When the Godfather of Soul decided he wanted to be the king of funk in the ’60s, he hired a young trombone player who would not only redefine how that instrument was played but be instrumental in the development of funk. Fred Wesley Jr. has written a book about the experience, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman, which has just come out. In a recent phone interview form his home in Mobile, Ala., Wesley revealed what it was like to work for James Brown, a notoriously stern disciplinarian who would levy fines for unshined shoes or sour notes during a performance. “Oh yeah, he was a taskmaster, all right,” Wesley says. “I think it was necessary though, cause if you ever saw his show, it was a wonderful show. Hardly any mistakes. If you know that something is gonna happen to you if you make a mistake, you probably won’t make it.”
Wesley believes that Brown’s motivation was insecurity. “To be who he is and when you consider the contributions that he’s made to music, and for him to be so protective of himself, I think it is because of insecurity. But you must understand that he came from absolutely nothing. He was living in the street. I grew up in a protected environment, and I’ve always felt secure wherever I was, or whatever I was doing. I never had to scratch and fight for anything. Considering how I was raised, and how he was raised, in the streets and had to fight for everything including food and a place to sleep, that would make you a little insecure. So even though it made him sort of a rough person to deal with, I do understand why he is like he is. And that’s why we can remain friends today.”
Wesley got the experience he would use with Brown and later with George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic courtesy of his father. “My father had a band, and he would use me as a baseball team would use a utility player,” he says. “Whatever he needed, he got me to do it. He brought a trombone home one day and said ‘look, I need a trombone player in the band. Learn how to play this.’” Wesley says he developed his unique style playing so many different instruments and so many styles of music, performing Dixieland, big band jazz and even bebop at the age of 14 or 15 years old.
His first professional job was with Ike and Tina Turner. Wesley got his first taste of working for a demanding boss. “I’ve seem [Ike] be physical with guys in the band and some of the girls and even Tina. But I appreciate the fact that he was a good businessman. My money was always right. As long as you took care of business with him, everything was all right.” Turner gave the young trombonist his first lesson in how to entertain. “Before that, I was just playing a part,” he says. “But when I saw the Ike and Tina Review, it taught me how to make music entertaining.”
After a short stint with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, Wesley joined Brown’s band in ’68, but left in ’70 after an argument with Brown about the music. “At the time I didn’t see why I should take any flack from anybody. I thought I was a hot young thing. He knew he knew what he wanted and I thought I knew what I wanted.”
He was back with Brown in ’71, and was soon Brown’s musical director. “He provided a platform for me to do my thing,” Wesley says. “But most of the ideas–I never would have come up with titles like “Pass the Peas” or “Get on the Good Foot”–those rhythms, those horn parts, were really James Brown’s basic ideas. I just organized his ideas into musical terms, into a musical form. He was the real creative force behind all that music.”
Wesley could easily take credit for the music. At one point, it seemed like the sideman was in charge. But Wesley says that his stuff is more jazz oriented, and not nearly as flamboyant or as radical as Brown’s stuff was. “James Brown had the nerve and the lack of musical knowledge to actually change music,” he says. “By me being a trained musician, he did a lot of things that I would never do because it violated a lot of musical rules. I had the musical ear to teach me how to violate and get away with it. His energy is what makes unmusical things turn out musical, because the energy behind it made it work and it pulled it together. When he got in front of the band and started stompin’ his foot and screamin’ and sweatin’–they just locked together. It’s the magic of James Brown. He is a magic person.”
But Wesley saw how the tricks were done and wanted to perform them himself. He has said that going from Brown to his next gig with George Clinton was like getting out of jail and joining the circus.
“George was a big James Brown fan too,” he says. “He never told me what to do–just said ‘just give me something really hip–just do what you feel.’ Clinton’s real talent was organizing all these different ideas into great works of art. All those albums–The Mothership Connection, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein–all everybody’s ideas put together and then organized. They called it quality control.”
These days Wesley does his own quality control, touring Europe and a few dates throughout the states as the Fred Wesley Jazz-Funk explosion. But after the first of the year, Wesley’s going back to his funky roots. “I’m gonna take my name back from James Brown and from George Clinton. It’s gonna be Fred Wesley and the JBs featuring the Horny Horns. I’m sure I’ll be sued, but if my good friends sue me, so what,” the trombonist chuckles.
“I’m really gonna get back to my funky self,” Fred Wesley says earnestly. “Keep your ear to the ground. I’ll be back.”