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Count Your Blessings: An Interview With Ken Parker « DanceCrasher

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Count Your Blessings: An Interview With Ken Parker

This interview was first published in 2003 in the Beat magazine. DanceCrasher would like to thank Mike Turner for allowing us to reproduce it.

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Ken Parker - A Glint Of GoldJamaican music changed yet again in the mid-’70s, as increasingly hard times resulted in a hard sound that emphasized themes of suffering, rebellion and redemption. As always with popular music, younger artists defined the style and in a short time many established artists faded from the scene. Many of the great harmony groups, like the Wailers and the Paragons, disbanded. A large cohort of popular soloists like Owen Gray, Winston Francis, Alton Ellis, Roy Shirley, Dave Barker and Ken Parker relocated to England, and many more once-popular artists were pushed to the periphery of the tough Jamaican recording scene. Listening now to their disembodied voices from long ago, you wonder what happened to some of these “lost” artists. One that’s always intrigued me has been Ken Parker. Born Ken Farquarson, he recorded at a time when soprano singers were the rage in Jamaica: Slim Smith, Pat Kelly, Leroy Sibbles, Dave Barker, Delano Stewart and Cornell Campbell, to name just those that come immediately to mind. Ken’s voice was perhaps the best of them of all, with an effortlessly pure soprano that, uniquely, was counterbalanced by a warm baritone.

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Ken was most productive during a half-decade spanning 1967 to 1973. These years in many ways were the high-water mark of the Jamaican music industry, when record sales reached their historical peak, and when the nation’s rich pool of talent and creativity enabled it to successfully challenge the soul and pop music that had hitherto dominated local radio play. It was a very competitive industry. For example, one of Ken’s biggest hits, “Jimmy Brown,” occupied the top spot in the Jamaican charts for six weeks in 1973, displacing not only top local artists like Dennis Brown, Big Youth, and Delroy Wilson, but also the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Ken cracked the charts at least a dozen times, sometimes with his own material, and more famously with cover versions that reflected Jamaica’s broad taste in music, everything from Otis Redding to Nat King Cole, the Everly Brothers and Jim Reeves to Joe Simon and Sam Cooke.

But Ken and his music seemed to disappear sometime in the middle ’70s. Aside from some albums recorded in the U.K. in the ’80s, Ken has remained well below the radar screen for almost three decades. A few years ago I was surprised to learn that Ken was living in Florida and I the interviewed him in conjunction with the release of his impressive retrospective called The Best Of/Groovin’in Style (Trojan). I spent several hours on the phone with him & it was obvious that while he may have been “lost” to some music aficionados,but never lost to himself at all. A confident and precise man, Ken and I spoke affably about his musical memories and he commented on various songs I played for him throughout our conversations.

September 1962Ken Parker: I was born in Sav-La-Mar in 1943. My father was a minister. So I come up in the church and was accustomed to singing just gospel songs but I also liked smooth singers like Brook Benton and Sam Cooke. Sometimes I would sing the Clyde Mc Phatter things and Jim Reeves things, also Ben E. King, Otis Redding. My early days I was attracted by those type of music, not what I listen to the local music [ska], it was what we call rag songs. Rag songs means not exactly clean songs and you couldn’t listen to that at home. In my home you couldn’t sing anything but church music. My dad and mom, whew: No no-no—no no. You couldn’t even think about it. There were things we couldn’t even think about as children: you couldn’t swear, you couldn’t keep bad company, if you go to the shop and you get over changed you have to take it back, you couldn’t have a girlfriend. [Laughing] There’s things that were forbidden to do, so you know, we would grow up strict. My father’s church was Holiness Church of God, and he was also overseer for a lot of other churches that came under his parsonage, so we would go to other districts where he would be ministering these other churches. We lived on church premises and our behaviour was monitored as the pastor’s children. There were ?ve brothers and three sisters, and all we need from him is one look or he’s gonna come down heavy. The Bible says you train the child the way you want him to grow, and I‘m proud of the way my mom and dad brought me up. I am fortunate to be his son. My father died in 1967, he was so well known, so well respected, so many people came to his funeral that me and my brothers couldn’t bear his casket. And I have seen, I have dreamed that he has gone to heaven.

