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Maceo Parker interview by Seconds
by David Todoroff - June 20, 1999
Maceo talks about his new album featuring two guys from The Meters, and his early carreer with James Brown, his brothers, Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins...
Seconds : It seems with you, the older you get, the funkier you get.

Maceo Parker : You're probably thinking in most cases as the artist gets older they slow down a little bit. Funky music and all the accolades that go with it, the hopping around on stage and shaking everything you got, it's something I grew up with. I've been doing it all my life. I really feel right in that style of performing. It's just me. As long as I can continue to be me, funky music will be a part of it.

Seconds : Over the last five years, you've been very prolific, releasing albums under your own name and as part of the JB Horns. How many has it been?

Maceo Parker : I've lost count. What we've done is follow right along with whatever the situation is.

There was a time where the situation was that we recorded as the JB Horns. If there's one thing that I learned from James Brown - and it's really true - is to never let my name get buried in another name. Like I said, I was just going with the situation at that time. The situation changed where I thought it was important to just use a guy's name, Maceo Parker. Fred Wesley and Pee Wee do their own albums.

Seconds : And you play on those.

Maceo Parker : Sometimes, sometimes not. I don't play on all their stuff and they don't play on all off my stuff. But they do like performing with me. Occasionally they go out and do their own thing. Pee Wee has a more jazzy concept.

Seconds : Do you feel like you're at a high point in your career right now?

Maceo Parker : No. Although its moved at a rapid pace, I don't think it's a high point. I still think that there's something yet to come. I know a lot of people and hopefully I can get something out of these contacts that I have. I really shouldn't mention it but negotiations are going on now about the possibilities of doing some things with other people. Some may work out, some may not. I enjoy and am really thankful for what's happening now.

Seconds : On the new album you have two guys from The Meters, Leo Nocentelli and George Porter, Jr. Have you always been fans of theirs?

Maceo Parker : I've always dug their style, their concept of what funk should be. I had an opportunity to work with them. We did a small tour, about four dates in Europe. On Southern Exposure, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to have a different approach and still be funky as well. The first thing we tried was organ bass and it worked. No bass guitar, just the organ's bass. Then we said let's go for the thump, so we tried that. On Southern Exposure, I just wanted a mixture of funk. Those guys from The Meters came to mind and I thought, "Let's go to New Orleans and pick up that thing." And while we were there, the producer came up with the idea of using The Rebirth Brass Band. We had fun and it worked. I've been listening to The Meters for years and years and I really like the approach they use. I was very happy to have them on the album with me.

Seconds : Who are your favorite horn players? Who are your influences?

Maceo Parker : Ray Charles. I heard him do "Lucky Old Son" and I thought I heard him crying on the album. It was a guy whose lyrics I could really get into. I always felt Ray Charles was my number one guy, my number one inspiration as far as having soul and feeling. It was enhanced when I found out he played alto saxophone as well. I was crazy about Ray Charles' band. All of them. Not just the saxophone players but all the horn players. He had Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman. Leroy Cooper played baritone saxophone. I was into these guys, that was it.
I heard a lot of Stanley Turrentine with Jimmy Smith and then there was a guy by the name of King Curtis who played on all the recorded stuff. If anyone needed a saxophone solo, there was always King Curtis. I was lucky enough as a high school student to have a band director who played saxophone. His name was James Banks. These were my influences. It's a funny thing about me. It's hard to put it in words, but I formed a fraternity kind of thing with all musicians. When I say frat, not just all the guys but the women musicians too. There was Shirley Scott that played organ.

Seconds : Were you ever into guys like Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders?

Maceo Parker : Not really. But I respected their concept. Just because I may not be into that, it doesn't mean it's a negative thing. It's not necessarily a plus either. I just was into what made me comfortable. One more person that I've really got to mention that I liked was Cannonball Adderly. I met him a couple of times too. In fact, a couple of years ago, I was doing my thing and I had a chance to talk to his brother Nat at a festival. This is the highlight of this business, getting the chance to sit next to someone like Max Roach. Just to be on the same planet, same stage with these guys is incredible.

Seconds : Who do you think your audience is these days?

Maceo Parker : I like what we do because we cater to everybody, all the kids, all ages. I can look out and everybody's there. We played a place in Seattle, Washington and this one lady had to be eighty years old. Standing there, shaking everything she got, putting her hands in there. She's just a fan. I gotta love that lady. Then you look out and seem them at sixteen and seventeen, too. With all the James Brown stuff I did and the time I spent with George Clinton and Bootsy and the few things I've done with rappers, it's made a wide variety of audience. Not only in this country, it's literally all over the world. We go to Europe four or five times a year, we go to Japan at least once a year. We're negotiating to do some stuff in Australia.

Seconds : When you play, it's nice to see people dancing to a live band. Not just nodding heads but people flying all over the floor.

