Bootsy Collins: Shaking Things Up

Rob Hochschild
February 27, 2008
Bootsy Collins greets students in the Berklee Performance Center.
Photo by Brian Diescher

This February, Berklee is all about the funk. Nearly every week brings another giant from bands like James Brown's, Parliament-Funkadelic, or Tower of Power. And if the trend means that more Berklee students are bent over their instruments trying to find the kind of fire that makes people get up on the dance floor, the college is clearly helping make the world a better place.

One of the main reasons for the recent spate of funk superstars appearing at Berklee is Barbara Thomas, major gifts coordinator in the Office of Institutional Advancement.

Thomas has worked in the music business for many years, and when she joined the Berklee staff recently, she brought along a long list of major industry contacts. She also happens to be the daughter-in-law of vocalist Grady Thomas, who was a member of the original Parliament lineup.

Thomas's friendships and connections helped attract bassist Bootsy Collins, lynchpin of bands led by James Brown and George Clinton. On February 7, Collins presented two sessions at Berklee. In the afternoon, he sat on stage while the student P-Funk ensemble performed, and then he talked about the band he joined in 1972. During an evening Q+A session, Collins took questions from students on many subjects.

"Bootsy was thrilled. He was totally blown away," says Thomas about Collins's reaction to being at Berklee. "They were all blown away," she added, referring to recent visits by Tower of Power bassist Rocco Prestia and trombone great Fred Wesley (James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic), both of whom Thomas brought to Berklee.

"They all think it's important to share their experiences, not only as musicians but from a personal standpoint," Thomas said. "They also felt it was important for them to tell these students honestly about the pros and cons of the business and to help them avoid the same mistakes they made."

The recent visits from famous funksters fits nicely with the theme of this year's Africana Studies calendar of events, A Year in Soul Music Traditions. Artists on the calendar who have already visited include DJ Grandmaster Flash, keyboardist/composer/producer George Duke, and producer Michael Powell. Among the Africana Studies-sponsored artists still to come this semester are vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Nnenna Freelon.