STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Maceo Parker, the iconic saxophone player who got his start in James Brown’s band, brings his show 50 Years of Funk to Ardmore Music Hall on Feb. 19. The show will be a retrospective of his career and will feature material from his days with Brown, Parliament Funkadelic and from his own bands.
Maceo was raised and still lives in Kinston, North Carolina. He and his two brothers started performing at a young age. His family was surrounded by music.
“My mother’s brother – my uncle – had a band and they would take us to his rehearsals and you’d hear drums, loud stuff all the time,” said Maceo in a telephone interview from his home. “On the other side of that, my mother and father did the church stuff, the choir stuff and all that. We had the best of both worlds.”
Although most sax players at that time gravitated toward jazz, Maceo was drawn to soul artists like Ray Charles. And though he had musical instruction throughout his childhood and went to college to study music, he had a strong sense from within of the direction he wanted to take.
“It was hard for me to try to get instructions playing saxophone from anybody,” explained Maceo. “If you’ve got a class of people and there’s one person teaching, everybody is pretty much going to learn the same thing. For some reason I was against that. I wanted to know what was inside me. Rather than somebody telling me, ‘You know what, you need to go study this book and study this book’… I just didn’t want to do that.”
Maceo explained how, through his brother’s serendipitous meeting with Brown, they got hired by Brown. Maceo was 22.
“My brother, Melvin, is playing an after hours show somewhere in Greensboro, and James Brown is playing at the Colosseum. James finishes first, and he says to someone, ‘Where can I go to chill?’ He just happened to go where my brother was playing. He says, ‘Golly, I like this group. I really like the drummer,’ talking about my brother. ‘Tell the drummer I’d like to meet him.’
Brown introduced himself to Melvin and said ‘I know that you’re a student and I really like the way you play. I’d like for you to be in my group. Now, I’m not saying get out of school, but I am saying if there’s a time a year from now, two years from now, five years from now, you can have a job with me.’
Two years later, both brothers were becoming restless at school. They decided to take a break and see if they could both get jobs with Brown. Incredibly, Brown was performing at the Colosseum again. The brothers followed behind Brown’s limousine, hoping to talk to him.
“‘I’m Melvin Parker. I’m the drummer you met a couple of years ago,’” Maceo recalled his brother said to Brown. “I’m not a student anymore and I would love to have that job like you said.”
Then Melvin introduced Brown to Maceo.
“‘Oh yeah, Mr. Brown, I’d like for you to meet my brother. He’s a saxophone player and needs a job too.’”
“The first thing (Brown) ever said to me was ‘Do you play baritone sax?’ I had this grin on my face because I had fooled around with a baritone in high school, just fooled around with it because they needed a baritone player for a couple of Christmas songs we were doing.
“I answered it like this, ‘Uhhh yes, sir,’ with a smile on my face. Then, he says, ‘Do you own a baritone sax?’ And I didn’t. A big grin came on my face and again I answered, ‘Uhhh yes, sir.’ He says, ‘Tell you what. If you can get a baritone sax…’ – because he could tell the way I answered it I didn’t have one, but he liked the way I said ‘yes’ anyway – “I’ll give you two weeks to get your baritone and I’ll find out where we’re gonna be and all that and you can have a job too.’ Handshake. That’s how I first met James Brown.”
And of course the rest is history. The first songs that Maceo recorded with Brown are the hits “I Feel Good” and “Out of Sight.” Before long Maceo switched from baritone back to tenor. His first recording on tenor for Brown was “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Later, at Brown’s request, Maceo switched to alto sax. Maceo helped to define Brown’s sound and in turn became renowned in his own right.
Maceo has managed to maintain a career in the highly competitive music industry.
“I’m still fed and led by what’s in me. My show is a mixture of all the people I work with and my own stuff. A hint of James Brown and George Clinton, and then pretty much open to all I
feel like doing. It’s wonderful to have that arranged like that where I can pick and choose what I like to do and just have a party.”
He added: “I adopted my thing of love. L-O-V-E. Sometimes I think it’s all about love, just love. Maybe somewhere during the show we’ll play something with love in the title. Then remind the people again, with me or us it’s all about love.”