‘Pee Wee’ Ellis and Fred Wesley reveal the story of funk ahead of their NYUAD show
Trombonist Fred Wesley is midway through telling a barnstorming anecdote about being fired by Count Basie – the punchline has something to do with illegal substances.
Next to him sits saxophonist Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, reflecting on the two decades and 12 albums he worked on with Van Morrison. To the right sits Brian Hardgroove, best known as bassist with Public Enemy, talking about an upcoming collaboration with Stewart Copeland, the drummer from The Police.
It’s not my everyday lunch date. Even a member of the musicians’ production team, who sat to my left, goes on to casually talk about the time late, great desert bluesman Ali Farka Touré sacrificed three sheep in her honour, after she made a visit to his home in Mali.
I’m sitting in the campus restaurant at New York University Abu Dhabi, dining with the all-star team behind Funk: Evolution of a Revolution, a multimedia concert celebrating 50 years of the grooviest genre of music. It will have its world premiere at the university’s Arts Center on Saturday.
The conversation keeps coming back to one man, the ultimate funk forefather, James Brown. And having spent a collective eight years heading up Brown’s band as musical director, horn heavyweights Ellis and Wesley are the show’s most worthy stars.
When we meet, the premiere is 11 days away but work has yet to really begin. The concert will trace the genre's roots from the mid-1960s to the present day, and they have, perhaps, “half a setlist”, but are arguing about that (the inclusion of Uptown Funk is a particular source of contention). Most of the band won’t arrive for another week.
There’s a list of guest stars to meet and integrate (singer Carleen Anderson, rapper Add-2, DJ Nickodemus and the UAE’s very own soulman, Hamdan Al Abri). Hardgroove, the show’s musical director, met Ellis for the first time just that morning.
“We’re getting it together,” says 72-year-old Wesley with a laugh. Indeed they are – the programme which debuts at NYUAD – will go on the road across North America and Europe. A piece of history is being born right here in the UAE.
Deep, bellowing laughter is a recurring sound over our long, lazy lunch (they both order fish and chips).
We start at the beginning, when Wesley joined the James Brown band in 1968, three years after Ellis was made musical director.
A year earlier, the saxophonist had co-written Brown’s storming Cold Sweat, which many musicologists label as the true birth of funk on record.
“Cold Sweat? I didn’t like Cold Sweat,” says Wesley. “It was all jagged, not put together right.”
“It’s an acquired taste,” says Ellis, who will turn 75 on April 21. “But it is my proudest moment – because it made me a lot of money.”
The first song Wesley recorded with Brown was Ellis’s Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, an unofficial anthem of the Black Power movement. They shared the stage for close to two years before Ellis quit.
The shows must have been off-the-wall?
“You must be on time, you must have a clean uniform, shoes shined, and not miss any cues,” says Ellis.
Surely it was fun, too?
“Yeah, it was fun being pinned down to a strict regimen,” says the sax legend.
Brown was a renowned taskmaster, who notoriously fined (or fired) band members for mistakes. The pair were in no hurry to jump to his defence.
“He had no hobbies, no pastimes – all he did was music, and he did it 24 hours a day,” says Wesley. “When you see a man go to Hollywood, California, where all the pretty girls are, and he has a rehearsal – all day long, on stuff that we already knew, not new tunes – he was trying to keep us from having fun.”
It becomes clear Brown did not always succeed. Promoted to musical director in 1971, Wesley went on to direct The JB’s through influential sessions, co-writing lucrative, late-era anthems, including Get on the Good Foot and The Big Payback, both heavily sampled.
“He was brutally bad,” says Wesley.
“I needed the money real bad, so I thought: 'I’ll do what James Brown says as long as I can make some money.'
“So I made a lot of money, and I learnt a lot. I did what he wanted me to do for as long as I could take it – ‘Yes sir, Mr Brown’, ‘You’re right, Mr Brown’ – and I could take it until 1975.”
Wesley went on to play with George Clinton’s Parliament- Funkadelic. Ellis was happiest on the road with Morrison. Neither musician expresses even a shred of regret for quitting Brown’s band.
Yet it is not without irony that, among other projects, both musicians have devoted considerable energy over the years to keeping Brown’s legacy alive, and flying the flag for funk.
So, at the end of the day, what does funk mean to you?
“Another day at work,” says Ellis.
• The world premiere of Funk: Evolution of a Revolution is at NYUAD’s The Arts Center, Saadiyat Island, on Saturday at 8pm. Register for free tickets at www.nyuad-artscenter.org