Most musicians would feel fortunate to take part in just one musical dynasty, much less two. But Fred Wesley is no ordinary musician. The legendary trombonist is one of the pivotal figures of funk. He served not only as James Brown’s trusty bandleader and primary arranger through the Godfather of Soul’s ’70s rhythm revolution but also guided the brass in pocket (i.e. the Horny Horns) for George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic through its glory (HallaStoopid) days.
A professional player since childhood – when he filled a vacant seat in his father’s Mobile, Alabama big band – Wesley’s classic work infused jazz chops and harmonic sophistication into Brown and Clinton’s funkdafied framework. Witness his ability to trade riff for scat with King James (“Make It Funky Parts 3 & 4”), run off lithe solos (The J.B.’s’ “Pass the Peas”) and chart regal arrangements for astral exploration (Parliament’s epic “Mothership Connection”). Still quite actively performing and recording (including a session with D’Angelo of which he simply says, “I hope it comes out!”), he shares some thoughts on Dr. Funkenstein, marathon studio sessions and other moments from a most storied career.
As a young man you served in the army and played in a military big band. How did the experience advance your musicianship?
I had learned how to play the trombone in the street, so to speak. And so the first formal training I had on the trombone was in the military. I really learned how to play professionally and with great musicianship in the army.
I guess the obvious question then is: how did the military prepare you for working with James Brown?
Well, nothing can prepare you for working with James Brown! [laughs] James Brown is an entity all in itself. Being on time, shining your shoes, ironing your clothes – I guess that would prepare you for being with James Brown. But the musical part of it was totally different. James Brown had his own process of creating music and I had to learn that.
When I first joined him I was just a guy in the band. When [former bandleader] Pee Wee Ellis left the band and I got to be bandleader, [I thought] I was gonna do it my way. And James Brown disagreed. I was kind of headstrong during that time and so I quit. I moved to California to be discovered as a great jazz trombone player. But it didn’t happen like that. It was a bad experience in Los Angeles for a new trombone player. [Trombonist] George Bohanon had all the jazz gigs sewed up. I came back and found out that James Brown needed me. So I kinda needed him too, you know, and we kinda came to an understanding.
Much is made about how much of a disciplinarian James Brown was with his band – how he would fine musicians for missing notes and other discretions. What was that experience like for you?
He was very strict. He wanted the music to be exactly like [he wanted]. He had strict rules about how you acted off stage too. He was just a controlling kind of a person… which is understandable. It’s his band and he was paying for it. But he tried to control every aspect of your life. It was difficult showing up in perfectly pressed uniforms with perfectly shined shoes after riding a bus all night. In the dressing rooms [before concerts] there’d be ironing boards set up and people ironing clothes. It was a test of your ability to stay focused.
Were there any specific stories of you bumping heads with James?
I remember one time I got a fine for having blood on my uniform. We were playing at the Apollo and I was playing so hard my lip busted and was bleeding. And a little speck of blood got on my uniform. James fined me $50. I thought that was kinda unfair since he worked me so hard. [laughs] Got a $50 fine, I wasn’t making but $200.
But the way he controlled his music and musicians led to his most important musical innovations, wouldn’t you say?
He had a way of putting out an idea [and developing it]. We had some great musicians in the band. Say for instance, Jimmy Nolen – the great guitar player. [James] would [create] a lick and Jimmy Nolen would interpret what he said and make a lick out of it. Then he would keep fiddling with it until he played something [James] liked and then [James would] say, “Yeah, that’s it.” It would be Jimmy Nolen’s lick but he would say it was James Brown’s lick because James inspired the lick. That happened throughout the band – the drummers, the bass players, even the horn players. James would inspire a riff, a line, that he could own. Sometimes [James’ direction to us] would just be a grunt or a groan or something like that. It was a process but we ended up with some great music.
James Brown had nothing else to do but music. And he wore many people out.
Well, I had a family. And I was making money at the time. I was leading James Brown’s band, which increased my salary by quite a bit. And I didn’t have time to turn around and go to jazz. Because it would have taken too much time to start over again. And plus the James Brown band gave me the opportunity to create some music [within the confines of what he wanted]. So I just stuck with it. I actually used some jazz changes, jazz licks and jazz lines in James Brown’s music.
The band was extremely prolific after you became bandleader in the ’70s. What were the recording sessions like?
It was difficult. James Brown – you know, he didn’t have any hobbies, any friends that he wanted to hang out with. So we’d go in the studio and it was on his time and he had nothing else to do. He would just keep you in the studio. He could pay for whatever time he needed. He would wear out engineers. But you just had to stand or sit there for hours and hours ’til you put songs together.
It was grueling for the musicians. Nothing was written down. You had to remember everything. So cats would forget [something] and we’d go back and do it again. [James] would forget [something] and we had to go back and do it again. We would end up with a great song, but it took so long and so many hours in the studio. When you got outta there you just wanted to flop. But he still wanted to go, believe me. James Brown had nothing else to do but music. And he wore many people out. A lot of people quit because of that. He was quite a character.