Ken Parker - I Shall Not Be MovedI was not a quick learner in school and my dad wanted me to learn the building trade and one day when I went to my trade my boss said to me, which was around 5 o’clock, “We have a whole big batch of cement and sand and stone and all that stuff to mix” and at that time you have to use a shovel and mix it up. And when I looked at that and I saw that it would take around 9 or 10 o’clock to ?nish that. And I said to him that it was too late to do this amount. And he said to me “get your tools.” So then I gather my tools and he said “Yeah, y’know – you gotta go.” So when I went home and I told dad what happen, so dad said to me “Well, what you gonna do?” So it came to mind then because I was always interested in singing, I always strive to be the best, and the people I used to try to emulate were people who were in the higher bracket, who had very good control over their voices who sounds good. I knew that I could sing, I had been practising from age five years. So I said to him I was going to go to Kingston. I’m going to go and sing. And dad look at me and he said to me: ‘‘I would rather see your grave.” I mean he felt so strongly him being a minister. Because I’m sure at the time he thought I was a heard on the local scene. Because you couldn’t going to sing something to sort of denigrate his position as being a minister. But afterwards he realized that what I was doing was a respectable thing, because people start to inquire about me, then he was really pleased. But at the early stage he couldn’t see it. That was about I963.

Michael Turner: Were you a good singer in his church?
A: No! I was really shy. Everyone knew I had a good voice, [but] I sang in the back! So some guys in my district say that they were going to Kingston because they had relatives up there and they suggested to me why not come along. So I pay the fare for everybody that wanted to leave the country. I had no concept what Kingston really was. When I went up there man, you face reality.
[Laughing] It was something else. Kingston was the first place where I hear curse words.
[Laughing] Imagine, coming from a sheltered home and going into a place where around
midnight we had a lady that—she didn‘t have all her marbles. she was sort of Possessed, and she would swear until 2 o‘clock in the morning. Just curse words at the top of her lungs. And when I went to Kingston I met up with some guys who one sing bass and one sing tenor. And I form a group called the Blues Blenders. The other two guys one was named Gil and Bill.
Derrick Morgan & The Blues Blenders - It's Alright

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Q: The same Blues Blenders who backed up Derrick Morgan for Coxsone?
A: I’m not too sure. It’s possible. [Playings Derrik Morgan and the Blues Blenders “It’s All Right”[1]] Yeah. That‘s my voice up there. I didn’t even remember that! So we used to go to Studio One. I started off doing the background thing. And Clement would have something he need some backing voices on. and we would do backing for different guys. And I went to Studio One for audition, and the other two guys didn’t turn up. So I just went and took the audition. On audition day a lot of people would be there with different type of stuff. But anytime I’m singing I would have a whole crowd of people around me. They would just draw a circle around me to listen to what I’m doing and I just sing acappella and Scratch, Lee Perry when he heard the voice I was just—just on. So I just eliminate the group then. And once they select me Dodd started to give me records to listen to. different artists. He’d say: “Listen to these things and see which would appeal to you.” He used to give me things like The Best 0f Nat King Cole. and it’s a beautiful album. It had things on it like “I Don’t Want to Be Hurt Any More.” “Mona Lisa.” And he would give The Best of Sam Cooke and that one had songs like “To Each His Own.” and “When A Boy Fall in Love.” He was one of my favorite artists. And also Jim Reeves. That’s why I have the flexibility of going high and then low. And I got some of that from Brook Benton too. The earliest stuff I did for him was gospel [2] When you’re coming from church, Mike, and when you’re brought up in a certain way, your foundation is gospel. And when you divert to other things that also are appealing to you. the strength of your voice really is reflective on what you did earlier to train your voice to get to a certain level. Before I left home I went to Youth Corps, which was a training camp for boys. While I was there I start to get into a choir. where they would pick say 30 or 35 boys, so we would got to different parishes and sing. I remember my camp director when we would have rehearsal, he would leave whatever he was doing and come and get a stool and sit right in front of me. Just to hear my voice. That choir was the place that gave me some diction, help me with pronunciation.

