Deanna Brown-Thomas said she’s humbled and appreciative that this year’s Westobou Festival will dedicate part of its five-day celebration to the memory and impact of her father – the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
For Brown-Thomas, watching former star members of her father’s band perform in Augusta is a sort of family reunion.
“These people were with my dad even before I was born. They practically raised me. I’m talking about Uncle Maceo (Parker) and Uncle Fred (Wesley),” she said “Their continued success is not only a testament to my father’s influence, but also to their continued commitment to the music industry.”
In addition to Parker’s band and Wesley’s version of the New JBs, pop vocal sensation Janelle Monáe is the featured act for Thursday’s performance at the parade grounds of the Old Academy of Richmond County, 540 Telfair St.
Other acts are Augusta’s Funk You band, former Brown vocalist Martha High and the JB Academy of Musik Pupils, or JAMP Masters, an instrumental youth band that covers Brown’s classics and other R&B hits.
In a recent interview from his hometown of Kinston, N.C., Parker, 69, reflected on the influence of his longtime musical mentor. He said he was introduced to Brown while studying music at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.
“After one of his concerts, James heard my brother Melvin on drums at an after-hours gig,” Parker said. “He was very impressed with Melvin’s technique.”
Eventually, both Parker brothers were hired by Brown.
“Imagine, two brothers from one family hired to work with the great James Brown? We were ecstatic,” said Parker, who played baritone, tenor and alto saxophones on Brown recordings from 1964 through the mid-1980s.
He cites his solos on Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and Cold Sweat as his two most memorable works.
Parker, who was briefly stationed at Fort Gordon while in the Army, reflected on “party times” performing at popular Augusta nightspots such as the AMVETS on Walton Way and Charlie Reid’s Paramount Country Club on Laney-Walker Boulevard Extension.
During that period, Augusta saxophonist Tim Sanders played alongside Parker in a band called Leroy Lloyd and the Swingin’ Dukes.
“It was obvious Maceo was a special and unique player,” Sanders said. “His rhythms and tone were extraordinary then, as they are now.”
Parker says he’s forever indebted to Brown for making his name internationally recognized.
“James would call my name throughout the records and during my solos. Now, my name is synonymous with the James Brown brand,” he said. “In Japan and all over, when people emulate the James Brown dance moves, they also call on ‘Maceo – blow your horn.’ ”
Columbus, Ga.-born Fred Wesley, 69, is another horn man of note who became world renowned as a Godfather of Soul sideman and bandleader.
Known for his trademark black trombone, Wesley worked for Brown from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, before joining forces with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band, along with Maceo Parker.
Wesley, who has an affinity for traditional jazz and big band sounds, joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1978. He grew up in Mobile, Ala., and studied music at Alabama State University.
Wesley touts his former boss as a musical genius.
“He had ingenious ideas,” Wesley said from his Manning, S.C., home. “Though he didn’t write music, he had great ideas. It was our ( Parker, Pee Wee Ellis and me) job to put them on paper. Where those ideas came from, I don’t know. Sometimes it would seem impossible, but it always worked. His music is still good, fresh and funky.”
Wesley said Doin’ It to Death, The Payback and Hot Pants are his three favorite Brown recordings.
Keith Jenkins considers himself a James Brown band historian, having spent nearly 15 years as Brown’s guitarist and, on occasion, bandleader. He said that as many as 70 musicians worked for the Brown organization between the late 1950s until Brown’s death on Christmas Day 2006.
He, who is also bandleader of the JAMP Masters, said Brown provided a musical path for the young musicians to follow.
“It’s an honor for me to work with these children,” he said. “They are so talented, and to continue Mr. Brown’s legacy through our youth is an honor and privilege.”