How were you able to keep the music sounding so loose in that environment? Something like “Doing It to Death,” for instance, is such a great track because it sounds so spontaneous.
Well, you know “Doing It to Death” was one of the rare sessions where it came together in maybe an hour. We just came up with a bassline, a guitar line, [drummer] Jabo [Starks] had the drum line – a standard Jabo/Bobby “Blue” Bland-type shuffle. And we just did it right quick with [James] leading it – “Fred, blow” and “Maceo, blow.” We did it in what must have been 30 minutes. That really took less time than say “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” which took a long time to do. It took all day. [That song has] so many changes.
[James] didn’t do any editing, no mixing or nothing. However it ended up, that was the way it was. And to reproduce [those songs] on stage – that took some doing too. Because by that time he had listened to the [recordings] and wanted it performed exactly the way he had done it [on the record]. But we managed to do it.
During the time that you left the band go to California, James Brown brought in a new band to take the place of yourself and Maceo some of the other musicians who’d left…
How do you compare the two – the James Brown Orchestra and this band of younger guys from Cincinnati which became known as J.B.’s?
Oh, it was totally different. When I left everybody had their suits and ties. When I came back, everybody was in whatever they had on. James could never get them to wear suits and ties. [laughs] Bootsy was the leader of the band, so he had an attitude that he wasn’t gonna let James tell him what to do. But they cut some good music – “Sex Machine” and “Super Bad.” And when I got back we did “Soul Power.” But the discipline was shot to hell. That’s why James told me, “We gotta get rid of these guys” and get a new band together that could understand what he’s talking about. He liked the way Bootsy and Catfish played and the rest of the guys too, but he could not stand their lack of discipline. So he told me I had to put another band together.
When I first got back in ’71, we had two weeks [to get the new band rehearsed]. James went [home] to Augusta, Georgia. I don’t know if he played golf or played tennis or what. He probably went down there and prayed for me. [laughs] He gave me some sad musicians that I had to whip into shape. And I did. Me and Bobby Byrd and St. Clair [Pinckney] and Jabo – we put these guys together. And before you know it, we had a pretty good band.
But it was a trying time for me. I was fresh out of California. I didn’t have a coat. I was cold. [laughs] Had to go down in that dungeon in the Apollo Theater and rehearse [for a series of shows that resulted in the Revolution of the Mind double live album]. It was really something. That was the first gig that band did. Oh my goodness. It was a brand new band and a brand new album and we pulled it off.
That’s a lot of pressure.
It was tremendous pressure! And you’d think James would say, “Oh, good job, fellas.” No, he said [barking], “You gotta get this stuff right!” That’s the way he came off. You don’t expect to be appreciated. Even if he really did appreciate it he’d never say it.
Why do you think he kept that distance?
Well, we came to the conclusion that he was a nut! But I’m sure there was some method to his madness. But we just passed it on as if he was crazy. But you know he was a crazy innovator. He was creatively crazy. Because the things he came up with actually you cannot do in music – because it just was musically wrong. But he made it right. He twisted it around until it came out right.
What would you cite as an example of that?
If you remember “I Got the Feelin” – it [mostly] sounded right. But on the bridge, it goes [sings high note]. That note was nowhere. It wasn’t in time, it wasn’t in place, it wasn’t a chord anywhere. And then James goes, “Baby, baby, baby,” and it comes back to the first vamp. That’s kind of an example of a song that was wrong but it came out right. The chord that was just in the middle of song, he made it come out right. And you know what, when we try to do that tune again we cannot do it. We cannot do it [the same way].
Let me ask you about another specific song that was pretty unconventional even for James: “Blow Your Head” from the Damn Right I Am Somebody album. It eventually became very influential on hip-hop, and it has this crazy synthesizer on it that is unlike anything else in the catalog. Do you recall how that song came to be?
Well, I cut the track without James. We used a New York studio band sometimes and that was recorded with the studio band. So James came in and he wanted to hear it. I thought he was gonna put his voice on it. He saw this Moog synthesizer, and he said [mimicking James’ voice], “What’s that?” So we said, “Oh that’s a Moog synthesizer, Mr. Brown. We’re thinkin’ about using it on some of the tunes.” He said, “How’s it sound?” “Well, we went through some sounds with it.” He said, “Turn it on! Put it on the track!” We said, “What? No, we were gon’-” “Turn it on! Put it on the track!”
So he put it on the track. [imitates sound of synth intro] I said, “Oh lord, I hope he don’t leave this on, it’s messin’ up my track!” [laughs] So he put it on THE WHOLE TRACK. And we could not believe it. We were like, it’s just an experiment, this will stay in the studio forever, no one will ever hear this. And what do you know, it got out on the album and the next thing you know it’s a hit all over the world. People request that tune now! You never know what the public gonna want. See, he’d take things like that and go to the bank with it. Just something that’s totally different. Nobody else would think to do it. And he would do it.
Another classic from the same sessions, “ The Payback,” was recorded for the soundtrack to the film Hell Up In Harlem, the follow-up to the Black Caesar soundtrack, much of which you composed and arranged. But things didn’t go exactly as planned with “The Payback” and Hell Up In Harlem. What happened?
