James Brown billed himself as the hardest-working man in show business, but he also ranked among the hardest men to work for in the music industry.
In March 1970, his band quit, citing unsatisfactory pay. Needing a new group on short notice, the Godfather of Soul hired the Pacemakers, an unheralded four-piece out of Cincinnati that included a precociously funky 17-year-old bassist named William “Bootsy” Collins and his older brother, rhythm guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins.
Brown renamed the Pacemakers, calling them the JBs, with his customary humility. In the preceding years, Soul Brother No. 1 had helped invent funk, but by recruiting Bootsy and Catfish Collins, Mr. Dynamite lit the fuse for an explosion of exponential and thermonuclear proportions that continues to send funkalicious shock waves of rump-shaking righteousness reverberating in soulful ripples through the infinite dimensions of the multiverse.
The Collins Brothers played with the Godfather for less than a year, but during those eleven months, they laid down some of the hardest funk of Brown’s career, , including “Super Bad,” “Soul Power,” and “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.”
Over the drummer’s basic beat, Bootsy played bass like a lead instrument, with pulsing, melodic syncopation, creating infectious and intricate interlocking grooves with the strumming, scratching and picking of Catfish’s equally funky rhythm guitar. Brass blasts, organ accents and the vocal improvisations of Mr. Dynamite further funkified each track.
The instrumental “These are the JBs” shows the preposterous power of the Collins Brothers in this era.
Bootsy did not go out of his way to endear himself to Soul Brother No. 1. “I was just a snotty kid,” he said. “I would spend my time smoking weed and taking LSD at the back of the bus while listening to Jimi [Hendrix], and no one ever played anyone else’s music on James Brown’s bus. But the deep thing is, every crazy thing I pulled I got away with because I could hold my own with my axe.”
In 1971, Bootsy and Catfish shook off their sideman shackles and took their funkiness into outer space by boarding the Mothership and blasting off to join George Clinton and the Parliament-Funkadelic musical collective.
The creative freedom unleashed Bootsy as a writer, musician and performer. “George is the doctor,” the bassist explained. “He allowed me to experiment in his lab.”
Musically, the Collins Brothers busted loose from Brown’s formalism and rocketed into uncharted solar systems of distorted and effects-laden funk.
As a performer, Bootsy shed his formerly awkward teenage stage presence and became P-Funk’s Bootzilla, a flamboyant rhinestone-studded ambassador from unknown epochs and galaxies, playing his “space bass” while tripping out behind mirrored star-shaped sunglasses: “I come equipped with stereophonic funk producin´ disco inducin´ twin magnetic rock receptors.”
With several members of P-Funk, the bassist formed Bootsy’s Rubber Band and had a #1 hit with “Bootzilla,” an audacious statement of purpose featuring his own delightfully goofy vocals.
He was lucky to have survived the ’70s. “Well, you have to imagine kind of like an orgy scene,” he remembered. “Imagine a lot of chicks and people walking around naked — people doing the wild thing everywhere. Everyone’s taking LSD, smoking weed, no one is scared of doing anything. Whatever you can think of, do it! And it was like that before the gig, on the way to the gig, during the gig and after the gig. Truly, the freak show never ended. I took LSD every day for at least two years, right up until the point I began feeling like I was living in another world.”
Despite his solo success, Bootsy has always remained a congenial collaborator.
In 1984, he and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads formed a one-off band called Bonzo Goes to Washington. They tried futilely to derail Ronald Reagan’s reelection by recording “Five Minutes,” a funky track built around loops of the Gipper joking about the nuclear annihilation of the Soviet Union.
Bootsy later contributed his vocal talents and funky bass to Digital Underground’s “Doowutchyalike” (1989) and to Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” (1990). “I like being out front, doing what I do, but then I also like playing in a band too,” he explained. “I’d like to do stuff like I did with Deee-lite. I went out and [toured] with them and they were the stars, that was cool.”
He remains a potent creative force. His most recent album, Tha Funk Capital of the World (2013), is outstanding, featuring hilarious and soulful collaborations with Cornel West, Samuel L. Jackson, Buckethead, Al Sharpton, Snoop Dogg and several P-Funk alumni, including Catfish.
Asked to define his genre, Bootsy said, “Funk is the absence of any and everything you can think of, but the very essence of all that is. And saying that, I’m saying funk is anything that we create in our minds that we want to do, what we want to be, but we don’t have the resources.”
Bootsy laments how technology has allowed many artists to record soulless tracks without developing the real collaborative chemistry that comes from jamming and playing live music: “ “I came up playing with people…. We depended on each other and that encouraged unity, togetherness. We learned to play with what we had — that’s what funk is…. The smartphones and the computer separates everybody, makes you think that you don’t need nobody else…. People nowadays aren’t used to playing with each other because they don’t have to…. When I play with other people… It’s a give-and-take thing. You have to listen to other people’s ideas, and that’s a great thing. We’ve kind of forgotten how to do that.”
Born today in 1951, he cites Catfish and Jimi Hendrix as his biggest influences. “My brother was very important to me. And he played guitar. So that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a guitar player. So he was the first one to inspire me to do something with my life.”
“I feel like this is my time to do something good…. Catfish was taken last year…. Before anyone else is taken, I want to set the blueprint, acknowledge the ones who came before us. You should always pass it on — that’s what Jimi said. Jimi couldn’t hang as they made him play the same stuff over and over again. He had to leave us. The flesh… was holding him back. He was so ahead, the world couldn’t keep up. But Jimi left me behind to carry on his work, so that’s what I’m going to do. I just hope I’m making him proud.”
Bootsy works to keep music alive through his online Funk University. Bootsy’s Facebook feed constantly features young musicians. “I used to draw stickmen with star glasses when I was at school. I didn’t realize that would end up being me! The whole idea was that the glasses had mirrors, and if a youngster looked at me, they’d see themselves. Everybody is a star.”
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