Denis Parker has been singing the blues for 50 years despite — or perhaps because of — a long list of health problems.

Heart attacks. Five heart bypass surgeries. Pneumonia. Bypass surgeries on both legs due to blood clots. Influenza. None has stopped the 73-year-old bluesman — who says he has only 30 per cent heart function because of his cardiac problems — from writing and performing music.

Parker, originally from England, landed in Newfoundland on Nov. 4, 1971 — at 1:30 p.m. he recalls exactly — and he’s been here ever since. 

“My career is basically non-existent, I suppose, except the fact that I’m still writing music and I’m still recording music, which is what keeps me sane,” Parker said. 

Parker told CBC Radio’s St. John’s Morning Show this week he had met some Newfoundlanders, the musicians of Lukey’s Boat, in London — and since he wasn’t working in music very much at the time, he accepted their invitation to travel to the island to start their own band.

Today Parker doesn’t get on the road as much, something he attributes to his age and his health.

But, he said, he’s happy enough to continue writing and performing in the bars and pubs around St. John’s. He was also once the head of MusicNL, Newfoundland and Labrador’s leading music trade association.  

“I’m taking a risk and playing a lot of first-time songs right off the bat. It’s like flying without a parachute,” the songwriter quipped during a recent performance, before introducing a song “from the hospital series.”

“Most of the new ones are,” he added.

St. John’s bluesman Denis Parker shares his thoughts on life, death and songwriting with the Morning Show’s Gavin Simms. 10:39 Close call

In the winter Parker thought he had played his final note — or at least that’s what he was told. 

“My daughter called the ambulance because I was basically on the way out,” he said.

“I had pneumonia, a collapsed lung and suspected heart failure but it turned out that the heart was OK.”

Despite health challenges and a recent close call, Parker says he loves to continue to write new music. (Denis Parker/Facebook)

Parker said hospital staff told him that they weren’t sure if he would pull through this time.

“Which was cool, my daughter was there. After the last one they told me that anyway, that the next one could be fatal,” he said.   

Creation is the thrill

While his road days may be over, Parker still finds excitement in writing new music. 

“When you create something it’s a special event..… I mean, it’s great to get up in front of thousands of people, and play in a 50-seat bar and people love it, but the biggest thrill is actually writing a song. That’s my greatest joy,” he said.

“And that’s what keeps me going, really, after doing it for 50 years.” 

And while he doesn’t leave his house much anymore, aside from hospital visits, Parker still has the energy and the determination to entertain people with a weekly gig Sundays at the Merchant Tavern.

“It’s just enough to keep me happy and keep me going — and pay the bills. We all die. It’s nothing new. It’s just, you feel lucky to have made it this far being able to do what you love, and that’s make music. Without that I don’t know what I’d do,” he said.

“I don’t think I’d be too worried about death. It is what it is. When it comes, it comes. If it don’t, you know, on to the next song.”   

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