After we recorded [“The Payback”] I took it out to the producer, I went into his office, played it for him. He said, “This music is not funky enough.” “What?!?” “It’s not funky.” So I said, this guy’s crazy. I’m gonna let him talk to another crazy person. I dialed James Brown, [told him what the producer said] and he said, “What?!? He says it’s not funky?!?”
So I gave the phone to [the producer] and James Brown really flipped. [The producer] was turning blue and turning red and different colors and gave the phone back to me. James told me, “Bring it home!” So I took [the tapes] back to Augusta. I was living in California, I flew all the way back [East] and James put that music out as an album. And it was the biggest album James ever had, The Payback.
At a certain point, James began asking you to essentially rewrite other people’s songs. David Bowie’s “Fame,” for instance, wound up becoming the basis of James’ “Hot (I Need to Be Loved Loved Loved Loved).” Why did he resort to that?
Yeah, I couldn’t understand that. I couldn’t understand why a creative person like James Brown would want to copy other people’s songs when he had so much music left in him. But he thought he had run out. He’d really thought he’d run out.
Did he ever tell you that that’s how he felt?
He just kept it in. But it was obvious that he thought he’d run out because he never would come up with any new music. After I left he did “Body Heat,” which I thought was pretty good, but it wasn’t as good as “The Payback.” He thought “The Payback” was the apex of his career, he really did.
At that point had you already been approached about joining George Clinton and P-Funk?
Yeah, well Bootsy was always after me to come and join them. In fact, James Brown thought I had done [Parliament’s] Chocolate City for George Clinton [while I still worked for James]. He said, “You did that behind my back, didn’t you!” He really believed that until maybe four, five years later. He came to me and told me I was right. I said, “I know I was right!” But Bootsy was asking me about joining them and creating a great horn section. I finally heard him and it was a natural move.
What was that transition like – going from the intensity of James Brown to the eccentricity of P-Funk?
Well, the pressure was off. Except the pressure [you put on yourself] to do something good. George Clinton would say, just give me something good. He would record tracks, tracks, tracks: vocal tracks, horn tracks, rhythm tracks. And then he would sit in the studio and use what he wanted. Sometimes he’d take hours [doing that]. He’d call it “quality control.” A lot of horns that we put on tracks never would be heard on the record. But I had total artistic [freedom] to stretch and I did.
Can you describe the experience of being a part of the elaborate Parliament-Funkadelic stage show?
That was something. That Earth Tour – that was a monumental production and undertaking. We had circus riggers out there. The [climax of the show with the] Mothership landing on stage – that was a great thing. We used to just revel and marvel at the whole thing.
Those shows were such marathons as well. You’d often do a single song for a half hour at a time or longer.
Well, nobody actually stayed on the stage for that length of time. There were so many people out there you would be shuffling on and off. Some people would play and other people wouldn’t play. Horns would be in certain places, no horns in certain places, guitar players would play and then they’d rest a while. But we had it organized so we could do it no problem. The audience loved it.
How would you summarize your role within the P-Funk organization during those years?
[laughs] Well, the reason I left was because when I tried to summarize my role with the P-Funk, George Clinton said, “Noooo no no, I’m the boss here. Bootsy is second in command.” All I wanted was a little piece of the royalties. He said no and that’s why we kind of fell out and why I left. And plus the Count Basie band was beckoning to me [to join them] all the while. But [George] didn’t see the horn parts as being as important as the vocals and the rhythm. And I agree, they’re not as important. But they are important! They deserve some royalty. So I disagreed with him. We didn’t come to blows about it but I loudly disagreed.
Yeah, I remember that. They played it at The Loft and they played it at discos all over the world ’til now. But the album [House Party] never came out. The label, Curtom, lost its distribution with RSO and it never got picked up. I was demoralized. So I never wrote another vocal album. That was totally my album, I sang on it, did all the tracks. But I never did another one because I figured if the public don’t like me, I’m not gonna do it. I shouldn’t have took that attitude, but I did.
And yet it’s still a song people want you to perform nowadays.
That’s true. I play [“House Party”] every night. We work mostly in Europe but we do some Stateside stuff too. And I always say, I got 2,500 fans and if we can please them we’re pleasing everybody.
You’ve been an intrinsic part of so many classic recordings. But the fact that much of it has been extensively sampled over the years has certainly widened your audience as well. What were your feelings when you initially heard your music being sampled for a rapper to rhyme over?
At first, way back when they first started sampling, I was upset. I was like, “Why don’t these people use their own music? Why do they gotta use my music?” But then I got the first royalty check and I said, “Whoa! All right, use it if you want to!” [laughs] My son does hip-hop tracks too and I just came to the conclusion that they sample music the same way we sampled music back in the day. We didn’t have a machine that could sample directly but we used to copy Ray Charles and Buddy Guy or B.B. King. So I finally came to grips that it’s just a way of flattering the old musicians and using [our music] in new music.
It is flattery. And obviously the royalty checks don’t hurt.
Not at all.