Maceo Parker : We try to create that mood where all of a sudden you're just into it. I take my time and build up to that. I don't say anything like "clap your hands" until maybe the fourth song. You've got to time it right and get them to the point where they feel like doing that. You can't just walk on stage and go, "Put your hands in the air!" Some people do that but I'd rather wait and let the feeling hit you. I gear my show for that. The audience is part of it. I try to encourage that you have fun, that you do a little movement. This is exercise for me. I don't get up in the morning for a long walk. This is the only exercise I get. I don't do the sit-ups anymore, I don't jog anymore, so I gotta do something and this is it, and maybe I can get the audience to do it with me. There's more to it than just sitting at a place, nodding your head, checking out the artistry of the performer, clapping a little bit and then leaving. I want them to do more than that.

Seconds : Do you think funk is making a comeback?

Maceo Parker : I don't think it ever went any place. For somebody like me that's always been into funky music and will always be into funky music, I don't think it's stopped, maybe just gone out of focus. If you want to dance, if you want to party, there it is. George used to say, "Here's a chance to dance your way out of your constrictions." If you just want to be cool and sip your tea, that's a whole different kind of groove. But if you want to really get down and do your dance steps, you gotta have that funky music.

Seconds : What were you doing before you joined James Brown's band?

Maceo Parker : I was a college student. I played and performed music almost the same as I do now. We played a lot of funky stuff. We played whatever we heard on the radio. Black artists, White artists, whatever people wanted to hear. Today it's called Top 40.
We played some segregated places because that's what was happening back then. This was in the middle-to-late 50s. It was our business to find out what the kids were listening to and go back and rehearse it. We rehearsed all the time. I was a fifth grade student playing night clubs.
I had a brother who teaches law now at Columbia playing trombone.
I had another brother, Melvin. He and I joined James Brown at the same time. I went into college and did not quite three years before I met James Brown. That's a long time of performing. I even played my senior prom. It must have been a lot of fun for my date! We had a group that people just wanted to hear. I tried to get my own way, my own style.

When James Brown heard me, I was well into my concept of what I thought saxophones should do. That's probably what made me stick out. I wasn't trying to pattern myself after somebody else, I wanted to have my own thing. That's what I worked towards all the time. It would have been so easy to do "Maceo Parker plays Charlie Parker."I thought about it for two seconds and decided to leave Charlie Parker alone. I thought it would be better to have my own thing.

Seconds : So you joined James Brown and saw his sound go from more traditional R&B to a really stripped down raw sound. Did this just naturally evolve?

Maceo Parker : A lot of times you just have to go with what you've got. In fact, you always have to do that. You have to make the best of what's happening at the time. You have to go with the caliber of musicians that you have. It's like a revolving door, you always see someone coming, someone going.
At a time, you're going to have these people working together and then somebody's going to leave, somebody's going to come back. Just like Bootsy worked with James for a while, but never during the time I was there. All the different times I was there, I never worked with Bootsy and James Brown. James was really good at getting the best out of whoever was there. When he first hired me and Melvin, he was doing "I Feel Good," "Out Of Sight" "Brother Rapp," and "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag." With "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," the whole concept came when Melvin came in with a different type of drum beat. It was a new breed thing. When Pee Wee Ellis came in and could incorporate all those different sounds and try a little bit of the jazzy stuff, that's when it started to turn around with "Cold Sweat" and "Licking Stick." We were trying to have what we thought was a James Brown concept and try to do different things with it. I remember listening to some stuff and saying, "There's not enough James Brown in it. Go back and put some 9th chords in it." It was a little past the norm of what James was really like. It was getting way into the jazzy side so we'd bring it back a little bit home to what I thought James liked. At that point, I was one of the guys who had been there for a long time and I got to pick what I thought was the James Brown concept. But yeah, it changed. It changed tremendously from when I joined in '64. We did "Brand New Bag" in '65, and "We're gonna have a funky good time" in '73. That's a big jump. With the changing of the guards and the revolving door, that's what changed the concept. People were there for a while and then not there. He was very good at knowing what he had, as far as the caliber of the musicians, and coming up with something that would fit that guy.

Seconds : How would you describe the musical relationship between you and Fred and Pee Wee?

Maceo Parker : First of all, there's a lot of respect there. We find ourselves in situations where we're just together. I'm trying to think back how it was before we met. It's quite natural for a musician to want to come up, have a chance to be recorded and then have their own group and call the shots. I was really into James Brown kind of music. Fred came up in more of a jazzy situation. He was not that into James Brown. As James started really making noise and getting the hits, people would come up to Fred's local group and say, "Could y'all play some James Brown?" So many people requested James Brown stuff that pretty soon he had to play it. A couple years later he'd be hired by James Brown through some kind of recommendation. There he was beside me and two years before he was like, "Who's this Maceo Parker?" He'd rather do some J.J. Johnson music. Then there's Pee Wee, who started with Sonny Rollins. He's the musician's musician. I guess you have to be really lucky to have private lessons with Sonny Rollins. Could you imagine that? It shows because he can really play. Through Waymond Reed, the trumpet player, Pee Wee got a job with James. It was being on a team. The scouts decided they want this guy and I didn't know if I was going to be playing with this guy this year or next year. If the situation changed and we got a new guy, we were just going to make the best of it and do what we got to do. The respect is there because we went through a lot of stuff. After years of touring and living together, these things just build.

