Gold records line the walls in the office of Maceo Parker’s Kinston homestead, commemorating some of the hits the iconic saxophonist has played on over the past half-century. But Parker’s most eye-catching artifacts are the pictures of him with various members of the celebrity jet stream.
In one shot, he’s playing his saxophone onstage with Beyoncé. Others show Parker alongside some of his more notable bandleader employers: James Brown, George Clinton, Prince. And in still others, he’s posed with Spike Lee, Jennifer Lopez, even former President Bill Clinton.
“Prince would call me ‘teacher,’ ” Parker said, looking at a photo of himself onstage in cap and gown, blowing his saxophone with Prince behind him. “Clinton, I met over in Europe when I was with Prince. When I told him that, he looked at me and said, ‘It should be that Prince is with you!’ ”
Parker laughed, which he does a lot. He’s been a working musician for most of his 73 years, becoming one of the best-known sidemen of the rock era. And while he hasn’t exactly made bank, he’s earned enough to live comfortably while establishing himself as one of the greatest of all time.
He first entered the public consciousness 50 years ago, as James Brown’s right-hand man. “I just want you to blow, Maceo!” Brown urged on his 1965 breakthrough, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag Part 1.”
That kicked off not just a saxophone solo, but a cult. Parker will get formal recognition Wednesday night in Raleigh, when he’ll be presented with a North Carolina Heritage Award. But there are other, less tangible markers of his influence out there, too.
“When I heard about getting (the Heritage Award), my first thought was, ‘Golly, everybody else must be dead,’ ” Parker said, laughing again. “You don’t set out to do this and think you’ll get some kind of award down the line. But when I reflect on who I am, what I’ve done, all the different places I’ve performed, what I come back to is how many people I meet who have named their kids Maceo. I get that almost everywhere, even France and Germany.
“Man,” he concluded, “I could never have imagined that. But it makes you feel like you’ve done something right. I almost can’t put it into words.”
Rocked by Ray Charles
As far as Parker has traveled, he never really left home. Aside from stretches like a few years overseas in the military, Parker has lived his entire life not far from where he grew up. Ask him why, and he mentions his 91-year-old mother and the lack of traffic.
“Kinston has been an extraordinarily musical place for several generations,” said Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council. “But it’s relatively small and the fact that Maceo has chosen to stay there is significant. When he talks about growing up, he had a very rich life of family and church and a neighborhood where he had mentors and experiences with different kinds of music. He felt nurtured there, and I think that’s why he’s still there.”
Parker was born on Valentine’s Day, 1943, growing up as part of a musical family in Kinston. His brothers both played, Melvin on drums and Kellis on trombone. Young Maceo was well on his way to becoming a musician himself when he overheard some grownups talking derisively about how musicians “just get drunk and act silly.” It made a profound impression.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can show people you can be a traveling musician without doing the whole drunk or high thing,’ ” he said. “To this day I’ve never drank a whole beer. Bands I was in would have ‘beer breaks’ during rehearsal. Anything to this? But I tried it and no, not for me. So I’ve never drank no beer, wine, liquor.”
By Maceo’s teenage years, the Parker family was living in Carver Court, a low-income project in Kinston. And the first time Parker heard Ray Charles’ 1959 signature hit “What’d I Say,” it rocked his world.
“We tore the house apart, man,” Parker said. “I was 16, it was right after school, we were cleaning up, that came on the radio and we just went bonkers over that part at the end – Hey! Oh! Aaah, one more time! – we went crazy, turning over furniture and stuff. I’ve been meaning to go back over there and look around. Carver Court, 9D. Give whoever is there now some money to let me walk through there, bring back some memories.”
Parker graduated from high school and went off to study music at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, but he was less interested in becoming a music teacher than joining a touring band. He got his chance in 1964. Maceo and Melvin both signed on with Brown just as The Godfather of Soul was evolving from soul to funk.
Between the Parker Brothers and Nat Jones (another Kinston native who served as Brown’s band director from 1964 to 1967), Kinston was a key part of that evolution on “Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Cold Sweat” and other genre-defining hits. Parker was in and out of Brown’s band a number of times between 1964 and the late 1980s, also doing a long stint in George Clinton’s groundbreaking freak-funk collective Parliament-Funkadelic in the 1970s.
Through it all, he made a living but not a killing.
“I never got out of the sideman bracket with James,” Parker said. “He had his high echelon of people who worked for him but weren’t onstage, then the band. He wanted me to come in further, turn my back to the band, but I didn’t do that. The P-Funk stuff was a lot of fun. They were trying to start a record company and I kept saying to myself, ‘Getting in on this ground floor, we cannot miss!’ But that never materialized for me. Eventually it dawned on me we were just having fun, nothing serious. If I was gonna joke, I wanted to do it on my own.”
Parker finally launched his solo career in earnest in the early 1990s, and he’s done well as a bandleader. One of his best solo albums remains 2008’s “Roots & Grooves,” a two-disc set that pays tribute to Parker’s early idol Ray Charles. Parker has always been able to imitate Charles’ voice with eerie precision, especially on standards like “Georgia on My Mind.”
“That voice is a gift,” Parker said. “I got into Ray Charles really young. Fascinated me when I found out he was blind. Meeting him was a thrill. He was funny, more than people know. He was going through airport security once, it kept going off and he said, ‘What do all y’all (expletives) think I’m gonna do? I can’t even see!’ A year and a half after he passed I was in Europe somewhere singing ‘Georgia’ when it really hit me that he was gone, and I started feeling really sad. ‘Wait a minute, how you gonna pick this time to be sad?’ It was really emotional. Kind of weird, trying to fight that and sing.”
Keeping the rust off
Brown (who died in 2006) and Charles are hardly the only peers that Parker has outlasted. Last month brought the shocking death of Prince, with whom Parker had toured and recorded for years. “Maceo, blow your horn!,” Prince hollered more than once when they were onstage together in Raleigh in 2004. You could tell he’d been waiting for years to call that out, and it thrilled him.
“I’m still in denial,” Parker said of Prince’s death at age 57. “When I was playing with him, he’d tell everybody, ‘I don’t want to be part of your interviews, now.’ He had this thing to sign and I just said, ‘I enjoy who I am and the relationship I have with you, and I just want to shake your hand and tell you I won’t say much except I think you’re a sweetheart and a real genius.’ He was the tops. It’s still hard to believe.”
When he’s not on the road, Parker spends most evenings in the man-cave built behind his house in Kinston. His daily routine includes about an hour and a half of playing saxophone, just to keep the rust off.
How many more years does he reckon he’s got left?
“Not many!,” he said, laughing. “It is getting to be a task. I practice almost every night out here, not because I love it but because I have to. Otherwise ... things just kinda go. Gotta keep everything sort of built up. It’s not fun, but I have to do that to satisfy myself or the stamina just leaves. When you’re performing in your 70s, it’s not the same as when you’re 20, 30, 40. Even 50, or 60. It’s the only way I know how to stay in shape.”
This year’s North Carolina Heritage Award recipients:
▪ Maceo Parker (Kinston): iconic funk, jazz and R&B saxophonist with James Brown, George Clinton’s P-Funk and many others
▪ Sheila Kay Adams (Sodom Laurel): seventh-generation musician and storyteller
▪ H Ju Nie and H Noach Rahlan (Greensboro): weavers who brought the Montagnard Dega tradition to North Carolina from the Vietnamese highlands
▪ Houston, James and Jamie Lewis (Harkers Island): fourth-generation boat builders in the Harkers Island tradition
▪ Marc Pruett (Canton): banjo player for Balsam Range, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2014 entertainer of the year