For the past twenty- seven years, since 1990, Parker Wheeler has hosted his Sunday Night Blues Party at The Grog, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. In the process, he has become a local legend because of his great talent playing the blues harp, and for bringing the best artists in the area to participate and perform at his North Shore long- time landmark jams.
Wheeler’s parents met in college, as seniors at the University of New Hampshire, and he was born on May 16, 1947. His dad went on to get his Ph.D. at Yale University and became a Professor of Sociology and History. His mother was an artist, sculptor and designer who passed away when he was just two years old. Parker’s childhood introduction to music came via the old Philco radio next to his bed at his father’s parent’s house in Provincetown, MA. Late at night, he heard rockabilly from the south, blues from Chicago and Kansas City, and r & b and jazz from all over.
Parker spent grade school at the Albany Academy, an all boys military institute in Albany, New York where he sang in the choir and played the fife. He remembers there was always access to music in his house, including recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein. “Between the ages of ten and eleven, I had the good fortune to live in post-war Europe. As my father and I traveled throughout the continent, I recall performances of the Vienna Boys Choir and La Traviata in Vienna and Italy; and in London attending My Fair Lady in which Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison starred. Also performances of Hamlet and Richard III at the Old Vic.”
From 1961 to 1963, the precocious Wheeler was hanging out a lot in Boston and dabbled in trumpet and drums but never mastering either instrument. While dabbling, he could also be found rifling though record bins at places like Belmont Music, the Harvard Coop, and the then new Skippy White’s. He was listening to a lot of Blue Note recordings as well as recordings by Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk and Rahssan Roland Kirk. He also immersed himself in players like Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, James Brown and Motown’s complete catalog. “At this time I also learned that if I dressed up and acted reserved, my fake ID gave me entry to clubs like Connolly’s Stardust Room and The Big M. Listening to music in these clubs, as well as r & b and soul reviews at the Boston Arena helped direct me to my musical life and love of jazz and blues.”
By 1965, Wheeler was living full time in Boston and he met some musicians who were forming a band. He joined up as vocalist and harmonica player but he had a problem. He had to learn how to play the harp fast. “I went to the music store and having ascertained that most rock and roll was in the key of E, I bought an E harp. This is how I learned the concept of cross harp. To this day, I always play four keys above whatever the key the song is in.” From December 1965 to March 1966, Wheeler wandered through The Bahamas where he found, to his surprise, local bands playing American and English rock and roll. He began sitting in and started his crossover to blues based rock.
When he returned to America he went to stay in Wakefield, MA before going back to Albany and joining his first real band, The Bougalieu, most often known as The Starving Bougalieu. During this time he really honed his playing and singing; working with a duo Larry Love and Joy Belle. They worked in small clubs around Albany with Larry on keys and Joy singing vocals. Wheeler notes: “These bands and club performances helped me master my presentation.”
In 1969, Parker moved first to Louisiana and then on to Los Angeles before coming back to Massachusetts. In November, 1970, he got a call to join George Leh’s band Swallow who were recording a session for their Out Of The Nest release. He was asked to track a harp solo cold on the song “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” He played with the group until 1973; and the band fell apart in the mid seventies. A couple of the horn players and him were living in West Newbury, MA and he met sultry singer Jeanne French when the horn players and him went to see her perform onstage and decided that she was a lot better than her rhythm section. They soon formed the band Hot Romance with her. Like all bands, this one dis- banded, and from 1976 through 1989 he did little performing. There was a brief stint with a c & w band and some studio work but for all intents and purposes Parker Wheeler was out of music.
In March, 1990 Wheeler was living in Elliot, Maine and had started a blues jam at a club in Kittery, and by December The Blues Party had moved to The Grog in Newburyport, Massachusetts. There have been changes over the years: guitarist extraordinaire Peter Giftos left, Tommy T.H. Hambridge (Grammy Award winning producer and player with Buddy Guy) moved to Nashville to become famous, and North Shore legend Fly Amero has gone on to other music projects; but the show still goes on and has consistently and continuously been showcasing stars for the past three decades. In May, 2016, after several years of discussion and tracking down masters, Live:The Grog Sessions 1997 was released on Black Rose Records featuring these tremendous talents and many other awesome artists and magnificent musicians. As for the future? “I am always hoping someone will want ‘the harmonica player’ for a gig.”
(by A.J. Wachtel)