Maceo Parker Always Brings That Funky Stuff

Maceo Parker during this year's Houston Juneteenth Celebration at Miller Outdoor Theatre
Maceo Parker during this year's Houston Juneteenth Celebration at Miller Outdoor Theatre
Courtesy of Miller Outdoor Theatre

98% Funky Stuff: My Life in Music
By Maceo Parker
Chicago Review Press
200 pp., $19.99

As a bandleader, James Brown could be a sonofabitch.

Everyone knew he ran a tight ship – perhaps too tight – when it came to his band in the ’60s and for most of his career. Shoe not shined to perfection? That’s a $5 fine. Bow tie wrong color? There’s $10 off your pay for the night. Fluffed notes or missed dance moves – which Brown seemed to see even as he was caught in his own frenetic performance? Those were $15 or $20. And James kept those fines in his head for a dozen-plus people every night, down to the dollar. And he was rarely off.

And when someone in the band once complained that their tour bus had parked too far from the hotel, making them carry their luggage and instruments farther? The next day, Brown stopped the tour bus at the city limit line, telling all his men that he promised only to bring them to the town — how they got to the hotel was their own problem now (or at least until the band got the point). 

As his main tenor sax player and arguably most famous band member on his own (thanks in no small part to Brown's shouting out his name onstage and during recording sessions), Maceo Parker had seen it all. Now 73, Parker and his band headlined Houston’s Juneteenth Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre last month.

Members of Brown’s band flowed in and out and back in again with regularity – including Parker. A pay dispute in the late ’60s led Parker and most of the guys to bail and form Maceo and All the King’s Men...before going back to Brown.

Parker also did stints with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, though he admits that he was too conservative for the diaper- and wig-wearing spaceship-dwelling loonies — and Bootsy’s Rubber Band, for that matter, before returning to Brown’s employ.

I myself saw a Brown show at the Arena Theatre in the late ‘80s when he was hot off the hit “Living In America” from Rocky IV. Brown chanted his sax man’s name as Parker strode down the inclined steps through the public as he blew the entire journey to the rotating stage.

Parker started his sax journey after seeing a gleaming line of players in a marching band during a Christmas parade as a child. Yearning for attention as he learned his horn, a teen Parker once shouted at Ray Charles’s backing band after a gig – including his hero, Hank Crawford – “One of these days, you’re all going to know my name!” After his drummer brother Melvin secured a position with Brown’s band, an offhand invitation was issued to Maceo as well. And when he had to leave the band for a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, his spot was waiting for him upon discharge.

One thing Parker’s book really hammers home is that no matter how famous a sideman may be, or what he may contribute to a record, he is still a hired gun. Parker’s distinctive blowing on million-selling hits like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat” and “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” might get him accolades from fans and other musicians, but all his wallet had to show for it was a flat session fee.

Maceo Parker on the Spaceship: Jamming with Parliament-Funkadelic.
Maceo Parker on the Spaceship: Jamming with Parliament-Funkadelic.
Courtesy of Chicago Review Press

At one point, Parker even had to take a job as a garbageman when work dried up during one of his non-Brown periods. And while he was in demand for session work, a solo career never quite took off. Parker and the Godfather of Soul cut final musical ties after Brown went to prison after years of drug bingeing, though they would still talk occasionally.

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“We were treated with increasing dismissal and, at times, outright disrespect,” Parker writes about one of his tenures with Brown. And while he certainly faults the performer for many things, Parker also admits that his time in the lineup allowed him to finesse his playing, see the world and be part of an incredible musical legacy.

This memoir’s title comes from Parker’s own personal motto that his music is “2 percent jazz, 98 percent funky stuff.” And of the Founding Fathers of Funk, while Maceo Parker may not be on its Mount Rushmore, he is a pretty big boulder in the park. 

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