GOOD SONGS have a way of not fading away, which seems to be the case with a hot little rocker called "Watch Your Step" that opens Carlos Santana's new LP. A decade and a half ago Steve Winwood sang it with the Spencer Davis Group, and during the 1970s it appeared on an album by Cold Blood.
Twenty-two years have passed since Bobby Parker walked into the Edgewood Recording Studio on Vermont Avenue near Thomas Circle and recorded "Watch Your Step." He had written it the night before while sitting in Room B715 at the Dunbar Hotel at 15th and U streets NW. His original version appeared in the summer of 1961 on V-Tone Records. The single sold millions of copies and Bobby Parker was a star--at least for a few months.
These days, Parker still lives in the Washington area. He works part-time as a printer and occasionally packs his red Gibson guitar into a van and drives off to play at an armed services club or an out-of-the-way bar. Although songs seem to develop a life of their own, composers are more easily forgotten.
"I never really had another hit, and most people forgot about me," Parker says, in a quiet yet staccato voice that reveals much of his soulful singing style. "In the '70s a guy took me over to England for a tour, and a few years back Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin came over here to talk with me about doing a record. But mostly it's just been little gigs here and there."
Parker was born in Los Angeles 38 years ago and left home in early adolescence to become a wandering musician.
"I was on the road all the time," he says. "I played a little bit with Jackie Wilson, and Clyde McPhatter. One time I backed up Bo Diddley on the "Ed Sullivan Show." I had this little band here in D.C., a bunch of guys off the street. I got the idea for 'Watch Your Step' from a riff in a Dizzy Gillespie tune. I wrote it right off the top of my head. The next day the band was rehearsing in a building on Thomas Circle, and this guy walked in. His name was Ed Greene, and he told me that he had heard the song from down the hall. He had a little studio nearby. We went in there and kicked it off, and the tune went all the way through in one take."
Greene, who now runs a video post-production studio in Los Angeles, recalls liking "the song the minute I heard it. Bobby was an incredibly talented guy. I had recorded a few hits at Edgewood, like 'Rawhide' by Link Wray and some stuff with the British Walkers. The place was a tiny little room, maybe 15 by 15 feet, with a 10-foot ceiling. There were no gimmicks involved in making records then. The music was either there or it wasn't. And I had no doubt that Bobby had a hit."
Parker took the tape from the session and sold it to the V-Tone label in Philadelphia. Thus began his brief summer of fame, as well as his continuing struggle to get the royalties he feels are owed him.
"A little bit of money trickled in over the years, but I never got paid one cent by V-Tone," he says. That company is long defunct. Parker says he has received some of the money due him as the author of the song, "but certainly not all of it."
Sometime after the song was released, the Philadelphia publishing company once owned by the proprietor of V-Tone was bought by Ivan Mogull, a music publisher in New York. For years, Parker received one half of the income that Mogull collected in royalties from other recorded versions of the song. By 1977, Mogull was paying Parker only 12.5 percent. The following year Mogull convinced Parker to sell 75 percent of his interest in the song, for which Mogull paid $1,000. Mogull then added what he now describes as a "nom de plume," which was "Phil Belmonte," to the author credit on the song. In fact, "Watch Your Step" is attributed to Bobby Parker and Phil Belmonte on the Santana album.
Parker claims that he is still due thousands of dollars in royalties.
"I called BMI a company that licenses songs for air play ," Parker says, "and they told me the only way to resolve this was to sue Ivan Mogull."
As for Ivan Mogull, he summed it all up recently by saying of his deal with Parker: "That's business, my friend. I'm not going to discuss this on the phone."