by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When it comes to naming women blues singers of the 1920s, the top of the list usually includes the trifecta of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith, black women who were able to make their mark in an industry controlled by whites and performed almost exclusively by men, including in the largely segregated world of African-American music.
So, it is notable that today’s featured object from the museum’s collection is a portrait of June Parker, a diminutive white woman who was consistently referred to as a blues singer during her decade-long career in Los Angeles. There had to have been black female blues singers in the city and region, but Parker was given the platform, mostly on local radio stations, on which to build her reputation.
It’s not easy to find biographical information on her, though a news article from 1930 stated that she was born in San Francisco and raised in Boston. Sure enough, she and her mother Helen were located in the 1910 census in the latter city and her mother worked as a department store clerk. Though it said she was married, there was just the two of them as lodgers in another family’s home.
The Parkers migrated back across the country to California and the Bay Area and not long afterward and June married Horace Donnels, Jr.. The couple resided in Berkeley, where Horace worked as a clerk for his father’s life insurance company and then at an auto supply business and a hardware company. Probably in the early 1920s, however, the couple, who’d moved to the Los Angeles area, split up and then divorced.
Maybe one of the reasons was June’s interest in pursuing a career as a professional vocalist. She was appearing on radio as early as 1926 and began to make a name for herself, as noted above, as a stylist in the blues as well as with ballads and popular songs. It seems as if she freelanced for a period, singing on several local stations, like KHJ, KNX and KFWB, before she became a staff member at KHJ.
She had at least two nicknames, an early one apparently being the “Silver-Throated Soprano” soon after she came down to Los Angeles and appeared in a cabaret. Another was “Little Girl Blue,” a play on the old English nursery rhyme. One short version of Parker’s life from spring 1930 indicated that she got her break in local entertainment when she was heard “at a party one night burlesquing a popular coon shouter with deep intonation.”
This offensive term of “coon shouter” related to a popular singing style epitomized by white women in vaudeville and elsewhere and which often involved performing in blackface. In fact, the news item following the brief discussion of Parker’s life and career concerned “devotees of the ‘Mammy’ type of song” enjoying a program on KECA with Southern-themed pieces along with other popular songs.
Charley Hamp, who hosted radio programs in Los Angeles from its earliest days, took Parker under his wings and “induced her to change the vocal stance and now she rates better than par as a crooner” with ballads and other popular songs. She was also said to be skilled in lampooning opera stars like Amelita Galli-Curci and worked in early talking motion pictures doing the singing for an unnamed film star who couldn’t vocalize.
After getting some early press during the first part of 1926, Parker’s popularity grew during the rest of the year and, in mid-November, the Los Angeles Times noted, as she performed on KHJ with LeRoy Parry and his Orchestra of Seven Smiles that “no one can do just the type of blue singing that June does.”
By late 1928, several months after the highlighted portrait was date stamped by the News Enterprise Association press photo service, she was exclusively working with KHJ and was featured in “Modernized Xmas Carol Singing For Los Angeles” appearing with the Dare sisters as they rode atop a Texaco-sponsored truck singing holiday tunes to the public.
In June 1929, the Times reported that she had a feature evening spot on a half-hour program on Mondays “when she purveys some snappy popular tunes of the day.” The article also observed that “after appearing on most of the Southern California radio station programs,” Parker became a regular on KHJ about six months prior. This placed her “in the ranks of feminine singers of jazz airs” on the station “if the volume of fan mail is any criterion.” The paper added that “it has even been said that June rates at least two [marriage] proposals every week” and, because this didn’t come from a publicity officer, “there may be some truth to it.”
Another Times article from August had Parker in the headline as “Blues Singer on Radio Bill” and it noted that she was performing at the major 7:30 p.m. slot as “her numbers will include several of the latest popular hits” with an orchestra as accompaniment. In the new decade, her star continued to rise. In March 1930, she nabbed a coveted spot on the 6 p.m. Tuesday program hosted by Paul Whiteman, the self-proclaimed “King of Jazz” and who was American’s most popular dance band leader, even if his jazz was perhaps as authentic as Parker’s blues. Still, this was said to be her first nationwide broadcast.
The following week, she appeared again on Whiteman’s show and the Times noted that “the inclusion of Miss Parker, of the KHJ staff, is a compliment to the station and an indication of the kind of artists the West turns out.” John Boles, who achieved fame for his feature role in the classic film Frankenstein, which was released in 1931, and Lloyd Hughes, who has been previously featured in a post on the blog, also appeared on the program.
If 1930 was her peak as a performer with the national exposure provided by singing on Whiteman’s program, the end of the year brought tragedy as Parker was seriously injured in a car crash in North Hollywood. In early October, she was a passenger in a vehicle driven by a Hollywood publicist when a Glendale man crashed into the car, hurling the singer onto the street and suffering a broken collar bone and numerous cuts and bruises. For a few days there was concern that her eardrums were ruptured and that permanent hearing loss could result and Parker sued the driver who caused the accident for $50,000 alleging that she had injuries to her skull that could result in deafness and the end of her career.
Parker did recover and, by early 1931, was singing again, including performances three times a week on KMTR. That summer, as she was listed as singing on KECA, the Times offered the prediction that “when television sneaks from behind the ‘just around the corner’—June won’t have to hide,” as it was pointed out in some press accounts that she was not only an excellent singer, but pretty to boot. Notably, television would likely have appeared in American homes far sooner if not for the Great Depression followed by the Second World War.
Yet, it is evident her career was on the wane, though whether it was from lingering health problems from the accident, changing tastes and styles in music or some other causes is not known. In November 1932, while she was performing nightly on KFAC, the Times observed that “June signs a note: ‘Ye Old Broken Down Blues Singer,” even as it noted she had “a lovely voice.” The following summer, her estranged husband, Horace Donnels, was killed in a single-car accident in La Cañada-Flintridge and at the end of 1933, Parker was involved in another crash in Arizona involving “a theatrical group” with which she was traveling.
Not long after this, Parker was no longer appearing in press accounts and it seems as if she retired from public performance although she was still in her thirties. By the end of the Thirties she lived with her mother in Laguna Beach and, in the 1940 census, she had no given occupation. On 1 September 1944, there was a simple report in the Times that “Mrs. June Parker Donnels, 43, former vocalist, died yesterday in California Lutheran Hospital.” There was no mention of her career or cause of death given, merely that her funeral would be held the following day and that there was a private interment.
The entertainment industry is notoriously difficult and even a modicum of fame can be fleeting and suddenly lost. For nearly a decade, June Parker was a singer of substantial popularity in Los Angeles as she appeared regularly in radio programs, including the top-rank nationally broadcast shows of popular bandleader Paul Whiteman. Yet, within a few years her career was over and she hardly was recognized for her work when she died within a decade.