This past summer, the Philadelphia music community mourned the loss of several noteworthy musicians from iconic funk bands.
- Marvin Isley, bassist for the family’s R&B group, the Isley Brothers, died in June at the age of 56 after losing his battle with diabetes.
- At the age of 56, Garry Shider, the musical director of Parliament-Funkadelic, also died in June due to complications arising from brain and lung cancer.
- Phelps “Catfish” Collins, guitarist of James Brown’s JBs and Parliament-Funkadelic, succumbed to cancer in August at the age of 66.
- Robert Wilson, bass guitarist of the Gap Band, also died in August as a result of a massive heart attack. Wilson was 53.
The untimely deaths of Isley, Shider, Collins, and Wilson serve as a not-so-subtle reminder to music fans that tribute should be paid to ground-breakers while they are still walking the planet earth. Trombonist Fred Wesley, Jr. and alto sax player Maceo Parker are two such trailblazers who deserve their recognition, now.
As the interpretive leader of James Brown’s legendary band, Fred Wesley and the JBs recorded some of the Godfather of Soul’s hottest tracks, including “Superbad,” “Pass the Peas” and “Get on the Good Foot”. Blazing horn solos, featured over Wesley’s melodic arrangements, defined funk music in the early 70’s.
According to saxophonist Maceo Parker, a lot of solos were ‘impromptu’. “He (James Brown) calls out your name. . .you just had to throat it, then hope it’s kinda relative to what is goin’ on,” says Parker as quoted in Rickey Vincent’s Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of The One. “Everything really worked around James.”
In his autobiography “Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman,” Fred Wesley recounts his tumultuous relationship with Brown and paints a sobering picture of the “hardest working man in show business.” James Brown, according to Wesley, was a tyrannical boss who often touted personal accolades resulting from the creative collaboration of uncredited musicians. “I think it was his aura of power that made everyone he came in contact with respect and fear him while in his presence,” shares Fred. “It was the same kind of dominance that slave owners exerted over their slaves,” he candidly adds.
Fred and Maceo’s dissatisfaction with Brown’s management style and business practices would ultimately lead to the union of funk music’s dream team: Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Bootsy Collins, and George Clinton. “Stretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band”, Collins’ first project, was peppered with refugees from James Brown’s horn section, and included arrangements by Fred. The dream team took the P-Funk franchise to another cosmic level in the mid and late 70’s. Although short-lived, Bootsy’s Rubber Band “was and will always be the funkiest and most dynamic band that ever was,” states Fred. See Maceo Parker’s account in Unsung: George Clinton.
Still performing thirty years later, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker’s legacy can be heard in recorded samples of hip hop artists past and present. But genuine music fans should see and hear them live in venues around the world. Learn more about Fred and Maceo’s upcoming performance on Jam Cruise 9 in January 2011. Check out Fred’s schedule/news and Maceo’s current tour schedule in Europe. Legendary masters of jazz and funk music: “Doing it to Death.”