(Originally appeared in Mutant Renegade Zine #12, Fall 1999)
Just about everyone is familiar with his funky saxophone, but many don’t know it. Maceo Parker is the master behind all those horns that you hear when you listen to a James Brown song. Go ahead and try to sing “I Feel Good” without adding the horns. Couldn’t do it could you.
Maceo grew up in North Carolina and was born into a musical family. At age 8, Maceo picked up the sax and his brothers Melvin (9) and Kellis (10) chose drums and trombone respectively. Then the three made a name for themselves as they played local clubs as the Jr. Blue Notes. A few years later, while in college, Maceo’s world took a fantastic turn as his brother Melvin was approached by the music legend, James Brown. A few years later Melvin and Maceo would become a permanent part of James Brown’s band.
I first heard of Maceo Parker in the early 90′s when I heard one of his early solo works while I was working at a local public radio station. It was his album “Live on Planet Groove” that sparked my interest in Jazz music. However, it wasn’t until recently that I learned that this master of the saxophone was the same fellow who helped define James Brown’s soulful funk sound. When I found out that he was opening act for the Ani Difranco show I was going to in Washington D.C., I was ecstatic. What made it all the better is that a few weeks later I would get to see both again in Columbus, Ohio.
You can imagine how excited I was a few weeks after that when I got the chance to speak with Maceo. I did the interview via telephone and some of the conversation got muddled due to a crappy tape recorder. Here is what I do have, so enjoy.
MRZ – When did you first realize that you were meant to become a musician?
Maceo – (first part of answered jumbled)… Everything came easy to me music wise. I had a gift. I also knew [I was going to be a musician] because music was always a part of the house. It made for a happy feeling around the home. I guess that’s where my love for music first formed.
MRZ – How did you first start playing with James Brown?
Maceo – My brothers and I started playing when I was in grade school. We worked almost every weekend, a lot of dates. I was in the 5th or sixth 6th grade. We spent our time trying to learn, to get experience. I have a brother who’s younger than me who plays drums and a brother older than me who plays trombone.
Later, I went to the University of South Carolina as a freshman. My second year there my brother was in another band made up of primarily local musicians. But often we would work together. One particular night and I was playing out of state and he was playing a local club somewhere. James Brown came to town and wanted to see a show. Someone recommended the place where my brother was playing. He stopped by and he really liked the group that was playing, especially my brother playing the drums. So he went over and introduced himself, “Hello, I’m James Brown, I really liked the way you play and I sure would love you to play in my group. I’m not saying stop being a student or leave school, that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that when there is a time where you are not a student and you want to have a job with me, you got it.”
So whenever I get back into town, the first thing I always do is check on my brother. And that’s when I got the news that he got to meet James Brown and so forth. Then, about a year and a half passed and we decided to get out of school and to seek out James Brown. But we had to try to keep in touch, like where he was going to be. Back then when you played someplace like June or July, chances are that the next June or July you were going to be back.
He was playing at the Coliseum. When we saw him, my brother went up to him and said, “Hello Mr. Brown, I’m Melvin Parker, do you remember me? I’m a drummer and I’m not a student anymore. Do you remember telling me that if I wasn’t a student anymore and I wanted a job with you I could have it? Well, I’m not a student and I would like to have a job.”
James Brown was like “yea, yea yea yea yea I remember. You want a job you got it.”
Then my brother says, “I’d like you to meet my brother. He plays sax and he would like a job too.” And James Brown asked, “Do you play baritone sax?”, and I was thinking the first thing I say to James Brown isn’t going to be negative and if I said no that would be the end of the conversation. And I had played baritone sax, when I was in high school. So I just said “Uhhhmm, yes sir.” He then said, “Do you own a baritone sax?” and again I go, “uhhhhmmm, yes sir.” He then said, “tell you what, if you can get a baritone sax then you can have a job too. I’ll give you enough time for you to do what you have to do to get one.”
He could tell by the way I was that I didn’t really have one, but I think he liked the way I didn’t tell him no. I also think that he figured that if I played for him a little and played like my brother played and maybe that would be okay. And that’s how I got started with James Brown.
