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Graham Parker’s Soul Shoes Still Fit

In Music
STEADY NERVES 45 years after the release of his first record, Graham Parker still charts his own course. (photo credit: Laurence Watson)

STEADY NERVES 45 years after the release of his first record, Graham Parker still charts his own course. (photo credit: Laurence Watson)

Guitarist, singer and songwriter Graham Parker first came to the attention of American audiences during the punk and new wave era of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. As a result, he was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as acts like the Sex Pistols. But musically, he had little in common with punk bands.

Drawing inspiration from a wide variety of sources—including American soul and R&B—Parker had more in common with thoughtful, incisive artists like Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. But he didn’t sound like them, either. Instead, Parker carved out a sound and sensibility all his own, audible on classic records like 1979’s Squeezing Out Sparks, and visible in his role as himself in the 2007 Judd Apatow film This is 40.

While he good-naturedly dismisses his early infatuation with soul music as “just another youthful phase that came and went like all the rest did,” it’s clear that many of those musical values stuck to him. It helped that he was exposed to some of those records before others his age in Britain.

Born in 1950, Parker grew up near Surrey, south of London, where his mother sometimes waitressed at the nearby army camp to earn a bit of extra money. Army officers transferred in and out. Often when they left, they would decide that taking their records along was too much trouble. Parker’s mom brought the orphaned LPs and singles home.

“The connection was almost immediate,” Parker recalls. “I’m 13 years old, and this soul music starts creeping into my awareness.”

Soon after, a cousin gave him a copy of the landmark LP Otis Blue / Otis Redding Sings Soul.

“I had this record and would sit and listen to it and cry, a 14-year-old kid absolutely moved to tears by this guy,” he says.

By age 15, Parker was frequenting dance clubs that opened in the afternoon. From there, his tastes broadened further when he saw Jamaican ska/reggae legends The Skatalites at a club.

“Then psychedelia raised its head,” he recalls with a chuckle. “So then, it was tripping out listening to Hendrix and Pink Floyd, things that were incomprehensible to me before I got into what you have to do to fully understand them.” Next, came an infatuation with British blues, attending concerts by the original Fleetwood Mac (featuring guitarist Peter Green) and Chicken Shack.

Still, his love for soul music never left him.

“I guess I was in my early 20s when I suddenly heard ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ on the radio again,” Parker says.

By that time, he was already a budding songwriter. “I was trying to make something of it after a lot of traveling around doing the hippie thing in Morocco, working in Gibraltar and the Channel Islands,” he says. There, he found himself once again obsessed with the rhythmic structures and distinctive vocals of soul. “Something clung to my head that, ‘That is the way to go.’”

Parker describes mainstream rock of the ‘70s in England as being of a particular type. “If a band formed in Surrey, they were likely to have long hair, wear denim suits and play extremely plodding blues-based prog rock,” a style he laughingly describes as “the worst type of music ever.”

By the middle to late 1970s in England, punk—and a style of music retroactively dubbed “pub rock”—offered an alternative to all that. Parker’s original music folded soul, R&B and reggae into something that was at once rooted in established musical traditions, yet fresh and exciting.

Of the five albums he made with The Rumour between 1976-1980, four charted in the UK. Six out of seven consecutive Parker LPs hit the charts in the States. Scattered singles like “Temporary Beauty,” “Wake Up (Next to You)” and “Get Started, Start a Fire” have raised his profile, but it’s in concert—both with bands and as a solo artist—that he is best experienced.

Today, at age 70, Parker remains every bit the compelling songwriter, singer and performer. With nearly two dozen studio LPs (and as many live albums) to his credit, he’s still doing things his way, building on the foundation established decades ago in a little suburb south of London.

Graham Parker
Wed, 7:30pm, $44+
Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga

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