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And then when I went to Studio One, Dodd was another one who really taught me about how to sing reggae. because I was always accustomed to singing ballads. Like if I’m doing a record and if I was slurring the ends he would “No no-no—no—no. this is the way you do it.” So he would teach me to cut. to adapt to the reggae style of singing. He was very instrumental in giving me a lot of know-how to sing reggae music. And Coxson did pay a lot of attention to gospel. I did songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, and “Peace in the Valley.” And Jackie Mittoo and all those guys played on those tracks. Gospel was gospel, and you paid your respects to get the right tracks and the right people.

And I think I could be difficult in the studio working with the guys because I wanted things to be a particular way. And in the same way I was careful not to over-record. Because I never wanted to get to that point whereby you’ve heard it all and I have nothing new to offer. For example Delroy Wilson became a very depressed person and I think when Delroy looked back on his life
and everything he had contributed to the music he had nothing to show for it. And that showed up in his music. And he could not, say “Yeah I’ve gained this out of all my effort.” If you live in studio all the time and there is nothing to show at the end of the effort what’s the point? So I maintain I always have a job. Whenever it is time for me to go to my job I’m never late because I know that that’s where the money is coming from to pay the bills. And when they say come down to studio I always come at a particular time. Have everybody ready and when I come down I’m going to rehearse and then I’m going to record. Dodd would see me on the street and he would ask me to come around and see what the guys were doing. But I didn’t see the point of hanging around. And if I have to go to work at five o’clock that’s it, I’m off, because I don’t want to obligate to anyone or be put in a position where I go in the studio where the guy is just milking you dry and you get nothing. Why? Why should I sell myself cheap?

Q: Did you perform publicly when you were with Dodd?
A: Studio One had a Christmas show, I think 1968. The Wailers. Bob Andy. Alton Ellis, Winston Francis, a lot of big names, and the Skatalites was the band. and Dodd wanted me to perform. I was really nervous. because everybody was smoking pot. I was so nervous my legs were shaking. The first song I did was “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King. My legs were shaking so bad that I lift one leg up, but then everybody could see how much I was shaking. People start booing me. I mean everyone was booing me. I remember a guy standing on the side of the stage, waving a bottle, and cursing that he was going to give me a lick. And Alton Ellis much later told me that he came up to the guy and was telling him he heard I was a good singer and to give me a chance, and the guy saying he was going to give me a lick with the bottle and yelling that I had missed my calling. And that got me angry. And I forget the fright. The next song was “Don’t Play That Song” by Chuck Jackson. And I start singing and the theatre went quiet. and then everybody in the audience join in and start singing the chorus. Dodd had been hiding behind a column, and when everybody start singing, he come out like a jockey, you know how a jockey look all crouched down? Like a jockey whipping a horse. And I couldn’t get off the stage. The crowd made me sing another song even though the Wailers were next. That was at the Ward Theatre. And one of the radio dj’s of the time, I think it was Al Plummer, said he’d never seen one artist booed so much and cheered so much in the same act. Ken Parker - True True

Ken was one of the few artists, like Alton Ellis and John Holt, to trump the rivalry between Dodd and Duke Reid by recording with them both. He is probably best remembered for “True True True,” [3] a song he made for the Duke in 1967.

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Q: Do you remember anything about making this record?
A: Yeah, I remember the Jamaicans were the guys who were backing me, Tommy Cowan and Norris Weir.

