The soul sideman

Formerly James Brown's bandleader, Fred Wesley coming here for 4 shows.

Fred Wesley 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Fred Wesley 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I thought he was a screaming sissy, with all that makeup and big hair," recalls Fred Wesley about being asked in 1968 to join James Brown's band - the JBs - as a trombonist. "I would have preferred to have been called by someone like Ray Charles, that's who I really wanted to play with. But I needed the job. Fortunately, once I got into the JBs, it was a different story. James wasn't that way at all," the 65-year-old lifelong musician adds during a relaxed phone conversation from his South Carolina home. Eyes opened to Brown's unsurpassable talents, Wesley went on blend his trombone with the sax of Pee Wee Ellis and trumpet of Maceo Parker to create one of the most legendary, soulful horn sections in rock history. And within a couple years, he became the JBs' bandleader, a sound that he's resurrecting with his big, seven-piece funky band, The New JBs - featuring that same classic three-piece horn sound. The band is pegged to play four shows in Israel, two on February 6th at Zappa in Herzliya and two the next night at Zappa in Tel Aviv. Wesley was born in Columbus, Georgia, the son of a high school teacher and big band leader, and from an early age, he knew he was destined to make music. "I loved jazz, and I was taking piano lessons when I was young. My father came home one day with a trombone," recalls Wesley. "I started fooling around with it, and he said if I could learn how to play it, I could be in his band. So I ended up jamming with his band when I was 12. I didn't really do other things, music was my life. I knew that's what I wanted to do." Barely out of his teens, Wesley was playing in a pre-Tina band with Ike Turner, when he was drafted into the army. It was only a short time after his release in '68 that he got the call from Brown. "I was back in my hometown and when James Brown came calling saying he was looking for a trombone player, I was ready," says Wesley with a hearty laugh. Wesley played on a number of Brown hits, including "Say it Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud" and "Mother Popcorn," and he cowrote songs like "Hot Pants." "'The Payback' was one of my favorites, and 'Doing It To Death.' I guess the one that has paid me the most money is 'Papa, Don't Take No Mess,' which has been sampled a lot," he says. Wesley recalls that the bands possessed a natural chemistry, especially his horn section partners, Ellis and Parker. "It wasn't so difficult to get the horn arrangements down. The whole band would get together, we'd work out the rhythm, and then we worked out the horn parts. We were a tight band, played real good together, and we were tight on the road as well, we socialized real good too," he adds. Wesley explains that he took on the role of bandleader with some trepidation, since Brown wasn't the easiest boss to work for, and over time it wore him down. "It was a lot of hard work, but I enjoyed it. James was never difficult at the beginning, he never yelled at me or anything. He just knew what he wanted, and that was the way it was going to be. He was a strict man, and had a lot of insecurities. So he needed to exert his authority over you. He always kept a lot of pressure on, I always felt it," says Wesley. THROUGHOUT THE early 1970s, Wesley had established himself as one of the era's top horn players and he attracted the attention of super funksters Bootsy Collins and George Clinton, who were forging their own unique brand of black music with their various projects, including Parliament, P. Funk, Funkadelic and Bootsy's Rubber Band. They asked Wesley to jump ship, and by 1975, he was ready for a change. "I left Brown because I had had enough of his rules and his picking on me. I just had enough. I was getting calls from Bootsy and George, and I decided to go with them," says Wesley. "They weren't like James at all. Everything was a party, and everyone was encouraged to contribute ideas. With James, everything had to be his own way, he was afraid of losing control. I moved into a situation which was much more democratic." Wesley played in every configuration of the Parliament/Funkadelic empire, helping to raise funk music to a new level, and even recording a couple of albums as the leader of a spin-off group, The Horny Horns. But his musical wanderlust, and his childhood love of jazz, drew him in a different direction, and in 1978, Wesley joined the band of his dreams - The Count Basie Orchestra. "Jazz was always my first love, and I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to play with Count Basie," says Wesley. "I couldn't play up to the standard when I joined, Count has a certain kind of phrasing and method of interpreting his music. After a while you begin to get it, but it took me some time." Stepping out on his own a decade later, Wesley issued a string of jazz albums, and ended up recording with his idol Ray Charles, along with a who's who in the jazz/R&B world, like Lionel Hampton, Randy Crawford, Vanessa Williams, The SOS Band, Cameo and Van Morrison. In the early 1990s, he began touring with his old Brown bandmates Ellis and Parker as the JB Horns, and its various permutations have kept him on the road ever since. A New JBs show, he says, is like an overview of his career. "We do some jazzy rock, some James Brown material, some of my original music, all the things I've been through," says Wesley. Peter Madsen, the keyboard player in the New JBs, told the magazine All About Jazz that Wesley was one of the most natural musicians he's ever played with. "Fred can really play jazz. He's got the most beautiful sound and he loves bebop to death. After playing with Fred for the past eight years or so, I've discovered that a lot of musicians in the funk world can play jazz," said Masden, adding that the band's shows display the "full scope of American popular music from funk to jazz to blues to hip-hop to R&B." While he's never strayed from his musical path, Wesley has made a couple of related side stops, including in 2002 writing Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman, an autobiography about his life as a sideman. And from 2004 to 2006, he served as an adjunct professor in the Jazz Studies department of the School of Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, an experience that also taught him something. "I didn't like it too much. The students were great. But it takes a certain kind of person to be a music teacher, and I'm not that person. I can write a book about the way I play trombone, but one-on-one teaching just wasn't for me," says Wesley. He feels more comfortable jamming onstage, and in Herzliya and Tel Aviv, that's precisely what he plans to do.