With long stints in James Brown’s band as well as George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, Maceo Parker, who leads an all-star band headlining Sunday’s Juneteenth celebration at Miller Outdoor Theatre, is one of the most storied and respected saxophonists in the country. After thousands of gigs and a mind-boggling list of recording collaborations as well as his own records, the 71-year old North Carolina native still sounds like he can’t wait to get in the van and do it all again.
An originator of the infectious musical form we call funk, Parker perfected a style frequently described as percussive rather than melodic. According to Parker, Brown’s abilities as a dancer drove the band to develop the driving sound that began to be called funk.
“James was such a great dancer that he needed a sound that accentuated that aspect of his talent,” Parker explains from his home in Kinston, North Carolina, where his mother resides. “James needed songs to dance to and we just kept tightening up our sound, hitting hard on the down beat. We just developed our own sound, you know.”
As far as his own influences, Parker has a quick answer: “Everybody.”
“I was in to anyone who I thought had something to say or were saying something real with their horn. I just absorbed anything that I loved or was drawn toward,” he laughs. “Of course I was exposed to older guys like Illinois Jacquet and that tune 'Flying Home.' I dug Arnett Cobb, I dug Fathead Newman in Ray Charles’s band, but I never wanted to be like anyone else, none of the copycat stuff. I think most of the great players got to their own style through a process of absorption of what they dug or what they found challenging or innovative.”
Parker had early training on the piano, but that wouldn’t last.
“When I saw my first marching band right here in Kinston, I just got so excited by it because to me that looked like something exciting and fun to be part of," he says. "Of course there’s no piano in a marching band, so I had to make a choice. My brothers played other instruments, so I chose the sax.”
Parker attributes the great shape he’s in today to taking care of himself and avoiding the usual music-business trap of substance abuse.
“I was already playing saxophone and as I was walking home from school one day in my sophomore year I heard someone going on about how musicians were all drug addicts and alcoholics, and I thought about that because it really bothered me," recalls Parker. "I just said to myself that I wasn’t going down that road, that I could set an example of what a musician could be, maybe show people not all musicians are that way. I’ve been around it but I just never bought in to that. Look, man, God-given talent is not something you abuse, you know.
“I was in the military for two years and during that time I tried to get into beer because all the young guys were drinking beer, but I never liked it enough to keep doing it,” he adds.
And there were other deterrents.
“Another angle on that is that with my last name being Parker, I found out about Charlie Parker pretty early on in my career and I couldn’t believe all the stuff he went through because of his addiction and all that,” he says.
Parker says his biggest career disappointment was seeing a man of Brown’s talent and ability get tangled up in addiction.
“He could have handled the pressure and all the stuff that goes with a career like his different than he did,” says Parker. “I hated to see him go that way because it affected his behavior and it caused him a lot of problems with his bands.”
Parker has collaborated with many highly talented people and he became Prince’s go-to saxophonist, playing with him many times. He recalls a telling moment with the younger genius.
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“I remember one time Prince came to one of my shows and just a few minutes before I went on he came to the dressing room unannounced, just came right in. I thought it was unusual, but what I finally thought was he’s coming to see if my eyes are cloudy, you know, checking me out to see if I was doing anything or taking anything before I performed. And I wasn’t.”
Parker has been touring steadily and says his latest ensemble is a true powerhouse. The band includes monster guitarist Bruno Speight (S.O.S.), keyboardist Will Boulware, trombonist Greg Boyer (Parliament-Funkadelic), drummer Peter MacLean, bassist Skeet Curry, and longtime James Brown backup singer Martha High [Harvin] and backup singer Darlene Parker, Maceo’s cousin. Parker is proud of his ensemble.
“We’ve played so much the past ten years that we’re all almost breathing the same air, you know,” he laughs. “We’ve been all over the world, sometimes we’ll go out for three months at a time, so we’ve got most of the kinks worked out. But at the end of the day, we’re there to show the audience just as much love as they show us. That’s the real payoff when you’ve done this as long as I have.”
Maceo Parker and his band perform at Houston's Juneteenth Celebration, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 19 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Dr. Box office opens at 10:30 a.m.