The first song Maceo Parker recorded with James Brown was the immortal classic “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and it could have been called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Band” when you look back and listen to the impact that Parker had on Brown’s music. Now, some years later, having subsequently served with both George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and on several recordings by the late Prince, Parker can make a fair claim to being the most influential instrumentalist in the history of funk.
Time after time, this musician has found a way to make the groove explode with irresistible saxophone lines that stay in the memory long after they’ve sparked movement on the dance floor. Just this summer, Parker enjoyed what he considers to be one of the greatest honors of his long career when he performed with the Ray Charles Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl both on saxophone and in the vocal role of none other than Ray Charles. “I got lucky,” he told me in a recent phone conversation. “The Ray Charles Orchestra and the Raelettes are so great, but they hadn’t worked together since Ray died in 2004. I knew the leader of the orchestra’s trombone section, Steve Sigmund, and he knew both how much I loved the music and that I enjoyed singing the songs, so that’s how it came about.”
You can be sure that Parker’s Thursday, October 27 concert at UCSB’s Campbell Hall will include some Ray Charles hits, as this tribute concert in Los Angeles was just a couple of months ago, and even now, in his seventies, Parker is as crazy about those songs as he was when he first heard them back in 1958. “It feels like I’ve been in love with that stuff for like a thousand years,” he said. “Singing it in front of Ray’s band and in the Hollywood Bowl was an out-of-body experience for me.”
As for the James Brown material, well, that’s a given. “We get things started with the James Brown stuff,” he said, “but then we move on because I’m excited to cover as many bases as I can.” Asked about taking over the leader’s role after putting in so much time as part of the band, his answer is quite matter-of-fact, “Everybody got their own ideas in a band, so you have to have somebody to say ‘No, do it like this.’” Parker compares working in a touring funk band to the military, saying that he’s “the sergeant of keeping us all on the same page — and on the same part of that page!”
Despite his emphasis on band discipline, there’s no mistaking Maceo Parker for the kind of hard taskmaster that James Brown was known for being. In fact, his big message is not “be on time or pay a fine” but rather “music is love.” “Love, man, boldface with all capital letters LOVE, that is what I always say when I am on the bandstand, because I believe the power of love is what saves us, and that’s what my music is about.”
Maceo Parker performs Thursday, October 27, at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, UCSB. Call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu