He began his career as a sideman for James Brown, but these days, Maceo Parker is front and center
BY TAMARA WIEDER
WORKING WITH Maceo Parker] is one of the highlights of my career." So said not-so-shabby-himself Prince of the funk legend who began his career as a sideman for James Brown. Saxophonist Parker, who turned 60 last spring and has performed and toured with the likes of George Clinton, Keith Richards, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ani DiFranco, James Taylor, Janeís Addiction, and De La Soul, shows no sign of letting up: he recently released his 12th solo record, Made by Maceo (What Are Records?), and still regularly plays raucous three-hour shows ó as heís sure to do when he hits Harpers Ferry in Allston on Saturday.
Q: Take me back to the beginning. When did you first know that youíd be a musician for a living? Was there a moment when you just knew?
A: Not really. But there was a moment when I knew I loved music. Ever since I can remember, as a child playing piano, just observing and looking and listening and all that, you know, people just walkiní down the street whistling a tune, I knew it had a magical something that just made people feel good. That intrigued me, or inspired me, or I was sort of inquisitive about that. Music just has a quality that puts a happier mood on people. I noticed this in school, I noticed it in church, and at home. I was too young to think about maybe, possibly having a career [in music] then, but then I started noticing that I had the ability to hear stuff, you know, like to hear melodies and stuff. And I noticed that a lot of people couldnít do that. So thatís when I started thinking, well, maybe, just maybe, once I evolved from playing piano to saxophone and trying to have my own style and my own sound and all that stuff, that just maybe, maybe.
Q: Are you surprised by the success youíve had?
A: Yes. Very much so. Because it didnít go any further than just maybe. You know, especially coming from a little small town like Kinston [North Carolina]. And when I can go downtown in somewhere maybe in Southern France or Spain, and thereís a great big old picture of me, itís like, wow. Are you kidding me?
I sort of recognized a while back that people do really like to be entertained. Itís part of the scheme of things or something. Itís almost like we owe it to ourselves to be entertained. I really love performing, and I have a bunch of people with me who love it, too. We really do love performing, and we love people, and I think thatís about all the fuel you need to do what we do, to keep you going day in, day out. Itís the love for what we do and the love for people, giving them something that they feel that they need.
Q: Whatís it like collaborating with other famous musicians?
A: This is part of the reward of what it is that I do, that we do: itís being able to collaborate with someone like Prince. You canít ask for that. You canít even expect that. When we got James Taylor to just do that little bit of background that he did on one of my songs, I was so in awe of that moment, I couldnít even be in the studio listening. I was like, man, are you kidding me? Thatís James Taylor doing my song? "Iíve seen fire and Iíve seen rain" James Taylor? Man, please! Itís like, wow. This business is really open, and itís really nice. All you have to do is do your thing, and you never know.
Q: How does it feel, then, to hear someone like Prince say that working with you "is one of the highlights of my career"?
A: [Laughs] I do know this about Prince: I do know he was into James Brown. And anybody whoís into James Brown is sort of into me too, because there ainít too many records that James did that there wasnít "Maceo, blow your horn" on it. Maybe he just recognized the funkiness in what it is that weíve done. Thereís a certain pride in that, there really is.
To me, it just means that I was found when I decided, you know what? Iím not going to try and do a whole lot of stuff, Iím not going to try to play a whole lot of stuff, Iím just going to try and do this one little thing, keep it funky, and maybe, just maybe, I can be pretty good at just doing this. I donít hear a lot of people playing funky. I mean, honest-to-goodness funky. So if I have the ability to play funky, thatís what Iím going to do. Maybe thatís why Iím here, to do that. Iím gonna be funky. And maybe the reason thereís not a lot of people playing funky is ícause probably a lot of people just canít do it. I donít know; Iím not going to get into that. All I know is, I can do it, and thatís what Iím going to do, and thatís the way Iím gonna stay.
Q: Whatís your personal definition of funk?
A: I can almost say the same thing about Latin music, or almost about any music that sort of commands you to get up out of your seat and kind of do your thing. Thatís one of the qualities I like about funky music. Funky has that element, that sort of commands, boy, you better get up, you just gotta get up and move and get your dance on. And once that happens, itís a party. It really is a party. Anytime you have that situation where itís appropriate, or you wanna party, you wanna dance, you wanna get your groove on, funky music, in those situations, is better, to me, than any other kind of music.
