Robert "Freightrain" Parker
Robert "Freightrain" parker - Performer
BMHOF Class of 2015
Robert Parker can tell you when he first heard the blues.
“It was when my father put on the Raven record,” he said. “It was the song, ‘Let’s Eat.’ I’ll never forget that … (it was the record) with the black raven on the front cover.”
Fittingly, now in the fall of 2015, he signed on to fill in for the late Tommy Calandra on bass for a pair of Raven reunion shows at the Sportsman’s Tavern in Buffalo.
“No one can fill in for Tommy. Learning his parts (when he first sat in with the Raven members a couple of years ago at the Tralf), he was a really interesting player, a great player,” said Parker. “(Tommy) had odd parts. I learned those parts, and the guys sort of looked at me … and I said, ‘oh, yes, that’s right. That’s how he played them.’ And I remember sitting there with those guys, thinking back to that record my dad played.”
Between that record and today, Parker’s voyage has taken him across the United States, Canada and Europe as he has become known as one of Buffalo’s best bass players.
Parker grew up in the Cazenovia Park area of South Buffalo. His father, Al, had a band that practiced in the basement and suggested Robert try the bass. He saved up money from his paper route, went to the Brand Names store in the Southgate Plaza in West Seneca and bought a bass.
At the same time, he was picking up some stand-up bass at school at Southside, and he started going into the basement, picking up his dad’s bass and trying to play along with records (Average White Band’s “Live Person to Person” is one that he remembers clearly).
Parker credits music educators at Southside like Floyd Fried (for taking his students outside of the city, learning to play live), George Sedola (a Woody Herman band alum who charted his own songs) and Harry Fackelman with helping him learn aspects of music.
And between playing with school bands and his father’s wedding band (along with his brother, Ken, a noted saxophonist in his own right), his career picked up. He started playing with Ike Smith and Free Spirit, and says, “everything took off after that.”
His audition with Smith saw Ike invite him to his Tonawanda home, put on Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Do” and tell Parker, “Learn this.”
“The bass part is insane,” Parker says. “I had to sit there and learn it. … And he hired me. I was definitely not where I should have been, but I got there pretty quick.”
Pete O’Donnell, a long-time drummer for the Scinta Brothers, was one of the constants at that point, helping get him into Smith’s group and “taught me a lot about feel and grooves,” Parker said.
Since then, Parker has gone on to perform alongside a long list of major blues artists. He spent long terms touring with Sherman Robertson , Bill “Sauce Boss” Wharton, Chief Jim Billie, Paul Reddick & the Sidemen and Florida bluesman Rock Bottom, including overseas tours to Europe – Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, England, Ireland and the Netherlands – and the Caribbean.
He’s played in front of crowds of 15,000 or more in Europe, and he’s been on stage when the Sauce Boss’ cauldron of gumbo went spilling across the stage in Windsor.
And he’s played alongside Eddie Van Halen, Lucky Peterson, Vassar Clements, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Les Dudek, Max Weinberg, Little Feat, Eddie Kirkland and a host of others. He’s also played with nearly every Buffalo-area blues performer of note, as well as more rock outfits such as the Need, Beat City and Joyryde.
Asked to describe his style, Parker said, “I think it’s the punch and the drive, but mostly it’s about feel. I’ve had people ask me about lessons, but I’ve always said, ‘Can’t teach feel.’”
After spending much of the 1990s and early 2000s in Florida, he moved back to Buffalo. He’s been producing music (Canadian native artist Tonemah) and performing with a rotating cast of musicians as Robert “Freightrain” Parker & Friends.
Parker has also been involved in Native American issues and in raising money for autism-related issues, inspired by his son Elijah. His “Celebrating Elijah” foundation is dedicated to raising money for service dogs for use with autistic children.
A descendent of Ely Parker (the Seneca officer who wrote the final terms of the Treaty of Appomattox for General Ulysses S. Grant), Parker has also worked for Native American Community Services Youth Program and has helped out some with his brother Ken’s “Food Is Our Medicine” initiative. His Christmas Toy Drive for local impoverished Native Youth grows annually and is near and dear to his heart.
Parker said he can recognize why many Native Americans have an affinity for the blues.
“I think we share, as a race, the same struggle,” he said. “There’s a song, by friends of mine from out in Oklahoma, Blues Nation. They had a song … ‘My People Have the Right to Sing the Blues.’ It’s the same struggle today as it’s always been … and when I play, the music brings about a healing and a sense of togetherness. When I look out at the diversity of the crowd, and they’re having a good time together, makes me feel good knowing that I’m a part of that. That I can create an atmosphere where people can come and let loose, not feel judged and just have a good time. My hope is that they leave feeling the same.”
(Profile by Elmer Ploetz)