For Fred Wesley, the army was easier than playing with James Brown
And working with George Clinton was a cinch compared to playing with the godfather of soul
Fred Wesley: with George Clinton, ‘the whole gig was relaxed and fun, although the costumes were unorthodox’
Fred Wesley has some tales to tell. He has played, written and recorded alongside James Brown, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and is the trombone player who helped to put funk’s building blocks in place. The records that defined Brown’s star time? Chances are Wesley’s in there blowing his horn.
It was jazz that initially caught his ear as a kid in Mobile, Alabama. His father, Fred snr, was the leader of a big band and the one who handed him his first trombone.
“I was consumed by music. I didn’t have many hobbies and I never played many games. I never learned how to rollerskate or swim. I just played the horn.”
His first musical hero was JJ Johnson. “Oh boy, I heard JJ Johnson when I was about 12 years old. He was a clean, very lyrical trombone player. I’d never heard someone play the trombone like that before. It was all ‘waaaa-waaaa’ and then JJ came along and it was ‘do-be-do-be-bop-bop-do-bede-bop’. It was precise, it was clean. I dug that.”
After a few years in university, on tour with Ike and Tina Turner and a spell in the military with the 55th Army Band, Brown came calling in 1967 and Wesley enlisted in the JBs.
Which was easier?
“I guess the military,” he says, laughing. “Both had everything mapped out exactly how they wanted you to do it, but with James Brown, you never knew if he meant what he said or if he’d change his mind or if he was going to trick you. You never knew what he meant when he said something.”
Wesley was a headstrong young man, and he quit the JBs in 1969 before returning two years later.
“He wanted to do things that were never done before and I was like ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘you can’t write a song like that’. There was friction, I suppose. But when I came back, I realised he was breaking new ground and I could be part of that, so I listened to him and what he was saying. I did what he said and we made some pretty good music.”
That’s putting it mildly. You’ll hear Wesley on Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, Hot Pants, Blow Your Head and dozens of other explosive grooves.
“Good Foot was my favourite because of how he put it together. I really didn’t think it would work, that ‘da-da-da- da-de-de-de’: that was kind of foreign to me. But I did it and it turned out to be one of the best recordings he ever made.
“I did a lot of recordings with him that you’ve never heard, tracks which were meant for the Hell and Reality albums. I was just experimenting because he gave me the space to experiment as much as I wanted to. He liked some of it, he didn’t like more of it, he got to like bits of it. We were back and forth like that all the time.”
Aside from writing and playing with Brown, Wesley was also the band’s musical director. “The band had a lot of faith in me and they’d listen to me, even if they didn’t listen to James Brown. I could convince them to do things that he couldn’t get them to do.
“People like Jimmy Nolen and Fred Thomas respected me, and I forced James Brown’s records on them, and eventually we got it the way James wanted.”
But in 1975, Wesley quit for good.
“James thought he was losing it, so he wanted me to copy other people,” he says. “He wanted to copy Fame by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones and some African artists. I said, ‘No way, you’re the innovator’, but he didn’t listen and I couldn’t do that so I quit.”
The Clinton administration
He walked from one colourful funk ensemble into another, joining George Clinton’s Parliament mob for their Mothership Connection album.
“Working with George was easy compared to James. All I had to do was add horns to what they’d already recorded. I didn’t have anything to do but horns. The whole gig was relaxed and fun, although the costumes were unorthodox.
“The band didn’t need discipline or rules, because there was respect. They respected George, they respected Bootsy, they respected each other. They played real heavy funk and followed each other, and that’s a good way to do it. Bootsy kind of led the rhythm section and George had a lead on the final mix, but everyone leaned on each other to get out the funk.”
The difference between the two bands, says Wesley, was that Brown was always striving to break new ground. “No one had done what James Brown was doing. Bootsy and George followed what James had done and took it to another level, but they had some pattern to work with. James Brown made brand new music, and dealing with that was hard for the band. It wasn’t fear, it was more apprehension.”
By 1979, Wesley was ready for something else and joined the Count Basie Orchestra (“I had to fall back on my big band and jazz chops for that one”) before becoming a session player and arranger for hire, working with Curtis Mayfield, the Gap Band, Earth, Wind & Fire, Barry White and Terry Callier.
“I did an album called House Party in 1980, and I thought it was the best album ever,” he says, laughing. “But it was turned down by all the record companies so I gave up doing my own music and did arranging and horn playing for hire.”
These days, he has two bands on the go and it’s the jazz one that brings him to Dublin for the very first time.
“Generations is a tribute to Jimmy Smith. I’ve got a 22-year-old fine organ player called Leonardo Corradi and a seasoned 42-year-old French drummer Tony Match and little old me, the 70-year-old horn player. It’s a good opportunity for me to be out front and play some jazz. It’s fun doing stuff like that.”
Fred Wesley plays Dublin’s Sugar Club on Thursday