Q: Who wrote this song?
A: I wrote it. And I arranged it too. When I write a song, all the musicians do then is furnish the body of music to accomplish it. I had it arranged already, and I just say this is what we gonna do. That’s Neville Hinds playing the organ and Tommy McCook on the flute. [Ken starts singing along. ] On the weekends in Jamaica you used to have the sound men playing‘ You could hear this thing for miles around. Because they would have the big speakers up in the treetops and you could
hear it just wailing. It was a good feeling. It was.

 U Roy - True TrueQ: What did you think when you heard U Roy’s version?
A: I thought it was a compliment. I thought at the time. because you know the dj stuff was start coming in, and Duke had told me it was coming out, and I thought of it as a compliment.

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Q: What was your impression of Duke Reid?
A: Well, Duke was in an environment, poor guy, that if he had shown weakness then that would have been disastrous for him, being where he was in business. He was in the city, right near to Coronation Market, and Bond Street. And if he had shown any type of weakness, being where he was, uh—uh, he had to project a certain way about doing business, a certain persona. But I found that we had a business understanding and I respected him as a person and I hope that it was reciprocated. And any of the producers that I dealt with always treated me with respect. But he was not involved in my music the way that Dodd was. He didn’t have the time to devote to directing the music and all that, he would be- listening in from time to time, but he didn’t have the time. The sessions were more of a joint thing, myself, the musicians and Syd Bucknor the engineer. After I have a song, then everybody would do a sort of a teamwork, so we would add things to it so we go along. [From the record rack.“I Can‘t Hide”[4]]

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That was classic, you could hear that every weekend. Again that’s the Jamaicans with Phyllis Dillon on backing vocals. That’s her singing the lower harmony.

Q: I don’t know what you think about eight minute reggae tracks, but back then it seems like you could deliver a big musical statement in two minutes?
A: Exactly. You see, one of the things about music is if you’re too long—winded people hear everything that you have to say, and they’re satisfied and don’t want to hear it again. Music must be something that people want to hear again, they didn’t hear it enough. It’s like it’s too short although it’s long. [Laughing] Otherwise you lose interest. And one of the worst things that artists or performers can do is let people get bored. When they get bored, the conversation that you are delivering gets finished.

After I left Coxsone I went with Bunny Lee. [In 1968 Bunny Lee had a business arrangement with Island Records and organized the pivotal recording sessions that crowned the rocksteady era, dozens of hits exemplified by Slim Smith and the Unique’s “My Conversation”] Whenever the money was running, it seems like I always go when the money is finished. [Laughter] I know we had Island Records there, they came down to Dynamic Sounds. And Chris Blackwell interviewed and was interested in putting me on a contract, but because I knew how the contract system was I was not interested. It’s possible if was interested in getting hooked up with Chris Blackwell who to tell what could have happened? I might have been dead by now.

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Ken Parker - Sad Mood[Playing “Somebody to Love ”[5]] Yeah that day I didn’t have any song to sing so I just made up something as I was going along. They wanted me to sing so I made something up.

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[And now “Sad Mood”[6]] Yeah that was for Bunny Lee. A Sam Cooke tune. (Ken begins singing along). I remember Family Man was playing on this, he was an excellent bass guy. What happened was you go in and you start working on a track. giving them an idea of what you have. And they set up a rhythm. and then we’ll change what I think isn’t right. and then you just take it right away. And there was always pressure, man. Yeah, a lot of pressure. Because if one person miss everybody have to go over the whole thing again. So it’s really light. You can’t afford to mess up. People don’t record like that anymore, you can place a word here and place a word there. It’s so easy now.

Well, if you look on old stuff. the old recordings still does not fear time. Even though we have new machines now and more facilities. the new music that we have nowadays can’t last any length of time. You see. understand this, the think is the way we live. And the thought process these days is getting away from the essence, from what is true. And when you no longer have the thought process, when you no longer go into depth, you lose your identity and you tend to go with the flow, adapting to whatever is going on. And the music business has gone in such disarray because so much stuff has been produced is degrading stuff. And the emotional content in music is not there any more. That is why people who really appreciate good music start going back to the old stuff, because that’s where they find the beauty in the songs.

