Maceo Parker, the maestro of funky saxophone, spent much of his career as a high-profile sideman. On stage, he shared the spotlight with James Brown, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Prince.
In the studio, Parker’s solos can be heard in Brown’s classic soul hits “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Sex Machine” and “Cold Sweat.” His other collaborators include Ani DiFranco, Ray Charles, James Taylor, De La Soul, Dave Matthews Band, Keith Richards, Bryan Ferry, Living Colour, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Deee-Lite.
Turning 75 on Valentine’s Day, Parker continues to be a bundle of creative energy, spreading his philosophy of universal love as he tours the world. And he’s thrilled to be the grandfather of his 1-year-old grandson, Ayden.
Although Parker never really stood in the shadows of the stars he worked with, he officially stepped out as front man in the early 1990s. Releasing three albums in three years—1990’s Roots Revisited, ’91’s Mo’ Roots and ’92’s Life on Planet Groove—the saxophonist established his signature “2 percent jazz, 98 percent funky stuff” brand. In 2013, Parker published his autobiography, 98% Funky Stuff: My Life in Music. His new album, It’s All About Love, will be released March 3.
Parker lives in his hometown, Kinston, North Carolina. It was there that he taught himself to play piano at 3 years old. Later, inspired by the power and splendor of marching bands, he picked up the saxophone. Jazz, rhythm-and-blues and soul artists influenced him, including saxophonists Charlie Parker, David “Fathead” Newman, Hank Crawford, Cannonball Adderley and King Curtis. Ray Charles and the horn players in his band made a major impact on Parker, too.
As James Brown said: “Maceo! I want you to blow!”
How did your life in music begin?
My uncle’s band, the Blue Notes, rehearsed at our home. I’m six years old. I stand there and listen, listen, listen. When they’re taking a break, having coffee, I sit down and play the piano. They say, ‘That kid’s playing that song! Come on. That’s crazy.’ But I could hear stuff, know it, learn it.
How did sax come to be your principal instrument?
So, now, I’m at the Christmas parade. I hear the fanfare of the horns and how loud the drums are. I say, ‘Oh, my goodness, gracious. This is beautiful. This is heaven.’ And the uniforms and all that stuff. But I remember asking myself, ‘Where is the piano?’ ‘No piano. This is a marching band. You gotta march.’ ‘Oh. Okay. Maybe I can play one of those things in the saxophone line.’
I had a brother, Kellis, a year ahead of me, who played trombone. Another brother, Melvin, played drums. I’m talking about pre-teenagers now. My uncle had a band called the Blue Notes. We called our little band the Junior Blue Notes. Everything the Blues Notes played, we played.
We started making a little, four or five dollars apiece. After a while it became 12 dollars and 40 dollars apiece. Got to the point where we could buy records. On the records, it seemed the saxophone players stood out. I ended up playing saxophone. And I looked inside myself and said, ‘I don’t want to cop Da-Da-Da’s style. Maybe there’s a style inside me.’ So that’s what I did. I searched inside. I said, ‘Da-Da-Da may do it this way, but I feel like doing it this way.’
You’re coming to New Orleans for a February 9 show at Tipitina’s. Is that a venue that you especially enjoy playing?
Oh, man. That’s like the place. For me, Tipitina’s is numero uno for whatever they bring in there. Top of the charts. I’m serious. When you talk about places to play in New Orleans, Tip’s is like the top place for the culture and the people of name who have played there. So, we make a different kind of step when we know we’re going to play Tip’s. It’s easy to say that, because it’s true. And at Tip’s it’s just do whatever you feel like you wanna do, man. Most places in New Orleans you get that, but especially Tip’s.
New Orleans is also home to your sound engineer, Andrew Gilchrist, a.k.a. Goat.
He’s numero uno in sound. We’re very proud to have Goat because everybody wants him. But once he started working with us, he made me his numero uno gig. Like, ‘Well, I’m sorry. I’m out with Maceo.’
You have another New Orleans connection via singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco. You’re a guest on her latest album, Binary, and you toured with her in 1999 as opening act. How was that summer amphitheater tour with Ani DiFranco, when she reached the peak of her popularity, for you?
It was great, man. And what I remember about that time is that she’s over in the wings, just grooving, having fun while I’m playing. And I’ve got a big old clock that I keep back there where I can keep track of the time. I say, ‘Wait a second. She goes on in 10 minutes, but she’s still over there grooving.’ I mean, all the time, she’s out there just grooving with what we’re doing. That touched my heart. Her response to me, that closeness to me, it made us feel like family.
You’ve worked with funk and soul music giants. George Clinton, James Brown, Prince. Did those guys have common traits that may have contributed to their success?
Get a concept. Believe in that concept and do it. And then that particular concept ends up being your own thing. George, for instance, his thing was he came from outer space to teach the earthlings how to be funky. And one time his wardrobe trunk didn’t make the flight or something. He says, ‘Ma’am, did you happen to bring an extra wig?’ She says, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Can I borrow it? ‘Oh, yeah. Sure.’ And then George took off almost all of his clothes. He grabbed a table cloth and wrapped it around himself. He said ‘Come on. Let’s go gig. Let’s do it. I’m ready.’ And I’m standing there, watching this, amazed, because I’d left James Brown. With James we wore tuxedoes and everything had to be color coordinated. The difference between George and James is A to Z. But James also had his own concept. He put on a real, real good show. On stage, you could not beat him.
I’ve heard that James Brown could be quite strict with his band.
Well, he had his ways. James had his good days and his bad days, like anybody else. But there’s a bunch of pride among all of us who worked for him.
George Clinton turned 76 last year. You’ll be 75 on February 14. Both of you guys are well past the age when the United States Social Security Administration insists people collect Social Security benefits. But you and George continue to tour the globe. You’re releasing a new album in March. Is retirement not on your agenda?
This is what I do. If I can do it, I’ll do it. If I can’t, then I won’t. That’s the way it is.
Do you think you keep getting better at the saxophone as the decades go by?
I don’t even look at it that way. I look at it like this: I’ve been doing this for years and years. I was born to do what I do. I think most of us feel the same way. You’re born to do what you do, so you do it. And if you get to the point where you have a following or somebody says, ‘Golly. I like the way that guy plays,’ that’s just more feathers in your cap.
Can you tell me about being a grandfather?
I have a new grandbaby. A little boy—a year old on the 4th of January. And when I’m not traveling, that’s where I stay all the time now. It’s just wild because, see, it’s like a new lease on life for me. When I’m around him, I’m a whole other person. And I can’t put him down! And he looks at me like he’s been knowing me since before he was born. I mean, that’s the feeling I get. It’s hard to put into words, what I experience when I’m around this young guy. He’s about 94 percent walking on his own. All that is so cute and so precious, man.
Has your grandson shown any interest in music?
I was playing my mouthpiece, rather than the whole saxophone. He gave me a look, like ‘What is that granddaddy?’ I think it’s a little bit early to say if he’s interested in music, but he looks at me like, ‘You think I’m too young to understand what’s up. But I know there’s something special about you.’
We’ve talked about your grandson and your new album. Is there something else that you’re especially focused on now?
I got a birthday coming up on Valentine’s Day. Which means I cannot escape this feeling that I have. It’s a feeling I’ve been having all my life. That little Cupid thing. ‘Cupid, draw back your bow.’ Love—L-O-V-E.
My latest album is called It’s All About Love. ‘Love’ is somewhere in the title of all the songs. At my show, we play what we play, but still it’s all about love. And if we, as a people, throughout the world, could just live love up, well, the crazies would go away. From the heads of state all the way down to the common people. Love, love, love, love. That’s my thing.
Friday, February 9