Page last updated at 08:13 GMT, Thursday, 19 November 2009

Talking Shop: Maceo Parker

Maceo Parker
Parker played in James Brown's band for 18 years, on and off

"Maceo! Come here quick, and bring that funky licking stick!"

That's how James Brown introduces saxophonist Maceo Parker on the 1974 track Soul Of A Black Man.

His call to action triggers an audacious six-minute solo, full of impossibly long sustained notes and sordid runs down the musical scale.

Now 66, Parker has played with everyone in the funk lexicon, from George Clinton to Prince - not to mention guest spots with De La Soul, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Keith Richards.

He can be seen playing with Brown in the new DVD, Soul Power, which documents the legendary Zaire '74 music festival, which was organised around Muhammad Ali's "Rumble In The Jungle" fight with George Foreman.

The music legend spoke to the BBC about that concert, and how he was accidentally discovered by the Godfather Of Soul.

What made you decide to choose the saxophone out of all the instruments available to you?

Actually, I was a piano player first. As far back as I could remember there was always a piano around the house, and the adults, the grown people, would come by so they could play. And that always fascinated me - all you'd have to do is push the keys down and you could get a sound.

But then I witnessed my first Christmas parade and I got very excited by the hoopla and the fanfare and I thought, "I want to do that!" I watched and watched for the piano - but my mom said, "you can't play the piano in a marching band", so I started to think I should play one of those other instruments!

Maceo Parker
The saxophonist also plays the flute and the piano

The saxophone must have worked much better when you were trying to seduce girls as a teenager?

I'm not so sure! You might have piano players who think it's the other way around!

But if you're serenading outside someone's window, the saxophone's much easier to drag over to their house than a piano.

I think the flute or the violin are the right instruments for serenading. But even with the drums, you could get the brushes and do some little rolls like "di-di-di-dit-di-di-da da-da-da".

In his autobiography, James Brown said he only hired you to ensure the services of your brother, Melvin. Is that true?

Well, it was like this: He heard Melvin play, but he hadn't heard me play.

We were college students at the time, but I'm a year older than Melvin so he was in a whole other group - and when James Brown came to town, I was playing in a different state.

So James saw Melvin's band and asked to meet him. He said: 'If there's ever a time you're not a student and you would like to have the option of playing in my group, here's my hand.' And they shook hands and, boom, that was it.

About a year later, we decided to get the job and, on the strength of that promise, we went to see him together. Melvin just said: 'I'd like to take you up on that offer - and by the way, here's my brother.'

What happened then?

James Brown turned round and said to me: 'Do you play baritone sax?' And I'm thinking: 'If I say no, that's the end of the story, so I gotta say yes.'

Then he asked: 'Do you own a baritone sax?' And again I said: 'Uh… yes sir!'

He said: 'I tell you what, if you can get a baritone sax, I'll give you a job.' And that's the way I got the job!

He always seemed like a hard task master on stage. Did you learn a lot about touring and discipline?

What interested me was the on-stage stuff - how to work an audience. Sometimes he'd repeat a song, or he'd bring an audience down so he could set them up to take them back up again. That's what really fascinated me.

What was the hardest thing about working for the hardest working man in showbusiness?

When we first started, we used to play six shows a day at the Apollo Theatre in New York City. That meant the curtain would close, and you'd have to rush to get some food and change your uniforms and make your shoes were okay and maybe use the facilities, then you'd be on the stage again. That was hard.

James Brown at Zaire '74
Parker, James Brown, Bill Withers and BB King played at Zaire '74

What do you remember about the Zaire '74 shows?

If I can remember correctly, the Muhammad Ali fight was postponed or cancelled - so when they actually fought it we weren't there.

But the atmosphere was exciting because we didn't get the chance to do that many festivals. The chance to mingle with so many other artists was the best thing.

What performances did you catch at the festival?

I can't remember too much! I remember Bill Withers being there. And I remember everyone flying over in the same aeroplane. You were in close proximity to people you admired and had heard on records. That was exciting.

On your most recent album, Roots and Grooves, you do an uncanny Ray Charles impression. Was he an inspiration?

Yeah, when me and my brothers got to the point where we were able to choose the records we wanted to listen to, Ray Charles was always at the top of the stack. So somehow, without really knowing how, he became my favourite person.

If I could have only one album, it would probably be a Ray Charles album.

You also got to play with Prince during his 21 night residency in London. How was that?

Well, without really getting into Prince that much, I try to make wherever I am and whatever I'm doing very, very exciting. And I look at all the projects that I do as if they were my own. And that's about the best way I can answer that.

It's impossible not to dance to songs like Pass The Peas or Papa's Got A Brand New Bag. What's the strangest move you've seen in the audience?

Sly Stone recorded a tune that went: 'There's a rhythm / When you don't know what you're doing' and we allow people to have that freedom. If you come to the show and you can't dance, that's okay. That's acceptable. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy yourself. You just move from side to side, or just try to pop your fingers or something.

Do you still play 320 days a year?

We have peaks and valleys - so I'm not really sure. But my manager tells me the year coming up is going to be great.

My biggest worry is as I get older my stamina and my ability to play as I would like is starting to go a little bit downhill. Which means I've gotta work harder, harder, harder. I practise two hours a day now, and I exercise so that when I do go on stage, I feel great and I can do what I normally do.

But it gets harder and harder as I have to prepare more and more.

Maceo Parker was talking to BBC News entertainment reporter Mark Savage. Soul Power is out now.

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