Blow By Blow – Maceo Parker on James Brown, George Clinton, And Love

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“It’s kind of like spin the bottle,” laughs veteran funk saxophonist Maceo Parker, “and wherever it lands, it lands.” He’s attempting to describe how he decides what to serve up in terms of music and entertainment for the British public when arrives in London’s Roundhouse venue on Friday, July 5th as part of the UK capital’s Innervisions Festival. “It will be a little bit of this, a little bit of that like I do always when I perform. And maybe some surprises, too… but it will all be Maceo.”

Originally from a small town called Kinston in North Carolina, Maceo Parker is 76 now (he was born on February 14th 1943) but talks with the energy and enthusiasm of a much younger man. “I was born into music,” he says, casting his mind back to his formative years back in the 1950s. “We had a piano at home and because of that, the adults – my mother and father, and friends in the choir – would come and have rehearsals, which as little kids we’d stand around and listen to.”

It also turned out that his mom’s brother, his Uncle Bobby, led a professional big band called Bobby Butler’s Mighty Blue Notes. “We would go to their rehearsals and see all the music stands and different instruments like the trombone, trumpet and guitar,” he says. Inspired by seeing their uncle’s band in action up close, Maceo took up the saxophone while his older brother, Kellis, opted for the trombone. His younger brother, Melvin, was drawn to the drums. They joined forces and formed their own rhythm and blues group as youngsters in high school.  “We called ourselves the Junior Blue Notes, trying to pattern ourselves after my Uncle’s band,” says Maceo, who also reveals that the siblings were earning money doing gigs while still in school.  “We gave the bulk of the money to mom, but then we would keep a little bit and would buy albums and 45s that we liked that we heard on the radio.”

                        altListening to the radio opened up a whole new musical world to Maceo and his brothers. In fact, when they should have been in bed sleeping, they were under the covers secretly tuning in to a radio show by a US DJ called John R (aka John Richbourg, who would go on to become a noted R&B record producer). He was renowned for coining his own street-slang vocabulary and famously describing records as “a gas” or a “smasheroonie.” Remembers Maceo:  “He came out of Nashville, Tennessee, and played late-night music. He had rhythm and blues, some jazz, rock ‘n’ roll. And we stayed up late at night listening to this John R. And if we liked something he played, we’d go buy it.”  

Ray Charles was a favourite recording artist of Maceo’s in the late 50s as was James Brown and he had the opportunity to see both in concert during that time. The saxophonist says that while the audience around him were screaming and going crazy, he was studying everything with an eagle-eyed fascination, particularly in regard to James Brown, whom he would later work with. “I’d seen his shows several times and I was learning his style seeing him. I learned his concept way before I joined him while I was in high school. I knew it all. I knew how fast he liked to do stuff and we tried to imitate some of that stuff when we are doing our own thing with our own little band.”

Maceo, of course, rose to fame in James Brown’s band in the mid-1960s, and his jabbing saxophone solos became a key feature of “The Godfather’s” live shows during the Georgia singer’s hard funk period. He says that it was his younger brother, Melvin, who helped to put him on Brown’s radar. By this time, the Parkers were in college in Greensboro, North Carolina (Maceo was studying music), but playing in different bands. One night Melvin was playing a gig in a local club with his own band when James Brown, fresh from playing a concert at the city’s Coliseum venue, dropped in for some much-needed R&R after an arduous night entertaining others. Says Maceo: “I remember that I learned later that James said to the club owner, ‘wow, I like this group, but I especially like the drummer. Tell him I’d like to meet him when they take a break.'”

                               altBrown, in fact, was so enamoured by Melvin Parker’s work behind the drum kit that he told him, “when you’re not in school and not a student anymore, I’d like to have you work with me.” According to Maceo, Brown then “stuck out his hand for a handshake to seal the deal and make a promise.”

A year passed and then Melvin (pictured above) and Maceo, who had completed their studies and were gigging together in a band back in Kinston, heard that James Brown would shortly be returning to Greensboro for another show at the Coliseum. “Let’s see if the both of us can get a job with James Brown on the fact that you met him,” Maceo told his younger sibling and a few days before the concert, the two got in their dilapidated car with other members of their band and drove two and half hours from Kinston to Greensboro. They played a few local gigs for a “little change” and when they weren’t on stage they were scouring the streets around the Coliseum looking for a sign of Brown’s tour bus. As desperate as they were to find James Brown, their task seemed a futile one but as luck would have it, they spotted The Godfather and his entourage on the day of the concert. Recalls Maceo: “We were just driving around the perimeter by the Coliseum in our little raggedy car thinking that if we saw a limousine or bus, we could get in that way. And sure enough, here comes the bus and a limousine.” They quickly followed the two vehicles, dropping in right behind the tail of the limousine as if part of the convoy and drove up to the back entrance of the Coliseum. “The gates open, the bus goes in, the limousine goes in, and we’re right behind the limousine,” laughs Maceo. “When the gates closed behind us, you could see people wondering, ‘wait a minute, who’s in that car behind the limousine?’ So we parked near and now everybody was coming to us saying hey, who are you guys?”

Things could have got ugly with Brown’s security people but when Melvin Parker tried to explain their gate-crashing antics and said, “Mr Brown, I’m Melvin Parker, I’m a drummer, remember? I’m not in school anymore and I’d like to have that job, like you said,” James Brown’s demeanour changed instantly. He flashed his famous toothy smile and recalled meeting the young drummer. Remembers Maceo: “He called everybody over, he was so excited and shouted, this is the guy from the club!”

