With his “little old-time banjo” by his side, Chicago-based Chubby Parker was of the earliest folksingers to find fame on the radio, and could be viewed as the WLS National Barn Dance’s counterpart to the WSM Grand Ole Opry’s Uncle Dave Macon.
“Chubby” was born Frederick R. Parker on October 23, 1876, in Lafayette, Indiana, the only (living) son of the deputy treasurer of Tippecanoe County. His father, North, had roots in Kentucky, and his mother, Emma, in Virginia. He attended Purdue University and earned his degree in electrical engineering in 1898. Sometime after the turn of the century, he left Indiana for city life in Chicago, and there he married Miss Frances S. Kischel in 1907 and had a daughter name Claudia four years later. At the time of the first World War, Parker claimed his occupation as patent attorney and “inventor”. In 1925, he became one of the earliest stars on the burgeoning scene of country and folk music when he joined the cast of the National Barn Dance on the Sear-Roebuck owned radio station WLS. With simple banjo accompaniment, sometimes with the addition of whistling or harmonica, Parker’s repertoire consisted almost entirely of traditional folk and old-time songs ranging from well known numbers like “Oh, Susanna” and “The Year of Jubilo” (a.k.a. “Kingdom Coming”) to remarkably obscure ones such as his version of the old minstrel song “Pompey Smash and Davy Crockett”; he displayed a particular predilection toward humorous nonsense songs like “Bib-A-Lollie-Boo”. While admittedly unbased conjecture, it stands to reason that Parker may have been employed by the station as for his engineering abilities prior to his becoming an on-air personality, as would have been somewhat common practice in those early days of radio broadcasting. Though not possessing the best voice and far from the most exemplary banjo player, Parker was met with widespread adulation and reportedly garnered 2,852 pieces of fan mail in one week in February of 1927. He began publishing sheet music of his some of his popular numbers, such as “Nickety Nackety Now Now Now” and “I’m a Stern Old Bachelor”. Sears also marketed Supertone “Ragtime King” five-string banjos emblazoned with Parker’s autograph, and some of his Silvertone records featured the same. Beginning in the very same month that all those letters came in, Chubby Parker recorded for the Starr Piano Company, manufacturers of Gennett Records and a plethora of other labels, ultimately producing a total of thirty-six sides for the company in a span of three years, of which twenty-eight were released, mostly on the Sears-Roebuck labels Silvertone and Supertone. He also recorded as banjoist with Tommy Dandurand’s Barn Dance Fiddle Band (try saying that three times fast). That stint was interrupted by one errant session for Columbia that produced only one record, which became his most famous after the inclusion of one side—”King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O”—in Harry Smith’s influential Anthology of American Folk Music. In 1931, he concluded his recording career with three consecutive sessions for the American Record Corporation, producing a further nineteen sides—mostly re-recordings of songs he had recorded once or twice before—all of which were released, again primarily marketed by Sears-Roebuck on their Conqueror label, though one also appeared on the other ARC dimestore labels. Thereafter, Parker apparently departed the Barn Dance, purportedly jealous of fellow folksinger Bradley Kincaid’s popularity. He made at least one brief return to the program in 1936, and was still promoted in station publications at the same time. By the end of the 1930s, Parker, then in his early sixties, had apparently retired from all work. Chubby Parker died in Chicago on August 28, 1940.
Silvertone 5013 was recorded in Chicago, Illinois, on April 2, 1927, at the studios of the Starr Piano Co—Parker’s second recording session. He cut earlier versions of both sides at his first, but they were rejected. Chubby Parker sings, whistles, and banjos. It was also released on Silvertone 25013 and Supertone 9191, and with side “A” appearing on Gennett 6097 and Champion 15278 and “B” on Gennett 6120 and Champion 15298.
Parker’s rendition of “Oh, Susanna” is one of the most quaint, most rustic things I have ever heard in my entire life—and believe me when I tell you, I have heard a great many quaint and rustic things! Parker’s simple banjo and enormously understated performance is a far cry from the rollicking style in which Carson Robison recorded the Stephen Foster standard five years later. Do be advised however, Foster’s lyrics gravitate considerably in the direction opposite what may be considered politically correct. Tony Russell’s Country Music Records discography notes that this issue used the spelling “Oh, Suzanna”; though some copies do display that variation, this one, as you can plainly see, does not.
On the reverse, Chubby sings and whistles his version of the old chestnut “Little Brown Jug”; he tended to work through these numbers quite fast, and packed considerable number of verses into the three-minute limit. Parker, rather atypically, played his banjo in a manner quite reminiscent of the “boom-chang” style of plucking alternating bass strings and strumming in-between that was nigh ubiquitous among old-time guitarists of the 1920s and ’30s, as exemplified by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and many others, rather than common styles of banjo picking.