Everyone knows that James Brown was the funkiest man to ever Camel Walk on Earth. But when James Brown needed that extra boost of funk, there was one man he called on to deliver it. Maceo. Maceo Parker’s tenor sax tone could transport any blissfully funky beat into an ecstatic rave. James Brown. George Clinton. Prince. Parker’s played with them all and taken their funk higher. He’s the common thread in the evolution of funk music that links James Brown’s bow tie, to George Clinton’s psychedelic synthetic wigs, to Prince’s silky scarf.
As the front man of his own funk orchestra for more than two decades, Parker has taken cues from all the band leaders he’s worked with and churns out high-energy shows peppered with James Brown-like screams and his own signature sax grooves. You might expect a legendary musician of such a bombastic musical genre to be arrogant, but Parker remains generous and humble; still marveling at the fact that he’s shared the stage with so many great artists.
“I was just lucky,” Parker says. “Way back when it wasn’t trendy to put a name in front of the soloist on the recording, James did it and it sort of gave me a boost.”
The show is part nostalgia act, but the music is still as fresh as ever. Parker turns 73 years old this month, and shows no sign of slowing down.
Mike Andrelczyk: In a few weeks, you’ll be 73 years old. Your show is high-energy. You’re up there dancing and sweating. Are you going to keep going until you drop?
Maceo Parker: Yeah, that’s me, man. Coming from James Brown, and Prince and George Clinton – that’s all high-energy stuff. It’s just part of my DNA, and I’ll give it what I got. I’m fortunate enough to still have a little bit of it. Enough of it, anyway. Now, I’ve reached that age where there’s a lot of nostalgia. It’s really nice to be at this stage and get to listen to people [tell stories], and take the pictures and do the autographs and all that stuff.
MA: Your birthday is on Valentine’s Day. Is spreading a message of love through your music and performances a big thing for you?
MP: I use a theme, and theme is “We love you.” I sing it and put a beat behind it. That’s the last thing I say, “Always remember on behalf of all of us: We. Love. You.” I’ve been doing it for years now. I think love is like smoke. It rolls over everybody. It just goes everywhere.
MA: What made you choose funk over the cool jazz style of saxophone players like John Coltrane or Hank Mobley that was happening in the early ’60s?
MP: I just went with what I heard, and felt and what was inside me. It was almost like soul searching, or not ignoring what I heard. It’s almost like your handwriting – almost. Like, this is the way I write. It comes out this way. It’s just, this is the way it is. I had a brother who played trombone – a year older than me – then me, then another brother that played drums. So, ever since we were old enough to hold instruments, we did. Also, I had an uncle who had a band. So we were born into music. My mom and pop were in the church choirs. So it was music all the time since day one. My brother and I wanted to hear everything. All styles, all kinds, Frank Sinatra – I mean everything, but still with all that, the funky side of everything was at the forefront for me and my brother that played drums.
MA: On the beginning of your Life on Planet Groove album, you say funk music is happy music. So, did funk just fit more with your personality?
MP: Yeah. Exactly. Plus, I was born on Valentine’s Day, and I just love people, man, I really do. I’m into that courtesy thing. You know, “Good morning,” and all of that. But, I think it’s important for each individual to sort of soul-search. To go within him or herself to see what it is that they really want to do. Because, at first I thought the only thing that made sense was to be a music teacher, to go get my degree and teach. I got to the point where I thought about teaching on one side and actively performing on the other side. [I thought about] these tunes, like “A Night in Tunisia” and “Canadian Sunset,” [and how] it would be nice to visit these places and perform.
MA: People can’t help but to think of James Brown when they hear your name. Do you have a specific memory of James Brown when people mention his name?
MP: Not one specific thing. I think what comes to the top more than anything else is how fast he could dance at the time. It was unbelievable to be a foot-and-a-half, two feet away from him. It was like heaven, being that close to him.
MA: How authentic was the James Brown bio-pic Get on Up?
MP: I think Chadwick [Boseman] did a really great job. The only thing I didn’t like about [the Maceo character] was that every time I opened my mouth, they had me swearing. I’m more respectful to people than that. Plus, I wasn’t around at the very beginning with Bobby Byrd. But, I kinda liked it. I knew Ben Bart and Jack Bart and I was speaking to Jack, Ben’s son, about the movie and he said, “Remember the part where they had James [at Ben Bart’s funeral] with the shovel putting dirt over the coffin? In actuality James wasn’t even at the funeral.”
MA: James Brown was notoriously authoritarian boss. Were you ever fined for being late or missing a cue or anything?
