Maceo Parker Talks His 'Dream Come True': Paying Tribute to Idol Ray Charles

Maceo Parker
Ines Kaiser

Maceo Parker

Maceo Parker has funked it up with the best: James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic and Prince. But the legendary sax man is now fulfilling what he calls “a dream come true”: performing with the Ray Charles Orchestra and the Raelettes.

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The musical match-up takes the stage Saturday night (Sept. 17) at the Monterey Jazz Festival. And the Monterey, Calif., audience will no doubt scream, shout and clap resoundingly just as fans did when Parker marked his first performance with Charles’ bandmates at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles (Aug. 17). Resplendent in a blue-patterned brocade tux jacket and shades, Parker sang and played his way through such classics as “Georgia on My Mind,” “I’ve Got a Woman,” “Hit the Road Jack,” “Unchain My Heart” and “What’d I Say” during the show, billed as “The Ultimate Tribute to Ray Charles.”

In fact, it was the 1959 No. 1 R&B hit “What’d I Say” that introduced Parker to who would become his lifelong influence and idol.

“My brother and I went absolutely crazy listening to it on the radio,” says the 73-year-old as he riffs on the song’s first verse. “The beat and all that percussion in there? It was like wow because nothing like that had been recorded before. Ray really lived what he was singing, that soul thing. And that’s what I try to do with my playing — get close to that. But whoa, I never dreamed that I’d work with his band.”

Parker, who released the Charles tribute album Roots & Grooves in 2007, says the icon’s death in June 2004 didn’t fully hit him until eight months later. “I was in Europe singing one of his songs -- ‘Georgia,' I think,” recalls Parker. “I’m feeling sad while my other half is saying but yeah, you’re onstage. So I’ve got two emotions going, struggling to see which one is going to win. It’s like with Prince. His death still hasn’t really hit me.”

But as has always been the case throughout his five decade-plus career, the music keeps Parker going. After tonight’s Monterey Jazz performance, the funk and soul guru’s tour itinerary with his own band includes stops in South Orange, N.J. (Oct. 9), New York (Oct. 13), New Orleans (Oct. 21), Seattle (Oct. 29) and the U.K. (Nov. 16-17).

“When I look back at how I came up with James, landed the Mothership with George Clinton and worked with Prince, I never thought I’d be known around the world,” says Parker with a laugh. “I don’t have any money, but I am what I am and it’s cool. And as long as I can physically, whatever’s in front of me I’m going to try and do.”


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