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Fred Wesley : The Importance of a Groove

"Wuda, Cuda, Shuda"

By Mike Zwerin


PARIS, 14 July 2003—Fred 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.


James 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 into arrangements.

"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 delivering mail."

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 word processor.

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 world.

"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 world together."




Mike Zwerin 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 of Culturekiosque.com.

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