Monday, December 09, 2002

Note: I was thinking of calling the following piece "Here Comes Fred," an ad-lib of Bootsy's on the mesmerizing "Psychoticbumpschool" track on the Stretchin' Out LP, but I didn't think anyone would get it.

The Education of Fred Wesley, Jr.

Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman by Fred Wesley, Jr. Duke University Press. 326 Pages. $29.95.

Fred Wesley Jr. is the Muhammad Ali of sidemen: not only the world's most famous, he says, but the best, with a trombone sound that "has yet to be successfully copied or even imitated." Big talk, but as is true with the champ, no idle boast. As player, arranger, and bandleader first for James Brown and later for George Clinton's stable of late 1970s funk acts -- Parliament/Funkadelic and Bootsy's Rubber Band – and as session player for many others, Wesley was one of the architects of funk. Wesley and sax greats Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis were the nucleus of both Brown’s JB’s and Clinton’s Horny Horns. They gave funk its fire.
But life has been a tough gig. The sad fact of a backing musician’s existence is that at the end of the day the star is still a star and the sideman is just part of the woodwork. Wesley has never gotten over this inequity, and it’s not hard to sympathize. Wesley’s chief nemesis in this regard is Brown, with whom he has a love-hate relationship. What he loves about Brown, is what everyone loves: his dynamic stage presence and extraordinary sense of groove. What he hates is everything else.

As Wesley describes him, Brown is greedy, manipulative, egotistical, selfish, insecure, cruel and -- no surprise to anyone who has followed Brown's story for the last few years – physically abusive to women. He is, also, sometimes downright crazy; Wesley recalls how Brown, feeling he had been disrespected, once pulled a gun on a pilot in midair. According to Wesley, Brown treated band members like slaves. One standard ploy was to encourage them to buy a new house or car; once they were heavily into debt, he would fire them, then take them back at a reduced salary, making them both absolutely dependent on him and an example to others. He was also cheap. Wesley figures that at the height of his fame Brown was pulling down up to half a million weekly, yet keeping his total payroll at $6,000. Brown also had virtually no formal musical knowledge; his tunes, lyrics, trademark grunts and shouts, Wesley says, had to be translated by arrangers like himself or Ellis into actual songs.

What gets to Wesley more than anything, though, is that he was often Brown’s co-enabler, as beholden to him as any other crew member, sucking it in and accepting, sometimes even tacitly encouraging, unfair treatment either of himself or others. Challenging Brown was risky and usually useless, “like being held hostage by real strong, loud, unbeatable ignorance,” he writes. “The kind of ignorance that can make you look crazy if you continue to confront it.” Although he would eventually leave Brown, the Godfather of Soul lives in his mind as the schoolyard bully he should have faced down a long time ago. Wesley gave Brown everything he had and Brown took him for everything he could get.

He wouldn’t be the last. When Wesley deserts Brown for Clinton, he finds an only slightly better arrangement, as Clinton is as hard a man with a dollar as Brown. Still, it leads to some of the best music of his career, as horn arranger and player with Bootsy's Rubber Band, in the process helping to create some classic funk recordings. Anyone who has heard such stellar triumphs as Ah...The Name is Bootsy, Baby and Bootsy? Player of the Year may well agree with Wesley's assessment that the band "was and always will be the funkiest and most dynamic band that ever was."

Wesley would also have some success on his own outings with the JBs, such as the hit “House Party,” a huge mid-70s R&B hit. After that, it’s been up, down and up; a term with Count Basie, a serious drug problem, and, thankfully, a long, slow but successful recovery.

Wesley’s account of his wild ride through the funk revolution often seems less written than transcribed, and it’s in sore need of an editor, especially in the early pages. Wesley recalls more of his early life than any but his closest friends will wish to know and can get a bit foggy when it comes to what’s important. As is true in any musical life, there are a lot of personnel changes throughout the book, but Wesley doesn't always properly introduce the players or give this world the kind of coherence it deserves; he leaves it to the reader, for example, to figure out that the man he refers to only as Jabo is the great drummer John "Jabo" Starks. He doesn’t always finish his stories, either. He tells us how, in a rare confrontation, he refused Brown’s demand to rip-off the sound of David Bowie's "Fame"; what he doesn’t tell us is that Brown ripped it off anyway, with an almost note-for-note copy titled "Hot." (Keep that in mind the next time you hear the Godfather griping about being sampled by rappers.)

There are no such memory problems when it comes to anyone who has crossed Wesley, whether it's Magic Johnson stealing a potential girlfriend, some nobody from way back stiffing him over the price of horn arrangements, or that great singer Solomon Burke reneging on a promised payment (thus making Burke a "low-class motherfucker.")

It is perhaps inevitable that spending a life in someone else’s shadow will leave you with a permanent chip on your shoulder. Wesley nurses a lot of old wounds from the Brown days and after, and the book puts on display both legitimate grievances and innumerable petty slights. He hoards every memory and settles every score. The book is richly informative and has some great stories, but it’s also ragged, ramshackle, and bitter.

Wesley has been on his own now for some years now, and he and that horn of his are still kicking ass worldwide. One finishes the book doubled with admiration for him, but also hopeful that he can, at last, put the past to bed.

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