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Music

How James Brown gave Bootsy Collins his big break

When The Pacemakers set foot on that stage in Columbus, Georgia, they had no plan whatsoever. Bootsy Collins’ first band had made a name for themselves performing James Brown Covers in their hometown, but now they were completely out of their depth. Ahead of them, an angry and resentful crowd swirled, cans and glasses landing at the band’s feet with worrying frequency. How did they get here? Well, to answer that question we need to jump back in time to a concert in a little known club in Cincinnati.

After forming a funk band with his elder brother Phelps ‘Catfish’ Collins, Frankie ‘Kash’ Waddy, and Philippé Wynne, Collins became an essential member of one of the hottest bands in Cincinnati, playing a selection of original tracks and covers of funk hits, many of which came from the king of funk himself, James Brown. As Bootsy Collins recalled in 2018, the group were asked to perform at a venue called The Winebar, on the corner of Rockdale Avenue and Reading Road. They made just 14 dollars in total that night.

“So we were jamming on stage,” Bootsy began, “And next thing I know the bartender came up and said ‘Bobby Byrd is on the phone'”. Bobby Byrd was the soul and funk musician, singer, bandleader, and talent scout who made funk what it is today. He also just so happened to be James Brown’s manager. “So I get on the phone and he says ‘James Brown wants y’all to come to Columbus, Georgia right now and play on the show. I was like ‘come on man be serious’ and he said ‘no no no I am serious, I’m on the way and I’m gonna pick you up and we’re gonna fly down here and we’re gonna do this show. Next thing I know he was there, at the wine bar – had the limo out there.”

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Collins and the rest of the band were taken to the airport and bundled into a plane headed to Colombus. When they arrived at the venue, however, they were met by a crowd on the cusp of a riot. “The people were kinda rowdy because the show was late,” Collins said. “So we sneak around back and, walking in, we see some of our heroes. There’s Fred Wesley, Clyde Stubblefield, you know, and they’re looking awfully angry. I remember passing the dressing room and I saw Richard ‘Kush’ Griffith’ had James Brown in a chokehold”.

Bootsy knew something was going down – and he was right. Following a dispute about pay, tensions between James Brown and his backing band had reached breaking point. They were at an impasse and the band were refusing to play. “What they didn’t realise,” Collins noted, “Was that James Brown had already prepared to have us come in”. The Pacemakers were taken through to Brown’s dressing room, where they stood, mouth agape, mesmerised by the sight of their idol having his hair done. He spun around on his chair and bluntly told them that they would need to get their instruments ready because he needed them to replace his backing band. “I want you to come up on the stage with me and I’m gonna count those songs off,” he explained bluntly.

Before they knew it, The Pacemakers were being pushed onto the stage by Byrd. They found themselves confronted by one of the biggest crowds they’d ever seen, and it wasn’t a welcoming one. “The people were kinda angry, not even kinda angry,” Collins recalled. “We didn’t even know what we were doing. We didn’t have a plan. But then James Brown gets up on stage, turns around and says ‘cold sweat’, hit me.” And the rest, as they say, is history. Collins would go on to mark himself out as an essential part of James Brown’s sound, his virtuosic fretwork earning him a reputation as one of the best bassists on the circuit, and his subsequent work with Parliament-Funkadelic establishing him as an innovator of funk and soul.

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