An Interview with Maceo Parker
When James Brown said the above words during the song I Got You (I Feel Good), Maceo Parker became a famous sideman. Famous enough that his name became synonymous with funky saxophone. Famous enough that a few years later he left Brown and started Maceo and the King’s Men. Famous enough that he eventually would play with George Clinton, Prince, and other funksters, not to mention folks like Ray Charles, James Taylor, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Since the early 90s, he’s been leading his own group and recording well-received albums, such as Roots Revisited (1990), Life on Planet Groove (1992), and most recently, Roots and Grooves (2007), recorded with the WDR Big Band of Germany. In person, his band reflects the tightness of the original James Brown band, as well as its adherence to “stage uniforms.” Maceo’s group is an eight-piece band that executes precision stops and starts, yet the individual members blow plenty funky. I had the opportunity to interview him by phone about 10 days before his appearance at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, on May 22, 2011. I recorded the interview and aired it on Rhythm and Grooves on May 21. I’ve done some slight editing for clarity.
LE: You come from a musical family. Your dad played the drums, your dad and mom both sang in church, your brother played the drums. How did you gravitate to the saxophone?
MP: As far back as I can remember, there was a piano around. As a child, you see an adult play, or you realize that you put your fingers on a key and with a little pressure you get a note or sound. It was interesting, or entertaining, to key it, so I would play in passing. I’d just play and bang, bang, bang. But as I got older, I really noticed how to actually play it, not just how to play it by ear. That was that, then I got really excited about my first parade, you know, a marching band parade? I still remember being really, really excited about that, and I had to choose, like my mom said, a marching band instrument, and as we were speaking, the saxophone line was passing, and I thought, well maybe I can play one of those things, and that was it.
LE: You joined James Brown in 1964 when he wanted your brother to be his drummer, and Mr. Brown said he’d bring you along.
MP: Yeah, right. Well he had met by brother Melvin about a year earlier. He happened to come by where Melvin was playing. We were college students at the time, but we had two different groups, and he (James Brown) thought Melvin was of a caliber to work with him when he first heard him.
One thing you have to remember is we started trying to do, you know, dot dot dadot, dah, and come up with our own individual styles, what we thought funky music should be. We started very, very young. I think my trombone-playing brother was in the sixth grade. I was in the fifth. Melvin was in the fourth. But we had rehearsed and rehearsed til we had gotten a couple of tunes down. We were listening to my uncle’s band [Ed note: The Blue Notes] and been at his rehearsals, being in the corner trying to learn, to imitate what they did. Pretty soon we got pretty good at it, and he would take us to the nightclub while we were at an early age, and have us play during the breaks. [Ed note: They performed as the Junior Blue Notes] To make a long story short, we just kept trying, kept trying, from elementary school right through high school. By the time we graduated, when Melvin first met James Brown, he was a freshman in college and I was a sophomore.
Then about a year after he met him, we decided to get out of school and seek that job with James Brown. We met him and Melvin said, Mr. Brown do you remember me, I’m Melvin Parker, the drummer. Mr. Brown said, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.” He was still excited about my brother. They went through the whole thing about did you bring your clothes, and where they’d be going for the next two or three days and stuff. And then my brother cleared his throat, and I cleared my throat, and Melvin said, “Oh yeah, Mr. Brown, this is my brother, he’s a saxophone player. He needs a job too.” He asked me some questions about playing saxophone, if I played baritone saxophone. I told him I played a little baritone, but I didn’t have a baritone. He said, “Okay, I’ll give you a chance. Take two weeks, three weeks, to get a baritone and you can have a job too.” It was exciting. Having two brothers in the same household being hired by James Brown at the same time. It was really exciting for us.
LE: I’m sure it was. After you joined James Brown what was the first important lesson that you learned?
MP: Punctuality, I think was the first thing I learned. Well, he used to teach pride, stage decorum, and punctuality. Not in that order, but at the same time. The one that came to mind first is punctuality. The bus would leave at a certain time, and if you’re not there, maybe five minutes within leaving time, they’re gone. And then there’d be like a fine, and if you weren’t there, you’d get fifty dollars taken from you. You learn really quickly you gotta be on time for stuff. I think that’s the first thing I learned. We knew about punctuality anyway, but that was a big thing with Mr. Brown. Along with stage decorum, the way your uniform looked, you gotta be pressed, just having pride in being a man, to respect women and kids. He preached that really, really well.
LE: You mentioned being in a marching band, and I noticed that on Funky Music Machine, one of your albums with the Kings Men, that you do a tune that’s a tribute to the Tennessee State University Marching Band. What was it about that band that made you want to do a tribute song to them?
MP: Well, it was not my idea, I went along with it. That whole idea was from my trumpet player at the time, Richard Griffin. We called him Cush. We had a couple of friends that had joined James’ band, the James Brown Band, from Nashville, and I guess it inspired him to write that little thing. The whistle part, and the “pick up your feet” part, what was it, “pick up your feet, play your part, drive, drive, drive” came from the school that Melvin and I were at, which was North Carolina E&T in Greensboro. That’s something we used to sing. We incorporated that because it was like a march.
LE: You’ve served as a sideman to James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Prince. You’ve worked with artists like Kenny Neal, Candy Dulfer, Ani DiFranco. Do you approach your playing any differently when you are not the leader of the group, as opposed to when you’re the leader?
MP: No. I just dig down within my soul and within myself to try to come up with something funky. I always try anyway. People say, wouldn’t it be nice to have that guy that worked with James Brown come up with something (for a track). They’ve come up with something that reminds them of, or sounds like, something James Brown would do or something funky in the same kind of vein, and my name comes up. So I figure that’s what they want, something I would do if I’m working with him. It’s very easy and natural for me. I just realize that the funky style is natural for me, just as some guys can pitch a baseball, or hit a baseball, throw a football. It’s just something natural I could do from birth I guess.
LE: How did this current appearance with Christian McBride come about?
MP: I don’t know, but I’m excited about it. We’ve worked together. We were on the same stage a while back, some festival, or something where we’ve collaborated. Either we’re on the same stage doing a couple of tunes together or he’s with a group and I’m with a group. These things happen in this business. You follow your schedule, your itinerary, and however it turns out, it’s fun, it’s okay. That’s what makes it exciting as you tour month after month, and year after year. You get to the point where you start looking forward to things like this where you cross-breed with other musicians.
LE: I believe you’re doing an appearance with the African tribute to James Brown.
LE: We look forward to seeing you on Sunday, May 22nd.
MP: Thank you, and like we say all the time when I perform, on behalf of all of us, we love you.