98% Funky Stuff
My Life in Music
By Maceo Parker
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2013 Maceo Parker
All rights reserved.
Teaching Little Fingers to Play
Oftentimes in interviews, reporters ask me for my earliest memory. To try to reach back that far in your mind is an interesting exercise (and I found myself doing it often as I wrote this book). If I close my eyes, my earliest memories are mostly of feelings — impressions, really. And the earliest and most indelible feeling is simply of love.
I was born Maceo Parker Junior on Valentine's Day, 1943, in a tiny row house at 121 Railroad Street in Kinston, North Carolina, just yards from the tracks that divided the black and white sections of the town. Perhaps my being born on the day that celebrates love was a good omen. Love and warmth filled our little house, a busy place with people constantly going in and out. I remember so many different faces. Two small ones soon became very familiar — that of my older brother, Kellis, who was born a year before me, and that of my younger brother, Melvin, who followed me in 1944. Before I knew the meaning of "brother," I felt a bond between us. It wasn't until I was around five, though, that I made the connection that we were more than just buddies. We were family.
My world consisted of our tiny house and the street that ran behind it, which was bordered by houses just like ours on either side. When my mother and father were around, I felt secure. My paternal grandmother, Eva, also lived with us for a time. Even my parents just called her Grandma. Throughout the day, she would call on my brothers and me to help her with little things, like adjusting her pillows or rubbing her feet. She died when I was very young.
We had a large family in Kinston, and holidays were always important times at our house. One of the earliest Christmases I can recall took place at that Railroad Street house when I was about four or five. I saw a picture of Santa Claus in an advertisement and discovered that he rode on a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. He was not, as I had previously believed, the nice old man who drove through the neighborhood at Christmastime and tossed candy from the window of his pickup truck. That Christmas morning, my brothers and I ran out to the tree like all little boys do, only to find there were no presents underneath. My mother explained that Santa Claus just "didn't come for some reason," but she said we still had a lot to be thankful for. I felt a little sad but tried not to show it. When we got to my grandparents' house that afternoon for supper, however, all of our presents were there waiting for us. My mother liked to play little practical jokes like that from time to time, a trait that would eventually rub off on my brother Melvin.
My brothers and I, being so close in age, were an especially tight-knit group. Like most young boys, we were proud of our gender and regarded girls, like our older cousin Eva Delores, as pests. Eva was named for Grandma and came to live with us for a time. She quickly became the Parker brothers' nemesis, partly because she was a girl, but mostly because she would tease us relentlessly. Back then, my brothers and I shared a single bed, which we'd occasionally wet. We would clean ourselves really well, and honestly it was almost impossible to tell who had actually done the deed. Consequently, each of us would get a spanking for it the next morning. (My parents reasoned that this was the only way to be firm and fair.) For obvious reasons, Eva found this incredibly amusing and would laugh herself silly when it happened.
One day, Melvin had enough of her and talked Kellis and I into getting even. That afternoon, the three of us crept into her room, pulled the sheets back from her bed, and took turns peeing on her mattress. In the morning, she was the one getting a paddling, and we were the ones laughing. We still tease her about it to this day.
The occasional mischievous prank notwithstanding, my brothers and I were all well-behaved children. We were made to understand early on that it was important to behave ourselves; our mother repeated the phrase "Be good boys" like a mantra, reminding us that we were expected to conduct ourselves in a manner that wouldn't embarrass our family or our church. For me, misbehaving meant disrupting the warmth and love that filled the house, especially after my youngest brother, DeLond, was born in 1946.
In addition to the love and peace that existed in our home, music was there, too. It seemed like it was always in the air, whether someone was singing, listening to the radio, or playing records. My father, Maceo Parker Senior, played lots of Louis Jordan 78s in the evenings after supper. My mother, Novella, was always singing something in a rich gospel voice forged by years and years in the church choir, which my father participated in, too. Her voice would carry across the hardwood floors of the house to wherever I was and comfort me. If I could hear my mother singing, I knew everything was all right. If she wasn't singing, she was humming a happy tune, usually one I recognized from church.
From the beginning, I liked going to church, because I knew it wouldn't be too long before there would be lots of singing. It gave me my first real exposure to formal music. Saint Peter's Disciples Baptist Church was a small brick building less than a mile from our house. Sometimes my brothers and I would walk straight down the railroad tracks that ran in front of the house to get there. In between the tracks and the church was an empty lot, nicknamed the Stone Yard, that the city used for storing old concrete drainage pipes. They weren't quite large enough for an adult to walk through upright, but the older kids found them convenient when they needed a quiet place to be alone. We would cut through the Stone Yard as quickly as possible to avoid running into anyone there. Both parties were better off that way — the teenagers didn't want to be disturbed, and we didn't want to catch hell from them.
