Sometimes the interview goes better than you could have planned – you’re into it, you want it to go well but the person on the other end of the line is a total pro, more than they they seem real – even if it’s the Staged-Interview Version of Real. So it was for me with Mr. Fred Wesley. He was coming to New Zealand in 2013 for one show. And though I wouldn’t get to the show I’m glad I didn’t turn down the opportunity to talk to him. It was fun. He was great…
Fred Wesley is a living legend. He played with James Brown and George Clinton – more than that, he wrote and arranged for them; he created the charts for some of the best horn-sections in the business; he drove the band for the notoriously tough (and hardworking) showman James Brown. He helped to translate Clinton’s often surreal funk shapes into brutal, blunt, brilliant sliced and diced soul, jazz, and rock ideas – sharp classical and jazz training helping him to assist with freak-out psychedelic musical moments.
As soon as he gets on the line to plug the show and trace around the best moments of his career he’s excited. And he’s funny.
“Noo Zealan? You are the first person I have ever talked to in an interview-type situation from Noo Zealan! But I love Noo Zealan! Me and Noo Zealan got a special connection. You might know my good friend, Lucy Lawless”.
It transpires that Lawless and Wesley met once, briefly, backstage at a TV event. And when he gives the game up he lets out a long chuckle and adds, “she seems real nice though! I like Lucy Lawless!”
Wesley says he tours for two reasons now, firstly he “wouldn’t know how to do much else anymore” and secondly, most importantly he believes, “there’s a responsibility to share this great music. I been making music my whole life, some of it with James [Brown] and George [Clinton] and Bootsy [Collins] and Maceo [Parker] and so many great people. And I’ve kept on with it; kept making the music. And it’s an honour, a true honour, to serve this music – to give this music to the people. Because it’s great. It’s great music”.
Wesley took to the trombone when he was a child (“it’s always been in my life”). His father brought it home one day – Wesley had started on trumpet and piano at an earlier age.
Army band training was crucial, Wesley says “great band, great way to learn big band chops” and – perhaps at odds with how he’s perceived as a player – this legendary funk sideman remains a lifelong jazz fan; more than that he’s sure he’s always been playing exactly that.
“I’d get these people telling me I was a funky trombone player, that they ain’t never heard the ‘bone played that way but I tell you now, same as I said then, I just play this thing; I just play the way I play. Wasn’t ever any aim to play funk music or to be funky – it was never conscious. I can’t tell you what I did to sound that way. I just played. It’s just the sound that comes out. Far as I’m concerned I’ve always been playing jazz”.
But in the 1960s Wesley was part of a killer band working with James Brown. And he found himself elevated to leading the horn section, to running the band.
“That was big”. Then there’s a pause. And then a burst of laughter. “See I just had to take on that role when Pee Wee [Ellis] left. I’d worked closely with Pee Wee and I’d learned a lot but the role just sorta fell on me when Pee Wee walked. I had to watch him closely to gauge how James worked”.
“James was tough” – more laughter, wry, a nostalgic moment – “he was tough. But he was fair. When you knew how he worked you just got on and did the job. I mean the thing I always say, the thing I always remember, the thing I always think back to is that I always made money with James Brown. You know what I mean. Always”.
Wesley’s list of responsibilities grew – from playing to arranging and then writing. He had a hand in some of James Brown’s memorable hits, playing on Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud (of which Wesley says he’s still “extremely proud – so proud that the song exists and then that I got to play that thing too!”) and writing Hot Pants. Among others.
“James was music – you know what I’m saying; he just lived it, breathed it, it moved through him. And that’s where I learned a key rule for being a sideman and that’s to always put your own personality to the side. That is what you do as a sideman”.
So it was on to George Clinton – another “towering musical personality” and to more work where Wesley was sure he was still playing jazz even when he was told he was playing funk.
“Thing with George was cool man, it was exciting. And George is just excitement. He really is. I mean I was there for Mothership Connection and The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein and this is some pretty cool stuff. But I gotta tell ya, everything that George did was the best. He was weird and he was way out and people thought he was strange – there’d be some odd directions at times – but he has a clear mind with music. He knows what he wants, knows how to get it and he was giving some great players plenty of space to create for him; best thing there was this feeling that we could all contribute. It was a tight ship but there was still room to move”.
After the Parliament-Funkadelic excursion Wesley took a job that really was jazz. In 1978 he joined Count Basie’s Orchestra. “Oh man, that was a thrill”, Wesley enthuses. “That was deep. I had listened to Basie and I might have dreamed to work with someone like that – but by this stage I had chops, I knew that, and I had the work in back of me. I’d played with some, ah, real players” – he has another giggle here, aware that understatement will never work.
From there Wesley has worked as an educator, released albums as a bandleader, no longer the sideman and says of his group, “the worst night of my band is still a good night – these cats can play. We work hard, do loads of shows and we know how to knock it out of the park.”
The shows feature charts that Wesley has written – “new things, loads of funky new things sure” and he revisits some of the music from his past jobs working with some of music’s greatest funk and jazz players.
“It’s really fulfilling to serve this music – to be in service to it and to serve it up. We get people young-as man, really young”, another break for a right hoot of laughter, “and they’re having the time of the life, they’re having their lives changed right then and there. And then we get people old as me, you know, and even older…” This thought trails off into laughter.
Wesley says “all those guys, James and George and Maceo and Bootsy and Basie, they were all so big – such big, big personalities and players; great musicians. I just did my thing, knowing they were so much bigger than me. I’d just play. That’s the secret, it ain’t nothing more. Just play. And don’t get in their way, but do make sure to it their way. Do it right”.
Now Wesley is doing it his way, giving people, he believes, “a great night out – a really great night with a really great band”.
He’s excited about the big trip to New Zealand (“they tell me it’s a long way, but I’ll be okay”). Wesley says the music keeps him young, “it keeps me going, I need it and it needs me. We work well together. But you wait until you see this band I got – there are some killer players here. We gonna turn up and do this thing. We gonna do it. We gonna do it for you Mr. Noo Zealan Journalist Man and we gonna do it for your country. And we gonna do it for Lucy Lawless. No doubt”.
Fred Wesley and his killer-good band played The Powerstation, Auckland, Thursday, March 21, 2013.