Robert Parker entered the Billboard Hot 100 in April of 1966 with his song, Barefootin’. No overnight sensation, Parker was 36 years old when his song hit. By this time, he had already spent two decades in the music business.
Parker was born is Crescent City, Louisiana on October 14, 1930. As a teenager, he took up the saxophone and was playing behind New Orleans legend, Professor Longhair in 1949, including the hit Mardi Gras In New Orleans.
In the 40s and 50s, Robert joined the house band at the Tijuana Club backing performers from female impersonators to the likes of Ray Charles, Guitar Slim, Chris Kenner and Little Richard. It was while working at the Tijuana that Parker signed with booking agent Percy Stovall and put together his own band, Robert Parker and the Royals. They were hired to back Roy Brown, Big Joe Turner, Wynonie Harris, Solomon Burke, Charles Brown, and Amos Milburn. Playing cities from Texas to Florida, band members made twenty-five dollars a night on the road and ten dollars a night when performing in New Orleans. (1)
In addition, he was a sought-after session saxophonist playing on records by renowned New Orleans artists such as Jimmy Clanton, Ernie K-Doe, Fats Domino, Frankie Ford, Irma Thomas and Huey ”Piano” Smith. Smith appreciated his work so much that he hired Parker as a member of his backup group, The Clowns.
As a solo act in the late 50s and early 60s, Parker bounced around a few local labels with singles that showed some local interest but never anything that caught national attention. The bottom fell out of the music industry in 1963 and Parker, to make ends meet, took a job as an orderly at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. Still, he stayed with his booking agency, Continental Agency, and agent Percy Stovall, with hopes that he could return to his first love, the music business.
“Stovall booked a gig at Tuskegee University in Alabama,” recalled Parker in 1999. “The girls took their shoes off and piled them in front of the bandstand before they danced. That stayed with me.”
Parker continued, “Then we went on the road with Chris Kenner. We went to Miami and played a show with a comedian. When he came on stage he said, ‘Everybody get on your feet, you make me nervous when you’re n your seat.’ That rang a bell. When I started writing ‘Barefootin’,’ that was the opening line, then I worked in the other ideas.” (2)
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Parker took the song to Wardell Quezergue, the A&R man for NOLA Records. Wardell liked the song but others at NOLA didn’t. The song was offered to other artists but no takers. So, Parker cut a demo.
“NOLA sat on the tune for nearly a year”, Parker said. “Finally, Hank Sample, the singing deejay [on WBOK in New Orleans] heard it. He had a record shop on Claiborne Avenue. He told Ulis Gaines, one of the owners of NOLA, ‘Man this is really going to go big.’ (2)
So NOLA pressed a couple boxes of records and gave them to Hank. They sold right away. Then Gaines took the record to the local stations and it started to bust open. All of a sudden, the life of Robert Parker went from the bottom to the top. His first out of town gig was a week at the Apollo [in Harlem].
Parker remembered the moment. “On the first show I did Barefootin’, but it didn’t go over. Before the second show, the emcee came to my dressing room and said, ‘Robert, you got a hit record, you got to go out and sell yourself. You got a record out there called Barefootin’. Go out onstage without your shoes on.’ I did and the audience gave me a big ovation. After that, I went on the road with the Four Tops, the Marvelettes and Joe Tex.” (2)
NOLA cut a deal with Cosimo Matassa, who arranged for distribution through Dover Records and Barefootin’ began a steady climb up both the pop and R&B charts. It peaked at number two on the R&B charts and number seven on the pop charts, remaining on the charts for seventeen weeks. (3)
The deal between NOLA and Dover would eventually sour. NOLA owed Matassa $70,000 in studio costs when the IRS shut NOLA’s doors, leaving both Dover Records and Matassa holding the bag. It also left Parker with a bitter taste in his mouth in the belief that some of the NOLA executives got greedy. “I’m sure Barefootin’ sold over a million copies but I never got a gold record,” he told author Jeff Hannusch.
Parker soon found himself back in New Orleans playing in Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s band on Bourbon Street and doing oldies shows. In 1983, Spic ‘n’ Span used Barefootin’ in a TV commercial and the song was re-released in England.
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In 1994, he and his wife moved upriver to Sunshine in St. James Parish, where he began driving a school bus and in 1999, Harrah’s, the land-based casino in New Orleans, used Where the Action Is, the flip side of Barefootin’, in its radio and television commercials. Parker’s version of the song was not used, however, because the casino opted for a recording by Denham Spring’s Luther Kent. Still, Parker garnered songwriting royalties from the song’s use. He also performed several times at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. (4)
As a tribute to Robert Parker and his hit song, Barefootin’, I composed this entire piece at my desk…barefoot!
This live performance by Robert Parker was performed on The !!!! Beat, an R&B show from 1966 recorded in Dallas, Texas. My guess is the song was lip-synched.
1) Louisiana Music Hall of Fame. Link
2) Jeff Hannusch, Offbeat Magazine, Classic Songs Of Louisiana: “Barefootin'” By Robert Parker, August 1, 2006. Link
3) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles, 1955-2002, Page 535
4) Tom Aswell, Louisiana Rocks - The True Genesis Of Rock And Roll. Page 135.