Maceo Parker sits in a Los Angeles hotel room, crunching on a bag of potato skins from a hallway vending machine.
Today is the 11th day of Parker's first 2008 tour. Parker averages a few hundred tour dates annually, and this year will be no different. He'll take two weeks off after a month of U.S. dates before heading to Australia. Then there's England. Last night, he played the Roxy in Los Angeles. On Thursday, he'll play Las Vegas' House of Blues. And on the last day of February, he'll return to North Carolina to play at Duke, just two hours away from his home in Kinston.
That's where this tour started, too, in the massive, modern Performing Arts Center of Kinston High School. On the Friday night kick-off, Parker filled the 1,000-seat room with people he grew up with, their children and grandchildren, and folks who've simply read about him in the Kinston Free Press as the local hero who's spent the last four decades touring alongside James Brown, George Clinton and Prince. He danced in the aisles, talked about going to school in the city, destroyed "Pass the Peas." It was Maceo Parker Day in Kinston. The day before, Kinston Mayor Buddy Ritch had given Parker a key to the city—for the second time.
Parker wasn't there to congratulate himself, but rather to lead a $23-per-ticket fundraiser for the Pride of Rochelle Mentoring Program, which provides one-on-one tutoring to underprivileged children in Lenoir County. Henry Street, a childhood friend of Parker's, started the program three years ago after he became a substitute teacher: "We'll take all the help we can get," Street said, holding back tears as Parker took a brief break during his two-hour set. "We're trying to change lives in Kinston."
For Parker, it's a way to keep working at home even when he's playing his alto saxophone on another continent: "I love that stuff because I can't be home 100 percent of the time, but when I am there, I stick my head into meetings. They seek out young boys who probably don't have fathers or big brothers, and they try to inspire them. ... They try to teach them pride and dignity and respect."
Mentors, mainly of the musical sort, were important for Parker as a kid. Both of his parents sang in the church choir, and his older brothers were already playing music when he picked up the saxophone after watching a parade downtown on Queen Street. They started a band that played while his uncle's band, Bobby Butler and the Mighty Blue Notes, took breaks in nightclubs. When Parker was in eighth grade, James Banks, a saxophone player, came to teach in Kinston. Parker began skipping recess to learn everything he could from Banks.
"Students sounded like students, but he sounded like a professional player. I wanted to sound like him," Parker remembers.
After attending N.C. A&T, where he focused solely on funk, Parker and his drummer brother, Melvin, joined James Brown's band. Suddenly, he had a chance to be the proud sideman to one of the country's best entertainers, his goal since seeing Ray Charles four times as a teenager. On his latest record, Roots & Grooves, Parker sings several Charles tunes, backed by a big band. He likes the role.
"I thought there was a pride in Hank Crawford, his alto player, and David Newman, his tenor player," he says. "They had a pride in their walk and their whole mannerism. 'We're musicians with Ray Charles, so we can kind of puff our chests out.' I thought that was real cool, and maybe I could be with somebody like that."
Maceo Parker Band plays Duke University's Page Auditorium Friday, Feb. 29, at 8 p.m. The Booker T. Band shares the bill. Tickets are $5-$42.