Fred Wesley: Sideman Takes Center Stage

James Sullivan
March 7, 2008
Fred Wesley talks to students at a clinic in Berklee's David Friend Recital Hall.
Fred Wesley takes a bow during his concert in the Berklee Performance Center.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

If Fred Wesley's impressive resume were typed on a scroll, it would stretch longer than the slide of his trombone. Logging more than 40 years in music, he has played with Ike and Tina Turner; Ray Charles; Count Basie; De La Soul; Lionel Hampton; Earth, Wind & Fire; the Gap Band; Barry White; and George Clinton, to name a few.

But his whole identity as a sideman extraordinaire-Wesley is the author of a notably enlightening memoir, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman-is wrapped up in one longstanding gig that inspired the book's title. "Hit me, Fred!" was a nightly invitation to slay the audience with another of the trombonist's generous and exuberant solos. The invitation came courtesy of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, for whom Wesley played and arranged from 1968 to 1975.

When James Brown first said, "Hit me, Fred," it made Wesley a famous trombone player overnight, the 64-year-old musician told a gathering of students and faculty during his recent residency at Berklee.

"Not good," he clarified, "but famous."

Affable and self-effacing, Wesley joked freely about his own limitations. When he joined Count Basie's band after leaving Brown, he claimed, the celebrated bandleader often "cringed" when Wesley blew a clam.

Basie hired him, he said, because he appreciated the way Wesley played his "Blues in C," taking the part of the great trombonist Al Grey. "He should've fired me the first or second night," Wesley cracked.

Funk fans and fellow musicians would beg to differ. Asked to explain what makes a solo funky, Wesley acknowledged one of the great mysteries of popular music. "The way you deliver it makes it funky-the phrasing," he began, then admitted there may, in fact, be no way to teach it.

His own son, he said, can read music and has masterful technique on the trombone. "But he didn't get the funk," Wesley said with a smile.

Raised in Mobile, Alabama, home of future James Brown bandmates John "Jabo" Starks (drums) and the late Bernard Odum (bass), Wesley had a musical upbringing. At age four he was playing cymbals in a church band; by 12 he'd taken over the trombone seat in his father's big band. The elder Wesley used young Fred to fill whatever holes he had, at one point recruiting the boy to sing first soprano in the choir, Wesley recalled with a laugh.

Leaning back on a stool with his hands folded over his belly, the trombonist explained that his introduction to the James Brown Revue came in the form of a recommendation by trumpeter Waymon Reed, a band member he'd befriended years earlier when Reed's two-man band played with a circus in Mobile. In the beginning, the new hire ran errands and wrote charts for Brown's musical director, Pee Wee Ellis.

"I was Pee Wee's slave, so to speak," Wesley said.

After playing on such funk cornerstones as "Give It Up or Turnit a Loose," "Mother Popcorn," and "Say It Loud—I'm Black and I'm Proud," Wesley found himself suddenly in charge of a rotating group of untested young players—the J.B.s—when Brown's veteran band quit en masse in a pay dispute in early 1970. Wesley's emerging leadership would produce signature tunes, including "Make It Funky," "Get on the Good Foot," and "The Payback," and he found himself writing huge chunks of James Brown albums such as Black Caesar and Hell.

Though Brown could be a notorious hothead, he grew to respect Wesley. "Most of what I did was cool with him after he fussed about it," said the trombonist.

Wesley also stayed busy recording side projects, often under his own name and with the J.B.s, which have become classics in their own right.

"Every three or four months I get a check for songs like 'Doing It to Death' and 'Gimme Some More,' " he said. "I never expected them to be big hits."

On Tuesday he called one of those side projects, the 1974 single "Breakin' Bread," "probably the first rap tune."

You heard right, he said with a grin: "I'm the first rapper." It was, he said, the song's simple C to B flat structure that made it work: "You can rap over that any way you want."

With Brown, Wesley said, he learned not to take musical orthodoxy too seriously. "There are certain things you can't explain," he said, adding that Brown "taught him how to break the rules and make it likable."

Perhaps most importantly, he learned that it's sometimes best to step back and let the music do its own thing.

"What I do is so simple it's hard," he said. "If I figure out how to teach it, I'm gonna write another book."