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Drum Dynasty: The Parker Brothersby Ross Rice

Ah, Parker Brothers. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Of course it does. Anyone who has ever played a board game knows the name: Risk, Clue, Monopoly. Woodstock has its own version of a Parker Brothers “Monopoly”: five musical and artistic brothers who—plus Dad—have produced five drummers who have not only anchored Woodstock and the greater Hudson Valley with the very best in rhythmic support possible, but also made big contributions to American popular music, as evidenced by the accompanying list of artists they have provided sound foundations for over the years (see sidebar, pg. 40).

Though this enormously talented musical family has played together often privately, it’s a rare occurrence for them all to perform together publicly on a single evening. In fact, it’s never actually happened before. Yet, it appears there really is a first time for everything: a special Parker Brothers Bearsville show is going down this September, with the headlining act being the Stuff Brothers, celebrating the legendary band Stuff—longtime local faves at the Joyous Lake—and featuring founding member Christopher Parker drumming alongside brother Eric Parker. With Tony Parker’s Exit 19 and Nicholas Parker’s Moolah Ltd., and father Robert Parker’s Jive By Five opening the show, the plan is to have the full family—including artist/guitarist/not-drummer Geoff Parker—take stage at the end, and potentially positively drum the wayward planet back into its proper groove. Well OK, at the very least, Woodstock.

So the question has to be: how do you end up with five drummers in one family? Certainly it starts with someone like Robert Parker, visual artist extraordinaire and enthusiastic jazz drummer. After his first solo art show upon graduating, in 1954, Robert kept up momentum with exhibitions, augmenting income by doing set design for opera and film, and numerous book illustrations. All while cultivating an abiding love for jazz drumming, playing along with the radio and recordings.

While at school in Chicago, Robert met, wooed, and wed Dorothy, who gave birth to Christopher in 1951, and Tony soon after. With a drum kit ready to go at all times, the kids couldn’t help themselves; with the help of wooden blocks attached to double-edged skates, the young boys could more easily reach the pedals, with Chris getting drumside first, at age three. During Robert’s brief Army stint, Eric was born in a Staten Island VA hospital (’54), and after the family moved to Mt. Kisco, was followed by Geoff (’56) and Nicholas (’62). The family then decamped to Carmel, where the boys spent their formative years.

There was always music in the house. As Eric recalls, ”Dad would constantly have Ed Beach and really nice jazz programs on, all day and night. I think that part of it was that Dad made it so much fun when we kids watched him play there in front of us, because he’d turn up the radio and drum to jazz.” Chris agrees, “Someone was always rehearsing at the house and that both parents were so tolerant of that made it conducive.” Indeed, Dorothy took advantage of the mayhem to operate the family “time-saving devices.”

It was not the plan to all be drummers. The eldest, Chris played trumpet, but still set the pace on the kit, with Eric—after messing around with woodwinds and guitar—in hot pursuit. Tony went for harmonica and guitar, however, learning Paul Butterfield licks note for note, even playing his first gig with Chris’ band. “But then I kept gravitating to the drums; I couldn’t resist. Basically, the drums kept calling me. Then one day, I smashed my guitar and lost my harmonica collection. So I just got serious about the drums.”

Chris originally had planned to be an artist, studying at New York City’s School of Visual Arts on scholarship. But then he changed his mind, answering an ad in Rolling Stone for a drum job in Woodstock, with a band called Holy Moses. Though that didn’t last long, it did lead to a gig with harmonica master Paul Butterfield, which in turn had him jamming with folks like Bonnie Raitt, Tim Hardin, Rick Danko and Bobby Charles…at the age of 19. Four years later, when Chris packed up to return to the city, Eric picked the gig up, keeping it in the family.

Meanwhile, Tony’s drum epiphany pushed him further. “I got real serious about it. At age 18, I took a trip to Ireland for four months, lived in a house there with no electricity. Had a battery-powered tape recorder and my drum set. I had literally nothing to do but cut wood….and woodshed! That’s when I really worked at it, four to five hours a day. And realized how much work was necessary to sound as good as my older brother, for instance.”

Back in Brooklyn, Tony also answered an ad in the paper, and soon found himself with a house gig at Folk City, smack dab in the Greenwich Village folk scene, playing with a group called Trouble. “Interesting band: four female singers with three guys backing them up. Hence the name: trouble!” This led to gigs with Laura Nyro, Phil Ochs, and eventually a tour with Mary Travers.

Chris wasted no time getting into the New York scene, and after meeting bassist Gordon Edwards on a jingle date, found himself invited to join a regular gig with his band Encyclopedia of Soul at a joint called Mikell’s (97th and Columbus), alongside keyboardist Richard Tee and guitarist Cornell Dupree, Mondays through Thursdays, originally backing up singer Esther Marrow, a.k.a. Queen Esther.

Queen Esther eventually moved on, and drummer Steve Gadd and guitarist Eric Gale found their way to Mikell’s, and were soon both absorbed by the now-intensely popular house band—re-christened Stuff. The double-guitar, double-drum, double handed piano/organ, and Fender bass funk punch of the band immediately found its rightful place with greats like the Meters, Muscle Shoals, Stax, and Motown rhythm sections, and the players individually and collectively were in almost constant demand for sessions and tours (Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, John Lennon, Joe Cocker, etc.), especially overseas. Chris was also touring and recording with the Brecker Brothers, and in huge demand in the studio with Ashford & Simpson, Robert Palmer, and Patti LaBelle.

But Woodstock pulled Chris back upstate, and half the band—Tee, Gale, and Gadd—relocated as well, resulting in many a memorable Stuff gig at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock during the 80s. Meanwhile, Eric was coming into his own, playing with John Hall, backing up Bonnie Raitt. With two young daughters, drumming at home was becoming problematic, so one winter he called up his friend Michael Lang—of the Woodstock concert/movie fame—to inquire about a studio space, wondering if it was available. Lang called back with bad news: no heat. But, then he said “’you want to go on tour with Joe Cocker?’ I said ‘when,’ and he said ‘right away.’” The next day Eric was running down the tunes with the rest of the band at S.I.R., two days later on a plane to Tel Aviv. The Cocker gig lasted a good long time, three tours a year, lots of international travel. Tours with Steve Winwood and Ian Hunter cemented his reputation, and Eric soon had residence in both Manhattan and Woodstock, constantly busy.

While the other brothers were in full swing, Geoff took the path less travelled, joining the Merchant Marines, later becoming an accomplished artist and slide guitarist. Nicholas was greatly inspired by the brother’s successes—particularly Chris, who gave him his first kit—and after playing around locally and a year at Berklee School of Music, found himself back in Woodstock picking up substitute gigs for Eric, which quickly resulted in work with Orleans, Rick Derringer, and even a project with Todd Rundgren, doing the music for the pilot of Crime Story. One lip-synch gig turned into a full re-cut of country artist Randy Van Warmer’s hit “Just When I Needed You Most.” Despite having three older brothers in the business—all great players—Nicholas had developed his own distinctive Parker drummer reputation; soon he too was in the City doing nightclub and theatre work, booked solid.

Stuff finally collapsed from the weight of having such constantly in-demand musicians, and Chris accepted the Saturday Night Live house band gig in 1986, which he held down for six years, while also touring with Bob Dylan and playing on Donald Fagen’s Grammy-nominated Kamakiriad. Though Stuff members played together in different projects, tragedy struck with the back-to-back passings of Richard Tee and Eric Gale in ’93-’94. Stuff would now be but a legend, one of the greatest R&B rhythm sections of all time.

When asked the difference in styles the brothers bring individually, their responses are interesting. Chris: “I see no difference in style and deep concern with ‘the time,’ only a difference in actual set-ups. Some like smaller kits, or larger kits but each player continues to grow musically.” Tony: “I think Eric leaned more towards rock, and the same with Nicholas. Chris and I have been, I think, on a similar path, in that we like funk, fusion, and jazz a little bit more than the other guys.” Eric: “I used to get good gigs by saying ‘hey, if you want a little more fire on the backburner, give me a call.’ I like leaning into it and getting pretty fired up about it.” Nicholas: “I’d say I’m a songwriter’s drummer more than anything else. I really lock on to lyrics and melodies in order to find my place in the rhythm of the music. I relish rests, space, and the un-beat as it were.”

Oddly enough, it was a last-minute substitution that made this Parker Brothers show finally happen. Chris had been playing with a new NYC-based Stuff tribute band—The Stuff Brothers—and they found themselves short a drummer for a date at the Bitter End. Eric answered the call, and, boy, did they have a time of it that night. The brothers peppered each other all night with rhythmic jokes only they could get, cracking each other up. Stoked by the Bitter End gig, they booked the band at Bearsville Theater—with the assistance of Woodstock Underground—but realized they needed support bands. That’s when Tony, Nicholas, and Robert got pulled in, to make a complete Parker gig, the first ever.

But it won’t end there for the Parkers. Chris is currently touring with Akiko Yano and Will Lee, most recently in Japan. His own band Toph-E & the Pussycats new album, No Ordinary Day, has just been released, and gigs with Funkasaurus Rex and Robbie Dupree are scheduled in the coming months. Tony stays busy with Exit 19, “classic rock/blues” band, Butter, and instrumental horn funk band, Blue Food. Eric has been touring sporadically with Poussette-Dart Band, Marc Black, Uncle Rock, and Kurt Henry Band, while producing and teaching. Though Geoff is a successful artist, he and Eric collaborate musically with Science Friction, their weird lo-fi techno project. Nicholas has recently completed his Master’s degree and is back to playing frequently. And this may not be the last time they go for the full family monty.

If you have any love for rhythm, Bearsville will be the place to be on this September night, deep in the family groove of the famous “Parker Pocket.” This one’s not to be missed.

The Parker Brothers Extravaganza is at Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker St., Woodstock, September 18 at 7 PM. See www.bearsvilletheater.com

for more info.

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