by A.J. Wachtel
Parker Wheeler’s name has long been synonymous on the North Shore with his enduring and continuous Sunday Night Blues Party at The Grog. For decades, people have traveled from all around just to be present at these jams to experience some of the best musicians who have dropped in on this weekend-ending, non-stop party. Listen to what this local treasure has to harp about…
Noise: You have had your Blues Party every Sunday at The Grog in Newburyport for the past 24 years. Many marriages don’t last that long – why has this long term gig has been so successful?
Parker Wheeler: I conceived a simple plan – use my association with myriad A-list players to build the stage group every week with an original, ephemeral band and use my business acumen to craft a simple business plan that enticed Grog management to give me a chance. The formula continues to be successful, providing The Grog with a profit and the wonderfully loyal audience and myself with great entertainment.
Noise: How have your audiences changed and stayed the same over the years?
Parker: The audience formed a core base that has remained loyal over the years, helping me and the players to have a unique comfort on stage; as the music has morphed over the years, it has added to the audience because it is known that every Sunday reflects a singular group that may never form again. Even if the headliner has appeared previously, the supporting players are usually different, providing real appeal that is not found elsewhere.
Noise: Do you still see any of the same people coming to your shows at The Grog from when you first started your Sunday party?
Parker: Absolutely, many of them – as I said before, there is a core of about 100 regulars who have earned the name through their amazing loyalty to the Sunday party. Audience members Hilda Lilly and Karen Manzi probably have stories that encompass stuff I never became aware of on stage.
Noise: Tell me some of the many guest artists you have shared the stage with at The Grog and elsewhere?
Parker: Oh man, that is a tall order. So, giving my sincere apologies to anyone who is omitted, going by instrumentation and not in order of preference:
There are horn players: Bill Holloman, Jimmy Biggins, Greg Piccolo, Mark Early and Doug Wolverton from Roomful of Blues, as well as the wonderful Henley Douglas Jr., Scotty Shetler, Sax Gordon, Mario Perret, the Aruda brothers, Michael “Tunes” Antunes, and of course Amadee Castenell;
guitar players such as Matt “Guitar” Murphy – who helped The Blues Party make its name, Luther Johnson, Duke Robillard, Murali Coryell, and with love and thanks Fly Amero, Cliff Goodwin, George McCann, Johnny A, Charlie Farren, Ricky “King” Russell, my good friend Chris “Stoval” Brown, Thom Enright – forever missed, Lydia Warren-a young and very bright light; and so many more that there isn’t room in this piece.
Bass players include: David Hull, Marty Ballou, Lisa Mann (yep, that Lisa Mann!) Wolf Ginandes, Steve Monahan, Kasim Sultan, Eric Udell, and this list could also go on and on.
Keyboard aces have been Al Kooper, Mark Naftalin, beloved Dave Maxwell, the always entertaining Keith Munslow and remarkable Tom West; then there’s Bruce Bears, Chuck Chaplain, John Colby, Larry Luddecke, Mitch Chakkour, Ann Rabson, Cheryl Rene – and the list goes on, but I’ll stop here.
Drummers – well, I have to start with Tom “TH” Hambridge who’s early participation helped craft the A-list level of performances that are now the expectation; Marty Richards – who helped maintain that high bar, K.D. Bell, Floyd Murphy Jr., Steve Bankuti (the other part of “the Steves” with Stevie Monahan) and Mike Levesque, who maintain wonderfully tight rhythm sections, Tom Ardolino, Per Hanson, and I cannot omit Maureen Medeiros an ace percussionist and again, others too numerous to mention.
Vocalists who have blessed the stage at The Grog include the tremendously entertaining Christine Ohlman, Susan Tedeschi (whom I was lucky to have just prior to her break onto the national stage), John Cafferty – another amazing break for the Blues Party. Additionally, there is Brad Delp, Tony Lynne Washington, Michelle Wilson, Shirley Lewis – blessed and missed, the Taylor Brothers, Mighty Sam McClain, Kenny Williams.
Finally, harmonica players I’ve been lucky to play with include: James Montgomery, Chris “Stovall” Brown, Annie Raines, the aptly named Professor Harp, Diane Blue, Brian Templeton, Tim Gartland, Cheryl Arena, and Dave Howard also – please understand that most of the players are multi-talented, so guitar players will be doing vocals, playing guitar and blowing harp. That applies to other players, as well. Venues other than The Grog have found me playing as a member of Swallow, opening for Albert Collins, John Mayall, Earth Wind and Fire, The Beach Boys, Mitch Ryder, Parliament Funkadelic, J Geils, Iggy Pop, and Alice Cooper, to name a few.
Noise: Care to share a quick story or two about a great night or a night that was a very bad night?
Parker: I feel I am the luckiest musician in the world – every week I get to “go on the road” with some of the best musicians in the world without leaving home; every one of those nights is a great night for me. As I noted earlier, maybe Hilda Lilly and Karen Manzi can give you some bad night stories.
Noise: In two sentences, tell me what your history is on the local music scene.
Parker: Warner Brothers “Swallow” early ’70s; regional gigs mid ’70s with Jeanne French; studio work and occasional guest work in the early and mid ’80s; a return to limited club work late ’80s and formed Blues Party in 1990. The Grog invited me to play in December of 1990 and here we are today!
Noise: Do you take your band out to play other gigs or do you only appear at The Grog?
Parker: I create a few private ensembles each year.
Noise: How does a typical night at The Grog unfold?
Parker: Most nights feature a fresh septet with three of us adding vocals. We do two 90 minute sets, starting the pace with a groove instrumental featuring saxophonist/flutist Amadee Castenell, followed by some harp based danceable blues. Then we “pass the sugar” alternating vocals and grooves. Once every six weeks or so someone will add a 45 (plus or minus) minute set showcasing a new CD or show material.
Noise: Who are your favorite harp players past and present on the local scene and why?
Parker: I got my early chops together with peer James Montgomery starting in late 1970 and we continue a pleasant friendship and working relationship. There’s a harmonica bag full of great men and women players today. Three memorable moments come to mind because I was in the right place. Tim Gartland has written some beautiful material and is an exquisite player, and he filled the stage with joy last fall. Haverhill’s Peter Chase can stop a room with his gritty style then soothe the tears and hurt with his chromatic. A few years ago, I stopped by Matt Stubbs’ Holiday Jam in Waltham – a “who’s who” with everybody taking names and kicking ass. Shirley Lewis was on stage and spotted Chris “Stovall” Brown; Chris played a harp solo on “Natural Woman” that was as smooth as silk and jaw dropping in its expression.
Noise: Is your playing influenced mainly by Sonny Boy Williamson II or do you sound like another icon?
Parker: I love Sonny Boy Williamson’s writing and style, but my approach is a blend of Little Walter, Sonny Terry, James Cotton, and Paul Butterfield.
Noise: What’s in the future for Parker Wheeler?
Parker: We are very excited to ring in our 25th year at The Grog with special shows starting in December and the release, finally, of some recordings. In between those high points, there will be a few ensembles put together, what I like to call “The All Stars,” for private events, and I am always hoping someone will want “the harmonica player” for a gig or two.