When you look back on the last half-century of backbeat-driven, hard-pocket funk, it’s strange that one of the genre’s major innovators was inspired to start playing because of the square, oompah rhythms of a marching band.
“I remember witnessing my first parade and I knew that I had to drop that piano and start playing sax. I needed to be in one of those uniforms, strutting down the street!” says Maceo Parker, recalling the formative musical memory. Little did they know at the time, but the military band in Parker’s childhood home of Kingston, N.C., had just created a funk monster. Parker took to the sax, tearing through R&B in a group called the Junior Blue Notes that he formed with a handful of cousins and brother Melvin on drums. They started gigging at church picnics and after-school functions when Maceo was in sixth grade.
“I was drawn to sax ’cause it was a solo instrument,” Parker says. “A person would sing a couple verses and then have this guy come up and blow a little. I never thought about being a singer, I wanted to be that other guy. Even though guitar did that same thing, it never appealed to me. Maybe it was because the sax was really hip to the girls too.”
So the legend goes like this: the Junior Blue Notes are jamming one night at a pizza shop and the soon-to-be “hardest-working man in show business,” James Brown, just happens to be in town and has a hankering for a slice. Next thing you know, Mel gets invited into JB’s band; he joins on the condition that his little brother can tag along. Next thing you know, “Maceo! Blow your horn!” is the battle cry that introduces the jabbing, staccato-funked alto sax solos on some of the Godfather of Soul’s biggest hits (“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat,” “Get Up, I Feel Like Being A Sex Machine”).
“My concept of funky music is the same as I’ve always had,” Parker says matter-of-factly. “If it’s funky, it’s funky. Funky 20 years ago is going to do the same kind of thing for people 20 years from now. Some of the funky stuff I did back in the ’60s would fit right in with the stuff we play now. When I think of the way that rap and hip hop have the ability to be funky, I know that the music is growing, but funk is funk, and funky is funky.”
There are few people who have better credentials for postulating funk theory than Parker. After all, leading Brown’s band was just the start. Through the ’70s he backed up George Clinton at Parliament’s spaceship-flying apex and later blew behind P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins.
“No matter how good some of the shows were with James Brown or Bootsy, nothing can top doing that spaceship thing,” Parker muses. “All of us were supposed to be funky aliens showing earthlings what funky music was all about. We would land the spaceship every night and people would be mesmerized, with their mouths wide-open and their eyes coming out of their heads. Then Clinton would come out and we would kick into … what was that?” [He scats a few bars of a complicated rhythmic horn line.] “Oh, yeah, ‘Dr. Funkenstein.’ It was pure crazy.”
Another thing to file under “pure crazy” is that Parker, at 60 years old, is still on a mission of bringing funk to the masses. In the past 20 years he’s sat in with everyone from Prince to Ani DiFranco, established a solo career that has kept him on funk’s A-list, and constantly toured and released records.
“There is a thirst for what we do,” Parker says, “the same way people in the desert have a thirst for water. People need water and along comes this machine or pond or drinking fountain or something — that’s what we are. What we provide is needed for their soul. It is good for people to party, to put things down and get away from everyday worries. We give people a reason for clappin’ and partyin’ and having a good time. And that’s what gets me up.”
See Maceo Parker Wednesday, June 18, at Chene Park (Atwater and Chene, Detroit), with Pieces of a Dream. Call 313-393-0292 for more information.Nate Cavalieri is a Detroit-based writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]