Sax man Maceo Parker still going strong at 70

Funk legend performs Saturday in Baton Rouge

Maceo Parker, the saxophonist who blew his horn behind three pillars of funk — James Brown, George Clinton and Prince — hit 70 on Valentine’s Day.

Parker reacted to the landmark number with disbelief.

“I’m going, ‘What? 70? Goodness gracious,’ ” he said last week from his hometown of Kinston, N.C. “And I’m standing in the mirror, looking, pulling my face. ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

Regardless of his chronological age, Parker feels good.

“Hey, I don’t feel any different from when I was 59!” he said.

In conversation, Parker displays the enthusiasm of an artist fully engaged with the music and career he still relishes.

“I keep doing what I do because I love what I do,” he said. “I love people. I do. I love performing. I love saxophone.”

By blowing love into the world, Parker pursues a noble goal.

“I’m combating the flipside of love,” he explained. “It could be hate. It could be something that’s destructive. We seem to have a lot of that popping up every now and then.

“But I keep saying, ‘Love, love, love.’ If somehow we can find a way to really, really, really uplift people throughout the world, then people will think a little before they do some of this crazy stuff.”

Two weeks before his 70th birthday, Parker released his autobiography, 98% Funky Stuff: My Life in Music.

Of course, the book covers the story of soul music star Brown spotting Parker and his drummer brother, Melvin, in a small North Carolina nightclub in 1963. Brown would later make the phrase, “Maceo, I want you to blow!,” a signature line in his show.

When Parker’s friend and Brown bandmate, trombonist Fred Wesley, wrote his book, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman, Parker knew he’d write a book, too.

“I just started jotting stuff down, jotting stuff down,” the sax man said. “I’d even wake up sometimes and jot something down. Yeah, boom. OK, boom.”

Just back from a tour of the Far East, Parker couldn’t say how many shows he does a year. But asked recently by a reporter for a number, he guessed he’s on the road 290 days of the year. Parker knows for sure, though, that people all over the world love to hear him play funky music.

“A lot of people named their kids Maceo,” he said. “These Maceos don’t even know each other but they’re all Maceos because of me. That’s really, really, really positive. It almost leaves you speechless.”

Like other American soul, rhythm-and-blues, blues and funk musicians, Parker finds his most fervent fans overseas.

“People love the stuff over there,” he said. “I don’t know exactly why, but it is a given, a true fact. So you just go with it, swing with it.

“When we bring what we do, share our talents with them, they appreciate it. We just travel around the world and try to bring some smiles and feel-good pills to people through the music.”

One difference between now and the years before he went solo is that Maceo Parker, not James Brown or Parliament or Funkadelic, is on the marquee.

“Being part of that James Brown stuff, him calling my name and his music going all over the world, that’s how my name got out there,” Parker said.

But it took a while before the saxophonist realized how famous he was. And in addition to working with Brown, Clinton and Prince, he accepted a stream of invites from the likes of Keith Richards, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour and Deee-Lite.

“I had to say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute! The years are piling up. I gotta just say no. Now is the time to really, really concentrate on Maceo Parker.

“When I started recognizing that, that’s when it was time for me to shift my gear and make it happen for me. I realized that if I do this thing right, I can do it right.”

He’s been doing it right, working under his own name, since 1990.

“I feel really good about how things developed from day one right up to now. It’s been great and I still love it. I think that’s the key, too. You gotta love what you do in order to go through what it is to complete this mission, this gig, that mission, that gig, for so many years. And it becomes easy, especially when you get to point where it’s stamped. Boom. This is what I do, this is what we do. So bring it on.”