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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the April 3,
2002 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Maceo Parker: From Sideman to Top Man
Given his years as a high-profile sideman to the likes
of James Brown and George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic bands, it’s
no surprise that saxman Maceo Parker has found success leading his
own group. Parker’s wailing, bouncy saxophone solos are all over
biggest hits from the 1960s, including "Papa’s Got A Brand New
Bag," "Sex Machine," and "Cold Sweat." In the
mid-1970s, his contributions to George Clinton’s funk band, Parliament
Funkadelic, furthered his reputation as one of the country’s premiere
Parker, who comes to Trenton’s Conduit nightclub on Thursday, April
4, was born on Valentine’s Day, 1943, and was raised in Kinston, North
Carolina, where he still lives. His father owned a dry cleaning store
and his mother was a housewife, part-time seamstress, and saleswoman.
Most of all, both his parents loved music.
"I was lucky in that my parents loved music, and they sang a
he says. "My mother’s brother had a band, and he was a drummer.
As kids, we would go to their rehearsals and that’s kind of what
that seed in there. There were cats playing in front of me at a very
early age and I was able to retain what I heard."
Like thousands of suburban kids, Parker took piano lessons to start
his musical education, but later switched to saxophone in junior high
"Piano was my first instrument as a kid and then I looked around
and realized I was the only guy there and that made me sort of
Parker relates. "I wanted to take piano lessons because I could
play some things by ear, but I wanted to learn the correct way."
"I remember witnessing my first parade and going crazy about the
instruments in the marching band," he adds. This spurred his
in the alto saxophone.
"As kids, we tried to imitate the guys we heard in the band, and
that sort of gave me a boost into what I do today, because music came
so easily to me," Parker adds.
Parker’s latest release, "Dial: M-A-C-E-O" (What Are Records)
features guest appearances by some of his high profile admirers
Ani DiFranco, who sings on "Coin Toss," Prince, who can be
heard on "The Greatest Romance Ever Sold," and even the
balladeer James Taylor, who guests on "My Baby Loves You."
Parker says he’s always been an admirer of Taylor’s, and the two were
able to meet and record the track together at a studio in New York.
Parker has 11 other albums to his credit under his own name.
Asked about making the transition from sideman — granted, a
one — to bandleader, Parker says it was a natural evolution after
Brown was sent to prison on drug charges in the 1990s. "To make
a pretty good leader you have to be a pretty good follower,"
says, "and I always felt I was a pretty good follower, so to make
that change from the back seat to the front seat wasn’t so
In his earliest years as a bandleader — and even
to some extent today — Parker and his band spent a lot of time
performing in Europe.
"I do a lot of work in Europe, out of the country, and I do a
lot of work that’s not really close to home, not close to North
he says. "What we do as a band is improvise and have fun, and
the people that come out to see us appreciate what we do. There are
seven or eight `House of Blues’ clubs in the country and I have worked
every one of them except for the one here in Myrtle Beach."
Parker and his band, with their vibrant, bright bouncy rhythms and
his wailing, blues-based sax solos, also make a nice addition to any
jazz festival. Through the 1990s, Parker and his band played jazz
festivals in both Europe and North America.
"We like to think of what we do as a little bit more funky than
straight blues," he cautions, "but for a jazz festival
we can do `Satin Doll’ and all the other standards."
Parker’s gift for interpretation and arranging is all over "Dial:
MACEO." He injects new life into pop classics like Lennon and
McCartney’s "My Love," and the urban contemporary hit,
I Get To You." But he also includes a sampling of his original
compositions, among them, "Coin Toss," "My Baby Loves
You," and "Rabbits in the Pea Patch."
Parker’s college career at North Carolina State University in
was interrupted to join the James Brown Band. He worked with Brown
from the mid-1960s through much of the 1970s. This, he says, was a
college education in and of itself. His first meetings with the
Brown left a big impression.
"I’d of course heard his records and was real excited about the
chance that we might get a chance to play with him," Parker
"my brother and I first met him in 1963, and then we started
with him in 1964. Coming from a small town in North Carolina, it was
very exciting to be on the road with him and get to travel around
the country," he recalls, "I had about a year to go in
and I decided I didn’t want to be a music educator. I thought I’d
really rather have the chance to perform than just teach the rest
of my life, so I went on the road with him."
Of the relationship between blues, jazz, gospel and funk, Parker says
"blues is closely related to classic jazz and gospel, and I don’t
know if there’s too much of a difference between blues and jazz. When
I think of blues I think of B.B. King or instrumental blues, and
sort of jazzy to me." When it’s brought up that the line between
gospel and blues is a very thin one, according to great blues and
soul singers like Frankie Lee and the late Otis Redding and Johnny
Copeland, both of whom had some background singing in church, Parker
says simply, "I can agree with that one."
Parker and his band have a reputation for putting on marathon live
shows, often consisting of two long sets lasting upwards of three
hours. At Conduit, he will be accompanied by Will Boulware on organ,
Bruno Speight on guitar, Jamal Thomas on drums, Rodney `Skeet’ Curtis
on bass, "and I’m not sure if my trombone player is gonna make
it, ’cause he’s working with Prince, too."
Parker has nothing but glowing things to say about Prince and
folk-rocker Ani DiFranco, both of whom have collaborated and toured
with him and join him on "Dial: MACEO."
Parker says Prince is a genius: "he can sing extremely high in
a falsetto voice and sing much lower as well, and then when he speaks,
his voice is low. His keyboard playing and guitar playing, just the
things that he can hear, just to be around him when he creates stuff,
is a privilege."
What can an audience unfamiliar with Maceo Parker the bandleader
on Thursday night? Probably a road show not unlike what James Brown
used to do in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. "The music I do today,
it’s all inner stuff, it’s nothing that people can teach you, it’s
something that you learn to express yourself," he says, adding
"most music to me relates to something else I’ve heard in the
past, be it blues, jazz or funk."
"At our live shows," he says, "we party. We just party.
If you’re into dancing, we do that kind of music, too. We’re about
having fun, smiles, dancing, love and partying. That’s what we
— Richard J. Skelly
609-656-1188. $20 at the door. Thursday, April 4, 7 p.m.
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