Jamaica in the late sixties seemed to be the place of a never-ending flow of soulful voices and great instrumental players in music, there was no shortage of supply regarding entertainers of high class and ability in those times; a musical period of consistency, taste, skill, and what we have is a legacy of lasting and extremely enjoyable music which has stood the test of time. But regardless how great the talent, how consistent on the charts, how appreciated on stage and how highly regarded you became in the local media, that in itself wasn't a guarantee for being steady on the scene. You had to face the less than pleasant parts of being involved, dealing with unscrupulous people, a lack of reward for all the efforts you'd put in to make a decent performance; the heartbreaking aspects of being an artist in a business which was tougher than tough; you either sustain the vibe or perish so to speak. Some did (lasted that is), many more didn't. The subject of this article, the highly talented Ken Parker, popped up in the late sixties as a breath of fresh air with his effortless soprano. He cut a string of hits and high quality recordings for the ruling producers on the island: Duke Reid, Coxson Dodd, Bunny Lee and Joe Gibbs as well as several lesser known names. His popularity lasted up until he left the island to settle in England in 1973, after that he went quiet for several years. The lack of real recognition for his efforts back in those days has been evident by the absence of background information and availability of a lot of his best recordings in these times. But where could he be found? I discovered his name on a gala being held in Florida some years ago, where Ken appeared alongside such soul legends as Jerry Butler the Ice Man and the late Edwin Starr, supported by other classic Jamaican names such as the Clarendonians, Derrick Morgan and Norris Weir of The Jamaicans. At this time a piece on him was published in The Beat magazine and a compilation of his work came out of England, and very welcome it was since so little had been easily available over the years, with most of his old records fetching big money by collectors all over the world. The only problem was, which is no news to followers of this music, that such a compilation should compensate someone like him for all that hard and enjoyable work over the years, and it didn't. Read more of Ken's experiences within the music below. I caught up with Ken from his base in Florida in April, 2004. My thanks to Ken for his time and friendliness, wife Rose, Mike Turner, Bob Schoenfeld, Donovan Phillips, Tim P and Steve Barrow.

Q: I guess you heard, less than a week ago we've lost yet another important songbird in the music - Phyllis Dillon.

A: Phyllis Dillon, yeah.

Q: You both were contemporary at Treasure Isle in the sixties. Did you work together there?

A: Yeah, that was in the early days, that's the early days. I think if I am not mistaken, one of the tracks that I have done on Treasure Isle, I dunno if she was the one who did the backing or if we actually did a song together. I think she was the one who did 'Sincerely', but I'm not too sure (sings the chorus).

Q: I think that was credited to one 'Dorothy Russell', whoever that was.

A: Oh, OK.

Q: Never heard that name before though, it could be her maiden name for all I know - or a name Duke made up to get the publishing, not unlikely.

A: Yeah, yeah. That song that they... actually it was her song, but she couldn't do the high note and couldn't do the changes according to how the song went, so Duke asked me to sing along with her to give her ideas in how to sing the song. But afterwards she just included me in, y'know, the singin' of that song, so that's why actually that track was not originally my track. But it was a track that Duke had liked, so it's just that I start singin' the part for her and then the rest of the song is history.

Q: Right (chuckles). You grew up in the country, in Sav-La-Mar, Westmoreland.

A: Yeah, it was in Westmoreland. It was my father, who was the minister, and so we would go from parish to parish. But my actual home was Darliston, which is in Westmoreland. I spent roughly about... I think when I was probably about six or seven, the mission moved us to Corrall Mountain, which is in the same parish, I mean it's in the same parish but in a different district, y'know what I mean? This place was called Corrall Mountain. But my first early schooldays was in Darliston where we lived and had the family home. And then I went over to Corrall Mountain, which was when I finished school in Corrall Mountain. And then afterwards me and my dad moved to Bull Head, which is another district in Westmoreland. So we moved from parish to parish. You know, like it's been five or so years ago and once in a particular place then the ministry would move him to another parish. So that was in the early, way down in the real early days of growing up.

