Make It Funky: Sax icon Maceo Parker reflects on a career of party-rocking showmanship - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Maceo Parker | photo by Philip Ducap | press photo approved by artist

Maceo Parker became famous as the target of James Brown frequent imprecation, “Maceo, blow your horn!” The saxophonist was an integral part of two of the most influential funk groups of all time: Brown’s backing band, The J.B.’s, in the 1960s, and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic in the following decade.

Parker has focused on his solo career since 1990, performing a mixture of the funk classics he helped make famous, covers of a few favorites that he didn’t have a hand in, and a smattering of jazz standards. He’ll bring his band to the Ardmore Music Hall on Saturday, and we took the occasion to chat with him by phone from his hometown of Kinston, North Carolina.

The Key: You often describe your approach as 98% funky stuff, 2% jazz. Where did that formulation come from?

Maceo Parker: I just took a look at what I do and that was just something that popped into my mind. I spent the majority of my career with James Brown and George Clinton, which really leans toward the funky side of the different styles and idioms. And I learned that not everybody can hear the different syncopations that it takes to play funky music. I describe it like handwriting or shooting free shows in basketball: sometimes you can teach it, but most of the time you’re just born with it. I felt like I was born with the ability to hear funky music, so I wanted to use my natural abilities to play funky.

TK: Your shows also involve a good deal of showmanship: a touch of choreography, plenty of humor, a good deal of interaction with the audience. I imagine spending so much time with two such theatrical performers must have rubbed off.

MP: From being a foot and a half away from James Brown for so many years, you just pick up stuff that way. The same with the time I spent with George. That’s the best seat in the house, man. Then when I do my own thing, I throw some of my own tricks in there. I try to have my Maceo Parker concept, which is a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a hint of this, a hint of that, and pretty soon we’ve done two and a half hours. It’s not shine your shoes and sit and try to impress your lady; it’s come and dance and have a good time.

TK: It seems like you served a variety of roles for James Brown.

MP: James used to use me as sort of a handyman. I was a Famous Flame one time, I was his emcee a couple times, I was a comedian a few times. It was a lot of fun, and it opened a door. Not that there aren’t different roads I could have taken, but James Brown just calling my name so much opened the door for me to make me who and what I am today.

TK: What did you think of Get On Up, the recent James Brown biopic?

MP: I think the lead guy, Chadwick Boseman, did a great job. He has a high rating from me. And all in all, I think the film was great and entertaining, but they had a lot of miscues. They could have used we who are still around to get some more insight. For instance, it seemed like they got me swearing every time I open my mouth. I was thankful that they had a Maceo character, but I didn’t swear like that. So that was a thumbs down from me.

TK: How big an adjustment was it going from the J.B.’s to Parliament-Funkadelic?

MP: [Laughs] It took a minute. It took a long, long minute to really get to the concept for George Clinton, coming from the uniformity in dress, the bow ties and tuxedoes and patent leather shoes and color schemes of James Brown to George’s concept, which was “Life ain’t nothin’ but a party.” A guy might come up to George and say, “I’m into Native Americans, you think it would be ok if I dressed like a Native American?” Another guy might say, “Man, I don’t really like shoes – you think it would be ok if I did this show without any?” Or another guy: “I’m into train engineers, is it ok if I dress like that?” And George would say, “Fine, that’s ok with me.” It’s up to the individual. Whatever you feel like you want to do, cool. Not only that, but some of the lyrics, with all that profanity and stuff, that was different. And that threw me. That really, really threw me for a minute. But that was George’s concept. Life ain’t nothin’ but a party. You don’t need to get hung up on uniformity. And it works.

TK: Do you take elements from both as a bandleader?

MP: I lean more towards the James Brown thing. See, my concept is subliminal. I like for the audience to feel, and it may be hidden, that we have prepared for them. You can get musicians together from different parts of the world and somebody says, “You know Eddie Floyd’s ‘Knock on Wood?’ We’ll do that first.” And then when you play it people recognize the tune, but little things that we do that subconsciously tell people, ‘Golly, they’ve prepared for us.’ I like people to know that they’ve made a good choice when they decide to come see us because we’ve prepared for them. I have little things in the show that you just can’t do from being together for two or three days. Out of nowhere we might all raise our hands or turn to the left or something. It’s just part of my concept.

TK: With so much of your own music on top of the great recordings you’ve been an integral part of, how do you choose material for your own shows?

MP: What I’m feeling at the time. I have the innate ability, I think, to sit in the audience and be on the stage at the same time. My brain’ll tell me, “Blah Blah Blah would go really great right here,” or “Maybe it’s time for a ballad.” I used to study James Brown doing what he does and why he was doing it.

TK: You always end your show with a message of love.

MP: I really feel fortunate that I came up like I did, how I did, and worked with the people I worked with. What’s important to me is I have a microphone in front of me almost all the time, so I can use that to throw the word “love” out there. I always end the show by saying, “Just remember, we love you.” Sometimes I put a beat behind it.

Maceo Parker performs at Ardmore Music Hall on Friday, January 9th. Tickets and more information on the show can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

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