After nearly 40 years in music, Ray Parker Jr. knows it's better for artists to ignore categories.
He learned that growing up in Detroit and watching Berry Gordy's Motown operation in the 1960s seamlessly blend pop and R&B. Parker applied the lesson to the music he created in the '70s with Raydio, recording a string of hits that garnered airplay on top 40 and soul stations.
So it should come as no surprise that, although Parker has dabbled in smooth jazz in recent years, he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a contemporary jazz artist.
“I like the whole smooth-jazz thing," Parker told me a few years back from his San Fernando Valley home. "But I like them to think of me as pop and R&B, and you can add smooth jazz to the list."
There is a decided smooth jazz tinge to “I’m Free” (2006), Parker’s most recent recording. Loaded with his soothing vocals and understated guitar, its laid-back vibe is typified by "Mismaloya Beach," an instrumental track that found its way onto contemporary jazz radio.
"The nice thing about (the) album is it's really the first time I got to sit down and play what I wanted to play, totally uninhibited," Parker said.
Audiences apparently can expect a wide range of music when Parker performs May 24 at Yoshi’s in San Francisco.
It was as a guitarist that Parker secured his initial toehold in the industry. As a teenager, he played sessions with the likes of Freda Payne ("Band of Gold") and onstage in Detroit behind the Temptations, the Spinners and Gladys Knight and the Pips. From the start, his focus was on the instrument rather than a specific genre of music.
"I wanted to switch to the guitar when I heard the Lovin' Spoonful on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' " Parker said. "For some reason, they showed John Sebastian plugging in his guitar. I said, 'I like that electric thing.' There was something about that that really caught my attention."
Parker was 18 when Stevie Wonder called and asked him to play in his band for a 1972 tour opening for the Rolling Stones. He went on to perform on the landmark Wonder albums "Talking Book" (1972) and "Innervisions" (1973).
Parker launched his recording career in 1977 by signing with Arista and forming the group Raydio. The band scored a series of crossover hits with "Jack and Jill," "You Can't Change That" and "A Woman Needs Love (Just Like You Do)." Parker dropped the Raydio moniker in 1982 and got back on the charts with that year's "The Other Woman" and his signature hit, 1984's "Ghostbusters."
By then, Parker was also a presence behind the scenes, producing tracks for Deniece Williams and Diana Ross. He wrote and produced "Mr. Telephone Man" for New Edition.
Parker would go on to record for Geffen and MCA but never match the success of his Arista days. He doesn’t record much these days but clearly relishes playing live before appreciative audiences.
"I'm a real musician, and I enjoy getting onstage," Parker said. "To me, it's just like the old days."
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