Junior Parker was one of the four most popular blues recording artists of the 1950s and ’60s, in a league with B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, and Little Milton, based on the number of records that hit the Billboard charts during that era. Parker sang and blew harmonica with smoothness and warmth, handling blues, uptempo R&B and soulful ballads with ease.

Born Herman Parker, Jr., on a plantation near Bobo, Mississippi, on March 27, 1932, Junior grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas, where he got to know fellow young harp blowers Junior Wells and James Cotton. Like Cotton, he played in Howlin’ Wolf’s band before making his first recordings for Sam Phillips’ Sun label in Memphis. Recording as Little Junior’s Blue Flames, Parker hit it big right away with the energetic boogie Feelin’ Good, which reached No. 5 on the Billboard R&B charts. His Mystery Train didn’t sell as well but it did inspire Elvis Presley to record his own version for Sun.

Parker’s closest associate was Bobby Bland. The two performed together in the Memphis area, and when Parker started going on the road on the strength of hit records on the Duke label such as Next Time You See Me, Driving Wheel, and Sweet Home Chicago, Bland went with him as his valet and opening act. Sweet Home Chicago, today an all too familiar barroom blues, dated back to Robert Johnson and earlier artists, but it was Parker’s record that revived it and inspired the versions often played in Chicago by Magic Sam and many others.

Toward the end of his career, Parker was still embracing the blues, and also trying out new musical settings, ranging from a partnership with jazz organist Jimmy McGriff to covering Beatles songs in a very non-British manner. He might well have tapped into entirely new audiences for his blues had he lived, but he died of a brain tumor on November 18, 1971, in Blue Island, Illinois.

— Jim O’Neal