Maceo Parker: Extended Q&A

The funkiest sax player of all time talks more about James Brown, George Clinton, and the future of funk

Which sax players really caught your ears when you were learning to play?

King Curtis, because he did sax solos for Aretha [Franklin], and his own stuff, that R&B stuff. Hank Crawford and David Newman for Ray Charles. Stanley Turrentine's little jazzy stuff for Blue Note. Cannonball Adderly—"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and a bunch of other stuff with Miles. And his brother Nat. Boots Randolph did country and western stuff. These were people who caught my ear.

When did you first hear music that you could really call "funky"?

It's got a beat that goes ‘Boom-bop-boom-boom-ba-bop'—a lot of drummers set the tone for whether it's gonna be funky or not. And there was a tune called (singing) "Get out of my life, woman, You don't love me no more." Boom-ba-boom-boom-sca-boom-boom-da. Don't remember who did it. [Allen Toussaint]And we used to call that funky. But as far back as I can remember, somebody was doing something funky. And again, if it had that particular beat, it could be slowed down or be a little faster, but as long it had boom-sca-boom-da-boom, like James Brown used to do.

When somebody says jazz, I think of swing, either a standard ballad or Over the Rainbow or a medium-tempo jazzy swing tune like "Satin Doll"—that to me is jazz. It's not bad. But boom-sca-boom-de-boom-boom—hat's funky! Whatever it is, whether someone is singing it, like Aretha doing "Rock Steady," that's funky, with Bernard Purdy. That's funky, man. A lot of R&B had a groove, but I wouldn't call it funky.

What attracted you to playing that kind of music?

First of all, I was lucky that I had an older brother to play trombone and a younger brother to play drums. Because there were three of us, that almost the nucleus for a band. So there's always been a musical group somewhere, always, always, always. We would go out and find what we needed, hire someone, and boom we've got a groove.

How did you get the attention of James Brown?

The way it happened, as a freshman, I was in a group of college students and instructors, which is different from your local musical group. My second year in college, same musical group there, and my brother behind me decided to come to the same college, which meant he and I can't work together while we're in school because I'm already established in a group. But he gets into another group of local musicians in our college town, which happened to be Greensboro, N.C. So there are two groups, and sometimes he came over to sit in, and sometimes I went over to sit in with him—and that way I knew all of his musician buddies and he know all of mine.

But the day James Brown came to play, I was playing out of state somewhere while my brother was playing locally. When James Brown finished playing in Greensboro, he wasn't ready to leave, "You know what? I think I want to go somewhere to hang out." And he just happened to go where my brother was playing. And he like all the guys, especially my brother: "I like this group—but that drummer, wow!" He had the club owner tell him, "I'd like to meet him." It was James Brown, are you kidding me? "You're not going to believe this, but James Brown is here—he's sitting in the back and he'd like to meet you." WHAT?

And then he offered him a job, once he got out of school: "If you want a job with me playing drums, a handshake is all we need. Just remind me of the time I shook your hand, boom, that's it." "Oh, thank you very much, Mr. Brown."

When I got back in town, the first thing I did is check in with my brother make sure he was cool, it was 4 o'clock in the morning, and that's when I get the James Brown story. He had played all those years from childhood till college—he had really worked out what he felt was funky. Same with me. To the point that James Brown heard it, and heard that preparation. Then about another year, we decided to get out of school and get the job with James Brown.

There were a lot of stories about how strict James Brown was with his band–are they true?

Well, he enjoyed being what he thought was right, and he enjoyed everybody being on the same page. You can't think about anything else but what we're doing. So if you call that strict, then yeah. He liked stage decorum; your uniform gotta look up to par, can't look like you slept in it. He used to buy us patent leather shoes, so you had keep grease on them or they would crack, so he would have shoe inspections at a moment's notice, just to see if you had grease on your shoes. He would walk around the line sometimes seeing if you had the same tie or the right-sized tie that came with the uniform; if one of the guys' ties was different from the other ones, then you're all not in uniform. Haa haa! So whoever had the different one has got to buy six or seven more the same way so it can be uniformed! For him, uniform mean you're all wearing the same things. But I got to the point where Maceo became a title, that I got to wear different colors, a little distinction.

We used to rehearse over the same stuff, "You're not doing that freeze exactly right. I'm not satisfied." We used to go over and over and over it until he said "Okay, I think we pretty much got it now." I remember one time he had—we thought it was kind of crazy—but he had us write down the set list and then try to learn it verbatim to say the list: number one, two, three, four… like that. And this is the part we thought was a little bit out there: He would time each musician saying in order the set list. And if you can't do that, then you don't know the set. Ha HAA! That was his thing—we used to laugh! HA HAAA! But he was serious about that, if you can't do it like that—badump, bado, badump, snap, snap, snap—then you don't know what you're doing up there.

He could be a little frenetic about things like that, but we all appreciated him because he was who he was, know what I mean? He was tops in the game, of that particular style of entertainment that he was in, and everybody knew of him and kinds of shows that he did. 

