Maceo Parker – February 2020 Artist of the Month
Written by Emily Morrow on February 3, 2020
For many of us, the formative saxophone solos of our early listening years didn’t come from Jazz records. They were played by Clarence Clemons with the Boss’s E Street Band; Phil Woods on a Billy Joel record; Sam Butera with Louis Prima and Keely Smith, or any of thousands of others, on records from the Coasters to Duran Duran.
February’s Artist of the Month belongs on that list of folks whose sound is part of the indelible pantheon of hot horn playing on pop records. His name is Maceo Parker. Whether or not you’ve heard his name before, you’ve likely heard him as a featured player with James Brown in the Sixties, Funkadelic in the Seventies, or Prince and others in modern times. As much as any saxophone player, Parker has shaped the way we hear the instrument in the contexts of funk and soul. He understands how to situate the inventiveness of jazz into the envelope of modern dance grooves. That was true fifty years ago, and it remains true in 2020.
Maceo Parker shines on three saxes—mostly tenor these days, though he was hired into James Brown’s band to play baritone, and several of his most distinguished early solos were made on alto.
Maceo was one of 3 musical brothers. His career unfolded in step with brother Melvin. (Their other brother, Kellis, began on trombone and remained a music enthusiast throughout the legal career that led him to a faculty position at the Columbia Law School.). They were born and raised in North Carolina; Maceo still is based there. A music-minded uncle who led a local band inspired and encouraged his young nephews. Their act, the “Little Blue Notes,” was factored in as intermission relief for the uncle’s Blue Notes band.
The professional model for what Maceo would become was constantly in his ears via Ray Charles. In addition to being the pianist and singer we know, Brother Ray was himself a saxophonist. More to the point, playing in his band made stars out of a bevy of horn-playing sidemen. During Maceo’s upbringing, the sound of Fathead Newman and Hank Crawford was to Ray Charles’s music what Maceo’s was going to be in James Brown’s world.
When Maceo was 21, he and brother Melvin joined the James Brown band, which was his steady spot for several years. Brown’s brand of interaction with his band helped listeners to pay attention the musical structures at work in his music, and also helped introduce by name players like drummer Melvin and his replacements, trombonist Fred Wesley, and of course Maceo, who was called on by name to deliver the instrumental magic.
Both Parker brothers were drafted out of the band and into the military in the Sixties. Both returned and then left Brown’s band voluntarily in 1970. That opened the door for Maceo Parker’s first exposure leading his own group, as Maceo and All the King’s Men.
Their album was called Doing their Own Thing, though of course what they brought into the new group was a groove and flair that had already become associated with James Brown’s style of expression. The King’s Men made a go of it for a couple of years and would continue to release music into the 1970s. Maceo himself went back into James Brown’s fold in 1973, and remained a sort of emeritus member of the touring group. Maceo also fell in with the J.B. Horns, even letting his singing and rapping (!) voice take up some of the slack when the Godfather was unavailable.
But, for most of the next twenty years, he could be found as part of the P-funk/Parliament/Funkadelic organization surrounding George Clinton.
Maceo Parker’s modern history dates to the early 1990s when he moved deliberately into a solo/leader career as a performer and recording artist. Now, every few years he releases a record as a souvenir; he even set forth an autobiography, 98% Funky Stuff: My Life in Music. Maceo Parker’s continuing gift to the world, though, is delivered in person. He’s still out on the road thrilling audiences with voice, saxophone, and the eternal spirit of funky music.