“Maceo, I want you to blow!”
When James Brown first said those words, it transformed Maceo Parker from an anonymous sax player into one of the most famous sidemen in music history. The line became a staple of Brown’s recordings and live shows, bringing the name “Maceo” to households across the country. But the story doesn’t end there. Parker’s full list of collaborators reads like a trans-generational wish list: George Clinton and P-Funk, Bootsy Collins, Keith Richards, Prince, De La Soul, Red Hot Chili Peppers, James Taylor, Dave Matthews Band. Not bad for a kid who started out playing soul covers with his brothers in Kinston, North Carolina.
Parker’s new memoir, 98% Funky Stuff, traces his journey from his humble Southern roots to his career-making gig as James Brown’s go-to soloist — including the infamous moment in 1970 when the whole band quit en masse. From there he takes us through the madness of performing with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and rounds out with his current success as a touring bandleader. It’s a remarkably unassuming, even-tempered account from a true funk icon.
Entertainment Weekly spoke with Parker, 69, about his memories of working with James Brown, his favorite collaborators, and what it’s like performing nearly 300 nights a year. Read the interview below:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did growing up in Kinston, North Carolina have any effect on your career?
MACEO PARKER: Perhaps. When I grew up, the thing boys would do during the summer is work tobacco, because it was a cheap product back then. I didn’t want to do that. From an early, early, early age I was like, ‘I like music. This performing thing comes easy.’ And perhaps that’s how I ended up doing what I’m doing today. Being a musician.
You mention that your musical icon is Ray Charles. What made him so special?
The fact that he was blind, I think. At the end he had all those talents in musical achievement, I mean, plus he’s blind. I noticed something about his tone quality — it sounded to me like he had really learned or experienced whatever it was he was singing. And that gave him some kind of advantage, I thought, over a lot of people I heard. I thought I heard him crying once during a sad song. I was really into what he was doing and what he was singing about.
What impact did getting drafted in 1965 have on your career?
I really don’t think it affected my destiny or anything. I was well into being who I am, or what I became. I was well into that position in the James Brown group. But what it did do was sort of give me a choice. Now I could probably get a career in the military and have a military band. Before that, I was really close to teaching, and I had already decided that I didn’t want to be a music educator.
When you came back, there was an open invitation to return to Brown’s band?
Yeah. I had gotten to the point where ‘Maceo’ was almost like a title. Or a position. All this stuff was like life experience. When you’re young, 18 – 22, you’re just beginning on your adult thing. You had to be really careful. It’s very exciting, but you had to be really careful, because with all these different lanes, you don’t want to go down the wrong one. So you had to be careful and give it some thought and then stick with what you decide.
You don’t drink or smoke – I’m sure that’s kept you out of a lot of trouble.
[Laughs] Perhaps. Me and my brothers started a musical group early on and we were playing in places where we really weren’t supposed to be. And we had an uncle who had a band. You observe as you experience and grow, and I was like, ‘That drinking, it’s wild. I don’t know if I want to do that. That’s kinda crazy.’ But what stuck out for me was, I was coming home from school, and I heard somebody say, ‘You going to that show this weekend?’ ‘Well, no, all those musicians, all they do is drink and act silly and get drunk.’ And I smiled and said, ‘Maybe — without saying hey, look at me — maybe I can be a musician who doesn’t have to do that.’ I already felt my love for music and entertaining, and I disliked the rowdiness and the drunkenness and all that stuff. But just maybe I could show, without beating a drum, you don’t have to do that to make it in that particular business. I must have been 15 when I came up with that one.
How do you look back on your time with James Brown?
It’s like if I’m a swimmer, or a diver, it’s my springboard. My beginning. And I always will give a salute to James Brown because that’s what launched my career. He may not have known then that he was opening the door for me. He might not have realized the snowball effect. But when he started calling my name, first of all recognizing that I had something to say with the saxophone when it was time to say it, and then using it, and then calling my name on a lot of the recordings. That’s what really did it. All over the world, there were people imitating James Brown. Every family, somebody swore they could dance like James Brown. And then during the routine, they would call, ‘Come on Maceo.’ Eddie Murphy did it on Saturday Night Live. I always wanted to have my own thing, and have my name on the marquee, and thanks to James Brown I was able to do that today.
How crazy was it performing with George Clinton and Parliament during the Mothership Connection years?
George had a concept, and his concept was, ‘Maybe I can get away with this stuff if I convince everyone that we’re from outer space.’ He didn’t care what you said or about a dress code or anything — his thing is, ‘We know funk. And this is the way we do it.’ His concept was different from the James Brown thing, where we had uniformity and no profanity and all that. It took me a minute to really understand it. People have different takes on clothes and what to wear and colors and all that stuff, so why make a big deal about uniformity? It took me a long time to grasp that particular concept, simply because I was coming from the James Brown thing. Again, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I don’t think that particular chapter of my life helped form and shape me. I think it may have helped a few people know who I am. But it was a very good experience.
Why did Life on Planet Groove connect so well with college audiences?
[Laughs] I have no idea. Sometimes it’s just timing. In fact, all the time it’s probably timing. Perhaps it was the right time for the particular way that we did that one to be there, to be part of the mix. I did not know that it was gonna have the impact that it had.
You’ve worked with some big names as a solo artist. Who’s your favorite?
Ani DiFranco. I remember opening for her. We were doing our thing, and it was getting close to the time when I was supposed to stop, and I looked over in the wing and she was still there. I said, ‘My goodness, she’s supposed to start in 15 minutes, and she’s still here? That means she’s really into what we’re doing. Well, if she’s into what we’re doing, maybe I’ll just call her out and have her jam with us.’ So I started doing that. She just came out and had fun with us. From that experience, her sharing her love for music and performing, that puts her as number one over everyone — other than maybe Ray Charles. I thought it was really unusual for someone to be that into me, not sitting in front of the mirror or anything, just spending as much time as possible with me. Like a family member.
How many days out of the year do you perform live now?
We may do a good 290.
So you’re on stage for a majority of nights of the year. Do you think you’ll ever get tired of that?
I don’t think I will, but I know Father Time is going to catch up. That’s the thing. I love it so much. I really, really do. I try to stress that a lot. You have to love what you do. And in order to do that, you have to search your soul to find out what it is that you really are about. And then when you find it, if you’re lucky enough to be in a position to do what it is that you love, it becomes easy. I’m blessed that I ended up doing exactly what I wanted to do. Coupled with that, I love people too. I love to look out and see people being moved by what we’re doing. I know that entertainment only lasts so long, but people seem to need that, to get away from the everyday stress of just being alive. Going to a baseball game or any form of entertainment takes you away, for a moment, from the everyday. And we need that. I stress love a lot. During my live performances, you hear me say, more than once, ‘On behalf of all of us, we…love…you.”
98% Funky Stuff: My Life in Music hits stores on Feb. 1.