I like that pace, I like that style—I like to hit 'em, hit 'em, hit 'em real fast, then slow it down and then bring it up. So we attracted musicians who liked that particular style. So it was great. When we had our other groups, and had seen him two or three times and listened to him on record, we had started doing that stuff anyway. When we were in high school and saw him, my brothers and I said, "Man, we could do this: 'Try me, try me…' C'mon man, how hard is that? We could do that!"

There was great pride in being in that group. He was on top, he was the number one performer. A lot of people give him accolades, and just to be part of that group, you have a swagger about you, you walked around with your chest swellin' simply because you're one of the musicians in James Brown's band.

Was it difficult to start your own solo career?

All musicians go through this. Some of them have the desire to have their own group and do their own recordings, and some of them don't. Some of them are perfectly satisfied in being the sideman and doing a session here and doing a session there and never aspire to have their own group. But I always felt like I would be in a position to have my own group. It's all about concept—you have to be able to perform, to entertain rather than just play a musical instrument. And I always felt like I had the ability to do that, to entertain and sing a little bit, and play the instrument. You've got to do all that stuff to compete with all the rest of the groups out there, you have to give people something. A lot of people stay on the sidelines saying, "You know what? I don't know if I want to do all that. I'm just satisfied in playing my part, playing the trumpet, playing the guitar. I don't know if I want to go across the stage like Chuck Berry. I just want to stand in one spot and play."

The difficult part was coming to a time when you're saying, "I've got to wave off all this stuff people are trying to throw in front of me if I'm going to concentrate on my own career and going for it. Because the clock is ticking. If I'm ever going to do this, I need to do it now."

How was it different playing with George Clinton?

Night and day. If you've seen George Clinton's work, then you'd know. But I was really thrown for a loop because I didn't know people would say stuff like that on stage, and harmonize it. I would necessarily bring my mom to the concert. But that's his style, that's his concept, that's his thing, what he felt he had to do—he wanted to be different, and man that's different, I'll tell you. And coming from an artist making a real big deal about shined shoes and different styles of bow ties, to a guy who thinks "life ain't nothin' but a party"….you don't need to be all uptight about wearing the same colors, hey come on, life is not like that.

Then, too, two individual musicians may not think alike, so why you gotta wear the same thing as this guy? So you could go up to George and say, "You know what man? I'm into Western costumes. I'm really crazy about Bat Masterson. Wild west shows." George would go, "Man, please, if that's what you want to wear, cool." Another guy say, "I like baseball. In fact, I don't even like baseball players, I just like the umpires. Think it'd be okay if I wore an umpire's uniform?" "Man, yes! If that's what you want to do, fine!"

In the end, it's up to the individual to wear what he or she wants to wear. And that was his concept. "I'm still in my adolescent years, I want to wear a diaper." "Cool. If that's what you want to wear." In all those years I served with James Brown, 16, 17 or 18, coming from that into this kind of concept? It's like, "Whoaaaa!" Now, when it got everything crankin' musically, it got good and funky just like James Brown's band, but the decorum, the things they say, it was different like night and day.

Was it daunting to play in front of a big band for your Ray Charles project?

Hadn't even thought about it before it happened, but when my manager gave me the news, "Hey man, there may be a possibility of you doing a project with a big band." Whoa! As soon as she said big band, I immediately jumped to Ray Charles. "Well, if it happens, it'll give me the chance to do my Ray Charles album."

Do you think funk can outlast changing musical trends?

As long as people want to dance, funky music's going to be around. Because to me it has the element in it that suggests dancing, that encourages dancing. Because it's funky! People hear it, and people just want to dance—you want to move, clap your hands, do something. Get your groove on. You don't need a partner, just start moving. Do your own thing. That's what's good about funky music; it's time to party. You don't just sit there, you get up and get your groove on. That's what I like, it doesn't have any inhibitions: "Shhh! Got to be quiet!" [He sings an opera melody.] Oh man, please. That has its place, sure enough, but funky is about people enjoying themselves. We won the game or we lost the game, but right now we're not thinking about it—we're just partying. So there's room for everybody, whether you won the game or not. Let's party. Cool. Haa haa!

Music can be a difficult career to sustain. What keeps you going?

I love this. I made the choice a long time ago. At one time I thought your career was on one lane—you get a degree, you teach. That's it. The only difference is what level you teach, college or high school. That's what I thought at one time. But then my high school band director left to work with Lloyd Price, big band. But that's what made me think maybe I could be a performer rather than a teacher.

So all that comes with what I do—the traveling, the packing, preparing, going all around the world—I enjoy it. I love it, I really do. I love performing and giving people something. And I learned that good performers can strengthen people. People need to be strengthened. I love people.

I'm into people's stories, it comes easily to me. I never punched a clock in a my life, never ever. I've always been in a musical group. Always. I truly love who I am and what I do. But I love the people too. To the point where you'll hear me say more than once when I do perform, "On behalf of all of us, we love you." I try to make that my motto now. That's what keep me going. I really enjoy what I do.