Parker was raised in Chicago by a vaudeville duo known as Butterbeans & Susie. He led a band at the Cotton Club in Cincinnati in 1948 which included King Kolax as one of his sidemen, and recorded with Kolax in Los Angeles later that year. He became a member of Lionel Hampton's ensemble in 1949, where he remained for the rest of his career. His time with Hampton included appearances in the film Lionel Hampton and His Orchestra (1949) and on Hampton's recordings from this time. He toured Europe with Hampton several times between 1953 and 1955.