Parfitt began his career in the early 60s, playing in pubs and holiday camps. He joined Status Quo in 1967 when they were looking for an additional singer. He wrote songs for the band and remained with them for 49 years. He occasionally guested with other bands, and recorded an unreleased solo album in 1985. In 2016 Parfitt retired from touring with the band due to ill health, and died in December of that year.
Parfitt was born in Woking, Surrey on 12 October 1948. His father was an insurance salesman "who was a drinker and a gambler", and his mother worked in cake shops. He described his upbringing as "wonderful", and described his childhood self as a "typical naughty boy". Parfitt first started to learn to play the guitar at the age of 11.
In 1963 Parfitt was playing the guitar and singing in The Prince of Wales Feathers, a pub on Warren Street in Camden, London, when his father was approached by an agent from Sunshine Holiday Camp on Hayling Island, who gave Parfitt a performing job. At the camp Parfitt joined Jean and Gloria Harrison, performing at the time as the double act The Harrison Twins, to form a cabaret trio called The Highlights. Following the season, the Harrison Twins' manager Joe Cohen—who had been one of the Keystone Cops—arranged for The Highlights to perform at Butlins in Minehead. It was at Butlins that Parfitt met future Status Quo partner Francis Rossi, who was playing with Alan Lancaster and John Coghlan in a band called The Spectres (soon to be renamed Traffic Jam) — a forerunner to Status Quo. After Parfitt became friends with the band, their manager Pat Barlow invited him to join the group as they needed another singer.
In 1967, Traffic Jam changed their name to The Status Quo (they soon dropped the definite article and later still would often be known simply as 'Quo'), beginning Parfitt's almost 50-year career in the band. Early successes came with the Rossi-penned hit "Pictures of Matchstick Men". The single became the group's only Top 40 hit in the United States, peaking at number twelve on the Billboard Hot 100. Though the follow-up was the unsuccessful single, "Black Veils of Melancholy", they had a hit again the same year with a Marty Wilde song, "Ice in the Sun", which climbed to number eight. The band's 1972 album Piledriver, which reached number 5, spent a total of 37 weeks on the UK Albums Chart.
The band's more popular songs during the early 70s include "Paper Plane" (no 42 in the German music chart) (1972), "Caroline" (no 36 in the German music chart) (1973), "Down Down" (no 14 in the Austrian music chart) (1975), "Rain" (no 27 in the German music chart) (1976), "Rockin' All Over the World" (No 29 in the New Zealand music chart) (1977) and "Whatever You Want" (no 24 in the Australian Music Chart) (1979). "Down Down" topped the UK Singles Chart in January 1975, becoming their only UK number one single to date. In 1976, they signed a pioneering sponsorship deal with Levi's.
The 1976 hit "Mystery Song", co-written with Bob Young, was composed after Rossi had laced Parfitt's tea with amphetamine sulphate during the sessions for the Blue for You album. Rossi later said: "He was playing the riff when we left the studio, and he was still playing it when we came back the next day!"
Quo were highly successful in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand throughout the 1980s and 90s, and were the opening act for 1985's Live Aid, and they continue to be successful in the present day. By February 2015 they had sold over 118 million records worldwide. In 2013 and 2014, Parfitt and Rossi reunited temporarily with original Quo bandmates Lancaster and Coghlan for a series of reunion concerts on what would be called the "Frantic Four" tour.
Parfitt and Rossi were appointed Officers of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the New Year Honours 2010.
At the time of Parfitt's death, he was the longest lasting member of Status Quo aside from Francis Rossi; who co-founded the band in 1962. He wrote some of their greatest hits, sometimes in collaboration with the group's keyboard player Andy Bown, among them "Whatever You Want", "Again and Again", and "Rain".
In 1984, the year before Quo would open Live Aid, Parfitt and Rossi appeared on the Band Aid charity single, "Do They Know It's Christmas?". Bob Geldof asked Rossi and Parfitt to take part, knowing that although the group were from an entirely different musical era and background, their consistent chart success and fame would bring a certain amount of credibility to the project from the rock fraternity and ensure that the group's loyal following of fans (the "Quo Army") would buy the record in large numbers.
Parfitt played guitar on the song "It's an Illusion" recorded for the 1984 album Strange Frontier by Roger Taylor.
