A Gentleman and a Legend: An Interview with Maceo Parker
Jack Chester: When did you first pick up a saxophone?
Maceo Parker: I must have been about twelve, maybe thirteen.
JC Who first instructed you?
MP I didn’t take saxophone lessons. I just started fooling around with it and what I could do with the school band- the elementary school band- is the way I started. I just listened. I tried to imitate people until I became the age when I could start my own style- to create my own style. But I never had anyone to say, ‘Do this, do that,’ although I had a band director who was a saxophone player. And when he knew that I had the interest and maybe a little talent he often would have me come in and just play and I just listened; I did that for maybe a year. But it wasn’t nothin’ like, ‘You do this, you do that; you don’t do this, you don’t do that.’ He just played and I listened. And what I got out of that was- I guess he wanted me to get from that whatever I could- what I thought I could get from that was his sound. I didn’t want to sound like a student, I wanted to sound like a professional. That’s what I was striving for when I was fifteen, sixteen; I was striving to have a pleasing sound rather than anything else. I thought that was more important.
JC You come from a musical family; tell me about what part your family played in getting you into music and performing.
MP Well, my mom and my dad were vocal in the church. They belonged to the choir. And my father was in a group, a male choir and often they would practice at our home. But what got me into music that’s not really religious was that my mother had a brother who had a band. And the name of the band was the Blue Notes. And me and my brothers and cousins got a bunch of instruments together and we formed a group; and we called the group Junior Blue Notes because we tried to imitate and do what they did. So my brother played trombone, another brother played drums, my cousin played trumpet, and my cousin that played trumpet had sisters and they sang sometimes; and there were other cousins who sang sometimes. Then there was a friend down the street who played piano.
JC Did you know from playing with your brothers and cousins that this was something you wanted to do for a living?
MP Well, I didn’t know it then; I knew I had fun doing it and I knew It came easily to me. But, It takes a while before you know exactly what page you’re on as far as in standards with other people and I didn’t begin to realize that until I went to college- how advanced I was and could be. Because it’s hard to place yourself when you work with the same people year in and year out. But then when you meet other people and you place yourself then. But when I first went to college it was as a music student, but it was to maybe become a music educator- to maybe have a band of my own somewhere in a high school or elementary level and teach half time shows at football games, parades, and stuff like that. But then I found out that my high school band director was getting ready to leave that position and get a job with Lord Price who had a big band at that time. So then I became a little bit confused; I’m trying to get where he is and he’s moving on. So I said, ‘ Well, maybe there’s more to it than this- than just getting a degree and then teaching.’ And I decided that maybe I could do what I do today.
JC Besides your family and your high school band leader, who were your early musical influences?
MP Well, I listened to everybody. We as kids growing up, we sort of have to hear whatever’s there; the neighbors had a collection of stuff, but your not in any position to make any kind of choice because you’re young. You’ve got to listen to whatever is being played. But I heard everything and I liked everything. But I got serious about it from listening to Ray Charles. I really liked Ray Charles’ sound, the way he introduced and…. Ray Charles has a lot of soul, he had a lot of soul and a lot of feeling when he sings. And if I could play saxophone like that- if I could have somebody say, ‘Golly, Maceo has a lot of feeling when he plays…’ Well, slow songs anyway. And that was what I tried to do. Boy, if I could just play saxophone like Ray Charles sings that would be o.k. But Ray had a group of musicians who were very outstanding to me, not only the saxophone player, but everybody in that group at that time were very outstanding musicians. Philip Gilbeau as a trumpet player, Marcus Belgraves as a trumpet player, but saxophone players just stood out because I played the saxophone, like David Newman, Hank Crawford, and Leroy Cooper. But then I heard Stanley Turrentine, I heard Cannonball Adderly, I heard King Curtis. They were maybe the most that I heard coming up.
JC When you were in college, what kind of music were you plying? Was it always the jazz and soul influence for you?
MP It was everything, but it was during the, I mean I was in a group and we played a variety of stuff, but in school we had to play the marches and the concert stuff like that. But I was in a group and we played whatever was current; whatever anybody recorded we played it.
JC You ended up playing with James Brown directly after leaving college. How did you first get that gig?
MP Well, my brother- I’m a year older than this particular brother who plays drums- but he and I attended the same school, but while I was a sophomore- my second year his first year- we ended up being in different gig bands although we played together in the school band. But we were in different bands and it just so happened that when James Brown came to town with his group and I was playing on that particular day, I was playing out of state somewhere. But Melvin was playing in town at like a late late after hours kind of a thing and it just so happened that James Brown happened to stop by for food at the same place where my brother was playing and James sort of liked all those guys, but especially my brother. And he made himself known. ‘Hey I’m James Brown,’ talking to my brother, ‘I like your style, I like the way you play, I sure would like to hire you, but I know that you’re a student and I don’t want to take you out of school, but I do want to see if there’s ever a time when you’re not a student and if you want a job with me, you’ve got it. I like your style.’
JC That’s a hell of an offer.
MP Yeah. So, it wasn’t that surprising to me because we started playing, I must have been about twelve or thirteen and he must have been about eleven, ten or something like that. We had been playing every weekend since then. So we were like eight or nine years of trying to do something by the time we reached college age, so it wasn’t surprising to me. So when I got back in town, ya know I’ve gotta check on my little brother- make sure he’s cool and he hits me with the news. He says, ‘Hey man, I met James Brown. Blah blah blah…’ So after a year, another year past, we decide to get out of school and seek the job with James Brown, but like I said, I hadn’t met him and it was the day that James came back to Greensboro, North Carolina where we went to school and we waited outside the coliseum for him to show up. And he finally showed up and Melvin said, ‘James Brown, remember me? I’m the drummer, and I’m not in school anymore and I need a job like you said I could have.’ And James said, ‘Oh yeah, I remember, I’m a man of my word. Blah blah blah. Sure you got the job. We’ll be going tomorrow. You have your clothes or you have to go back home?...
JC So James Brown really did hire Melvin on the spot.
MP Oh Yeah. And then somewhere in the course of the conversation he says, ‘Oh yeah, I’d like you to meet my brother he needs a job too.’ I think Melvin said, ‘He plays saxophone.’ So he says to me, ‘Do you play baritone sax?’ At that time my major was tenor saxophone, but to answer a question you can only say yes or no and I had already visualized my saying no and he would turn around and walk off. So I was only left with, ‘Yes.’ But this is the way I answered it, I didn’t come right with a straight yes, I said, ‘Uhhhh, yessir,’ like that. So he said, ‘Do you own a baritone saxophone?’ And again I hesitated a little bit and said, ‘Uhhhhh, yessir, I do.’
JC Which, of course, you didn’t.
MP Which, of course, I didn’t. And he said, ‘I’ll tell ya what. If you can get a baritone saxophone, you can get a job too. I’ll give you a chance to go get it and then you can have a job too.’ But then he tried to let us know where he was going to be- where he was going the next day and for the next week, or something like that. And he let me know where he was going to be for the next to weeks to give me a little more time to get a baritone saxophone. Plus, I think we had been recommended. He sort of needed a drummer and a baritone sax player and everybody knew by the fact that we were brothers we had been known throughout the town- we had played almost every club in town by then. But that was the way it was; that was the way I got hired; like that. I played “I Feel Good”, a tune called “Out Of Sight”, and something else I can’t even think of.
JC How long did it take you to track down a baritone sax after you finished talking to James?
MP Oh, I just went back home and made arrangements with my mom and went down and made arrangements with the local guy- with the local music guy. It all took a couple of days if that long.
JC I’m sure it was a top priority.
MP Oh yes.
JC Part of the legend of James Brown is that he’s such a tough and serious band leader. How true is that and what was your impression of him as a band leader?
MP Well, he was o.k., he just enjoyed being right. He just wanted to be right. Somebody came up with talking about him as the hardest working man in show business, ya know Mr. Dynamite. We had seen the show two or three times and we knew how they could go right out of one tune and right into another one and we had sort of the same kind of style a little bit in our group after we saw him; so we didn’t mind that. We didn’t mind all the rehearsals and the fact that you had to have your uniform clean and all that. It was just right. It taught you punctuality and taught you stage decorum, how to look on the stage and all that. And in order to run a tight ship, so to speak, he had to be kind of firm about it; if that’s what you want to do. When you have anywhere from ten to fifteen guys working for you, somebody’s going to be wrong. It’s just the nature of life. And in order to keep ‘em right you’ve just got to be a little firm. So that was o.k. Of course I wasn’t but twenty-one years old anyway. At that age, you’ll just about do anything.
JC How much of that did you take with you as far as your band leading?
MP None of it. I just sort… The guys sort of know me. We don’t have rehearsals like that. I don’t say, ‘A guy’s shoes have got to be shined,’ I sort of leave that up to them. They know how to do all that. I don’t write anything down nor do I verbally say anything, but they just know, from knowing me, what to do.
JC What about musically? When you’re up there on stage, your band is right on the dime with every hand motion telling them when to cut the song and start something else up.
MP That’s the way it is. I kind of like for everybody to be sort of on the same page although I try not to do it with an iron fist or a whip. But I do love for us to be at least on the same page. I don’t want to appear- and I was just thinking about that last night after the show- I’ve got to kind of tighten it up a little bit more. I don’t like to appear like we’re just five or six guys- six, seven guys- just getting together and somebody calls a tune and you play it and somebody calls another tune and you play it. I want to really appear like a group. In order to appear like a group, you’ve got to do some group things. You’ve got to look like you’re a group. And I don’t mean just dress and all that, you’ve just got to have things that anybody just brand new could walk up there just can’t do because you’re brand new and you just don’t know how to do it yet. But it’s all in my direction. I tell if a tune is too long or too short or if I want to make it a little longer tonight than it was last night or this guy maybe soloed tonight rather than this guy last night. It’s all my doing; I direct and control it all.
JC I caught both your recent show in Portland as well as the show in Seattle and you and your band look as tight as I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen you quite a few times.
MP Thank you very much, but I think we can be tighter.
JC I’ve read that while you were with James, you quit his band and rejoined a couple of times. Why was that?
MP I sort of look at James Brown as sort of being in an institution- like being at a college or a university. You’re there for a while and then maybe, for whatever reason, you just have to stop for a while and I just wanted to try something else. Just doing his thing his way year after year after year, it gets dull. You just want to try something else and if it works, it works, if it doesn’t you can always go back. Same with school; school’s always going to be there. You get out for a quarter or a semester or whatever it is, you try something and then you feel like you want to go, you go back. So, it was just various reasons, I just wanted to try something else. If it worked, it worked; if it didn’t, it didn’t.
JC What was your relationship with Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis early on?
MP We were just in the same group. Nothing more, nothing less. We were in the same group. And I think people- when you’re in a group, you’re almost like family because you’re there all the time and you’re there together. You’re staying together in the same motel, the same stage, the same traveling conditions- whatever they are- and you sort of go on through it and you do build up a camaraderie like family; like brothers. But then at the same time you know that it’s just a job. I mean, we worked the same job. And you try to do what you can to make it as good as possible and so on and so on. It’s almost like being on the same team. You know you’re working on one team this year and that’s fine, but you also know next year somebody from that team might be on somebody else’s team; and that’s the way it is.
JC You never know who’s going to get traded.