Here's an old article about Parker Wheeler from The Daily News of Newburyport
By Emily Young, Dec 20, 2007

The Party Rolls On

Parker Wheeler's weekly blues gig marks 17th year at The Grog

Amesbury musician Parker Wheeler remembers his exact thoughts in the moments after suffering a heart attack in April 2007. Looking up while laying down, he told himself, "I don't want to go. There's still a lot of stuff left that I want to do."

But the 60-year-old Wheeler had plenty to be proud of, too. He had accomplished something many musicians can only dream of: a long-standing, weekly gig.

This month, he celebrates his 17th year leading Parker Wheeler's Blues Party, a Sunday night favorite Downstairs at The Grog in Newburyport.

"I do the booking for the rest of the nights here and still can't touch Parker," said Joey Newman, entertainment manager at The Grog. "He has been the only person I know to have such a long run with the same idea of music."

More often than not, the Blues Party kicks off each week with "Memphis Underground," a straight-ahead, funk groove that pulls the band together. But from there, patrons never know what to expect, as the lineup of performers changes weekly. For years, guitarist Fly Amero was a regular, as was drummer Tom Hambridge. These days, you might see saxophonist Amadee Castenell one week and keyboardist John Colby the next.

"If you come on a regular basis, you'll see faces and hear people you know," said the harmonica-playing Wheeler. "I've been able to tap into a great resource of musicians. You get to meet different folks who play in different bands. It's really fun to mix and match these people - it keeps things fresh.

"It's mushroomed over the years and that's one of my favorite parts: having all these talented people meeting and working together at The Grog."

But before the harmonica, Blues Party and The Grog, there was the fife and drum corps.

Wheeler's mother died when he was a toddler in Exeter, N.H. He subsequently grew up in Albany, N.Y., where his father was a university professor. During grade school, Wheeler experimented with a few different types of instruments, including the keyboard, trumpet and even the fife. He listened to jazz and rock 'n' roll as a kid, but it was the blues that became his passion. At age 18, he decided to hibernate in his grandmother's Wakefield attic, accompanying records by Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield on his harmonica.

"I spent three months living up there, grinding eight, 10 hours a day, playing along with the records," Wheeler said. "That gave me enough of a beginning. When I went back to upstate New York and started going out, playing with bands, I had the confidence to go up on stage. And I enjoyed doing it - performing. It gave me a real sense of self, a sense of purpose."

During his first year of college, Wheeler landed on stage with a touring acoustic trio - Leaves of Gold - which was performing at a local coffeehouse. When one of the band members dropped out not long after, Wheeler got a call to go on the road.

"Sometimes, life presents you with choices. I talked about it with my dad. I told him everything and he gave me his blessing," Wheeler said of the band's offer. "I never expected that call, or that I would get the opportunity to leave and go on the road. It's been a long journey. I'm glad I did it. It led to a lot of different paths musically."

After three or four months together, band members decided to go their separate ways. Wheeler took off for the West Coast in 1969, spending nine months there playing with several bands before heading back east and joining Swallow. The band, which had a contract with Warner Bros., led to Wheeler playing on a larger scale.

"We were playing concerts and making records - doing all that stuff," Wheeler said. "You don't think of yourself as being young, but really, I don't think most of us were more than 22, 23 years old. That was a wonderful experience that opened up a lot of opportunities to play different parts of the country and work with talent people."

Wheeler got tired of life on the road and faded out of the music scene while living in West Newbury from 1973 to 1989. But around May 1990, Wheeler, who had relocated to Elliot, Maine, got the itch again. He decided to set up an open mike night with several local musicians at The Hideaway, a basement bistro in Kittery, Maine, that hits full capacity with 25 patrons. The seeds were planted.

"In 1990, (longtime bartender at The Grog) Doug Johnson called me up and said he was thinking of doing something on Sundays - maybe a blues jam," Wheeler said. "I said, 'Your timing is impeccable because I just started a blues party in Maine.' And the rest was history. I never thought I'd be doing it now, but I never took it for granted either. It's changed, morphed, taken on a life of its own over the years."

Wheeler has changed, too, since his heart attack in April. There are things, like studying formal composition, that he'd like to try for the first time.

"After my open heart surgery, I thought maybe I wanted to buy a keyboard," said Wheeler, who returned to Massachusetts in 2001, settling in Amesbury. "I want to get some ideas out on paper - or on computer now."

But for the time being, he's just happy to be back at his old gig. While still recovering from his triple bypass, his doctors encouraged him to return to his harmonica to supplement his daily breathing exercises. He returned to his fans at The Grog this summer, his body giving him clear and consistent indicators on how far he could push himself.

"The power of faith is just extraordinary. I'm happy to be here. I truly am," Wheeler said. "Playing that first time was surreal. Emotionally, it was fantastic. People were just very loving. I'm so grateful for the blessings that I have."

 

Performers on Parker

Ever modest, Parker Wheeler attributes the success of his weekly blues gig at The Grog to just about everything but himself: Great space, supportive management, loyal fans. But fellow musicians confirm Wheeler has a thing or two to do with the evening's success.

"Parker is not only a true gentleman and a talented musician, he's a huge fan of music and music history," said drummer Steve Chaggaris. "Parker is also able to recognize and appreciate the talent in a young, up-and-coming character. His enthusiasm is contagious. I love the variety of musicians Parker brings on board. I've met tons of great players there - players that I now work with outside of the Grog. The circle gets larger each time I play there."

Topsfield native Bruce Bears and Toni Lynn Washington were already playing The Grog on a regular rotation when Wheeler first approached them to perform during his Blues Party more than 14 years ago.

"When he mentioned that he'd have players from Joe Cocker's band and talked about all the different musicians he was planning on using, we jumped at the chance," Bears said. "We've been doing it ever since, playing with a bunch of world-class players, most of whom are based right here in New England."

One of those world-class players is Cliff Goodwin, guitarist for the Mohegan Sun All-Stars and former side man to Joe Cocker and Robert Palmer. He has made the trek from Worcester every six weeks for the past decade to play with Wheeler and the likes of guitarist Tim Pike, saxophonist Amadee Castenell and bassist Wolf Ginandes.

"Parker sets the table beautifully. It's a real feather in his cap that he knows how to put the right people on stage. They have more fun on a Sunday night than most nightclubs have all weekend," Goodwin said. "Everybody wants to play there. His Rolodex is deeper than Dick Cheney's."

 

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