In the summers, my brothers and I would attend vacation bible school at Saint Peter's. If you brought your own Mason jar, you'd be greeted with a fresh glass of homemade lemonade to start the day. Sometimes in the afternoons, we'd each be given a nickel or two to buy a scoop of ice cream on the way home.
The church was like a second home with an extended family, and my mother and father were very well regarded there because they were so involved with the choir, something that made me very proud. They often hosted choir rehearsals at our house, which afforded me the opportunity to watch and listen to everything. We had an old upright piano in the corner of the house, and several times a week the choir would gather around it and practice the songs for that week's service. Even as a very young child, I would stop what I was doing and run over to that piano whenever someone started playing it.
One of my earliest and most vivid musical memories is of the piano itself. One afternoon, when I was about four years old, I strolled over to it and, barely tall enough to see over the keys, reached up and pushed down gently on one of the white ones. The sound it made was exhilarating, so I did it again, this time a little more forcefully. Entranced, I moved my hand left to right, pushing down on the keys, intrigued by the way the sound changed each time. A pattern started to take shape as I moved methodically up and down, key by key. After a while, I began to understand the relationship between the notes and the keys. If this was making music, I liked it. I was hooked.
From then on, whenever someone sat at that piano, I would be there, observing the relation of the pitch to where his fingers landed. Then, when no one was around, I'd climb up into the chair and try to emulate what I'd seen.
One afternoon, a gentleman from the church named Ronald Francis came to our house with the choir. Everyone gathered around him as he seated himself at the piano and started the introduction to a song they were working on. After he played a few bars, everyone began to sing:
Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin;
Each victory will help you, some other to win;
Fight manfully onward, dark passions subdue;
Look ever to Jesus, He'll carry you through.
I watched Mr. Francis's fingers as they moved stepwise down with the melody and back up during each verse. The choir rehearsed the song several times, and when they were satisfied with it, they went into the kitchen to take a break. As soon as they were gone, I scrambled up into the piano chair and began to play what I'd just seen Mr. Francis play. At first, it came to me very slowly as I methodically tried to recall everything I'd seen, but soon the melody began to take shape with strong tones and steady rhythm. As I sang the melody softly to myself, my little fingers just fell in the right places. It all made sense.
The conversation in the kitchen quieted down, and it kept on quieting down until, eventually, no one was speaking. Then someone said, "That kid isn't playing that song, is he?"
One by one, the adults filed out and gathered around behind me, listening in disbelief until I finished the song. Everyone marveled at what I had done, and it gave me an enormous sense of accomplishment, especially when I saw my mother beaming with pride. From then on, she encouraged me to play the piano whenever I could. "Watch this child play the piano," she would say to a guest, and I would hoist myself up on the bench and oblige. I never missed an opportunity to play "Yield Not to Temptation" for someone. I liked making my mother smile.
Back then, my mother always seemed happy. Having some of that happiness directed right at me really motivated me to keep playing. By the time I was five years old, I found I could peck out a few more of the choir's regular spirituals just by observing how other people played. Music just came naturally to me. Some kids realize early on that they can throw the football really far or spell really well; I realized that I could hear melodies and play them back. And although I had many other interests, I began to feel how important music was. Once I opened that door, there was no shutting it again.
For my parents, music was a spiritual thing and an escape of sorts. Not until I was much older did I realize how hard they struggled back then. They were masters at creating a lighthearted atmosphere around the house, despite the cramped conditions and scarcity of money and food. Music helped hold everything together. It's difficult for me to imagine just how hard my parents worked to scratch out a living, but to them it was just a part of life. Coming of age in the 1930s the way they did — being two generations removed from slavery and living through the worst economic depression our country had ever seen — meant nothing came easy to them.
My father owned and operated the East End Dry Cleaners, the first black-owned dry-cleaning business in town. He had learned the trade during his time in the navy. The building where the cleaners was located is still standing today. It's at 407 Queen Street, not far from our house on Railroad Street (although now it's a barber shop). As a young man, my father served as an apprentice to the white owner of another dry-cleaning business in Kinston, but by his early twenties he had opened his own business with his younger brother, James.
My mother stayed at home primarily, but she found odd jobs cleaning or sewing to make a little extra money. She was a very resourceful woman. As a child, she used to gather small bouquets of wildflowers, bind them together with twine, and sell them on the streets of Kinston to make some money to bring home to her mother. She and her seven brothers and one sister would stand near the center of town and sing spirituals in beautiful four-part harmonies for spare change from passersby. Her family was very gifted musically.
