Maceo Parker Shares The Funky Stuff

Posted April 8th, 2013 at 3:36 pm (UTC+0)
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By Doug Levine

Maceo Parker is best known for his stint as the dynamic saxophonist for soul legend James Brown.  With encouragement from close friends and colleagues, Parker recently penned an autobiography, “98% Funky Stuff – My Life In Music.”

(Chicago Review Press)

Maceo anchored James Brown’s horn section, performing funky sax riffs on countless hits.  While his illustrious career as a sideman and soloist is well-documented, Maceo explained to me during a recent phone interview that the book is anything but a confessional “tell all.”

“You can’t tell everything,” said Maceo.  “A lot of things are really, really, really private, which may not even concern me.  You just can’t share everything with the world.  So, you go through and sort of sift out those things, and then you come up with something that’s almost like 98% funky stuff.”

Maceo in 2008 (Photo by Ines Kaiser)

Maceo recounts his childhood in Kinston, North Carolina, where he inherited a love for music from his parents.  His dream of playing in James Brown’s band came true when he met him backstage for the very first time.  He recalls how Brown hired him on the spot, after hiring his brother Melvin to play drums:

“At that time I was playing tenor saxophone, but the first thing he ever said to me was, ‘Do you play baritone sax?’ So I answered him like this: ‘Yes sir.’  Then he said, ‘Do you own a baritone sax?’  And I go, ‘Yes sir.’”  Brown could tell that Parker was fibbing, and so he  said, “I’ll tell you what.  If you can get a baritone sax I’ll give you two weeks, three weeks, whatever, then, you can have a job too.”

Maceo also discusses working with George Clinton of the famed 1970’s funk group Parliament, as well as his reaction to the death of his musical hero Ray Charles.  Now 70, he continues to perform throughout the world, bringing his brand of “feel good” music to fans of all ages.

“When I look out into the audience — and I may see a ten-year-old, or eight-year-old or nine-year-old there in the audience for my show — that makes me feel really, really good,” Maceo said.  “People know that they can bring their kids to a Maceo Parker show and they don’t have to see a lot of stuff or hear a lot of stuff that they don’t need to hear or see.  That makes me feel good too.”

Enjoy Maceo playing alto sax on “Cold Sweat,” featuring his brother Melvin on drums, Fred Wesley on trombone and others.

Play Ball 2013!

Posted April 5th, 2013 at 5:20 pm (UTC+0)


This is a very happy week for baseball fans the world over—the 2013 major league season officially started on Sunday March 31st, when the Houston Astros beat their in-state rival Texas Rangers 8-2.

OK, calm down. This isn’t turning into a sports blog. But there’s a longtime love affair between music and baseball that bears revisiting.  I shared a few of my favorite baseball songs in honor of the 2012 World Series last fall, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Music and baseball have been intertwined almost since the game began. Historians set the date as 1854, when J.R. Blodgett wrote the first known song, “The Baseball Polka.” But it’s safe to say that even the biggest fans in American have never heard that song– most of us are only familiar with “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” Even if you’ve heard that classic a million times, check out this version from the 2010 Telluride Bluegrass Festival.  Sam Bush put together his own all-star team and they knocked it out of the park! (end of the baseball cliches, I promise!)

Baseball came up when I interviewed Sam last year. He told me one thing he loves about the game is that, unlike football or basketball, there’s no real clock ticking down the seconds until the game is over. “In some ways, it’s a very leisurely game. But can be really intense. And anyone can be the hero. I’m still surprised by baseball every time I see a game.”

I wish I’d thought to ask Sam if he’s ever had a chance to talk with former New York Yankee Bernie Williams about the book he wrote on the connection between music and sports.

Williams knows of what he speaks.  Now 44 and retired since 2006, he hit .297 over 16 seasons with the Yankees, won four World Series titles, played in five All-Star Games and won four Gold Glove Awards. On the music side, Bernie Williams has also released two albums, receiving a Latin Grammy nomination in the instrumental category for 2009’s “Moving Forward. “La Salsa En Mi” gives you a pretty good idea of what his original music is all about.

