Maceo Parker: These Kids are Fantastic
by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 6/13/2004. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.
Saxophonist Maceo Parker was 21 years old when soul singer James Brown discovered him in 1964. Straight out of Kinston, a small town in Eastern North Carolina, Parker was a trailblazing figure in the birth of funk, the riveting dance music created out of jazz, blues and soul in the 1960s and '70s. He went on to become funk music's most celebrated saxophonist with Brown and then with George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Since 1990, he's traveled the world with his own, highly acclaimed funk orchestra and performed with singers ranging from Ani DiFranco to Prince. I caught up with him at his home in Kinston in between dates on Prince's "Musicology" tour.
In Maceo Parker's words:
I was born here in Kinston in 1943. I was named after my father. He had his own cleaners on South Queen Street. My mother's name is Novella, and I know she could have been Ella Fitzgerald singing. She could have done all that! I know this. The only thing is, the only thing that she is interested in singing right to this day is spiritual music. She loves doing -- (he sings) -- "Wonderful, my God is wonderful." My father couldn't play a lick, but he was part of a gospel quartet and they would have rehearsals at our house because the piano was there. My eyes could barely get up to the keys. I'd sit and watch and watch. They'd get up, and I'd sit there playing by myself and remember everything. I'm going, "Yield -- not -- to -- temp -- ta -- tion -- for -- yield -- ing -- is -- sin." I'd hear, "I'll be, look at that child playing that music." As we got a little bit older, my father lost the cleaners somehow. My mother was working as a seamstress at one of the clothing stores downtown, and she took on a second job doing janitorial stuff. We had moved from the old neighborhood to the projects. That was a step up! But my parents thought it was really important to keep the fact that we were poor, that we were struggling, away from us. They had ways of making it work somehow, and music had a big part to do with that. In other words, if my mother is fixing oatmeal and singing or whistling a tune, then we're happy because she's happy. The fact that we're having oatmeal instead of bacon and eggs is not the thing. It's almost like birds chirping. I feel so great to wake up to hear the birds singing, I forget that I need a new pair of shoes. That's the way it was growing up in my family. It seemed like every day, every night, was fun. It was because we had each other. There were four boys, and we were tight. We did everything together. And the music end of it kept us lifted up. I still remember my first parade. I was 6, 7 probably. When I heard all this noise, I mean, it was one of the most exciting things I ever heard in my life. You know, it's like, you've got this many people playing all these instruments, and all these drums and cymbals! I mean, this is it, man! I remember going absolutely crazy. I remember asking ma, where's the piano? No piano. Piano isn't a marching band instrument, she told me. So if I can't do piano, maybe I can play one of those things like that. What's that? And she said, that's a saxophone. Cool. And that's how I chose saxophone. My mother's brother had a band and often we'd go to their rehearsals. It was dance music: rock and roll, jazz, blues, boogie woogie -- a mixture of all that stuff. So I got a brother that plays trombone, a brother that plays drums, a cousin who plays trumpet, and then we're going to find a piano player and maybe a bass player so we can have a band too. My uncle's band was called the Blue Notes -- Bobby Butler Mighty Blue Notes. We called ourselves the Junior Blue Notes. They would do: bop bop, bop ba doo, ba bop bop ba doo. We'd try to imitate them. I mean, all the time. Just practice, practice, practice. My brother Melvin, the drummer, would get blisters and bleeding fingers. We must have driven our neighbors crazy. We got to the point where my uncle would take us to the nightclubs. I was in fifth grade so that had to be '53, '54. He'd put us in the dressing room. They'd start playing around 9 o'clock, take that break around 10:30, then he'd take us out of that dressing room and say, "This is my little nephews. They got a little group." Once we finished, he'd bring us on home. We'd do this almost every weekend. We also did small gigs, school dances and little programs on Sunday like for the PTA. Then, before we graduated from high school, we were old enough to play some of these nightclubs where my uncle used to play. Melvin and I also got this gig where we were doing some sort of carnival with a lady dancing with a snake, and we were playing behind this lady. I don't know how we got that gig. We used to play a lot of segregated places. Different clubs and frats used to hire us, and for the money we'd go. I'm talking '59, '60, '61, and nothing is integrated then. There was a place like that we played every Saturday night in Faison. There was a guy that had a pickle warehouse. He used to roll barrels back to make space. We used to have college kids coming from as far as Virginia. Because it was three of us, three brothers, it was almost like getting paid three times, even if it was $20 and $20 and $20. If you did a Friday gig, a Saturday gig and a Sunday gig, it starts not to be bad for one household. We'd take that money, less a barbecue sandwich and a soda, and give that money to Mother. Every time. In high school my band director happened to be a saxophone player. His name was James Banks, and he was a professional. I spent all my lunch periods with him. I'd run down and get my food and right to the band room. He would sit down like you and me and he'd just play. You could hear people play on tape or record, but somehow that wasn't close enough. You know what I'm saying? But now I got this guy, at a professional level, this close? And he was just like, man, these kids are fantastic. He could have joined any band he wanted and our band director ended up joining our band. We played things we heard on the radio or the jukebox, or black music like the Temptations. We were interested in whatever made the people dance. I like to see the people being part of it and having fun. If you're doing something like -- Oom do da ga da! Oh yeah! All right! Uh! Put your hands in the air! Wave them! -- and you look around and everybody's doing that?! Man, I like that. See, it's a oneness thing. And that's it, man. That's it.
13 June 2004 | Cecelski, David S.