Step BrothersMarch 1, 2015
In the latest Mojo, the one with the big piece on Physical Graffiti, Jimmy Page throws away a comment about The Beatles stealing an old r’n’b riff and fashioning it into their own I Feel Fine. Pots ‘n kettles, Jimmy! Pots ‘n kettles!
What Jimmy omitted to reveal is how the same riff more than informed Led Zep’s own Moby Dick.
The track in question is Bobby Parker‘s smokin’ hot 1961 r’nb stomper, Watch Your Step;
Bobby Parker’s story is the classic struggling musician versus the world tale of rip-offs, bad management and lack of recognition. Mention his name ’round these parts and folk like my father-in-law will wax lyrical about the Rangers and Everton player with the same name. The Bobby Parker we’re concerned with earned his chops tackling the music business and playing alongside Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. He toured extensively, sharing stages with rock ‘n roll’s founding fathers – Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly to name but a few. We’re all well aware of those names, but Bobby Parker? He remains niche, known only by contemporary musicians and musos, waiting to be discovered and elevated to his rightful place amongst the greats. An early b-side of his, You Got What It Takes, was recorded by Marv Johnson as one of the first singles for Motown, but upon release, to Parker’s dismay his name had been wiped from the credits and replaced, not for the last time, by that of the ever-canny Berry Gordy.
Stung by this, (“What was I to do? Fight Motown?!?“) Bobby Parker wrote what has since become his signature tune, Watch Your Step. Unlike the movers and shakers over at Hitsville USA, Parker was quick to acknowledge his references – the 12 bar blues, the similar riff and structure of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say;
and also to Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca, a skronking, relentlessly driving riff-laden jazz instrumental;
When asked about this a few years ago, he was admirable in his honesty.
“I started playing Gillespie’s riff on my guitar and decided to make a blues out of it. What came out was ‘Watch Your Step.’”
Also admirably honest was John Lennon.
“‘Watch Your Step’ is one of my favourite records. The Beatles have used the lick in various forms.”
Most noticeably, as Jimmy Page was quick to point out, Watch Your Step‘s taut, snappy riff and structure lends itself quite well to I Feel Fine.
“I was flattered,” said Parker later on. “I thought it was a cool idea. But I still had, in the back of my mind, the idea that I should have gotten a little more recognition for that.”
Listen closely and you’ll hear little flashes of what could be Day Tripper too;
The big baddies in the whole thing though are Led Zeppelin. For the record, I love Led Zeppelin. For the rocking, the rolling and the riff-riff-riffing there was no-one better, but they have nowhere to hide when it comes to this sort of thing. They’re certainly no strangers to the rape and pillage of the blues. Jimmy brazenly ‘borrows’ little riffs, indeed whole songs from blues’ back catalogue. I’ve written about this before, but much of the Zep’s entire recorded career was based on long-forgotten blues standards, arriving fully formed but twisted and turned into fantastically sounding ear-crunching slabs of heavy blooze rock. But nicked all the same. If they’d been more honest in their sticky fingerdness they might have been given more leeway, but it’s the deception and the credits to Page/Plant that rankle. Anyway, there are entire books and websites dedicated to uncovering such things, but this isn’t one of them.
When Jimmy was pointing out the similarities between Watch Your Step and I Feel Fine, he might, after all these years, have admitted to basing his own riff for Moby Dick on Bobby Parker’s single.
But he didn’t. Perhaps the pangs of guilt were such that at the start of the 70s Parker was offered a paltry $2000 to record a demo for the nascent Swan Song label, but nothing came to pass of this. If Jimmy truly felt guilty, he’d have given Parker a credit on Moby Dick.
Not for the first time, Jimmy got away with it. And not for the first time, Parker missed out on the credit.
Have you ever heard the dogs barking during the fade out of I Feel Fine? The smart money is on Paul doing the yelping, but you never know…
You can hear tons of this sort of stuff over at What Goes On – The Beatles Anomalies List. It’s great!