Not unlike how a brand name like Xerox now refers to the actual photocopying process, the name Maceo has out-grown its owner – groove king MACEO PARKER – and has now come to represent the art of funky horn playing. With a constant worldwide touring schedule and guest appearances on albums by artists such as De La Soul and Bryan Ferry, Maceo Parker is no longer referred to as “the guy who played with…”
Closing in on legend status, he’s now one of the most recognizable emissaries of 20th Century Black Music. Early on as an alto saxophone player, Maceo realized the most obvious direction his career could take: Maceo Parker plays Charlie Parker. So what does he do? Hook up with James Brown and become an integral part of some of the nastiest funk ever recorded. Shortly after Maceo’s arrival in 1964, Brown recorded “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
It was the start of a new era for the Hardest Working Man In Show Business. The older Gospel-tinged Live At The Apollo vibe began to slowly fade away – in fact everything faded away as the James Brown band stripped their sound to the bone. Over the next few years came more hits like “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “Mother Popcorn” and “Licking Stick,” all uninhibited by obsolete European harmony.
It was easily the finest music ever created by James Brown, no complex chord progressions or grating counterpoint, just raw and repetitive motherland grooves performed with military precision. Quarterbacking the whole show was Maceo, throwing in his distinctive horn blasts. By 1968, trombonist Fred Wesley and tenor saxist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis were beside Maceo and it was the beginning of a horn triumvirate that still tours together 25 years later.
As the decade turned over, the lineup in James Brown’s band mutated at a dizzying pace. Between all the new people coming in and old veterans leaving and then returning, no line up stayed the same for more than three months. Reference books offer no help unraveling the constant fluctuation of personnel, but by examining the liner notes of the original releases it appears that Maceo left in ’69 and returned in ’73, by which time the famed Collins boys, William (“Bootsy”) and Phelps (“Catfish”) had already come and gone.
With his re-entry into the Godfather of Soul’s domain, Maceo was able to release some instrumental tracks as a bandleader under the moniker Maceo & The Macks on Brown’s own People label. Other instrumental sides were released as Fred Wesley & JBs, with Wesley’s trombone at the forefront backed by Maceo and several other ace players from this ’73-’74 period such as St. Clair Pickney (tenor sax), Fred Thomas (bass) and John “Jabo” Starks (drums).
As Brown started to rely more on faceless session pros and commence his slide towards Studio 54 clownhood, Maceo and Fred Wesley packed up their horns and split for funkier pastures, following the Collins brothers lead into George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic aqua boogie wonderland.
With P-Funk, Maceo was the leader of a horn section known as The Horny Horns, which also included Fred Wesley, and trumpet players Rick Gardner and Richard “Kush” Griffith (yet another James Brown refugee). The Horny Horns best work was as the driving force behind the P-Funk touring unit.
They also supplied brass parts for Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Parlet, and anything else within the Clinton universe, often augmented by fusion heavyweights like Joe Farrell and the Brecker Brothers. “Fred Wesley And The Horny Horns Featuring Maceo Parker” eventually signed to Atlantic for two albums, showcasing their own frantic blowing sessions and re-working of P-hits, A Blow For Me, A Toot For You (note the not-so-subtle coke reference) and Say Blow By Blow Backwards.
Clinton’s mothership, dogged by record company lawsuits, IRS hassles, and freebase excursions, eventually crashed and burned in the early 80s. With drum machines running the show in Black music, Maceo was seemingly doomed to chitlin circuit obscurity. If a producer had four synths with sax sounds, why bother hiring a live musician to come in and play? Besides, you could always just sample him anyway, right?
Hooking up with old cohorts Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis, Maceo went on the road backing up JB organist Bobby Byrd and discovered there was a worldwide audience starving for d-original funk. What followed was a barrage of Maceo solo albums (with ample support from Fred and Pee Wee): Mo’ Roots, Roots Revisted and Live On Planet Groove (Verve) as well as two Gramavision discs credited collectively to the JB Horns: Fred, Pee Wee & Maceo and Funky Good Time-Live. Southern Exposure (Novus/RCA) is the latest, and this time some New Orleans spice is added to the mix.
A cover of the The Meters’ “Keep On Marching” features two of The Meters themselves, Leo Nocentelli and George Porter Jr. , and a take on Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” highlights the old skool cajun schwing of The Rebirth Brass Brand. There’s no doubt that Maceo’s settled into a comfortable recipe now, a prominent Hammond organ-driven sound that’s more funky jazz than jazzy funk; but remember, there ain’t nothing wrong with having a funky good time.?
Photo by?Jeffree Benet