Parfitt recorded a solo album Recorded Delivery in 1985, but it was never released. Among the musicians on the record were bassist John "Rhino" Edwards and drummer Jeff Rich, formerly with the Climax Blues Band and Judie Tzuke.
In 2006 Parfitt released his guitar refacing overlay invention, the "guitar facelift", which was licensed by guitar manufacturer Fender.
In December 2009 Parfitt teamed up with Rolf Harris for the single "Christmas in the Sun", following on from the 2008 Status Quo hit "It's Christmas Time" which Parfitt wrote with current songwriting partner Wayne Morris.
In 2013, Parfitt and Rossi starred as themselves in Bula Quo!, a comedy film in which the duo find themselves becoming accidentally involved with mafia operations on Fiji. The film was generally poorly-received by critics. An album was released alongside the film.
In April 2015, along with his wife Lyndsay and Julian Hall, Parfitt set up "Status Homes", a real estate company based in Marbella, Spain.
One of Parfitt's guitars was a white 1965 Fender Telecaster. In addition he also played a Gibson SG Junior, a 1981 Zemaitis tuned to a B, a Schecter Telecaster, a Fender Esquire, a custom-made Fender Telecaster Thinline, a Gibson Melody Maker and a Chet Atkins acoustic guitar. He also used Status Slipstream guitars in different configurations. For amplification, Parfitt used Marshall JCM800kk (Kerry King signature) or JCM900 amplifiers with 4x12 cabinets, combined with VOX AC30 amplifiers and a Roland GP8 signal processor and a Boss CE-7 as his clean boost pedal.
Following a heart attack, Parfitt had a quadruple heart bypass in 1997, when he was told by doctors that he could die "at any time" unless he changed his lifestyle of drugs, smoking and heavy drinking. At the height of the band's fame, Parfitt and his long-time Status Quo partner Francis Rossi were notorious for drinking and drug use, with Parfitt claiming to have been spending up to £1,000 a week on cocaine, and up to £500 a week on vodka. In his later life, following several health issues, Parfitt led a much more sober life, stating in a 2014 interview that he had not smoked cannabis for 27 years and had not used cocaine for 10.
He had a throat cancer scare in December 2005. He suffered a heart attack in December 2011 and underwent surgery on the following day.
On 1 August 2014, while on a European tour with Status Quo, Parfitt was hospitalised in Pula, Croatia, forcing the cancellation of six shows on the tour. He had suffered a heart attack while on his tour bus after performing a concert in Austria, and had a stent inserted. He later told the Daily Mail he was pleased to have suffered another heart attack as it had forced him to stop smoking and drinking after 50 years.
On 14 June 2016, after playing with the band in Antalya, Turkey, he had another heart attack and was hospitalized. His management described his condition as serious. Parfitt was clinically dead for several minutes, resulting in mild cognitive impairments. The band announced that their ongoing tour would continue with Freddie Edwards, son of bassist John "Rhino" Edwards, as a temporary replacement. On 22 June it was announced that Parfitt had been flown home to the UK and was described as "comfortable" in hospital in London, where he was undergoing more tests. He had a defibrillator fitted into his chest. In September it was announced that he would not be well enough to tour in the autumn, and he did not intend to tour with the band in future.
In 1973, Parfitt married his first wife, Marietta Boeker, and in 1974 they had their first son, Richard, better known as sports car racer and musician Rick Parfitt Jnr. The couple also had a daughter, Heidi, who drowned in the family pool at the age of 2.
This tragedy, combined with Parfitt's cocaine habit, led to the couple divorcing, and Parfitt going on to marry his second wife and former girlfriend, Patty Beedon, in 1988. They had a son, Harry, in 1989. They divorced when Parfitt had an affair with Boeker, before reuniting in 2000.
Parfitt and Beedon split up again when he secretly became engaged to fitness instructor Lyndsay Whitburn, whom he married in 2006. The couple remained married for the remainder of Parfitt's life, and had twins Tommy and Lily in 2008, although by the time of Parfitt's death, the couple were separated.
Parfitt died in a Marbella hospital at lunchtime on 24 December 2016 from sepsis, after being admitted on Thursday evening, 22 December, following an infection of a pre-existing shoulder injury. His funeral was held at Woking Crematorium on 19 January 2017.