Q: Which, I suppose, was a very strict upbringing, being really 'tied up' within a Christian home.

A: Oh yes, oh yeah. We're effectively what you'd call 'the parson's son' (chuckles). And you know 'parson's son' is like what you'd call when the policeman's son or daughter, they'd have to be... if your parents have any... In the West Indies really when your parents are professional people, the children are often times would being watched more than anybody else. And it is required of the children to behave and act a certain way, because anything that show by the lights on the parents. You know, my parents were very strict. That was not one of the things that we could do like what other children did by keeping company and sitting on the corner or throwing the stones or, y'know, swearing or keeping bad company. All of that sort of stuff was out. So we grew up real strict, really strict, really strict. As you say many other things that the other children did then - and doing now, for how the question where we were concerned.

Q: But was it an upbringing... a harmonious upbringing even though it was strict, not the one where you were, more or less, in constant fear of punishment?

A: Well, it was in my days. It was harmonious but there is certain things you just don't do or even think of. I mean, it would be harmonious, yes, but you know if you step out the line then you have to reckon with our mum. You see what I mean? So it was a constant - as it were bringing you up... as a matter of fact the bible said that really you should train the child in a way that they should grow, that when they're old they will not depart from it. And I believe a lot of things that happen today and a lot of troubles that children get into these days is because of parents lack of guidance.

Q: Perhaps even a lack of 'strictness'.

A: Yeah, a lack of awareness of what the possibility of not walking in line with, y'know, treating others as you would have them treat you. Respect and honesty and decency and, y'know, all that stuff. You know, respect and honour, although all those things seems to be like eases (?) from the west these days. And for that reason a lot of children get into drugs and get into prostitution and all sorts of stuff that is destructive to ones health and ones well-being. So I believe that in order for our society or in order for a parent, or for a family, to grow up and not step over the border of destruction, there should be and there must be guidelines. Where there is no guidelines then they're falling away and where you have no guidelines you gonna have chaos as it is. You have to...

Q: Right, you need a certain framework of regulations to follow and to function properly.

A: Yeah, you have to. And also one have to understand... one of the things that I think is often at times very important, is that often times people blame society or they blame somebody else, and often times first look in the mirror and they see is that person is not to be blamed first before you start pushing 'blames' around. Because we're responsible for our actions. Some actions can often times... it can be done from frustration or from bitterness or from anxiety or from illusion or from - you have different forms of ones actions, but at all times you should have a framework by which you are guided by. And that's something that - I remember this artist, we hadn't really, say, we were buddy-friends, y'know, but I knew him and he knew me, because he was one of the people that was referred to as competitive in the same... in one of the secular of the voices that I've seen. And I went to Canada to meet up with him, and I was appalled to hear that sort of bad language that was coming out of this guy's mouth, I was appalled. I said well, 'hoophh'... 'You are not one of the people I really want to associate with, regardless of what type of voice you have' (laughs)! You know, there are certain things, Peter, that I just don't alline myself with. If it's not a blessed thing, if it's not beneficial in whether if we are conversing and it's not uplifting or it's not worthwhile, why should I spend time conversing with basically a fool? Unless I can straighten that fool out (laughs)!

Q: (Chuckles) Might be too big an effort.

A: (Laughs) Yeah! I mean, there are some jobs that is too much to take on. There are some people that, no matter how hard you try, you can't turn them from what they are.

Q: Maybe that's not the point either - we are what we are, you choose what is best for you.

A: Yeah, often times I'm sure that it have to do with pending on if you're selfish or you're giving or you're considerate to others. Some people will use you - because you may be a person that gives concern about the well-being of others, some people might view that as weakness. But it doesn't mean that you're weak, it actually means that you're strong to be considerate for others.

Q: So, it was strict but not 'over the top' what shaped you as a person during those times?

