Monday, August 19, 2013

Fred Wesley

Photo by Ray Ellis

            Having missed him, not only at Marciac but also during his recent European tour, it might be appropriate to do a Trombone Hero post on Fred Wesley whose autobiography, "Hit Me, Fred!", I just finished. This could be the best, most honest book about a musician's life that I ever read.  Anyone who wants to know what that life is like and every musician who's ever supported a "star" at any level (and that's most of us) ought to read this book. Fred, who made his name and reputation by working for James Brown, then George Clinton and Bootsie Collins, tells his story with humor and candor.

            The discovery of Fred and his music happened sometime during the early years of my life in New York City, where Uncle Sam saw fit to send me late in 1987. Close to the Javits Building in Lower Manhattan, where I worked, was J&R Music, one of the world's greatest record stores, and the Strand, the world's greatest used book store, was a not too far walk up Broadway. A couple of blocks from the Stand was a huge Tower Records and these three places soon became my favorite places to screw off and maintain a tenuous grasp on sanity while slowly going broke.

            I bought the 1990 album, Fred Wesley, New Friends on one of these metal health sallies but the sparse liner notes said next to nothing about Fred. The late '70s and '80s were musical dark ages for me mainly because I stopped turning on the radio (there wasn't much on it anyway) and just sort of stagnated into pre -1975 jazz and blues based rock. In short, all Fred Wesley's work with James Brown and P-Funk became a revelation to me and I've been looking for the chance to hear him live ever since.

            In his book, Fred talks about how his desire to play jazz and succeed as a bebopper bumped up against the realities of making a living as a musician. It lead him to take the gig with James Brown and his ability to get along with "the hardest working man in show business" in turn lead to his running the band and doing the bulk of the arranging for the "JB Horns". Between this and his work with P-Funk and George Clinton, Fred might be able to claim the biggest influence any trombone player's ever had on any particular genre of music, with the possible exception of Willie Colon. Personally, if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to pick a trombone player to copy, Funky Fred might be the one. And every horn band in America owes a large part of their existence to Fred Wesley.

            Thanks to YouTube, a lot of Fred's stuff with James Brown is available so I would urge you to check him out. As for me, I'm hoping while he was over here he developed a taste for fine wines, like Bordeaux. In the meantime, here's Fred last year at Vienne, plus an interview and a little of what we missed this year in Marciac.

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