Seconds : Did you ever get fined by James Brown?

Maceo Parker : Yes! I had been in the military, so I felt that if I'm going to work for you then I have to abide by your rules. His thing was, "If I buy the uniforms and I buy the shoes, they're my uniforms and my shoes. I want my shoes shined all the time. How am I to know you have my shoes shined?" So we had inspection just like in the military. I did two years in the service so it was old hat. Think of somebody who had never been through that. They just want to play and now they've got to make sure they have grease on the shoes. Some of these things were kind of crazy. James said, "If the uniform calls for gray bowties, you can't come on stage with a black one." If you wanted to wear a black one you had to buy a whole set so everyone else could. I used to go see him before the show to find out if there were any changes. He told me, "Maceo, now listen. Before we start every show, I want you to come to my dressing room so we can go over some things." One time, he had two entrances to his dressing room. He came out of the dressing room one way and I came in the other way. So when he gets to the stage, I'm not there and when I get to the stage, he's not there. "Where's Maceo?" "Maceo went to your dressing room, Mr. Brown." "No he didn't, I just left there. " I got fined for that.

Seconds : Who got the fined the most?

Maceo Parker : Probably me or Pee Wee. Pee Wee took a lot of chances. James' biggest thing was, "If you want to chase the little girls after the show, that's okay. But don't do it in my uniform." Pee Wee didn't care about that too much. We'd see him the parking lot with his saxophone talking to some girl. We thought that was kind of bold of him.

Seconds : So where there lots of girls around after the show?

Maceo Parker : Yes. It took me a while to understand that a lot of them just wanted to meet James. "If I just smile at this guy in the group, maybe I'll get a chance to see James." But it was common to have roomful of fans at the end of the night. I'll put it that way.

Seconds : When you were in Parliament, did it offer you more freedom in your playing?

Maceo Parker : Yeah, I could do anything I liked. It was almost too much freedom. Coming from that rigid thing with James Brown, it was like going all the way to the other side. I worked up to the point where I was the bandleader with George and that's when it was really easy. If I wanted to, I could go there, tell them what to do and leave. That's the kind of arrangement we had. We had a lot of fun with George. I heard they're trying to bring out the spaceship again.

Seconds : In retrospect, what did you make of the whole P-Funk experience?

Maceo Parker : It's George. It's his concept. I viewed it like a circus, a three-ring circus. He gave his fellow performers the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. There are parts you have to sing, they had rehearsals, but as far as how you wanted to look, you could do whatever you wanted. It was up to you. Ain't nothing but a party, come as you are, come as you like. It was totally different from what I was accustomed to with James Brown. And all the different phrases they'd say.

Seconds : "Shit, Goddamn, Get Off Your Ass And Jam."

Maceo Parker : All that. We'd never say anything like that with James! It's George's thing - that's his. It took a minute to get used to that.

Seconds : How come Pee Wee never joined P-Funk with you and Fred?

Maceo Parker : Pee Wee was, like I said, more of a musician's musician. He was a bandleader with Van Morrison, he did Esther Phillips, and he was in the studio a lot. He did a lot of roaming around. He was in San Francisco for a long time freelancing. I don't think a group concept catches him too much. He liked being in a group of his own at home. Nobody knew Pee Wee from James Brown as well as they knew me and Fred. Pee Wee was sort of a background player.

Seconds : What's your opinion on why the Parliment-Funkadelic empire collapsed?

Maceo Parker : As I said, the whole thing is George, and it just got to the point where he decided to take some time off. The business was a little screwy, for whatever reason.

Seconds : If the money was there, would you go back?

Maceo Parker : No. I'm happy to have had that but I couldn't go back. I wouldn't be comfortable with that.

Seconds : I have to assume you can just make more money on your own. Same for Bootsy,too.

Maceo Parker : Exactly. Even if I was making millions of dollars, I wouldn't be comfortable in that situation. I wouldn't be comfortable with James now.

Seconds : Back in those days, were jazz musicians dissing you for playing funk?

Maceo Parker : No, jazz musicians were just dissing funk, period. But I was paying bills while they were dissing funk. Fred wanted to be one of those jazz musicians but he wasn't eating until he worked with James. Now he can eat and go back and get a chance to do the jazz thing.

Seconds : How would you like to be remembered?

Maceo Parker : Now that I'm as old as I am, I don't think it's important to be known as a musician. If people could just remember me as a nice guy, that's most important.

 

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