There’s no denying Bernie Williams is taking his second career very seriously. Album number 3 is in the works, and Williams was spotted here in Washington recently. He came to town with other musicians to ask lawmakers to set aside more money for music education in public schools.

Roots and Branches  for the week of April 9th is devoted to baseball and features songs by Bob Dylan, Chuck Brodsky, Sam Baker and San Francisco Giants 3rd base coach Tim Flannery, just to name four.

Here’s a weird one I just couldn’t squeeze in – David Frishberg‘s “Van Lingle Mungo.”  You need a bit of backstory to fully appreciate this masterpiece:  Frishberg was writing a song and found himself at a loss for words. He started leafing through the Baseball Encyclopedia, which lists everyone who ever played in the major leagues, the unusually named pitcher Van Lingle Mungo among them.  Jackpot! The finished lyrics to what became David Frishberg’s most popular song are the names of baseball players, plus the worlds “and” and “big.”

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

…For Better, For Worse…

Posted April 5th, 2013 at 2:21 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald


When I read that Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora was leaving the band for the remainder of its North American tour, I immediately thought “he’s going into rehab.”  The brief notice posted on the group”s official web site contained few details, merely noting that the shows would continue as planned. However, Sambora has struggled with substance abuse issues in the past, and has twice sought treatment. He had to skip several shows on the band’s 2011 tour. So – like others, I suppose – I assumed the worst.

But what if those “personal issues” had nothing to do with substance abuse? Shortly after news of Sambora’s hiatus hit the press, this story about behind-the-scenes personality clashes appeared on the web site Now, this showbiz gossip site doesn’t exactly rival the New York “Times” in terms of journalistic integrity, but it has gotten some stories correct…and I can easily believe this one.



Richie Sambora and Jon Bon Jovi have worked together since 1983. They’ve toured the world, spending hours together in cramped buses, planes, and dressing rooms. They know each other as well as two people possibly can. You could consider it a 30-year marriage. Think of all the other notable rock partnerships: Lennon-McCartney. Jagger-Richards. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. While all produced great music, they were also famously turbulent. Speaking in the clip below, Keith Richards describes the chemistry in a successful rock band, noting that volatility and inspiration often go hand-in-hand.



Of course, it could be worse: Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora could be actual brothers. Ask Don and Phil Everly, who barely communicate to this day. Or Ray and Dave Davies of The Kinks. Or the Gallaghers of Oasis. Or the Followills of Kings Of Leon. Or…well, you get the idea. From their blood, sweat, and tears comes great music…so don’t fret, Bon Jovi fans. The show will go on.


Darn That Dream, Pianist Neil Alexander

Posted April 4th, 2013 at 4:15 pm (UTC+0)

By Diaa Bekheet | Washington, DC

Neil Alexander - photo by Peter Salo

Neil Alexander (Courtesy photo by Peter Salo)

American pianist and composer Neil Alexander has a new album titled Darn That Dream. It is Alexander’s solo album of pure piano music. “This is my first solo piano offering with no treatments, no synthesizers… basically nothing to hide behind,” he tells VOA’s Music Beat in an interview.

The title is a throwback to the good old days of Broadway musical theater, when Louis Armstrong sang “Darn That Dream” in the musical “Swingin’ the Dream,” in 1939.

I dream each night,

You say you love me and hold me tight

But when I awake and you’re out of sight

Oh, darn that dream.

It is also a reminder of other jazz icons like Mildred Bailey, Doris Day, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, and others who versioned it.

Neil Alexander has different renditions of “Darn That Dream” on piano. “It’s definitely one of my all-time favorite songs from the jazz singers’ repertoire,” he said. “I have done various arrangements of it, and it was good on this recording to get back to the basics as it were.”

Darn That Dream showcases 11 tracks, including six original songs. “About half of those are improvisations.  They were recorded in the studio, sort of created on the spur of the moment,” he said.

I talked with Neil Alexander about the album. He was kind enough to let me use two of his tracks in full, including the title cut: Darn That Dream.


Alexander is working on “Darm That Dream” Vol. 2, which will include some great classics.

“What I’m going to feature on Vol. 2 is something that I’m currently touring, which is my own personal piano transcription of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring,” says Alexander.

Rite of Spring” is a famous classical composition by the Russian-born classical piano legend Igor Stravinsky. It premièred in Paris in 1913 under the title “Le Sacre du Printemps.”

“Now with the 100th anniversary, I’m touring this piece as much as possible. I have shows coming up on the West Coast (of the United States),” said Alexander. “That’s what’s going to be featured on Vol. 2, along with a wonderful piece by George Gershwin called Lullaby for Springs, which I have also transcribed for solo piano.”

Vol. 2 will be released by the end of this year.

Diaa Bekheet
Diaa Bekheet has worked for a host of media outlets, including Radio Cairo in English, ETV News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) and the Associated Press. He joined VOA in Feb. 1989 as an International Broadcaster, hosting a variety of popular news and entertainment shows such as Newshour, Radio Ride Across America, Business Week, and Jazz Club USA. He has interviewed a number of Jazz celebrities, including the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Wayne Shorter, and George Benson. Diaa is currently an editor for our main English site,

Happy news from Austin…

Posted April 3rd, 2013 at 4:12 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

In my South By Southwest wrap up, and on Roots and Branches this week, I teased that I had one more  South by Southwest story to share. One with a very happy ending.

It involves Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt –both touring folk musicians who call Austin home.  The brilliant news is that they  recently got engaged and will be married soon.

Danny Schmidt & Carrie Elkin (photo by Robby Hecht)













While the simple fact of two people getting married is wonderful news in and of itself, it’s the story of their engagement that makes this so much fun.

Danny could have done the safe thing and asked Carrie to marry him when they were sitting in their cozy house — or in the car, driving home after a show. Instead, he risked it all and proposed to her while he was on stage, performing his SXSW showcase!.  Can you imagine how Danny felt with the seconds ticking by as Carrie tried to make sense of what was going on?  The answer is yes — because someone had the good sense to capture it all on tape.  And because Danny and Carrie are able to laugh at themselves, they worked the proposal story into a show the next night, too!

You might be wondering if I was there for the big moment…the answer is almost.  It’s my own fault — earlier in the day, Danny warned me be on time for the show, saying it was going to be “special.” But I got caught in SXSW traffic and was still a couple of blocks away when he popped the question!  Next time he tells me a show is going to be “special,” I’ll make sure to get there early.


Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

What’s New Down South?

Posted March 29th, 2013 at 6:35 pm (UTC+0)
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By Doug Levine

I had a chance to talk with Florida singer and guitarist JJ Grey, leader of his band Mofro.  JJ describes his music as “swamp funk,” a style that might conjure up visions of cypress trees and alligators lurking in muddy waters.

There’s no question, JJ Grey is a natural storyteller.  His songs are inspired by people he grew up with and the rural swamplands of his childhood home near Jacksonville, Florida.  Even the album is named for a natural feature of the Jacksonville landscape, the St. John’s River.

JJ tells me that his songwriting is all about observation, basically a recollection of the people and places in his life.  He says his latest album “This River” is one of his most personal.

“On this album the songs just kind of come together and more often than not they wind up being stories, either about my own ‘craziness’ or about friends of mine.  Or, sort of a composite or a mixture of people I know, and myself.”



“This River” (Cover designed by JJ Grey)

JJ Grey says if you want to find the true source of swamp music, go south.

“It varies from the New Orleans ‘super swamp’ style of it all the way over to more of the (singer) Jerry Reed ‘Alabama wild man’ more country side of it, or Tony Joe White country side of it.  And that swamp music, you know, swamp funk, swampy blues, swamp rock, whatever, it sounds like those places.  It sounds like those swampy places in Florida, in Georgia, in Alabama, in Mississippi and all those places, Louisiana.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is.  I know that a clavinet with a little wah-wah pedal on it, if you play it right, it sounds just like a frog.”

JJ Grey and his band Mofro begin a three-month tour of the US and Europe in Lake Buena Vista, Florida on April 5.  He says that while he loves to tour, nothing compares to the sights and sounds of home in the deep South.

“If I’m on tour way up north somewhere, and it’s beautiful and I love it, and I’ve been gone from home for a while, when we start to get down there around South Carolina I start seeing palm trees, pine trees and oak trees; and you know you’re not too far from the ocean and I know we’re getting close to home.”

Check out JJ Grey & Mofro trying out the title song from “This River” in Cologne, Germany, March 9, 2012.

Too Much, Too Soon?

Posted March 28th, 2013 at 3:05 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

By Ray McDonald

Reviewing Justin Bieber’s list of recent woes, I keep coming back to one well-known saying: “Be careful what you wish for. It just may come true.” The former clean-cut teen idol is stumbling from one PR crisis to another: run-ins with paparazzi; sudden hospital visits; and most recently, a nasty episode with a neighbor. (Bieber’s entourage insists that the singer never spit on, nor threatened the neighbor who confronted him about racing his Ferrari around the neighborhood.)


An early video of young Justin performing Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River”


What went wrong? It wasn’t that long ago – 2008, to be exact – that marketing executive Scooter Braun was surfing the web for new talent, and came upon home-made videos of a 13-year-old Canadian. He plucked the kid from obscurity and flew him to Atlanta to audition for Usher. A former teenaged phenomenon himself, the R&B  star established a joint venture with Braun, and hustled young Justin into the recording studio. As of May, 2012, Justin Drew Bieber had sold 15 million albums. Thirty-six million Twitter followers hang on his every word. He makes tens of  millions of dollars a year. All of that success before he turned 19 a few weeks ago.

A 19-year-old with adoring fans worldwide and millions of dollars at his fingertips. What could go wrong?

Justin Bieber leaves the stage mid-performance: London, March 7, 2013


Though to be fair, we should note what can go right. More than once, Justin has reached out to fans in need. Whether in pursuit of good publicity or not, an act of kindness to a child with leukemia is still an act of kindness.

Bieber this week responded to criticism over his latest incident,  declaring his good intentions in the face of opposition.  He says that he wants to be a good role model, and “sources” claim he doesn’t want to become the next Lindsay Lohan.

Can Justin Bieber save himself from the perils of fame? Let me know what you think he needs to do.

The Musician’s Life Can Be Taxing

Posted March 27th, 2013 at 2:34 pm (UTC+0)
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By Eric Felten

 Dionne Warwick, the multi-Grammy-winning artist who sold millions of  records with hits  such as “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Walk On By,” has filed for bankruptcy. She’s not only millions of dollars in debt, but almost all of it is owed to the government in taxes.

According to Warwick  publicist Kevin Sasaki, the problems are “Due to several consecutive years of negligent and gross financial mismanagement. ” If that’s what happened, it’s an old story — musicians relying on the wrong financial managers, and unable to keep much of an eye on the accounting, what with all the traveling and touring that a music career demands. Who knows, maybe this will mean many more opportunities to hear Warwick sing, if she ends up having to gig aggressively just to make tax payments.

That’s what ended up happening to Woody Herman, one of the great leaders of the Swing Era. I had the chance to hear Herman and the final iteration of his “Thundering Herd” band back in the mid-eighties. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the only reason Herman was still on the road — some fifty years after starting the gypsy life of a musician — was that it was the only way to make payments to the IRS for back taxes. Herman had made the rather obvious mistake of entrusting his finances to a con man with a gambling problem. Never mind that it was the manager who had gambled away the money that was supposed to have gone to the taxman, Herman was on the hook.

Here’s the Herman band from 1964 — one of the years in which Herman’s taxes didn’t get paid. There may have been ruinous disputes over Herman’s taxes for those years, but there’s no doubt the band was cookin’ (and then some!):

End the Beguine

Posted March 22nd, 2013 at 10:13 pm (UTC+0)

by Eric Felten

Ray McDonald notes the new entries from the world of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Given how many classic recordings there are, no doubt one could argue over whether “Saturday Night Fever,” for instance, really belongs on the list.

But permit me to quibble over a disc that might otherwise seem quibble-proof. Among the 25 sound recordings added this year to the registry is an undisputed classic of the Big Band Era, a Cole Porter tune that was rescued from obscurity in 1938 by Artie Shaw (and re-imagined brilliantly by Shaw’s arranger, Jerry Gray): Begin the Beguine.

Let’s agree that the recording is a thing of near-perfection from the first bars, in which the brass and saxes establish a sensual groove that is both relaxed and energetic. It builds steadily and finishes with an exuberant brass shout section and searing high notes from Shaw. But for all its wonders, I rather wonder if Begin the Beguine was such a good choice.

For one, there’s Shaw’s own crotchety disdain. In its write-up on “Begin the Beguine,” the Library of Congress notes that Artie “Shaw became disenchanted with having to play the song at every performance.” Talk about your understatement. Here’s how Shaw expressed his disdain for the recording that catapulted his band to fame: “How do you do the same tune every night in the same way? How many years can you play Begin the Beguine without getting a little vomity?” Such are the hazards of an iconic hit.

There are a couple of reasons to suggest another Shaw side for the Library of Congress’s honor roll of recordings. The first is that, for all its delights, Begin the Beguine lacks something essential — an improvised solo by Shaw, who was one of the most sophisticated soloists of the age, combining harmonic complexity with an aching, angst-inducing romanticism. The second reason is that on Begin the Beguine there is no solo by trombonist Jack Jenney.

It is Shaw’s recording of Stardust that remedies both those deficiencies. That recording is not a thing of near-perfection, but of perfection itself. Listen for the octave leap in Jenney’s trombone solo: It’s a moment so breathtaking that it could be on anyone’s registry all by itself.

Alas, Jack Jenney died just a few years after this was recorded.

Librarians for Rock and Roll

Posted March 22nd, 2013 at 8:54 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

James H. Billington, I salute you. Mr. Billington is the United States Librarian of Congress, and among his duties is the annual selection of 25 recordings for the National Recording Registry. Recognized for their cultural, artistic, and historic importance, they run the gamut from the earliest recorded sounds to magnificent musical achievements.

Being a rock fan, I’ve always been impressed with Mr. Billington’s wide-ranging tastes, but this month he’s outdone himself. In cooperation with the National Recording Preservation Board — a panel consisting of musicians, musicologists, archivists, and others within the recording industry — the 83-year-old academic has anointed some of my favorite recordings. First — and I’m going chronologically here — comes Simon & Garfunkel’s breakout single “The Sound of Silence.” Written in response to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it topped the U-S pop singles chart in 1966. Perhaps the ultimate folk-rock song, it captured the zeitgeist of its time – and was used to great effect in the equally era-defining movie “The Graduate.” Art Garfunkel has some nice things to say about its selection here.



In 1973, Pink Floyd released what I consider its greatest album, “The Dark Side Of The Moon.” Its selection in the Registry is especially fitting, as the album celebrates its 40th birthday this month. Stunning in every respect — lyrically, musically, and sonically — it has sold around 50 million copies worldwide, and remained on the United States album chart for from 1973 to 1988: 741 weeks! If you want to know all there is to know about “The Dark Side Of The Moon,” then head here.



If “The Sound of Silence” captured a particular cultural moment in 1966, then 1977 belonged to “Saturday Night Fever.”  Premiering in December of that year, this cinematic look at the urban disco subculture grossed more than 200 million dollars worldwide, and transformed John Travolta’s white disco suit into a fetish object. The soundtrack sold more than 40 million copies and catapulted the Bee Gees to superstardom.


There’s so much more to explore in this year’s list: the 1976 debut album from punk pioneers The Ramones; Chubby Checker’s dance hit “The Twist”; multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman’s trailblazing “The Shape Of Jazz To Come,” and the recently departed Van Cliburn’s 1958 rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Head here for a full list of these audio treasures – and pause to thank Mr. Billington while you’re at it.



VOA’s music bloggers bring you info about all kinds of music. Katherine Cole will keep you up-to-date on the world of Bluegrass and Americana music while Ray McDonald rocks the Pop charts and artists. Diaa Bekheet  jams with you on Jazz.  Visit us often. Your comments are welcome.



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