James Brown, Bootsy Collins, and the Birth of a Sound
If it’s true that James Brown really was The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business—and there’s ample evidence in RJ Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown that he just might have been—then the members of his bands, all the various members from all the various bands, would have to be tied for a close second. The martial discipline he enforced—fines levied, curfews imposed, days-off denied, even ideas poached—made for a frequent turnover in musical personnel, often en masse. When band-members left, it often broke him, but then the fresh blood came right in and brought new life all over again. It makes you wonder if Brown’s special kind of crazy really knew what it was doing all along.
Take the matter of Bootsy Collins. We might as well; it’s one of the odder stories Smith has to tell, and one of the best-sourced. That’s really saying something, right there, but it’s also one of the most consequential, at least for those of us who grew up on (first in the form of sampled rap breaks, and then, retroactively, the original songs themselves) the sound Bootsy and Brown made together. Bootsy soon took the sound with him to George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, where it got refined and amplified, and that’s a part of the story too, of course, a big part. But I don’t know if anyone’s told the first part of the story more subtly or substantially than Smith does here.
Bootsy and his brother Catfish, and the rest of these guys who called themselves the Pacesetters, used to hang around outside the King Records recording studio, in Cincinnati in the late sixties, like a bunch of day-laborers pining for work, if not with Brown himself then perhaps with some other artist from King. At first the kids were ignored, and worse. “But once they heard us playing,” Bootsy tells Smith, “and word started getting around, that’s when things changed.” They got thrown some studio work with King’s lesser recording artists, and then they were allowed to tour with some of the acts that Brown produced, but they were still a long way from being a part of Brown’s band.
But in 1970, Brown had one of those personnel eruptions that were becoming routine. This time the band actually cornered him before a gig on the road and presented him with a written list of grievances. Collective bargaining, you know. But Brown had his own kind of bargaining. It arrived in the form of a private Learjet full of Pacesetters, and it arrived in time for the next show, in Columbus, Georgia. It was the first time Bootsy Collins had ever been on an airplane. James Brown now had another new band.
That first show went off without a hitch. Just because they’d never played the songs before doesn’t mean they didn’t know them. Bootsy brought along the same guitar he’d always had, the one he had when he still played rhythm like his brother Catfish, before he’d strung it up to play bass: “a $29.95 puke green Silvertone model his mom had bought for him at Sears,” as Smith describes it. “Bootsy [had] played the hell out of it, and even won a competition when he was eight by playing Lonnie Mack’s ‘Memphis,’ a huge hit recorded at King.”
Now here he was with that same guitar, backstage and triumphant, flush with cash having played a gig with the man who reigned at King. “Son, I love what you do with that bass,” Brown told him, “but you can’t come in here with that thing.”
Brown set him up with a brand-new Fender, and Smith is at his finest in describing just what it was Bootsy did with the Fender from there:
Collins made you sit up and listen. His playing had sap flowing through it, it moved. Surely it had something to do with playing the bass like a guitar at first and thus reinventing the fifth wheel, and surely it had something to do with being a skinny, tall kid whose gawky youthfulness stuck out all over the stage—he wasn’t going to hide, might as well own it all. If the standard bass player kept the beat, laid down a stout foundation for the other instruments, then Collins was playing something else, because he wanted to play against the beat, and write his name with his playing, not enable someone else’s excellence.
Brown must have known as well as anyone that the bass was assuming an unprecedentedly prominent place in soul music. Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone, James Jamerson of Motown, and, God knows, Charles Mingus, were all taking what had been place-holding background noise and making it a medium for conspicuous virtuosity. (In the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Bootsy talks extensively of the spell Jamerson, in particular, had cast over him in those years.) So Brown saw all of this happening. At least one conspiracy theorist from inside, the drummer Frank Waddy, believes that Brown had planned to have the Pacesetters come in from about five moves away—that he’d been grooming the band and their bass for that gig in Columbus, Georgia, long before the gig ever even existed.
We’ll never know. We just know what happened after. Bootsy’s bass fit perfectly as the new means for carrying the One, James Brown’s own pet name for the style of funk that found its emphasis on the one and the three beats—the upbeat rather than the downbeat, because “[t]he upbeat,” as Brown once philosophized, “is rich, the downbeat is poor. Stepping up proud only happens on the aggressive ‘One,’ not the passive Two, and never on lowdownbeat,” the four. Previously, the drums had instigated the One; now it was the bass. And all of Bootsy’s influences—not just on the bass, but everything from Black Sabbath to Bitches Brew—were finding their way, through him, into Brown’s funk.
Brown taught Bootsy the funk, and then Bootsy’d go and teach it right back to him. It was collaborative like that. Brown liked collaboration—collaboration never scared him. He never felt threatened by stellar playing within his band, even if it meant attention being diverted from himself once in a while. “For all his world historic ego,” writes Smith, “Brown was amazingly selfless when it came to giving strong players strong roles to play.” You listen to “Sex Machine,” or “Soul Power” or “Talkin’ Loud” or “Super Bad”—those songs, without Bootsy’s bass figures, wouldn’t even be songs, certainly not the songs they are. (Brown, not surprisingly, kept another bass player around, to do most of the ballads.)
It’s almost like Brown became the father Bootsy’d never really had. That’s always a positive thing, but never entirely positive. This was new authority to rebel against, and to be a rebel within Brown’s band didn’t take much. Sometimes all it took was demanding the pay you’d been promised. That’s how it came about that Bootsy and the guys ended up in the same spot the band they’d replaced had been in. It was cyclical, their own cycle lasting almost exactly one year.
It wasn’t just a thing with the money, either. All the disciplinary strictures that had driven away the others now drove away Bootsy and the rest of the old Pacemakers. “Later,” Smith writes, “Collins thanked Brown for pushing them so hard, saying that all the rigors and rehearsals had made him a far better musician. When he heard it, Brown looked mystified; he didn’t realize he had been pushing them. Just doing it the only way he knew how.” Catfish and Waddy ended up with Bootsy in George Clinton’s outfit, after they’d all been collectively and essentially re-discovered by P-Funk singer Mahllia Franklin. Bootsy went on to do some amazing things—moving, innovative, even revelatory things—first with Clinton and then fronting his own Rubber Band. He’s doing some of them still, and you can be sure other musicians are, too. He’d never have been able to do them with Brown, any more than he would have without him.
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