Maceo then coughed loudly to remind his brother about introducing him. He duly obliged: “Mr Brown, I’d like you to meet my brother, Maceo, he’s a saxophone player and he’d like to have a job too.”  The man they dubbed “Mr Dynamite” turned to look at Melvin’s older brother. “The first thing he says to me is, do you play baritone sax?”, recalls Maceo. For a fleeting moment – perhaps a nanosecond, though it felt much longer – he hesitated. Remembers Maceo: “And as I’m listening to him asking me if I play baritone sax I’m telling myself you can only answer, yea or nay, affirmative or positive. If I say no in answer to his question, he’ll turn around and walk off. SoI said, yes, sir!” Though he was initially hesitant, Maceo didn’t tell a lie and  admitted that “I fooled around a little bit with the baritone when I was in high school.”

                  altOn hearing this, Brown fired another question instantly: “Do you own a baritone sax?” This time, Maceo had to fib. “I say with a smile, ‘er yes, sir, I do.’ He said, ‘tell you what, if you can get a baritone sax’ – and he was smiling when he was saying this and offering to shake my hand – ‘then you can have a job too.’ I felt so great because I knew the handshake was something because he had already shaken my brother’s hand. It was all systems go.”

After the elation of being offered a job by James Brown, panic set in. It wasn’t just the case of getting hold of a baritone sax – the biggest of the saxophone family – but how was he going to afford it on his modest income. “We went to the local music store to buy a baritone sax, which was not cheap. It was about $1700 back then, which was a lot of money.” The music store owner knew the Parker brothers and when they asked about buying the baritone sax, he “took two steps from around the counter and looked to me and said ‘do you have any idea how much a baritone saxophone costs? There’s no point in going through this if you can’t make the payments. It takes five or six years to pay that kind of instrument. How are you going to pay for it?'”

Then Maceo told him he had just been hired by James Brown. The music store owner’s demeanour changed in a flash. His initial incredulity left him and he immediately offered the brothers credit. “He was a saxophone player and he knew we could play,” says Maceo. “And it wasn’t really surprising to him that the both of us got a job and now we’re both part of James Brown’s show. He had no hesitation and said ‘just sign right there.'”

Maceo describes his time with Brown as “very, very exciting.”  He joined in 1964 and later switched from baritone to tenor sax, playing on many of the singer’s seminal recordings up to 1970, when he left to front his own group, Maceo & All The King’s Men. He returned to the James Brown revue in 1973, but only stayed a year before joining George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic aggregation, who were then just taking off in the R&B world.

altMaceo’s long-time friend and fellow James Brown alumnus, trombonist Fred Wesley, who also played George Clinton, likening the experience of being in “The Godfather’s” regime akin to doing military service. That was due to Brown’s rigid rules and instilling an army-like sense of discipline. George Clinton’s musical world, on the other hand,  seemed to Wesley more like a circus in comparison.  Maceo Parker agrees: “It was very different after coming from James Brown with the bow ties, tuxedos and shiny shoes. George believed that you don’t have to be dressed alike on stage.  It’s about your funk, not how you’re dressed. And his concept was that he came from outer space anyway and when you come from outer space, you don’t have to dress like earthlings.”

                  altSometimes, says Maceo, chuckling, George Clinton wore very few clothes. “I remember one time his trunk of clothes didn’t come so he took a long wig, put it on, put on some dark glasses and then took off all his clothes and put on a sheet and wrapped it around himself. Sometimes he even wore a diaper. George was a man who didn’t go for colour-coordinated suits like James Brown. He dressed like he wanted to. That was his concept and it was a lot of fun. It was crazy but you laughed and people loved it.”

The common denominator that united Brown and Clinton was their love of funk. It was their religion but in everything else, they were different, particularly in regards to their philosophy. “For George, life ain’t nothing but a party,” observes Maceo. “It was like: don’t get hung up with do’s and don’ts and people saying you can’t do this. Let them be comfortable. That’s George’s thing. And he would also use profanities, which James didn’t do.”

Clinton would also openly do mind-altering drugs to expand his consciousness, though Maceo says he didn’t partake. “He was proud of the fact that I was straight because that was a time when he was always sniffing a little something,” he says. “He won’t mind me saying that because it’s true but he’s got past that. I really enjoyed working with the man, he was a lot of fun.”

What Maceo is most proud of in his long career is the fact that he “stayed a hundred percent me” and didn’t lose sight of his own authenticity. “I wouldn’t let nobody influence me, especially in negative kind of stuff,” he states. “That’s my thing. But it all had to do with growing up and the promise that you made to your parents, or at least your mom. You had to have a grounding early on and that’s what we had.”  

                  altMaceo’s last album was ‘All About Love,’ which he recorded with the WDR Big Band in Germany and was released in 2018. “Love is really my passion,” he declares with a laugh. “I just happened to be born on Valentine’s Day and when I talk about love, it’s like I was born to do that.” 

 He feels it was his destiny, too, to play the saxophone and blow his horn. “My father was named Maceo, and sometimes I questioned why didn’t they name my brother ahead of me Maceo – they called him Kellis –  but somehow it seemed like they were waiting for me because my name rhymes with blow – as in ‘blow,  Maceo.’ ‘Blow Kellis’ doesn’t really fit. But ‘Maceo, we want you to blow,’ fits. It rhymes and it makes sense.”

Maceo Parker is due to play at the Roundhouse on Friday, July 5th 2019 as part of London’s Innervisions Festival.

 Ticket info: