Saxophonist Maceo Parker has scored the funk trifecta. In the 1960s, the trenchant, bluesy wail of his horn served as a foil for James Brown’s screams and grunts on such classics as “Cold Sweat.” The following decade, he toured with George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic just as the Mothership was landing. And by 1999— after he’d long since established himself as a bandleader — Parker was touring with Prince.
Parker, who performs Saturday at the Birchmere, calls his music “2 percent jazz, 98 percent funky stuff” and promises a set list of favorites from Brown, Clinton and his own solo career. Like a preacher driving home a sermon, the sax man knows how to build on repetition. He serves up riffs and melodies to create tension, then pushes the groove to release it. And like any good jazz player (the jazz quotient is really more than 2 percent), he gives plenty of solo space to his seven-piece band. Above all, he loves to get an audience on its feet.
Parker, 76, spent his childhood in Kinston, N.C., surrounded by music. An uncle led a local jazz band while his three brothers all played instruments. His parents’ church choir rehearsed around the family piano.
“I went to Greensboro as a music major,” Parker said in a phone interview. He attended what was then known as the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina. “While in school, I decided I had to get a job and play whenever I can. What’s good about that situation is that, instead of calling home and asking Mom and Dad to send money, I was actually sending money home to them.”
His brother, drummer Melvin Parker, joined him at school, and they soon had gigs with rival bands. In 1962, Melvin’s band was playing an after-hours club when James Brown came in. Brown liked the band, but he especially liked the drummer and offered Melvin a job after graduation.
“When I came back from my gig, my brother told me about the James Brown thing,” Parker said. “A whole year went by and we were back in Kinston. We’re thinking, let’s see if both of us can get a job with James Brown. We played with other bands but we were waiting for James Brown. We’re thinking, how are we going to find him? When he came to town [for a show], we rode around the perimeter of the [Greensboro] Coliseum until we saw the limousine and rode in behind him.”
When they caught up with the limo and got out, Melvin spoke first, letting the bandleader know that he was available to tour. Then he pointed out that his older brother played sax and needed a job.
Brown asked Parker if he played baritone sax.
“I’d only fooled around with the baritone but something told me I couldn’t say no,” Parker said. “This is the way it came out — ‘uh, yes sir.’ James then asked me, ‘Do you own a baritone sax?’ And that’s how I answered: ‘Uh, yes sir.’ He said, ‘Well, if you can get a baritone sax, you can get a job, too.’ He could tell I wasn’t telling the truth but he liked the way I answered.”
When he went to a music store to buy a baritone, the clerk was skeptical that he could pay for it. “I told him, ‘Well, both of us just got hired by James Brown.’ He said, ‘Sign here!’ ”
With Brown, Parker played many reeds — alto on “I Got You (I Feel Good),” tenor on “Cold Sweat” and “Mother Popcorn” — and even flute on “Doing It to Death.” These days he focuses on his favorite, alto sax.
With five decades behind him, Parker demurs when asked about new or future projects.
“Something new may come to me, but I’ve done it all,” he said.
Parker recently achieved a long-standing ambition as he donned dark glasses to sing in a big-band tribute to Ray Charles in late April at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center. With former Raelettes and Ray Charles orchestra members, he proved he could deliver vocally even on such an iconic repertoire.
Parker and his band toured with Charles in Germany in 1993. He released the album “Roots & Grooves” in 2007; fully half of it was from the Charles songbook. However, the association with Charles goes further back: Parker credits a backstage meeting in the singer’s dressing room at the Greensboro Coliseum in 1963 with later inspiring him to become a bandleader.
“It felt like a dream come true, like a magic genie granted a wish,” he said. “We used to love seeing Ray Charles. To end up doing his music with the Raelettes, it’s like heaven.”
Parker’s newest album, “It’s All About Love,” runs the gamut of songs about love from “Love The One You’re With” to “Who’s Making Love.” However, he emphasizes that this love isn’t just the romantic type — even if he does kid about being born on Valentine’s Day.
“I would rather have people come to me and smile rather than frown,” he said. “With all the different religions, I just suppose it all boils down to the creator and how many times do you say love versus hate. And I love to say love.”
Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. birchmere.com. $45.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated when Maceo Parker began touring with Prince and the college that Parker attended. This version has been updated.