You learn a lot about Maceo Parker when you dive into his recently released autobiography, “98% Funky Stuff: My Life in Music” (Chicago Review Press). One thing you find out right from the jump is how Parker, who has toured throughout the world performing alongside people like James Brown and George Clinton – and became one of the most influential saxophonists of all time – is a bit of a square!
As he divulges throughout the memoir, Parker (who will be performing Friday evening to a sold-out crowd at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall) has been on the straight-and-narrow for most of his entire life. He says he’s never been into drugs or alcohol, which deprives the book of the juicy, sordid, often redemptive tales that are usually the norm in musicians’ bios.
Still, Parker never thought his life and career wouldn’t make good reading material.
“I think everybody can, you know, jot themselves down and say how it was with their beginning and what got them to what they’re doing,” says Parker, 70, on the phone from Kinston, his birthplace and current home. “But I’ve always felt that I was kind of special and, in that, I mean there was something musically special in and about me. I felt that ever since I was 3, 4 years old. I’m sorry, but that’s true.”
Growing up in a musical household, Parker used to wow adults with his knack for playing by ear.
“As a child, I discovered it’s very easy to make a sound out of a piano,” he remembers. “All you gotta do is just make some force on your fingers and, usually, it’s gonna make the tinkling sound that sounds like music. And that was fascinating to me.”
He would eventually spend his teen years practicing on the saxophone, even playing in a band with his two brothers. But it wasn’t until he saw Ray Charles in concert – and then hanging out with his ultra-cool collection of sax players – that he realized he could become a styled-out rock star.
“What I really got, seriously, was if they can do it, I can do it, you know what I mean?” he asks. “I was really into Ray Charles, which included David ‘Fathead’ Newman and Hank Crawford and Leroy Cooper … But what stuck out to me about all of them is the way they dressed. Hank Crawford was the one that I kind of checked out first, because he was wearing a jacket and boots to match. And, as a freshman in college at that time – I had already seen Ray once, a couple of times in high school here. But in college, in Greensboro, North Carolina, I kinda checked out Hank Crawford with the matching boots and jacket. And I said, ‘Man, that’s got to be the coolest thing in the world.’ And, because of that, I wear boots today. I’m just a boot person.”
Of course, Parker would go on to become a major music player when he joined James Brown’s mercilessly funky band, appearing on such classics as “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” But he doesn’t paint a rosy picture of his former, dearly departed boss in the book, characterizing him as a paranoid, manipulative tyrant who would often get jealous of his horn-playing protege whenever the spotlight would stay too long on him.
Nonetheless, Parker respects the Godfather of Soul for the opportunities he gave him, saying he “felt really lucky to be that young and working with someone of that magnitude.”
Those years of toughing it out with Soul Brother No. 1 appear to have paid off dividends in his later years. For the past two decades, Parker has been one of the hardest-working sax men in show business. He collaborated and toured with a diverse collection of artists: Prince, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Dave Matthews Band. Even indie-folk goddess Ani DiFranco, who is performing Friday at Carolina Theatre, went on tour with the man many moons ago.
Unfortunately, Parker won’t have time to see his old road buddy this time around, since he’ll be performing with his band, along with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, at the same time.
And speaking of Clinton, the chapters in Parker’s book where he talks about touring with Clinton and P-Funk in the ’70s are the most amusing, with Parker mentioning how he often felt like a sane, orderly stage manager next to Clinton and his equally rambunctious, unpredictable, funk collective.
So even though Maceo Parker has mostly lived a clean-and-sober life, he can still get funky – and still get down and blow with the best of them.