MP: Yeah, when he gave me the title of band director, he said, “Maceo, I want you to come to my dressing room before each show.” I said, “Ok, Mr. Brown.” We were on a plane to Barbados or somewhere, and we were late. So we rushed to the stage to do a sound check and he rushed to his dressing room. Then I remembered he said, “I want you to come to my dressing room.” So I said “Oh, yeah, I gotta go to Mr. Brown’s dressing room.” He had two entrances to his room – a left and a right – and I came off the stage and went into the right entrance, and at the same time he was leaving the dressing room from the left entrance and going to the stage. When he gets to the stage he says, “Where’s Maceo?” “He went to your dressing room, Mr. Brown.” “No, he didn’t. I just left.” At the same time, I’m in his dressing room like, “Where’s Mr. Brown?” “He went to the stage.” “No, no, no, I just left the stage.” And it was kinda funny. But he fined me for that! He really did. And it was so funny, I didn’t even mind. Two, three, four hundred dollars, something like that. I just laughed, like, “Oh, OK cool.”
MA: Was there a big difference transitioning from the tight ship of James Brown to the controlled chaos of Parliament?
MP: Yeah, it was like night and day, man. Coming from a world of uniforms and routines, you know, “Left, right, two up, two back,” to a world where George Clinton’s motto was “It ain’t nothing but a party.” Like, a guy could say, “George, I’m really into Westerns. Would it be OK if I wore a couple pistols on the side and a 10-gallon hat?” [And George would say] “Oh yeah, man, it’s cool.” I’m going, “What?” And another guy would say, “I’m kind of into the Native American thing – would it be cool if I wore a headdress and stuff?” [And George would say] “Yeah, that’s fine. It’s cool.” George had what he called the uniform bag, and we had to fly somewhere and his bag didn’t make it. So, it’s almost time for the show, and he walked out front and – I saw him do this – he took a tablecloth off the table and wrapped it around him and went to one of the ladies and said, “Did you happen to bring a backup wig?” Boom. Wig, right out of the bag. He sticks it on his head, and it’s like, “Let’s go. We ready.” It was really, really, cool. Wig on his head, and a tablecloth wrapped around him and he was ready to go. Cool. (Laughs)
MA: So we’re not going to see you wearing a diaper on stage?
MP: No, no (laughs). We’ve got the color scheme thing going on. Matching suits, stuff like that. I like for the audience to know a little bit – it’s almost subliminal – but I like them to know that we have prepared for them. At the same time, to each his own, like if different groups want to wear jeans and stuff, that’s fine because that’s their thing. My concept is I don’t want it to appear like we’re on the basketball court and someone says “Hey man, we got 20 more minutes before we gotta go perform for these people.” And then you rush right to the stage. Or there are some guys that are musicians and they’re just meeting together and they’re like “Do you know ‘Knock on Wood’?” “Yeah, yeah.” “What key do you wanna do it in?” “Let’s do it in G.” Ok. Boom. But people can kind of see that. They can tell when you haven’t really been together. They may still have a good time. But I think people really appreciate it when they can tell that you’ve really prepared.
MA: Both James Brown and George Clinton had their bouts with drug addiction. How were you able to avoid that pitfall all those years on the road?
MP: You hear about Charlie Parker and Dizzy doing all the drugs, but [I thought], maybe, I can show people that all musicians don’t have to do that. It was sort of a promise I made to myself. I tried to drink a beer once. I had gotten drafted and was in the military and they were like, “OK, we’re gonna have a beer break.” And I was like, “What is this beer thing? You know what, let me try this.” After one or two swallows, I said I can’t do this, not because I promised myself I wouldn’t do alcohol or anything, I just didn’t like it. One of my buddies said, “You have to acquire a taste.” “Acquire!?” If I have an iced tea or something it tastes good as soon as it touches you, but if I gotta keep drinking it and keep drinking it until I acquire – no. They give me wine and champagne in my dressing rooms and I just pocket that and give it away.
MA: With all the legends you’ve played with you’ve said that Prince was No. 1 for you. What is it about him?
MP: He doesn’t like to be part of interviews, but I can say this much, I love him. He doesn’t think he’s a genius, but I think he is. I really marvel at the fact that I was able to be close to him, same as James, same as George. I’ll always think the world of him. I’ll always love him because he’s a sweetheart.
Maceo Parker performs at the Lancaster Roots and Blues Festival on Friday, February 26 at 10 p.m.-12 a.m. at the Convention Center (25 S. Queen St., Lancaster).