History & Biography

98% Funky Stuff: My Life In Music, by Maceo Parker

98% Funky Stuff: My Life In Music, by Maceo Parker, Chicago Review Press, 2013, pp. 200.

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98% Funky Stuff: My Life in Music, released in February 2013, is the autobiography of legendary funk saxophonist Maceo Parker. The writing is straightforward and engaging, often understated, and the two hundred pages go by quickly. Over the course of ten chapters, Parker provides a glimpse of his early life and influences, his experiences performing with artists including James Brown and George Clinton, and his gradual ascent to leading his own band. Parker’s uniquely laidback and sensible personality is present throughout, as is his commitment to his values, family, and music.

Parker covers pretty much everything in a roughly chronological breakdown of his life. His story begins with his childhood and early life in Kinston, North Carolina, growing up in a nurturing environment with supportive parents and siblings. The writing evokes an image of a young boy, drawn to music, first by the singing of his parents’ church choir, then by the sound of the piano, and finally by the allure of the marching band. By his sophomore year in high school, Parker’s band with his siblings and friends, the Mighty Blue Notes, were gigging around town.

After a stint in college, Parker and his brother Melvin pursued a gig touring with James Brown. Several chapters are dedicated to this period playing with Brown, beginning as a novice, a two year interruption serving in the military, and his return as an integral contributor to the band’s live shows and seminal tracks such as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” In an act of protest, many members of James Brown’s band quit in 1970, forming Maceo and All the King’s Men. However, this was short lived, with Parker eventually returning to James Brown and the First Family of Soul after a brief hiatus in the rubbish-removal business. Further chapters cover his time touring as a member of George Clinton’s band, his work as a session musician and solo performer, and his work as a musical ambassador of funk.

Of course, Parker introduces the readers to the important characters in his life, including his family, teachers, bandmates, friends, and musical influences and acquaintances, including Ray Charles, Prince, Dave Mathews, Ani DiFranco, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, and many others. The relationships he made and his esteem for those people comprise a significant part of the narrative.

Not merely relating his own story, Parker reflects on the cultural significance of the times, relating experiences of racial tensions, as well as the pride and hope of direct involvement in civil rights activism. His career spanned the segregated South, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the rise of black pride exemplified at the 1968 Olympics, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and beyond. Racial and social politics are significant themes throughout the book, as is the power of music in spreading a “message of love.”

In fact, Message of Love may be a more apt title for this book. Prevalent throughout is Parker’s sense of personal responsibility and avoidance of the vices (drugs, alcohol, promiscuity) that typify the story of so many musical icons. Parker’s tone is never judgmental or condescending, he simply relates events as they happened. His stories about performing with some of the biggest names in popular music are casual, often funny, and revealing about the personalities involved. The highlights of 98% Funky Stuff are Parker’s accounts of musical sparring with James Brown and the theatrics of performing with George Clinton.

Parker tells his story as it relates to the people around him and the events of the era. Consistent throughout is his devotion to music and to developing a unique musical identity, his personal values of family and friends, and the ability of music to spread positivity. The only real criticism is that his terse writing style often leaves the reader wanting more. Major events are glossed in a few short sentences, and Parker seems to underestimate the value of his own sentiments on such occurrences. Overall, 98% Funky Stuff is an entertaining and revealing portrait of one of the major, yet largely underappreciated, figures in soul, rhythm and blues, jazz, and funk music. As such, it is a fine introduction to Maceo Parker, a performer deserving of attention.

Reviewed by Mike Oppenheim

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