When Bootsy Collins Met James Brown

Winning the approval of James Brown back in the late ’60s was no mean task. But when Brown’s house band left the Godfather of Soul over a pay dispute in 1970, he knew of the one local Ohio band that might be able to fill their shoes: The Pacemakers, a group led by Bootsy Collins’ brother Catfish. In this excerpt from his 2011 lecture at the Academy, Bootsy details their first gig as the backing band for James Brown.

James Brown performing "Sex Machine" in Rome on April 24, 1971

I was in a band called The Pacemakers with my brother, and we were recording at King Records, which happened to be over in Cincinnati, Ohio. Which happened to be where James Brown recorded some of his records. We knew that, so we hung over at King Records every day after school, waiting and watching for anybody. We happened to run into a guy called Charles Spurling, who was an A&R guy, and he liked us. He wanted to come and hear us. So we invited him down to a club and he came down and checked us out. He said, “Man, you cats have got a whole new energy... I want you to be my band over at King Records.”

So we went over to record some stuff at King Records with him. Once we did that, all the other producers there – Henry Glover, who produced Bill Doggett, Hank Ballard, Arthur Prysock – got to know us. We had a chance to play on all these records before we got with James Brown. We got to learn discipline by coming in the studio and vibing. You’d come in the studio and vibe, ‘cause we didn’t know what was gonna happen. All we know is we’ve got our instruments and, if you allow us to play, we’re gonna tear this mother up! That’s all we knew. So we took that attitude wherever we went, but we went in there to learn.

“I’m coming up on a plane in James’ Learjet and I’m gonna pick you up in about 45 minutes.”

We actually went on the road with Hank Ballard after recording some records with him. Marva Whitney, who was James Brown’s female artist and was big back in the day, Lyn Collins, Vicki Anderson. We got a chance to go out on the road with these [people] before James said, “These guys are worthy. Let me take them out and funk them up for real.” So he did.

At that time we weren’t at King Records, we were moonlighting, doing our benefit gigs at different clubs. So we happened to be in this club called the Wine Bar, performing a benefit, and we got a call from Bobby Byrd. He said, “Hey, Bootsy man, the Godfather needs you to come to Columbus, Georgia, and he needs you right now.” Now, mind you, we’re playing a gig and we said, “Nah, James doesn’t want us.” “Yeah, he needs you right now. I’m coming up on a plane in James’ Learjet and I’m gonna pick you up in about 45 minutes.” We thought it was a joke. Actually, he showed up in about 45 minutes and says, “Come on right now, just as you are.” We looked at each other like this is unreal, but as funk would have it, we said, “Funk it!”

We got on the plane, afro flew back, straight up, 40,000 feet. First time on a plane on a jet, that’s how we got broke in. We were virgins, man. Forty thousand feet in the air, going to be in James Brown’s band, it don’t get no better than that. We get to the arena and the people are mad. We didn’t know what we were walking into. We didn’t know at the time he wanted us to be his band. We thought – since he’d sent us out on the road with them – he wants us to open up with Hank Ballard, open up with Marva Whitney.

James Brown - Bologna, Italy - April, 1971

We had no idea he really wanted us to play behind him. We had got to be his original band’s friends, we looked up to them, they were our heroes. We didn’t ever think we were crossing the picket line. But when we walked in we were actually crossing the picket line, unbeknownst to us. We walked in, the band looking really crazy, like, “Who are these?” - and we’re supposed to be their friends. So after we get through that mess and the crowd booing because James is late, the show is late and the people thinking we made the show late. So there’s a bunch of messes going on before we get back to the Godfather.

But once we get back there he’s, “[imitates James Brown] Uhh. I knew you could do it. I want you to go onstage and when I call these songs out I want you to play what I call out.” “OK.” He knew that we knew all the songs. So we get onstage and he calls them out: “Cold Sweat.” Bam! “I Feel Good.” Bam! So we knew all the songs and we made it through the show. I don’t know how we made it. I was a little fuzzy because I was probably a little geeked, a little lit. It was unreal. Once we made it through the show it was, “OK, we’re taking off for two weeks. We’re gonna rehearse, we’re gonna get the show down, you’re gonna be the band and you’re gonna be called The JB’s.”

November 12, 2013

On a different note