Kinston, North Carolina
Sax virtuoso Maceo Parker is among the “founding fathers of funk,” a masterful musician whose legendary hooks make him the most sampled musician of all time. Having been on the scene when funk first burst onto dance floors in the turbulent 1960s, Parker “connects the history of funk in one golden thread, the cipher which unravels dance music down to its core.”
Born in 1943, Maceo Parker grew up in Kinston, North Carolina, a town whose musical vitality belies its humble size. From the 1930s on, Kinston’s tobacco warehouses doubled as music venues, becoming the main stop in eastern North Carolina for African American bands on national tour—the town was known as a musical hotbed. Parker came up surrounded by jazz and R&B, both at home—his father played piano and drums and both parents were strong church singers—and in clubs, where he says, “All the cats came in and brought their horns.” Parker’s first musical mentor was his Uncle Frank, who led the popular local outfit the Blue Notes; by middle school Maceo and his brothers Kellis and Melvin were working intermissions at Frank’s gigs around town as the Junior Blue Notes. Maceo and Melvin continued to hone their skills while in college at North Carolina A&T; it was there that the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, heard them play and invited them to join his band, the JBs. Starting with the JBs in 1964, the Parker brothers were part of a cohort of five musicians from Kinston who formed the backbone of Brown’s groundbreaking funk sound. For listeners around the world, Maceo’s name became synonymous with the new style: when James Brown hollered, “Maceo, I want you to blow!” the audience knew it was about to get funky.
In the mid-1960s, African American musicians blended soul, jazz, and R&B to create funk. Although it has been described as “more a feeling than a definable genre,” funk is above all an invitation to dance. With heavy beats and syncopated bass, funk features extended vamps on a single chord (rather than a series of chord progressions), stress on the first beat of a measure (“on the one!”), and, typically, a dynamic horn section that put a talent like Parker front and center. While undoubtedly a party music, the emphasis in funk on creativity and personal expression often carries a call for empowerment and liberation. Funk was a major influence on the development of disco, Afrobeat, and regional styles like go-go, the DMV’s homegrown sound. Today funk is extensively sampled in house music, R&B, and hip hop, styles it helped inspire.
Maceo Parker’s trailblazing stint with James Brown extended over two decades, although in the middle he took a journey on the Mothership, flying at the forefront of musical innovation in the mid-1970s as a leading member of George Clinton’s otherworldly Parliament-Funkadelic. Having cemented his position as one of music’s best sidemen, Parker launched a solo career in 1990 leading “the greatest little funk orchestra on earth.” He has also continued to collaborate with a roster of American greats, from extended tours with Prince, to diverse collaborations with artists ranging from Ani DiFranco to De La Soul to Ray Charles. Recipient of a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation for his indelible contributions to R&B, Maceo Parker is recognized as a musical revolutionary, and increasingly, for his stewardship of an important strand of American musical tradition. Earlier this year he was honored with the North Carolina Heritage Award, the state’s highest honor for traditional musicians.
At 73, the man who describes his sound as “2% jazz, 98% funky stuff” is still on the road playing 300 days a year. “I love to look out and see people being moved by what we’re doing,” says Parker. “I know that entertainment only lasts so long, but people seem to need that, to get away from the everyday stress of just being alive…. And we need that. I stress love a lot. During my live performances, you hear me say, more than once, ‘On behalf of all of us, we…love…you.’”