This is what Maceo Parker did on his birthday: Left his house at 2:30 a.m., drove 2 ½ hours to the airport in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and caught the first of a couple of flights to Salt Lake City.
“I did not do a thing to celebrate,” he said the next day from his EconoLodge room in Utah. “I traveled.”
You’d think one of the most raucous saxophonists in R&B history - the No. 2 man for Soul Brother No. 1 (James Brown), the straightest-looking funkateer for Dr. Funkenstein (George Clinton) and senior courtier to His Royal Badness (Prince) - would have been partying for his 65th birthday on Valentine’s Day. But, like his famous bosses, he’s a road warrior.
“He’s an absolute road rat,” said Twin Cities R&B historian Alan Leeds, who as former road manager for Brown and Prince has known Parker 40 years. “This is a guy who goes crazy if he’s not on a stage. He will play anytime, anywhere - he just wants to play for people.”
Parker’s current tour is promoting a new double CD, “Roots & Grooves,” recorded with a German big band. One disc, as you’d expect, is a live CD of some of the finest funk on the planet. But the other is Parker doing a spot-on vocal tribute to Ray Charles.
Who knew that Parker was a Charles devotee? Brown, for one, did not until he walked into a rehearsal in the mid-1970s and heard Parker’s impression of Charles. So that night onstage in Raleigh - well, let Parker pick up the story:
“At the end of `Prisoner of Love,’ we’re doing a vamp and (Brown) says into the microphone, `You know I walked in the other day and I ran into Ray Charles and I wonder if Ray is still around.’ Then he backs up from the microphone and says, `Hey, Ray. Has anyone seen Ray?’
“I ran off and said, `Anybody got shades?’ So I put shades on, and I come to the mike and (sing), `You give your hand to me, and then you say hello.’ And I’m thinking: `How can I get out of this? Why is he doing this to me?’ No rehearsal, no nothing. Sometimes it became part of the show, and sometimes it didn’t.”
A similar thing happened when Parker was part of Prince’s band on the 2004 Musicology Tour. Charles had died that summer and Parker was messing around with one of his tunes before a rehearsal at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minn. Prince heard about it, and asked Parker to sing a Charles selection in concert.
Parker, who grew up on Brother Ray’s music, was 10 when he first saw the future R&B star in concert.
“It sounded like he actually lived through what he was singing about,” reflected Parker, who got to open for Charles on a three-week tour of Europe in the 1990s. “I thought if I could play a ballad and have the same kind of feeling Ray Charles has when he sings, then somebody’s got to like it. I used his concepts as a guideline.”
But once Parker joined Brown, he learned to make his saxophone roar like Brown’s voice. Said Leeds: “If James Brown had played saxophone instead of sung, he’d sound like Maceo Parker.”
The Godfather of Soul was the superstar but Parker was “as important as anyone else could be” in Brown’s show, said Leeds, who co-authored “The James Brown Reader” to be published in April, and who is working with director Spike Lee on a JB biopic. “What Maceo added to the James Brown legacy was a branch on that tree that no one else could have put there, and no one else has been able to replicate, because Maceo was that alter ego.”
Parker started playing piano at age 5 or 6 but switched to saxophone after seeing a college marching band parade through his hometown of Kinston, N.C. (where he still lives). He and his brothers - drummer Melvin and trombonist Kellis - played in a combo at their uncle’s restaurant. Brown invited Melvin to join his group after hearing him at a club one night. Melvin asked if his saxophone-playing brother could come, too.
So after going to the University of South Carolina to study to be a music teacher, Maceo hit the road with James Brown in 1965. He and Melvin played that year on the Godfather’s first Top 10 hit, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” - the start of a nonstop string of hit singles and relentless touring that culminated in a mutiny led by Parker in 1970. He and the rest of Brown’s overworked, underpaid sidemen formed their own band, Maceo & All the King’s Men.
But he rejoined the Godfather in 1973, and was in and out of Brown’s group until 1988, with time out for stints with Bootsy Collins and Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. Parker also has released 15 albums under his own name and played on an array of recordings by non-R&B stars - Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bryan Ferry, De La Soul, Living Colour, Ani DiFranco, 10,000 Maniacs, Keith Richards, Dave Matthews Band and Jane’s Addiction.
He’s a little vague about how he hooked up with Prince. Leeds thinks the two met when the saxophonist came to Paisley Park to tape a BBC-TV special on funk with Clinton and trombonist Fred Wesley, another JB/P-Funk alum.
A longtime friend of European saxophonist Candy Dulfer (who also has toured with Prince), Parker says Prince asked him to play on a recording session, and he’s worked with him on and off since. His sax is heard on Prince’s “3121” and “Planet Earth” as well as the live 2002 set “One Nite Alone.”
“I call Prince a sweetheart and a genius,” said Parker, who, like all Prince employees, reveals very little about his boss. “I’ve never been around anyone (else) who is at the top of everything he touches. But the less I say about him is more. He likes that little mystery thing.”
The humble, soft-spoken Parker has the demeanor of a sideman rather than a star, but he sometimes served as Brown’s emcee and learned how to work an audience by watching the master showman.
He’s “a sideman with ambitions,’ Leeds says. `If you take his horn away, he’ll tell jokes for 10 minutes and keep your attention.”