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Ken Parker - Only YesterdayQ: Did you feel that you were in competition with other singers like Slim Smith?
A: Well people were sort of trying to say we were all in the same bracket, a lot of people were putting me along with Slim Smith and Pat Kelly and Dave Barker, and I decided I’m going to show the public what I‘m capable of and that’s why I decided to do the song “Only Yesteday” [7] as a song to give people to listen to, as something to say “hear, listen to this and tell me which of these can do what I’m doing.” [Cueing “Only Yesterday”] Because I had the low voice and also because the sectors that I go into, although they have a high tone. they don’t come up there. My thing was to strive to the highest, so that if I fall beneath, where I fall is above a lot of other people. That song was on that same Nat King Cole album. But I took it totally out of its format. You wouldn’t know it‘s the same song. It’s funny but sometimes I have the ability of changing something totally from the original. [Ken begins to sing along with the song].

Q: So you still love that song?
A: [Laughing] It‘s bad. It’s bad.

Ken then indulged me with a discussion of some of my favourite obscure singles. Those interested
are referred to the footnotes. [9]

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Q: [ Playing: “Tale A Message to Mary)” [8] People in Jamaica still love this kind of music, don’t you think?
A: Oh yeah. Those type of stuff that we did then, those type of things don’t fear time. No matter how the years pass, they still give you that pleasure listening to them. The new stuff. You don‘t want to hear them because after a little while you get bored with them. The sweetness of the music of that time helped to reflect the value of life, and the value of friendship, and the value of togetherness. And honesty and integrity and respect for one another. And when you lose the essence of life you lose the magic of life, you lose the sweetness of life. And what’s happened in Jamaica, the last 15, 20 years, the people who could produce music, most of that money came from underworld activities. They had the money. so they could project the dj thing. And the dj’s who were on the radio oftentimes couldn’t sing a note. They were reflective of the people who were producing the music and things they want to say.

Ken Parker - We Must Be In LoveQ: When did you leave Jamaica?
A: 1973.

Q: What was the reason?
A: A&M Records had a subsidiary called Workhouse Productions in London, and they wanted me to come to London to join up with Alton Ellis and also Winston Francis. To do a three-vocal thing. They had been thinking of Slim Smith, but Slim had you know, fall off the rails. So the other person they figure would fit the position was me. We did some recordings, we did about four tracks. but it was not a successful venture because the people who were heading the production did not put in all that they need to put into it. And then I stayed in England from ’73 until 1990. I had a job. and then I start producing, and I have about four albums that I produced, that I put out for myself. And I have an album called I Shall Not Be Moved, and also another one called Jesus on the Mainline and I have another one called Touch of Inspiration. And also an album called Glint of Gold. My label was called Pisces.

Ken Parker - Trojan LPQ: Has the Trojan compilation been good for you?
A: So far I haven’t heard anything from the Trojan people yet. I haven’t received any payment, I’ve written to them but haven’t heard anything. I have a lawyer in France, and a gentleman in England as well, that is working to sort out where the royalties is concerned.

Q: Have you ever made any money from your Jamaican recordings?
A: No. If received £500 from Coxsone I would be surprised, very surprised. And they still sell. But I’ve never received any kind of payment. My last royalty statement I have is from Duke Reid, and that was from 1972. Since then I’ve never received anything for my music. But what I’m planning to do with this stuff I made in Jamaica, I have some original tracks that I‘ll be releasing in the near future. And Mr. Dodd has some stuff of mine he’s sitting on too, but I think he’ll wait until he’s dead before he release it. I haven’t spoken to him for a long time. because oftentimes talking to him can be really frustrating because you’re not getting and if somebody want to take me to court, and they haven’t paid me any royalties for 30 years, then my lawyer is going to pursue them for royalty statements plus all the other information that they’re supposed to come up with. My music doesn’t sell a lot, but it sells very steadily, and for 30 years I don’t receive anything. Anybody that I do any music for, I would love for them to produce a statement of royalties. I am more than due.

