One of the key sonic architects of funk, Maceo Parker first became a legend for his work with James Brown, whose impassioned shouts for a sax solo ("Maceo! Blow your horn!") would make Parker the Godfather of Soul's most famous sideman, though Parker would continue to enjoy a successful career long after leaving Brown's employ.
Maceo Parker was born on February 14, 1943 in Kinston, North Carolina. Parker's mother and father both had an appreciation for music and sang in their church's choir, but it was his uncle who had the strongest influence on the youngster's musical development. Parker's uncle led a local jazz and R&B band called the Blue Notes, and Maceo would sometime watch them rehearse; in time, Maceo would take up the saxophone, while his brothers Melvin and Kellis respectively learned to play the drums and trombone. Their uncle was impressed enough with the youngsters' abilities that he dubbed them "the Junior Blue Notes" and had them perform between sets at Blue Notes shows. The Parker brothers were seasoned professionals by the time they enrolled at North Carolina A&T, where they studied music. In 1963, Melvin Parker had graduated and was offered an audition with James Brown, who was looking for a new drummer; Melvin landed the gig, and when he asked if Brown could use a new sax player as well, Maceo was also offered a spot in the band.
Originally playing baritone sax, Maceo eventually switched over to tenor, and his style on the instrument was ideal for the band -- rich, rhythmic, and full of sharp, staccato lines that meshed with Brown's taut and funky sound. After lending an inspired solo to Brown's 1965 smash "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," Maceo became of the key members of Brown's recording and touring band, and his solos were an integral part of some of Brown's best-known songs, including "I Got You (I Feel Good)," "Mother Popcorn," "Sex Machine," and "Cold Sweat." However, Brown's well-documented reluctance to part with a dollar and firm hand over his sidemen led most of Brown's band to quit en masse in 1970; Maceo was one of the musicians who walked, and he soon formed his own group, Maceo & All the King's Men, with his brother Melvin on drums. Maceo & All the King's Men had released an album by the year was out, titled Doin' Their Own Thing, but despite the strength of their live show, they didn't fare as well as they had hoped commercially. In 1973, Maceo rejoined Brown's touring band, though he found time to cut a solo album, Us, in 1974. The following year saw another revolt sweep through the ranks of Brown's group, and Maceo, trombonist Fred Wesley, and bassist Bootsy Collins all jumped ship to work with George Clinton's various projects, including Parliament and Funkadelic.
By 1984, Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic empire was in tatters, and Maceo signed back on with James Brown for another four years, though he appeared as a guest on several of Clinton's solo albums from this period, and when Clinton produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers' sophomore album, Freaky Styley, Maceo stopped by to contribute some trademark sax solos. In 1988, Keith Richards invited Maceo to perform on his debut solo album, Talk Is Cheap, and as hip-hop acts began recycling James Brown's potent grooves, Parker found himself in demand with contemporary acts such as Deee-Lite, Living Colour, and Material, all of whom brought him in to play on their sessions.
In 1990, Maceo Parker stepped out as a solo act, releasing a jazz-oriented album called Roots Revisited through Verve Records and hitting the road in support. With funk back in fashion, Parker found he had a ready audience for his new music, and another jazz-flavored set, Mo' Roots, appeared in 1991. Parker upped the funk factor on the 1992 live set Life on Planet Groove, which featured fellow James Brown alumni Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis, and it documented the powerful show Maceo and his band were playing up to 150 nights a year. Through the 1990s, Parker released a steady stream of solo records and made guest appearances on albums by De La Soul and Brooklyn Funk Essentials, as well as less likely collaborations with 10,000 Maniacs and Bryan Ferry. In 1999, noted funk enthusiast Prince recruited Maceo to play on his album Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, and he would be a regular contributor to Prince's studio projects over the next decade, as well as performing with his live ensemble. Alternative folk diva Ani DiFranco also persuaded Maceo to sit in with her, with the sax man contributing to the albums To the Teeth and Reveling: Reckoning. And in 1998, Maceo and his band were the opening act on a concert tour by the Dave Matthews Band; Maceo would often join in with the headliners, and one of the shows from that tour was belatedly released in 2001 as Live in Chicago 12.19.98 at the United Center.
In 2004, Parker's impressive live show was documented on film for the documentary My First Name Is Maceo, which featured interviews with Maceo discussing his life and music along with extensive footage of him and his group in full flight. In 2007, Parker performed a series of concerts in Europe with the German ensemble the WDR Big Band; highlights from the tour appeared on the album Roots & Grooves, including a set of tunes made famous by Ray Charles, one of Parker's early influences. And Parker paid homage to a handful of other R&B greats on another collaboration with the WDR Big Band, 2012's Soul Classics, with Maceo putting his stamp on classic numbers by Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes, and his former employer James Brown. ~ Mark Deming