By Mike Zwerin
14 July 2003Fred Wesley says that the name of his recently
released record "Wuda Cuda Shuda" recorded in a studio in
the outskirts of Paris for his own label Hip Bop Records sums up all
his excuses for not having made an album in five years. Mostly,
though, he loves the title's groove: "Even if you can't
understand it there's a good bounce to it."
A song he
wrote and sings reveals his fantasies about a tall and silky-skinned
black fashion model named Beulah Baptist. He's only ever seen her on
the pages of Jet and Ebony magazine, and says he
doesn't particularly want to meet her: "It's not about the person
so much as the bounce in the name Beulah Baptist. It's about a groove."
Having spent more than ten years as James Brown's
trombonist, arranger and musical director, Fred Wesley is acutely
aware of the importance of a groove.
Now winding up a
European tour at the New Morning in Paris, he was one of the original
architects of what came to be called funk music. Wesley, saxophonists
Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis and bassist Bootsy Collins all became
funk stars on their own thanks to their James Brown credentials. Being
a funk star invariably involves clowning around on stage. Wesley would
do what had to be done, but being an entertainer was a means not an
end for him.
His goal was to become the best and most
complete professional musician possible. If this required making funny
faces - "I would die of embarrassment sometimes" - and being
a yes-man, so be it. Earning his PhD from the James Brown School of
Soul Music involved a certain amount of research in insensitivity.
When Wesley became Brown's musical director in 1971, "Soul
Brother Number One" had just signed a contract with Polydor
Records. It stipulated the delivery of a number of LPs a year.
Previously, Brown had only released singles. A lot of product was now
required and Wesley began to work with professional studio musicians
in New York.
Brown's funk tunes were often based on the personal groove of his
drummer. There were four drummers. "Mr. Brown would hum and grunt
and groan stuff to me," Wesley explains: "Ideas, riffs.
Where I came in was to make music out of them. I would have to go and
write up my scribblings and make them sound like a masterpiece."
Adding percussion, bass lines and horn arrangements for such hits as "Say
It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," Wesley used instrumentalists
such as Randy and Michael Brecker, Joe Farrell (who doubled on oboe: "Mr.
Brown really liked the oboe") and Steve Gadd who were in demand
in the studios in part because they were good at turning scribblings
"You know how some cats can get real
cold on you?" Wesley asks. "Not these guys. They were so
nice and positive and helpful. 'Here, let me show you how to do that,'
they'd say." A good pupil, Wesley later arranged for the horn
sections of Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy's Rubber Band and P-Funk,
and for a band he led called the Horny Horns.
This was not
the style of music that had been in his mind when he first started to
learn the trombone back home in Mobile, Alabama. His ambition was to
play bebop as well as his hero J.J.
Johnson and to join Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers some day.
Although Wesley's life took him in a more commercial direction, he
figured: "A gig is a gig. At least I'm still making music and not
Eventually, however, he got sick and
tired of "always playing in the key of D." He resigned,
moved from Los Angeles with his wife and children to Manning, South
Carolina, her birthplace, and settled down to write his memoirs.
Titled Hit Me, Fred, they were published last year by Duke
University Press. There was no ghost, his son taught him how to use a
In it, he is careful to repeat how much he
admires "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business" as a
musician, an entertainer and a social activist, but James Brown was
not exactly famous for being a fair-play employer. His musicians
called their salary an "aggravation fee." Wesley was
expected to say things like "'Yes sir, Mr. Brown, you're right,
Mr. Brown and anything you say, Mr. Brown.' I was Mr. Brown's trophy
boy. He showed me off to people in the industry. 'Mr. Wesley here will
go far in this business because he listens to what I tell him. He does
what I say.'"
After surviving basic training in the
army near Colombia, Wesley "swore to God and a few other reliable
people that if I ever got out of there, I was never going to set foot
on South Carolina soil again." Now, he's living there: "Manning
is a small town, and I can get all my errands done before ten o'clock
in the morning. These people are about the nicest white people in the
"Of course you have good and bad people of both
races, but in Manning we seem to have learned to put the past behind
us. We're all just people who have to get from here to there in this
has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for
the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The
Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book called "Parisian
Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor