Michael Parker (1958 – 2017)

We pay tribute to Barb Jungr’s musical partner, who recently passed away.

Jungr & Parker. Photo courtesy of Barb Jungr.

One of the stars of the alternative cabaret firmament was extinguished, when singer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Parker sadly passed away earlier this month, on 2 November 2017.

The tragic news was broken on social media by his lifelong friend and musical partner-in-crime, singer Barb Jungr, who posted on her Google+ page that “our dear friend and comrade in musical arms, Michael Parker… left us today at 12.25 pm”, going on to write:

“If you were lucky enough to have known Michael you’ll know that he was a great musician, generous, heart as big as Paris, a funny, handsome fine man, a gorgeous singer and my musical brother and dear friend. Through thick, thin, shit, mosquitoes and sandflies, and such joy. We played in Sudan, Cameroom, Malawi and the States together. 6 Jungr and Parker albums and radio shows, Island Records and 3 Courgettes, television and life…”

Julian Clary, another long-time collaborator of Parker’s on stage and television, tweeted:

His older sister, Aileen Parker, posted on Facebook, the following day:

“Very sadly Michael, our little brother passed away on Thursday afternoon. Peacefully in his sleep. He was the most sweet and gentle soul I knew and a massively talented musician. I feel blessed to have been part of his life. To find out more of his great talent please visit the website of his closest and longterm musical partner, Barb Jungr. Love you Michael. Xx”

Michael Parker was born in 1958 in Kimbolton, Huntingdonshire, educated at Adams’ Grammar school in Newport, Shropshire and Bridgnorth School and before moving to London. During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Michael was a founder of blues band Loose Lips, the band fronted by singer Helen Watson. He was also a member of the celebrated pub rock regulars The Danny Adler Band, contributing guitar and backing vocals to Danny’s 1980 album Gusha-Gusha Music.

Michael then made a name for himself on the alternative cabaret circuit when he formed a harmony group memorably named The Three Courgettes with singers Barb Jungr and Jerry Kreeger in the early ‘80s.

It was while busking new wave versions of gospel classics in the Kings Road and Portobello Market where the band were discovered by Island Records, for whom they released two singles, and had a minor hit with the song Three Courgettes. The group toured with label-mates Kid Creole and The Coconuts – the Island Records connection led to the Courgettes appearing on Ze Christmas Album, a seasonal compilation from the legendary ‘no wave’ label Ze Records (a semi-independent Island subsidary) where August Darnell (aka Kid Creole) honed his sound as a producer.

In 1984, The Three Courgettes begat ‘Jungr & Parker’, and Michael and Barb worked together as a duo for thirteen years, establishing themselves as first-class performers and gaining a cult following on the alternative cabaret circuit, before going their separate ways.

Jungr & Parker recorded four independent albums between 1987 and 1990 –  Wicked (1986); Blue Devils (1987); Night and Day (1988); Off the Peg (1988); Over The Bridge (1990) – and toured across the UK and beyond many times, scooping awards including the prestigious Perrier Award in 1987, and releasing Off The Peg in 1989 on Billy Bragg’s Utility Label. Over the years, Jungr & Parker travelled as far afield as Sudan and Cameroon, “Through thick, thin, shit, mosquitoes and sandflies, and such joy”, Barb recalls.

The duo were a winning combination, with Parker’s skills as gifted guitarist equally matched by Jungr’s gifts as a top-rate chansonnier, bringing their magic touch to American songbook classics as well as their own compositions. These could often be heard on BBC Radio, where the double act made regular appearances on Hayes At The Weekend (Radio 2) and Stop The Week (Radio 4), not to mention five series of their own cult radio show, We Stayed In With Jungr & Parker. They opened for two tours with Alexei Sayle, and were stalwarts of the alternative cabaret circuit working alongside Ian Shaw and The Pair Brothers.

The duo also enjoyed a longstanding series of collaborations with performer Julian Clary, who recalled their first meeting for The Independent in 1996:

“We met in 1985 in Shepherd’s Bush. I remember turning up when Barb and Michael Parker were doing their soundcheck and being riveted by her voice, and almost straight away having a vision of a show that we could do together. I was just doing stand-up on the circuit and I knew I wanted to expand and put in some music for comedy purposes. We chatted in the dressing room and a few weeks later I rang Barb and Michael up, and we wrote some comedy songs together… I did a number of tours with Barb and Michael.”

Michael and Barb on tour with Julian Clary, with Russell Churney and Hugh Jelly. Photo courtesy of Barb Jungr.

When the pair met Clary – then performing as The Joan Collins Fan Club with Fanny The Wonderdog – his act was considered too daring for mainstream television, but four years later, Channel 4 brought Clary’s distinctive brand of outrageous innuendo and cabaret camp to the small screen with the delightfully subversive Sticky Moments (1989 – 1990). Clary, in turn, brought Michael and Barb along to provide the music, including the theme song. In his memoirs, Sticky Moments’ co-creator, Paul Merton (another Comedy Store veteran) doffed his cap to “Barb, Michael and Russell Churnley (who) provided beautiful music for the finale song.”

The ‘Julian gang’, 1980s. Photo courtesy of Barb Jungr.

In 1987 Barb and Michael worked with Arnold Brown in the show Brown Blues which won the coveted Perrier  Award at that year’s Edinburgh Festival.

In the early 1990s Michael and Barb joined forces with Christine Collister and Loose Lips’ Helen Watson and toured Europe, America and Canada as Hell Bent Heaven Bound.

One person who caught Hell Bent Heaven Bound live on tour was Martin Smith, who later posted an evocative, fulsome appreciation of Michael Parker’s musical talents on the Helen Watson fansite.

“The revelation for me was Michael Parker who played acoustic guitar, and played any solos that were going. … He played guitar nicely, and his backing vocal meshed very well with Helen’s; they have a knack of sounding like more than 2 people.

But his lead singing was fabulous. He has a fair vocal range himself, seems to be able to produce a variety of voices, and is seriously at home with the blues. You won’t see a better example of a guy who should have been born black! He sang a fine version of George Jones’ “She thinks I still care” sounding very much like the ol’ drinker himself. And blues-wise he did Howling Wolf’s “How many more years?”, Jimmy Reed’s “I’ll change my style”, and a encore version of “Walkin’ the dawn” which was great. Sometimes Helen just sang second vocal, or sometimes played harmonica on his tunes. They also sang a very sleazy version of a (presumably) old blues tune from the Hell Bent revue days (Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You).”

Hell Bent Heaven Bound’s first revue received an airing on BBC Radio Four, and their second revue Money: The Final Frontier (1992 – 1993) was immortalised with a cassette release, remastered for CD by Stereoscout in 2009. Shortly after its release, Barb told All About Jazz:

“I got sent the remastered (album), and I was really knocked out at how proud I was of it because we’d recorded something like 24 songs in a day, standing around one microphone, the four of us playing and singing at the same time, all of it one take. Also, I can’t believe that I played and sang; we were all doing it, I can’t believe it.”

Michael’s singing talent was appreciated even more widely. In 1994 he contributed vocals, along with Christine Collister, on Richard Thompson’s album Mirror Blue.

For the last 15 years Michael has been a central pillar of the Edinburgh live music scene, both solo and playing blues with his own band MP and the Expenses. His work was celebrated locally and he recently made a last CD, This Bitter Earth, showing once again how wonderful his guitar playing and singing remained.

Michael Parker passed away in Edinburgh, on 2 November 2017. He was 58. Michael leaves a brother Harry, sister Aileen, his two sons, Campbell and Harry, and partner Sharleen as well as every musician with whom he ever performed. For his friends and collaborators such as Barb, they have memories that will never fade. For those of us more familiar with the work than the man, we are fortunate that many of the recordings he made with Barb et al, have made the transition from vinyl, off-air recordings and cassette into the digital realm, either on CD or captured on YouTube. As Barb announced the sad news with her fans and friends social media, she shared a moving song they wrote and recorded together about love and loss, posting: “In the words of one of our song titles Michael, No One Else Could Ever Wear Your Shoes. If you can bear to listen, it’s here.  As Julian would say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Michael Parker has left the building.”

With huge thanks to Barb Jungr and Harry Parker for their help in preparing this obituary.

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