MRZ – Where you surprised how easy it was to become part of James Browns Band in that you just had to go up to the door and talk to him?
Maceo – Yes, well no, not really, because he had heard my brother play and I guessed he based everything on that. And to have the ability to play and perform, you either do or you don’t. And he could tell there was experience there somewhere and it showed. And it showed because my brothers and I have been doing nightclubs since the 5th grade, 6th grade. And from judging from our peers, we knew that we were well ahead of most of them.
It’s kind of like when you are a kid and you have races and there’s the fastest girl or the fastest guy, it’s just a fact that the guy can run faster than the other ones. It’s no big deal; it’s just a fact. And that’s how we looked at it too. The music part just came easy to us and we had the ability to do it where others can’t.
MRZ – What’s the one thing that you always take with you from working with James Brown?
Maceo – I’ve always tried to ask myself why he did everything that he did as far as which song came first, which song came second, and why he would repeat a song, and how to please an audience or to set up tunes. I sort of base my show on a little bit how he did things, although I’m not dancing like dap dap da da dap or doing his turns and all that stuff. But I take few tips from him.
MRZ – After working with James Brown you went and worked with George Clinton. How do the two experiences compare?
Maceo – George is almost completely at the opposite end of the spectrum as far as the freedom you had on the stage along with the things that you did. With James Brown, we were all uniformly dressed. Later on, it got to the point where I could wear a different color. For example, when the rest of the band wore dark tuxedos, I would wear a white one. But primarily, we were all dressed the same.
George Clinton didn’t care what you wore. You could be more individual. George Clinton’s motto was, still is and probably will always be “life ain’t nothing but a party.” You did your own thing, whatever turns you on, and that’s great. If a guy feels like he wants to wear stripes, that’s good. If a guy wants to dress like an Indian Chief, then that’s fine. One guy wants to dress like an Indian priest, that’s fine. One guy dressed like a lifeguard at a swimming pool. Where you’re at, where your head is, that was okay with George.
It took me a minute to sort of get use to this. All those years with James Brown, all that uniformity to one guy telling us if were not into wearing any shoes tonight, that’s okay. That’s the way it was with George Clinton.
MRZ – After your stint with George Clinton you started working on some solo projects. How was the experience of going from a support person to being the front man, which included you singing as well as playing sax?
Maceo – You know throughout my career, I’ve had chance to be in the spotlight. Even when I was with James Brown, he would sing a bunch of choruses that say okay Maceo, you take it over. At that time, I am the leader. He’s not singing, I’m leading on the saxophone and everything is following me.
So, I got the feeling and experience of doing it and hoped someday that things would turn and I’d get a chance to do exactly what I’m doing now.
MRZ – You’ve also have worked with what most people would label as “alternative” bands such as De La Soul, Janes Addiction, Dave Matthews and now your tour with Ani Difranco. How did your working with these groups come about?
Maceo – Most of the time it’s people saying, “I would like this part to sound like James Brown or wouldn’t it be great if we could get Maceo to play on this track?” And that’s mostly how it’s done. Somebody from Dave Matthews, I don’t know if it was Dave, but it was somebody who probably said something like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have Maceo play on this tour?” Now with Ani, it was probably her. I just found out that she had been to a couple of our gigs. I don’t know which one’s because she was just in the audience. She’s one of my fans. And she maybe thought to herself maybe I can get a chance to open for Maceo and he can open for me.
It’s great. She’s got a lot of energy. And we do these things time to time because we know that there are a lot of people in her audience who don’t know us and at the end of the day we are able to pick up a few more people who didn’t know of us before. It just makes it better.
At this point the tape recording of the interview becomes too jumbled. I asked Maceo what his next move was. He let me know that he is planning on doing a CD featuring various other musicians including Stevie Wonder, The Artist (formerly known as Prince) and many others. In fact, a couple of months following the interview, Maceo was in New York playing sax onstage with The Artist.
I found Maceo to be a quiet gentleman who is very aware of his awesome talent. I really admired his confidence in himself and how far it has taken him. If you have a chance to see Maceo live, do yourself a favor and do it.