You always knew it was time to get down when James Brown lowered his mic and shouted out his now legendary command, “Maceo, I want you to blow.”
For saxophonist Maceo Parker it was the cue to step up — and boy, did he blow, with his trademark fierce, biting attack on the hard-hitting funk stew boiling behind him.
Parker’s presence on the popular music scene already spans more than a half-century, during which he recorded a host of albums as a leader, but he is mostly known for his historically significant contributions as a sideman for Brown, George Clinton, Ani DiFranco and Prince.
This weekend, he will come to Virginia as one of Saturday’s headliners at the 12th Richmond Folk Festival — a rare opportunity for music lovers to see the 73-year-old instrumentalist for free, said Lisa Sims, interim executive director of Venture Richmond, which produces the event.
“Every year, we look at areas or genres that we want to focus on, and funk was really important to us this year. And Maceo Parker is a really important artist,” Sims said.
The Folk Festival, which started in 2005, has since become a Richmond staple as a celebration of the roots, richness and variety of American culture through music, dance, traditional crafts, storytelling and food, and it has become one the largest of its kind in the country.
Last year, it attracted more than 200,000 people to the sprawling, multi-site venue along the James River at Tredegar Street. “Our goal was to have a signature event for Richmond, an arts event that was free, unique and accessible for everyone,” Sims said.
Although Parker’s funk, with its rhythmic foundation of hard-hitting, drum-and-bass-driven grooves, may not be the first genre that comes to mind in the context of folk music, it still fits the bill. Often considered the unruly child of soul music, jazz, and rhythm and blues, funk has long earned its seat at the table of the family of the most original American art forms.
In their programming, the organizers of the Richmond Folk Festival adhere to the definition of folk and traditional art as defined by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“There are many, many fine artists out there who are suggested to us and who we don’t consider because they tend to interpret a genre, rather than having learned it from an elder or the community they live in,” Sims said. “If you like Irish music and you have a great voice, that’s a beautiful thing, but if you didn’t learn and live it, we probably wouldn’t book you into the festival.”
And there’s hardly a living musician that has lived funk and soul music like Parker did.
Born in Kinston, N.C., Parker grew up as part of a musical family. His brothers both played, Melvin on drums and Kellis on trombone. Maceo was barely a teenager in 1959 when he first heard “What’d I Say,” the rhythm and blues hymn by Ray Charles that is widely considered the first soul song.
To the young Parker, who was energized by these new sounds, picking up an instrument came naturally.
“If a young player has to be told ‘shouldn’t you be practicing,’ then they should be doing something else,” Parker said in an interview via email. “Those that have to be told ‘haven’t you played enough’ — they are already on the road. In other words, some people are musicians, some (are) not,” he said.
In 1964, Parker and brother Melvin joined the road show of soul brother No. 1 James Brown, who was in the process of transitioning from a rhythm and blues crooner to becoming a funk innovator and, consequently, one of the biggest stars in American popular music.
Brown’s famous command signaling Parker to solo stems from the 1965 hit song “I Got You (I Feel Good),” which started a tradition that was picked up by pop icon Prince, with whom Parker began collaborating in the late 1990s.
After he left Brown, Parker in 1990 embarked on a successful solo career that has lasted through today. Parker has released more than a dozen albums and remains on the road up to 300 days a year, reliably mesmerizing audiences around the world with what he calls a mix of “2 percent jazz and 98 percent funky stuff.”
Parker will perform at 6 p.m. Saturday on the Altria Stage at the Richmond Folk Festival.
Among the more than 40 other artists performing Friday, Saturday and Sunday on seven stages are Adonis Puentes & the Voice of Cuba Orchestra; the traditional black gospel of The Branchettes; Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, a seven-member ensemble from the Salento peninsula of Apulia in Italy; Brazilian puppeteer Chico Simões; bluegrass by Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers; Rahzel, Nicole Paris and Ed Cage, who are among the biggest names in beatboxing today; and many more.