Q: Who are some people you consider funky?
A: The Meters. The Meters were funky. A lot of those groups out of New Orleans are funky, good and funky. And then there were a lot of groups who played, like some of their stuff was funky, but they didnít just want to be funky, they wanted to be a little pop and all that, like, say, Earth Wind and Fire. That music will never die.
Q: Whose music are you listening to these days?
A: Thereís some Marvin Gaye. I ping-pong some stuff; Iíve got Marvin Gaye, Lee Morgan, Jimmy Smith ...
Q: Do you like to listen to yourself?
A: Not a lot. When I first come up with something new, maybe I might listen to it just to kind of learn it. But then again, when we perform it live, it may not be exactly like we recorded it anyway. This I can tell you: itís not going to be 100 percent exactly like we recorded it; thatís just not my style to do it that way. And then I kind of go with the moment. And thatís one of the nice things about being the leader; sometimes itís "You know what? Iím gonna do this a little faster than we normally do," or "You know what? Iím gonna do this a little slower than we normally do," because Iím going with the moment. Being the leader, you have the luxury to do that.
Q: I was going to ask you about that, what you consider the biggest differences between being a sideman and being a solo artist.
A: Thatís it. Youíre sitting in front of those controls. Youíre just in control, and thatís the difference. Youíre leading, and everybody else is sort of following, following your lead. And itís much more fun.
Q: How do you think your career and your music would be different now if you hadnít started off playing with James Brown?
A: You know what? I feel Iíd hear the same stuff that I do. I donít know if I wouldíve known people like Fred Wesley or not. But I took to the table a little something, you know what Iím saying? And my concept of how things go was a little bit similar to James Brown. I think thatís probably one of the reasons that we meshed together. But if Iíd have worked with, say, Wilson Pickett or Sam Cooke or whatever, I still wouldíve been hearing those funky lines that I play.
Q: Whoíre your biggest influences, musical and otherwise?
A: I donít really have that many now because Iím really set in my ways. But when I first started, I liked everybody. I really did. I was in awe of everybody that could do something. Iím talking country and western, it didnít matter to me. But then I did have some people that kind of stood out a little bit more than the other ones, like Stanley Turrentine, who played tenor saxophone. Cannonball Adderley, and his brother Nat ó they were great. It seems like the person who had the most influence on me was Ray Charles. Because, first of all, not only the fact that heís blind, because you canít hear blind, but you can hear that soulful, from-the-heart kind of stuff that he was doing. You can just feel that. I would say, "Man, if I could make people feel a little bit like Ray Charles makes people feel when he sings, if I could do that with a saxophone, then yeah. Yeah."
Q: Howíd you get to know Ani DiFranco?
A: She was a fan of mine. She was just into me. She had been to two or three of my gigs, right out in the audience, before I even knew her, having fun and jumping around and all that. In fact, I opened for her, and I noticed while we were playing and performing, sheíd be over in the wings just dancing and having a party. Sheís gotta go on in five minutes, but sheís over there gettiní down. Every show, every show. So I was like, if sheís going to be over there in the wings, Iíll just call her out, letís do somethiní. So sheíd come out and weíd fool around and then sheíd rush off and then come right back and do her thing. And thatís how we got to be almost like family. Sheís terrific. Sheís really sweet and really nice and really talented, and we all just love her to death.
Q: You turned 60 back in February. Any thoughts about slowing down, or is that something you canít even imagine?
A: [Laughs] There are some thoughts. But as long as Iím healthy, and can still appreciate what it is that I do, and Lord knows I still love it, I still love performing, I still love people ... I donít want to be on the stage being able to play three notes and then ready to go to sleep. I donít wanna do that. But as long as I can feel that Iím still contributing, Iím still giving people something, Iíll do it. And if that can happen another 10 years, 15 years, fine. But if it only happens another five years or three years or whatever, thatís fine too. I just donít want to be a waste of time. But if Iím 75 years old and can still give people something, and if people walk away and say, "Man, I canít believe that guyís 75 years old" ó if Iím able to do that, cool.
Maceo Parker plays Harpers Ferry, in Allston, on September 6. Call (617) 254-9743. Tamara Wieder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org