A: It's not gonna be an abusive strictness, it was not an abusive strictness; it was a strictness of being aware as to who you are, who your parents were. And what is required of you as children and how you should live and how you should think about. There's the honesty, there is also integrity and also respect to others. And thoughtfulness towards others. I think that the home that one's brother is being helped in fashion you in how you eventually be in life. You see what I mean? Some people weren't lucky enough to have a structured home, but yet they grew up with structured people. So it doesn't mean that because your brother grew in a structured home where you have guidelines, it doesn't mean that you turn out to be somebody of worth and somebody of integrity and all that; because you have some real people that just brought up in real structured homes but yet came out to be thieves and killers and liars and all the other stuff, or come out to be destructive to themselves or to others. So really, when I give thanks for my upbringing and who I was, it helped to fashion me and also helped to guide me away from things that could be destructive to me. So it's basically that.

Q: We should move into the music now, but anyhow, when you reach the stage where - I suppose regardless of how you are brought up - one wants to test the authorities in life, I assume this wasn't different for you growing up.

A: No, I never feel that I had to - as it were - 'test the lines' of, say, 'crossing the line', I never feel the need to do so. To me, I was always thinking of - from early days I was really interested in the different artists and the way they might project a song. People that I was really interested in, people like Sam Cooke. Because I liked his flair/flavour of doing a song, the way that he put over the song was unique in his own way. The other people that I was interested in was people like Brook Benton, 'cause I like his coolness. People like Marvin Gaye, 'cause I like his way of projecting a song. People like Nat 'King' Cole, people like Clyde McPhatter, Otis Redding, Jim Reeves, Ernie Ford. And different, different people who - to me - project a song in a way that you want to hear it again.

Sam Cooke

Clyde McPhatter

Marvin Gaye

Brook Benton

Q: That's a nice selection of singers, a good cross-section of black and white American music. Those names pretty well sums up what the Jamaican public liked in those times, if we speak foreign music.

A: Yea, right. And also I used to listen to Tammy Wynette and Billie Jo Spears and, y'know, I liked the country music and the way that these songs are projected. So any songs that I find myself really - that I was too engrossed inside listening to pick up hints from these guys how to fashion my projection of what I'm doing in my own way. Not say 'imitating' them because you really can't imitate someone else, I don't believe that you can truly imitate someone else. I can't even imitate me.

Q: (Chuckles) OK.

A: (Chuckles) You know? So I'm trying to imitate somebody else, y'know it's impossible really (laughs). You can really come near, 'cause y'know people say 'oh, you sound like so and you sound like so and you sound like the other'. But to duplicate this word for word, phrase for phrase, it's not happening

Q: Mmm, yes, but you've certainly heard that one before: 'oh Ken Parker do a good Sam Cooke', or 'a good Jim Reeves' or whatever?

A: Oh yeah, people used to say in awe 'oh you sound like Clyde McPhatter', 'you sound like Ben E. King' and 'you sound like Sam Cooke', 'you sound like Jim Reeves'. Different, different people. But the reason why my range expand to directions, different directions, is because a lot of the people that I used to listen to, I admired their way of singing. So sometimes I patterned what I'm singin', y'know, as it were close to their tone or close to their way of projecting a song. I remember doing 'My Whole World Is Falling Down' and that really was William Bell. Those guys sounds good but I took that song totally from its original state and we refashioned the song, and made a hit with Studio One with that song. That song was a beautiful and still is a beautiful song. You really get the original without they trying to put it too light or whatever, just give it the natural tone in mixing. That song is still a classic.

Q: What about the choir when you grew up, it was pretty much central in your younger days, wasn't it?

A: Well, basically in those days we had a lot of what you'd call 'choruses', chorus-lines. You know, like different choruses, chorus songs with... Actually, you're practicing different sounds or different tones. But I didn't get into sort of heavy practice of songs until when I actually went to Youth Corps. Then there it was these sort of periodic things that you were interested in, and the only thing that I was interested in was music. So that got me into the choir and then people start noticing the difference of my voice, and it was really interesting during that time. I had the choir director would come and sit down and just listen to me rehearse, just put a stool right in front of me and just listen to my voice. So it was there where I learned diction and learn pronounciation and...

