By his own account, 1974 was a good year for Maceo Parker. The saxophonist was riding high in his third stint with James Brown as a star soloist and the band’s MC, and also as leader of his own side projects, a hard-won privilege in Brown’s regime. He was earning enough to move his young family from cramped quarters in Brooklyn to the more wholesome milieu of his native Kinston, N.C.
Looking around, Parker felt exhilarated by the rise of black American culture that had seen the band surge from the chitlin circuit to global acclaim. The September 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” and associated all-star concert, with Brown headlining, testified to this rise.
Parker closes the chapter that leads up to this event in his memoir, “98% Funky Stuff,’’ with a tantalizing setup, as he packs his bags and boards the private plane for Kinshasa: “We were about to witness one of the greatest moments not only in sports but in American history.”
98% FUNKY STUFF: My Life in Music
But he doesn’t really deliver. Flip the page, and the trip receives three paragraphs of mostly platitudes, and suddenly the band is back stateside, and Parker is getting ready to ditch the capricious Brown and follow trombonist Fred Wesley to George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic.
“It’s hard to recall everything,” Parker confesses of the Kinshasa gig. That cloudiness doesn’t mask some juicy personal history — Parker, 69, has always abstained from drink and drugs. But it exemplifies the laconic stance of this memoir, a telling of a great journey in music that spans Parker’s birth in 1943 to the present and fills in lots of interesting facts but falls short — dare one say it — in soul.
No one is asking Maceo to be Keith Richards. In fact, a strength of the memoir is the way it depicts Parker as something of a square, navigating tumultuous times of change in the country and a constellation of high-octane friends and colleagues, from Brown and Clinton to a ribald Ray Charles and bedrock eccentrics encountered along the way, such as an affectionately rendered Rico, Parker’s basic-training squad leader and drummer in their Army band.
The book is compelling, too, in its first third, as a coming-of-age story set in a small Southern town. Parker’s father, Maceo Sr., has Kinston’s first black-owned dry cleaner’s and prospers until a terrible accident at the shop kills Parker’s Uncle James and drives Maceo Sr. to drink, and eventually into a long transient spell working in the Northeast.
Young Maceo blossoms under the influence of his high-school band director, James Banks. His brother Kellis, who will go on to become a law professor, is one of the first four students to integrate UNC-Chapel Hill.
Parker pays heartfelt tribute to these figures, as well as to his brother Melvin, a drummer who precedes and invites him into Brown’s band, sparking his career. He errs on the side of praise, or at least consideration, even when describing tantrums and vicious behavior on Brown’s part that drove so many musicians (and himself, three times) out of the band.
The writing compounds the generally bloodless feel. The anecdote that serves as the preface appears virtually word for word in a later chapter. It’s not clear whether Parker hired a collaborator for this project (a common and perfectly acceptable practice), but the flat affect, whatever its provenance, does the book a disservice.
Parker’s reticence has a wry charm. One has to chuckle, for example, at his reluctance to expose his mother to George Clinton’s absurd crew, with its raunchy language and sexual antics. And in the end, his fish-out-of-water stance has served him well: He remains in good health and still plays hundreds of gigs around the world each year.
Still, from a book titled “98% Funky Stuff’’ — and the life of a crucial figure in American pop music — it’s fair to wish for a treatment that’s a little more nasty.