Still Black, Still Proud:
Charles Thomson meets forefather of funk Fred Wesley to discuss his new album, working on James Brown’s final project, and life after the Godfather...
June 2008, Wax Poetics
Fred Wesley is in a playful mood when I meet him in the lobby of the Regents Park Marriott Hotel. When I ask him if I can record our interview, he glares at me. The silence is deafening and I wonder what I’ve let myself in for, but after several long, awkward seconds, Wesley’s scowl cracks and he breaks into a loud belly laugh, slapping me on the shoulder.
“I’m sure that will be OK,” he grins, and we get down to business.
Wesley arrived in London yesterday to play two concerts at Camden’s ‘Jazz Cafe’, just one day after an enormous fire swept through the borough causing £30million worth of damage. The fire hasn’t affected the venue, he says, but it has scuppered his plans to visit Camden Lock in the morning.
He is in town to plug his new album, ‘Funk for Your Ass’, a collaboration with fellow James Brown alumni Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks. The CD is his first in six years.
“It’s strictly funk,” enthuses Wesley. “People always say to me ‘Why you trying to do that jazz? You should just make a funky album.’ So I have. It’s just funk for funk’s sake – just for no other reason than to funk you to death.”
Alongside new compositions, the album will contain several James Brown covers - much to Wesley’s chagrin.
“Yea, there are some James Brown covers on there,” he shrugs. “It’s not something I would look forward to doing but the record company wanted me to. I just don’t like to cover records, but we did it and I think it came out great."
“It’s all new arrangements,” he says, scatting and humming the various components of the 1968 hit ‘I Got the Feelin'. “There are no vocals, of course, but we just tried to create the same excitement with the horn as James Brown did with his vocals. We probably didn’t do it, though, because there’s only one James Brown.”
Between 1968 and 1975 Wesley served as music director, arranger and chief composer for Brown, producing countless hits including ‘Super Bad’, ‘Hot Pants’, ‘Soul Power’ and ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black And Proud’, before leaving to join George Clinton’s funk troupe Parliament/Funkadelic. In 1975 the pair parted company on bad terms, Wesley having tired of Brown’s controlling nature and Brown having tired of Wesley’s outspokenness.
April 2005 saw the pair’s first creative reunion in over thirty years when Wesley joined Brown in the studio to work on material for the Godfather of Soul’s as yet unreleased final album. Wesley added solos to several of Brown’s creations and submitted his own compositions for the star’s consideration. However, the collaboration did not prove as fruitful as Wesley had hoped and he says a lot of the material they produced was ‘just not up to par’.
“It was like he’d forgotten how to record,” he sighs. “He didn’t have the same enthusiasm. He used to go into the studio and be on fire about getting something done. But you have to remember that we were going back into the studio after thirty years apart and trying to recapture the old magic – it wasn’t bad but it just wasn’t there anymore."
“It just wasn’t the old James Brown and consequently I wasn’t the old Fred Wesley. So the way we used to work together – it didn’t quite click solid like it used to. I don’t know if it was my problem or his – or maybe both of ours – but I’m glad some of the stuff we did didn’t get out. I might try to re-work some of it for another album though.”
The pair’s meeting would be their last as on Christmas Day 2006 Brown died of congestive heart failure. Following their reunion, says Wesley, the two did not remain in contact.
“We spoke on the phone a couple of times but we didn’t talk about anything serious. James Brown wasn’t the kind of person you could call a good friend, he just didn’t relate to people in that way. He didn’t buddy up to you or hang out with you. You just treated him with respect and he did the same.”
The pair’s strained relationship aside, Wesley says he was still shocked and saddened when Maceo Parker called early on Christmas Morning 2006 to inform him that the Godfather of Soul was no more.
“It was a hard thing for me. I was a friend, or as much of a friend as you could be to James Brown, but I hadn’t been close with him. I knew it was the end of an era – that James Brown was gone and there would be no more funky music like we’d been used to. But I didn’t crack up or cry. I just took it like a famous person had died.”
Despite Wesley’s well-documented relationship with Brown, he says he still had trouble getting into the funeral at Augusta's James Brown Arena.
“I had been away so long they wouldn’t let me in!” he laughs.
“The security guard was like ‘Sorry sir, you’ve got to park over there’, you know, in the mud! Jesse Jackson’s daughter spotted me and said ‘That’s Fred Wesley! Let him in!’”
During the funeral Wesley joined Bootsy Collins and Bobby Byrd onstage to play a solo on Byrd’s 1971 hit ‘I Know You Got Soul’. Wesley says he found Byrd’s subsequent death in September 2007 far more traumatic than Brown’s.
“Me and Bobby Byrd were real close,” he sighs. “He was a good friend. A really, really good friend. I used to go visit him in Atlanta all the time. I really miss him.”
As well as paying homage to Brown on his latest album Wesley will this year partake in two international concert tours to honour the late, great Godfather. The first, entitled ‘Still Black, Still Proud’ has been organised by Brown’s former saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. It will team Ellis and Wesley up with a fleet of acclaimed African musicians.
The second, arranged by Brown’s superstar bassist Bootsy Collins, will visit more than 40 cities across Europe and America.
“Bootsy took it really bad when James passed,” says Wesley. “He wants to do something to enhance the legacy of James Brown.”
The tour will see James Brown alumni such as Collins, Wesley, Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks unite with protégés including Chuck D and Afrika Bambaata.
In-between these tribute shows Wesley will promote his new album, first in Japan (“the Japanese just wanna hear funk all the time,”) and then in Europe and America. A former music professor at the University of North Carolina, Wesley is also set to teach several clinics across the United States.
Later this year Wesley will begin work on a new album due for release in 2009.
“There’s always stuff to achieve,” he explains. “As long as you can record, you should record... Keep putting stuff out there for the public. I want to my new album to be a big album like ‘Full Circle’ but more focused.
“I’m going to keep playing for as long as I can... until I have to stop. I don’t see that happening any time soon.”
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