In fact, music brought my parents together as teenagers. They attended an after-school music program together. My mother was the top female singer and my father was the top male singer, so they were often paired together for duets. They hit it off, became high school sweethearts, and were married shortly after their graduation. Now, I've never heard this exactly from my mother, but several people from her class have told me that she and my father were also incredible dancers in their day and won lots of dance contests at the summer street festivals in Kinston. (I've heard this more than once from different people, so I'm inclined to believe that it's true.) Somewhere along the way, though, their Saturday night dances tapered off, and their Sunday mornings in the church choir picked up.
In 1948, my parents moved our family from the ramshackle neighborhood on Railroad Street to the brand-new housing projects that had just been erected on Carver Court. Grandma had passed away by this time, but I think an uncle or cousin was staying with us. When we moved into our unit, 9D, we felt like we'd won the lottery. There was fresh paint on the walls and no cracks in the floorboards; it was a two-story mansion as far as I could tell.
In the corner of the property was a brand-new community center where my brothers and I would eventually hang out after school. We watched the older guys as they played music and danced, trying to impress girls. Mrs. Cox (who is in her eighties and still lives in Kinston) taught an arts and crafts class there that was really popular with the younger kids. The community center also organized little sports events, like a Pop Warner football league that Kellis played in. Our neighborhood would square off against other housing projects across town.
Back then, I wasn't aware of the term "low-income housing"; to me, it seemed like we had really come up in the world, and I was proud of where we lived. As kids, we felt a little superior because we went to the new "brick" school, J. H. Sampson Elementary, rather than to the old wooden one on the edge of town that had been around since my mother attended it. I recall the stigma around the kids who lived out in the rural areas. My group of friends seemed to look down on those whose addresses were tacked up on boxes on rural routes rather than on the fronts of houses on proper streets. I feel bad about it now, because I know those people had rough lives. Working in the cotton and tobacco fields was not easy, and I doubt that I would have ever had time for music had my family been tied to the land like that.
The old upright piano followed us to our new house, and so did choir practices. I still stood by the edge of the piano and watched whenever someone was playing and tried to cue in on what they were doing. I was five years old by this time, and I could play a few complete songs pretty well just by observing their actions.
Eventually someone mentioned piano lessons, and I became very excited. My parents somehow found the money and arranged lessons with the city librarian, Mrs. White. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday after school, I'd walk the four blocks to her house for my 4:30 pm lesson. The book she taught from was called Teaching Little Fingers to Play because it was written for children whose small hands couldn't span very far on the piano; just about everything was within an octave's reach. The music may have been written for children, but that book was so big it looked like I was carrying a sandwich board under my arm. Compared to the church hymns I was used to hearing, the melodies to these beginning piano songs were fairly simple, and mostly I would just listen to what Mrs. White did and play that back from memory. I found it a little easier than trying to read and play at the same time.
Three times a week I would wait in Mrs. White's parlor with the other students until my name was called. It wasn't long before I began to notice that all of her other students were girls. Every afternoon I would wait for another boy student to appear — I had seen plenty of men at the piano at my house — but none came. This troubled me a bit. I was used to being with my brothers all the time and was suspicious of anything that little girls were into. I worried that the other boys in my first-grade class would label me a sissy if they found out where I was going three times a week. I began to seriously consider quitting. Music was important, but it wasn't the only thing that I could do well. I found that I ran faster than anyone in my class, and in elementary school the fastest kid in the class is something of a celebrity. And I was popular. After a few months, I decided it just wasn't worth risking that for piano lessons. Besides, learning the piano came so naturally that I figured I could just continue learning by watching. My parents were supportive of my decision and told me that, if that's what I wanted to do, they wouldn't make me go.
I then had more time to help out with the family. When my brothers and I were needed, we'd go help my father and my uncle James down at the cleaners. They would give us several giant boxes of hangers, and our job was to attach a folded piece of cardboard, called a pants guard, to the bottom of each one. (It kept your trousers from getting a nasty crease from the wire.) Our day's work was long and tedious, but it was nothing compared to what my father and uncle had to do to keep that place going. To heat up enough water to create the steam needed, they had to constantly shovel coal into this giant furnace. My father had to pull open the furnace door with a shovel each time because it was too hot to touch. (Continues...)
Excerpted from 98% Funky Stuff by Maceo Parker. Copyright © 2013 Maceo Parker. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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