But Ken Parker is by no means a bitter person. He moved with his family from England to Florida in 1990, and is a successful businessman living in Fort Lauderdale. Ken asks: “Why shouldn’t I be comfortable? God is the source of my life. As a man thinks so shall he live.

Says Ken, “Who to tell? You gain the heights and then you’re dead. You gain recognition and somebody want to take you down. I never wanted to be built up to be torn down, for jealousy, like Cain killed Abel. Life is a journey, we’re given this body, and if you treat the body well and do good to others, then this is a happy life. God has blessed me with many gifts, not just my voice. I have the gift of seeing. I have visioned that if I had reached the heights I know l’m capable of reaching, I would have died. I’ve seen that I would have died when I was 35, in a plane crash.” Ken pauses,then laughs: “So I’m very pleased to be still here!”

FOOTNOTES
1. Derrick Morgan and the Blues Blenders – It’s All Right. Studio 1 label. matrix number Wirl CD 1420-2, recorded in 1966. This song was originally performed by the Impressions. The Blues Blenders gained nine label credits for Studio One, all backing Derrick Morgan.
2. Dodd released over 150 gospel records on his Tabenacle label, with Ken releasing over a dozen titles under his own name, and also with his brother Keith as the Farquarson Brothers. Bob Marley, Ken Boothe and Freddie McGregor also recorded on the Tabernacle label.
Dennis Alcapone And Lizzy - Ba Ba Ri Ba3. True True True – recorded 1967, Treasure Isle label, Duke Reid production #TIS 4337. Written by Ken Parker. This was famously versioned by U Roy in 1970 as True True.
4. I Can’t Hide – 1970, Treasure Isle, #TIS 277. This also spawned a famous dj version: Dennis Alcapone and Lizzy‘s Ba Ba Ri Ba.

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5. Somebody to Love a Bunny Lee production from 1968. released on the Lee’s label. #BL 8. written by Ken Parker.
6. Sad Mood. original by Sam Cooke. Bunny Lee, 1968. Lees label #Wirl Blee 3737.
7. Only Yesterday. Produced by Joe Gibbs, released in 1969 on the Amalgamated label, Dyna JG 538-1.
8. Take A Message to Mary original hit by the Everly Brothers, 1959, produced by Lloyd Charmers, released in 1972 on the Splash label, FLC 7858.
9. Ken Discusses some of my favorites:
I Want to Be Loved. Rupie Edwards production, released on the Soul City label, Dyna RE 4424. “Beautiful stuff! [Laughter] I wrote that track. At the time maybe I was going out with this young lady that I was really in love with. And that song was pertaining to her. And the relationship was sort of rocky. And that’s me singing harmony as well.”
Ken Parker - You Better GoU Roy Junior – Sharper Than A Razor. Success label. DSR RE 6527 (Question: Did you know that dj?) “Yeah. He was a nice guy that I interact with. basically he was looking deals with these producers. and I remember coming in contact with him when I was with Treasure Isle. He was an amicable. motivated type of guy. and we talked, but I was not too much into the dj stuff.”
Count Your Blessings. Blue Munde label. DSR 6761 “The producer there was a guy named Anderson, he was a guy who loved music. he owned a building supply store, and we produced a couple of records together.

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You Better Go. released in 1967 on U.C. Records, DSR KP -1859. written and produced by Ken Parker. “That song was done like about ‘67. it was about my my mother. People used to be so delighted knowing I was their son. so they would get a lot of compliments. Mom’s still alive today.”

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[Footnotes derived from JA45.com: The Discography of Jamaican Music by Mike Turner]

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