Night and Day With Maceo
By Thomas Fawcett,
3:03PM, Tue. Feb. 19, 2008
“Maceo, blow your horn!”
James Brown hollered that famous refrain nearly 45 years ago and Maceo Parker hasn’t quit blowing since. By now, most music fans know Parker as the funkiest saxophone player who ever puckered, the man with the golden résumé. Parker spent more than 15 years playing with Brown including a stretch in the late 1960s and early 1970s when that outfit was the best around. Period.
He boarded George Clinton's Mothership in 1975 and played with Parliament Funkadelic during the group's creative climax. Throw in seven albums with Prince and 15 on his own and you’ve got a career and discography that reads like the history of funk. Parker’s latest is Roots & Grooves (Heads Up), a live double-disc recorded in Europe with the WDR Big Band. In advance of his Feb. 26 gig at Antone's, Bump & Hustle spoke with Parker from his home in Kinston, North Carolina about the new album and his long musical journey.
Bump & Hustle: You’ve been touring for nearly 45 years. How do you manage that?
Maceo Parker: Well, I was at a crossroads in my life at the very beginning. I was right out of high school and after a year or two of college I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I decided I would enjoy traveling and performing, and I do. As I reflect back on it I think what makes it easy for me is that I decided that I wanted my life to be centered around music. When I know I have a flight that leaves at six o’ clock in the morning, I smile and say, “OK, you decided this a long time ago, so smile again and do what you gotta do to make that plane.”
B&H: Let’s talk about your new album for a minute. One of the discs is a tribute to Ray Charles. What inspired you to cover those songs?
MP: I’ve always been into Ray Charles ever since I can remember. Before I graduated from high school I was able to catch one or two of his concerts so I’ve been listening to him for a long time and I’ve always enjoyed his music. Fast forward a little bit to now and I got a chance to work with this big band so I thought, 'I’ll come out like Ray Charles with the glasses and everything, doing the Ray Charles walk.' I can do a blues piano – a lot of people may not even know that, but I can.
B&H: The second disc is more of the classic Maceo sound. Is there anything about that half of the album that sticks out for you?
MP: It’s just interesting that now you’ve got a big band doing my stuff, it gives you a little pride, makes your chest expand just a little bit more. We’ve got a big band doing “Shake Everything You Got” and “Uptown Up,” and it all worked really well.
B&H: You played on and off with James Brown for more than 15 years. Can you give me a sense of what that experience was like for you?
MP: Before you start working or traveling to cities and countries you’ve heard of, you always wonder, 'Man, what is it like?” Being from a small city in North Carolina, I always thought, 'Goodness gracious, what is it like to even play some of the largest cities just in this state?' So working with James Brown and playing shows of that magnitude and going to cities like New York, L.A., Las Vegas, and Atlanta was very exciting. You can’t ask for a better story. If you’re going to play music you might as well play with someone who is thought of as being the number one in that field, and that was James Brown.
That was always the kind of music I really wanted to play. In fact, we had a group when we were in 5th, 6th, 7th grade where we were singing James Brown and we had routines that were just like James Brown's. So we already played that kind of music we called funky. It was easy to make that transition from playing as a local group to more of a national and international stage with James Brown.
B&H: I imagine it was very different when you stepped on stage and went on tour with James.
MP: [Laughing] Yeah. The only thing that was different is now you are on the stage instead of being down in the audience being mesmerized by those on the stage. Now you are on the stage and people get mesmerized by you because you’re just one or two feet from the hardest working man in show business. It was a great pride to be a member of that band. There was a time when, if it was advertised that James Brown was coming to town, the question wouldn’t be whether you are going, the question would be, 'What are you wearing?' So along with that comes a certain pride. Then we got to a point where he started calling my name on a lot of records and the pride just went up two-fold or three-fold. 'Maceo' became like a position in the band, like a general or colonel or something like that.
B&H: You hear a lot of stories about James Brown being a hard guy to work for. Did you find that to be true?
MP: It wasn’t hard but his concept demanded that there are certain things you had to do. He taught pride, dignity, respect, and all of that stuff was very important to him. For example, before they had those bags with wheels some guy had a garlic bag by the handle and was dragging it. James said, 'No, no. You can’t drag your bag, it shows a lack of dignity.' So you would have to pick your bag up or put it in a cart or something. He was like that. He was always teaching us self-respect, decorum, what to wear, making sure your shoes were shined and your clothes were looking good, punctuality. He made sure we were into that and we respected him more for that.
