Q&A: Fred Wesley

JBs Doing It To Death album coverMany of you reading this have at one time or another danced and grooved to the lyrics “gonna have a funky good time!” The lyrics belong to the classic funk tune “Doing it to Death,” recorded by James Brown’s band Fred Wesley & the JB’s. Welsey played on many of Brown’s hit recordings such as “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Mother Popcorn” and “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” Wesley is an accomplished and renowned funk and jazz musician who has worked with many artists including Parliament-Funkadelic, Ray Charles, Lionel Hampton, Randy Crawford and many others. His music has been sampled by many rappers and recording artists, most notably “The Payback” which Wesley co-wrote with James Brown and John Starks. Have a “funky good time” as you read this interview with this musical genius and legend.

SoulTrain.com: Who or what inspired you to be a musician?

Fred Wesley: My father was a musician and my grandmother was a pianist. Music was always around me.

SoulTrain.com: You took piano and trumpet lessons as a child, but when you were 12, your dad bought you a trombone, which would become the main instrument you were noted for.

Fred Wesley photo

Fred Wesley

Fred Wesley: My father insisted I play the trombone because he needed a trombonist in his band. Playing the trombone was a way of getting music out of my heart.

SoulTrain.com: When did you first meet James Brown?

Fred Wesley: I first met him in 1968. I didn’t want to play in his band at the time because I was into jazz. But I got the gig and I stayed with his band for seven years.

SoulTrain.com: Other than performing with James Brown as a part of the JBs, what are some of you fondest memories of working with him?

Fred Wesley: Doing the movie scores for Black Caesar and Slaughters Big Ripoff. I didn’t know anything about writing music for movies at the time but I learned a lot. I also wrote some tunes for those scores and it was a very good experience.

SoulTrain.com: What are some of your favorite recordings as a part of the JBs?

Fred Wesley: “Doing It to Death.” That was a great song.. That was an impromptu tune that we came up with in the recording studio. My other favorites are “Hot Pants,” “The Payback” and “Get on the Good Foot.”

SoulTrain.com: James Brown had this musical process called on the one, which he utilized on a lot of his records, especially on Get on the Good Foot.

Fred Wesley: I never understood what he meant by “the one.”  The bass line didn’t start on the one but it started at the end of the one. But I eventually got it.

SoulTrain.com: What was the process of helping to write The Payback?

Fred Wesley: James and I actually wrote “The Payback” for a third movie score that was intended for the film Hell Up in Harlem. The writer of the film wanted us to come up with a song about revenge. When we went to the recording studio, James wrote a lot of the sections of the song on the spot. “Getting down with my girlfriend/that ain’t right” was one of the lines I wrote.

SoulTrain.com:  In 1975, you left the JBs for a time to work with Parliament-Funkadelic. What was that experience like?

Fred Wesley: During the time I was with the JB’s, Bootsy Collins was a part of the band for a while and we became good friends. He had a lot of respect for me. When he offered me the gig to become a part of his Bootsy’s Rubber Band, I accepted. It was great working with them.

SoulTrain.com: What are your memories of performing on Soul Train?

Fred Wesley: It was a very good experience being on the show with the dancers and the whole thing. We put together a whole new show from beginning to end when we appeared on Soul Train that had never been seen on television before.

SoulTrain.com:  I remember the wonderful experience sharing the stage with you, the other JBs and Martha High at New Yorks Lincoln Center celebrating Soul Trains fortieth anniversary.

Fred Wesley: I enjoyed doing that. It was a great show!

SoulTrain.com: What do you want to say in memory of Don Cornelius?

Fred Wesley: Don was a very innovative person. I had a lot of respect for him. He was the first black man to produce and own his TV show. If you were an artist, you had to be on Soul Train.

SoulTrain.com: What would you like to say in memory of James Brown?

Fred Wesley: James Brown was another innovative person. He didn’t want his music to sound like anyone else’s. He said it was important for his music to have a good danceable beat and to have an important message. I appreciate all I learned from him about recording music. He taught me a lot.

SoulTrain.com: Are you anticipating the new James Brown motion picture, Get On Up?

Fred Wesley:  Yes! I’d really like to see how his story was done.

SoulTrain.com: What are you working on currently?

Fred Wesley: I am working on a blues album which will be out in the fall. My autobiography Hit Me Fred is available on Amazon.com.

SoulTrain.com: I also understand you are endorsing Bambooka sunglasses?

Fred Wesley: Bambooka is a line of sunglasses distributed by a London-based social enterprise, designed to promote sustainable bamboo farming and otherwise provide assistance to a community in South Africa. You can learn more at http://www.bambooka.org.

SoulTrain.com: What word of wisdom do you want to share with the SoulTrain.com readers?

Fred Wesley:  You have to do what you do from the heart, do it your own way and make it your own.

For more information about Fred Wesley, visit his website www.funkyfredwesley.com!

—Stephen McMillian

5 Comments

  1. Erwin Thompson says:

    Great article!

  2. Stephen McMillian says:

    Thanks Erwin bro! Much appreciated! :)

  3. Evelyn Oliver McMillian says:

    Very nice article Steve, I liked that he is still involved in so many things today.

  4. Stephen McMillian says:

    Thank you! :)

  5. kennthjames says:

    Hey, there is no credit of his portrayal in the Get On Up movie? Was his character really not potrayed in the movie and why? That seems very disappointing! Just noticed his character not listed with all the others on IMDB. Haven’t seen it yet but its concerning that a James Brown biographical movie was made without Fred in it.

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