Interview with Maceo Parker in The Times (UK)
Blow your own horn, Maceo
But the sax-god sideman to the greats of funk just won't
Halfway through one of his already legendary dates at London's 02 arena Prince shouts: "Maceo, blow your horn!" It's the signal for the saxophonist Maceo Parker to step up and blast out a solo, and you know that the artist formerly known as a symbol before he settled on Prince again is fully aware of the significance of what he has just said.
James Brown and George Clinton have said it before him, making Parker the Holy Grail – or at least the pinstripe suit-clad baton – of all things funky. Prince, in fact, recently told an American interviewer, when asked if he still enjoyed playing live: "Are you kidding? I get to say: 'Maceo, blow your horn'."
A few days after the concert Parker is sitting in a record company meeting room on Tottenham Court Road, London, looking like an unassuming middle-aged man rather than a towering colossus of the minimal, groove-based hybrid of soul and jazz known as funk. It's hard to imagine being in a nondescript office with Prince and shooting the breeze over coffee drunk from a polystyrene cup, but Parker has remained the musicians' musician, always at the side of the stage rather than at its centre, and he doesn't play the star.
"When you watch the audience going crazy," reflects Parker on the Prince concerts, "you stop and think: now that's something. I guess I'm glad I decided to stick with music and not become a teacher."
The day America's educational community was denied a sax-playing member came one night in 1964, when Parker and his brother Milton were studying at the University of South Carolina, and Milton was drumming at a nightclub in Greensboro, North Carolina, at weekends. "James Brown was in town, and he came down to get something to eat. He goes over and says to Milton: 'Goodness gracious, I really like the way you play, but I hear you're at school. When you're no longer a student I want you to be part of my group.'
"They shook hands, Milton says: 'Thank you, Mr Brown'. He tells me all about it the following morning – and that's the last we heard."
A year later the brothers gave up college to dedicate themselves to music full-time and, as if on cue, Brown returned to Greensboro to play a concert at a stadium called the Coliseum. Reasoning that Brown had a promise to keep, Maceo and Milton circled the Coliseum until they spotted a limousine that could belong to only one man. "Milton went up to James and said: 'I'm not a student any more and I'd like to have that job you promised – and oh, by the way, this here is my brother and he plays saxophone. Can he have a job too?"
Brown was a famously hard taskmaster. He dished out fines to musicians who missed their cues and insisted they wear matching black tuxedos (Maceo rebelled and bought a white one). Was he tough to work with? "You just had to remember that James was a dancer first and foremost. He didn't really mind a wrong note, but you had to play in the groove."
What about his crushing work ethic, insisting on constant practise, constant touring and a puritanical lifestyle? "Most of the people in the group had seen his shows so they knew he was a rigid person. And when the curtain opened you could guarantee that he was giving 200 per cent, so the least you could do was give, I don't know, 98."
Being Brown's sideman ultimately got too much for Parker. He handed in his notice in 1969 – and launched a full-blown mutiny by taking the rest of the group with him. "We wanted a bigger slice of the pie and that wasn't going to happen, so we quit. Then I overheard some guy saying: 'Man, all the king's horses and all the king's men have walked out on James Brown!' So we became Maceo and All The King's Men."
For a while it looked like things might work out for the rebel faction of funk, particularly after Doin' Their Own Thing, the album Maceo and All The King's Men cut in 1970 in Memphis, got good reviews. But Parker didn't count on the lengths his former employer would go to. "James called up and told us that he would do everything in his power to stop us, and he did. He told all the DJs not to play our records. If we had posters up for a show he would hire a local guy to take them down."
What did they do? "We went back to being James's backing band. He left us with no choice."
Parker managed to get out from Brown's shadow once more in 1975, to work with a bandleader whose approach couldn't have been more different. "George Clinton's attitude was: say what you like, do what you like, wear what you like," Parker says of the leader of the big bands Parliament and Funkadelic, who claimed he had come from another planet to show the people of Earth what the funk was all about. "I have never worked with anyone like George Clinton. It was crazy, it was one big party, but somehow it all hung together."
The saxophonist's current paymaster is the most mysterious of them all. Revealing little in the few interviews he grants, Prince seems to ensure that his band members don't destroy the mystique either. Repeated attempts to ask what he is like to work with are rewarded with stuttered replies and extended pauses. "Prince is a . . ." Parker rubs his head and crunches up his eyes, before coming up with the noncommittal: "I've been extremely lucky to work with the people I have."
Parker seems content with his lot, quietly releasing his own albums – he's just completed the Ray Charles tribute Roots and Grooves with Cologne's WDR Big Band – while keeping the cheques coming in as a sideman for the biggest names in black American music.
When he talks about his worries of "January and February being kinda quiet" and his exercise regime of a 45-minute walk every morning to ensure that he has the stamina for that night's concert, you're reminded of the realities of a jobbing, touring musician, albeit one of whom Prince is in awe. "I leapfrog from one job to another and don't think about it too much," he says. "But I did play Happy Birthday for Bill Clinton a month ago. An ex-president? Cool, man."
Does he have any ambitions left? "I'd kind of like to meet Hillary. Now that would be nice."
Maceo Parker plays Indigo 02 Arena on October 22. www.theindigo2.co.uk/listings. Roots and Grooves is released by Intuition the same day
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