And as far as learning the songs, we knew that made us better. So, yeah, he was hard. If somebody made a mistake during a tune, we would go rehearse after the concert. If you knew he was right you didn’t mind. We would have extra rehearsal but that would mean tomorrow’s show would be better than tonight’s show.
B&H: Were you still close to James when he passed away?
MP: No. The last time I was with him – as far as traveling with on the bus and all that – was 1989. I hadn’t worked with him in that capacity since then, but it was exciting to play some of the same festivals with my group and his group. We would do special projects; we did an MC Hammer project together. So from about ’89 until the time he passed, there were several times we shared the stage together, and that was very exciting and a lot of fun.
B&H: You spent a good part of the mid-to-late 1970s playing with P-Funk. I imagine the culture of that band was vastly different than playing with James. Is that true or am I off base?
MP: No, it was like night and day. James Brown had a uniform concept. There was a dress code and we would wear tuxedos and there would be some sort of color coordination. I got to a point where if [the rest of the band] was wearing a blue jacket maybe I could wear white or something just a little different because I’m Maceo. George Clinton’s motto is, was, and probably always will be, 'Life ain’t nothing but a party.' Life is one big party so you shouldn’t have a big hangup about uniformity. When I wake up in the morning I may not feel exactly like you, and if I don’t feel like you I don’t want to dress like you. So that's [Clinton’s] thing.
If a guy is really into ACC sports and says, 'I want to wear a basketball uniform for the concert,' that’s fine with George. Another guy might say, 'I’ve always wanted to be a referee and I want to wear some stripes.' That’s fine. Another guy might say, 'I’ve always wanted to fly an airplane so I’m going to dress like a captain.' That’s fine. Another guy might say, 'My feet hurt and I don’t feel like wearing any shoes.' If that’s where you’re at, that's fine with George. And not only that, but if you have a certain arrangement in a song, and for some reason, in a song with a guitar solo, one of the horn players says, 'You know what? I really feel like playing,' that’s fine. All of these things would have been totally unacceptable with James Brown. It took me a minute to realize, 'Hey, this is different.' It took me a long time to get into that concept.
B&H: It was like a culture shock almost.
MP: Not only that but some of the lyrics and some of the things they were doing on stage. I tell you it just goes on and on. Sometimes I would have to just go to the side of the stage and watch. I don’t know if I want my picture taken while they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing! Pride, dignity, and respect are out the window when you’re running around saying, 'I gotta find me a dog! Aaaaatooooomic Dooooog!'
B&H: One of my early introductions to your music was through your cameo on De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate and your horn has been sampled on more than a few hip-hop tracks. Are you a hip-hop fan?
MP: I don’t know if you can call Usher hip-hop but I like him. You know Usher’s [singing] 'You make me wanna leave the one I’m with/Start a new relationship with you'? I thought that was one of the funkiest tunes since Sly Stone did [singing], 'There’s a mickie in the tastin’ of disaster.' I mean, it’s funky.
B&H: Your show coming up in Austin is at Antone’s and I understand you became friends with Clifford Antone over the years. What do you remember about him?
MP: Just that he always had an open heart, an open mind, and an open place for those that played any kind of blues music. He was one of those guys who was always there when you needed a favor. We’ve played that place so many times. When you’ve been doing it for such a long time you can tell when someone is really genuine and there’s something extra when people really mean what they say – you can feel that. Clifford was one of those guys who really meant what he said and opened the door for a lot of artists, and most of them were black.
B&H: So what can folks expect at Antone’s?
MP: Going to Antone’s is like coming home. I don’t know why they adopted me but they did. We bring New Year’s Eve, we bring Christmas day when we perform. That’s what funky music does. You know that James Brown kind of funky funky [singing] 'Gonna have a funky good time'? It’s party time when you hear that. Same thing with [singing] 'Get up, get on up!' It brings everybody together – leave all that other stuff on the outside. That’s what our performance brings and that’s what our music brings. If you’re ready to get your party on, come on down where we are because that’s what we do all the time.