a leader, mentor, musician and teacher to the music community, and his contribution to our industry cannot be overstated.”
Parker is humbled by the celebration of his accomplishments — which he also hopes will be a party to relaunch his music career.
“It’s been a long career so far, and hopefully it will go on a lot longer,” he said. “I’m so grateful to my friends, fans and family that this is happening on Thursday, and it’s going to be a great time.”
Tickets for “A Night for Denis Parker” are $20, and are available in advance at Fred’s Records and The Ship.