By Sam Sessa
The first time I heard the music of Winfield Parker, I think my jaw actually dropped. I’d been searching for a new theme song to go along with the re-launch of my show, Baltimore Hit Parade, on WTMD.
Since the show’s name calls to mind those 1960s/1970s music TV shows, I was trolling YouTube, looking for something funky from Baltimore. That’s when I accidentally came across “Starvin‘” by Winfield Parker, with its blend of deep and dirty funk and spine-tingling soul.
Who was this guy?
Winfield Parker, who died this week of complications due to Covid, had a career that spanned 60 years, and took him from Cooksville Maryland across the globe. As a teenager, he played saxophone for Little Richard’s band, and toured with Otis Redding and Ike & Tina Turner before embarking on a solo career.
He worked with some of the greats, and nearly had a big hit himself – Otis had promised him the song “Sweet Soul Music” but Winfield’s manager booked him on the wrong plane so it went to Arthur Conley instead – but still managed to carve out a career in the rough-and-tumble music business of the 1970s and ’80s.
After a drug bust sent him to prison in the ’80s, Winfield turned to gospel, where he found success as a singer and minister. He had mostly stopped playing the “sinful” soul and R&B music of his early days, until I called him up in 2014, asking if he’d be a guest singer on a show we were putting together at WTMD called the Baltimore Soul Revue.
At the time, Winfield was driving tour buses part time and recovering from lung cancer surgery, which cost him a sizable chunk of one of his lungs. But, he said, the show would give him something to work back up to. And even more importantly, he agreed to eschew his gospel music and revisit some of his older, funkier songs for this show.
We paired Winfield with the Bellevederes, an ace Baltimore R&B/soul band who learned four of his old hits: “28 Ways,” “Funky Party,” “S.O.S. (Stop Her on Sight)” and, of course, “Starvin‘.” In the weeks leading up to the show, we played these songs on heavy rotation, which helped turn a younger generation onto Winfield’s music.
Winfield only agreed to do the show if we had several weeks of rehearsals, and he was tough on the Bellevederes, prodding and pushing them, tightening them up.
Then came the night of the Soul Revue. It was sold out, with 200-some people at WTMD’s performance studio. Sheila Ross opened up, and delivered a gorgeous rendition of her hit “It’s Gonna Take A Miracle.” But Winfield stole the show.
He burst onto the stage in a brilliant white suit, and caught the crowd completely by surprise. Within minutes they were eating out of his hand.
In the years that followed, Winfield’s reintroduction to a younger generation of fans in and around Baltimore continued to gather steam. He was one of the featured performers at the Maryland State Arts Council’s Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival at the Creative Alliance in 2016, and a year later, he performed with a crack band of young musicians at the historic Arch Social Club (a show presented by our friends at the Creative Alliance).
When I think of Winfield, I think of how he ended his set at WTMD back in 2014. After the last song, he didn’t exit stage left – he walked right into the crowd, disappearing into their outstretched arms. That’s how I’ll remember him.