Q: Right, phrasing and all that.

A: Phrasing, right. And I mean, when going to the choir we went to different parishes, and we would sing at churches, concerts and all that thing. And then Youth Corps would have like once a year sort of talent parade sort of thing, where boys would go up and sing if you had a group and all that, then everybody want me to be a part of their group. It was really interesting. Then after I left camp then I went back to Darliston. And then from Darliston I decide well, we're gonna go - the boys in the district was going to Kingston, so I decide that I'm gonna go with them. So, naturally they didn't have the money, so I pay everybody's fair and then stayed with them, at their sister, for a while. That was where I went over auditioning for Studio One. That time I had a group as well, I had a group called The Blues Blenders.

Q: Who were the other guys in the Blenders, some local friends from Darliston?

A: No, actually those two guys was Kingstonians. And I don't know how I exactly met up with them, I think I probably met them at Studio One. They weren't what you'd call soloists, they were more like a backing group, like (and known back then for doing harmony behind several tunes by Derrick Morgan for Coxson). So I took them and started to work with them and we had worked for a period of time and whatever knowledge I had, I had to use that to try to school them into singing; the bass guy would sing bass and the tenor guy to sing tenor. So I had to be singin' both tenor and bass to give them ideas to what they should sound like. But it was like a training ground for me also.

Ken Parker.

Q: Still at the first stage.

A: Right. And then one time I had one blues group and I had one gospel group. But really what I found with groups often times was that you really had to be of one mind to work as a team over a period of time and to stay together. So after working together for probably about I would say three to four years, I think it's probably about that time. But we weren't doing any sort of live recording or anything like that, we were just sort of seeking auditions, y'know. But you have to practice for a while until you actually go out there and say yeah, you're ready. You can't just get a group together and when you go out for audition, y'know, everybody's not on the same page and don't know what they're doing. So you had to be, 'cause when you go out there and like you go to Studio One and they say 'OK, go ahead and let me hear what you have' and if you're not kicking, well, y'know it's...

Q: (Chuckles)

A: (Laughs) You're out of there! And not looking too good either, y'know what I mean? And if you have a next time for audition, you turn up and they see you coming (laughs).

Q: Right, it might spoil the whole thing?

A: (Laughs) Exactly!

Q: 'Oh no, not again! Not them!', right?

A: Yeah (laughs)! No, no, no, 'cause I remember I was at Studio One after I was admitted to... what you call it -'the school of music', Studio One. After I had passed through, one day Mr Dodd said to me, "Come and sit in with me and listen to some guys" - they had an audition. You had a lot of guys out there waiting to let them know how good they were. And some of them really come pumped, y'know 'Mr Dodd, I have a hit tune here and...' (laughter).

Q: (Chuckles)

A: (Laughs) And Mr Dodd would say, "OK Jackson, let me hear what you have", and Jackson start up and sometime it was like I was bustin' to laugh, because this guy was real serious... I mean, it's real dangerous to laugh after a guy when he think he is doing something good, you can cause yourself a lot of grief there(chuckles). So I was bustin' to laugh but I couldn't laugh because some of the things really was totally ridiculous. Some of the older guys figure, well, he think he had his pattern, to me it was... ohh - awful!

Q: Out of key, exaggerates, all of this.

A: Mmm. Yeah, out of tune and the Jamaican crowd is really very unforgiving and often times you go up there and you have to be kickin', and kickin' right away.

Q: Very demanding, discriminating.

A: Yeah. Yeah man, they hold your foot to the fire! I mean, you get up there and say you're gonna sing you better sing, and sing good too (laughs)! But the level of music, really, that we did then in the foundation or were the foundation - and still is the foundation of good reggae music, y'know, you have a lot of the deejay stuff that come up nowadays and actually these guys are earning big money. But, when you look often times a lot of the rhythms and the lyrics that they really do, is not really helping the music. The music appeal has waned since about twenty years now, for about at least twenty years or so. You know what I mean? The real, real strength of music was done then. Very few you hear now you want to hear them more than once.

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