Bootsy Collins

Bootsy Collins (center) Buckethead and Ed Roman with Bootsy Collins Bass
autographed by Bootsy Collins, George Clinton and Buckethead.

 

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Substitute music for sports, and it's the life story of William "Bootsy" Collins. Born in the West End of Cincinnati Ohio, he was a staff musician at King Records by the time he was 15. At 17 he was touring the world with James Brown.

At 50, he's still finding new worlds to conquer. It's hard to think of another musician with a 30-plus year career who has remained as diverse and as contemporary as Bootsy.

He's been on heavy MTV rotation this year with "Weapon of Choice," his collaboration with Fatboy Slim. The two also have a song, "Illuminati," on the new Lara Croft Tomb Raider soundtrack.

The British DJ will appear on Bootsy's forthcoming album []. Modeled on Santana's Supernatural, the disc will feature high-profile artists collaborating with the R&B great. 

Bootsy also will appear on the forthcoming Gov't Mule CD.

"It's just a blessing to be able to work with all these different people and to still be around and can do it."

He speaks quietly, thoughtfully, a marked contrast from the bigger-than-life Bootsy persona. But Bootsy is a man of contrasts.

The star-bass wielding, party monster Bootzilla is also a gentle family man, a loving father to his son, aspiring rapper Bill Jr., and a devoted son to his late mother, Nettie Lee Collins, who struggled to raise three kids as a single parent.

Before her death in 1997, she lived in a house he built for her a few hundred yards from his own. His sister Brenda lives there now. Bill Jr. and his family (yes, Bootsy is a grandfather) live in the third home on the property.

Family has always been important to Bootsy (a childhood nickname given him by his mother. When he asked her why, he says she told him, " "Cause you look like a Bootsy.' ". He started playing guitar at 8, because his elder brother Phelps "Catfish" Collins played guitar. "Havin' no dad in the house, Cat was like my idol, the guy I was looking up to, wanting to please."

But few 16-year-olds have much patience for little brothers. Catfish (a nickname Bootsy gave him, because, he says, "He looked like a Catfish.") had bought a new red Epiphone guitar and a small amp, Bootsy recalls. His brother forbade him to touch it, but Bootsy had other plans.

"He had a paper route, delivering the Enquirer, and I had him timed, when he would leave, when he was supposed to get home. I said, "OK, I got about an hour.' "

Catfish surprised him by coming home in mid-route. "That was the saddest day of my life," Bootsy recalls.

Mama Collins calmed Bootsy by promising him a guitar of his own. But money was tight for an African-American woman raising three kids alone in late '50s Cincinnati. It was four years and a paper route of his own later that Bootsy got his first guitar, a green and white Silvertone from the Sears store on Reading Road in North Avondale.

His second favorite appliance was the TV.

"I grew up on Casper, Huckleberry Hound, all the cartoons on TV, usually at a neighbor's house, 'cause it took us a while to get a TV. But when we did get a TV, I was wearin' it out with all the cartoons."

He hasn't changed that much. A plastic Casper the Friendly Ghost hangs from his keychain. His studio is filled with figurines, dolls and rugs of Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters. The Three Stooges, too.

By 14, Bootsy was playing his first gigs, starting with teen talent shows and gospel groups.

That's when he was noticed by Wilbert Longmire, a respected local jazz guitarist who played blues and R&B, and a friend of Catfish's.

One New Year's Eve, when his bass player dropped out of a gig, Mr. Longmire called Bootsy.

"I said, "Hey man, come on, you're playing.' He said, "What?' He was around 14 years old and I must have been in my 20s, but I knew he had enough talent. ... He could always ... fit in 'cause he had a good ear. Bootsy had a rare gift."

He had something even more important, Mr. Longmire adds. After a couple of years of his brother and other older musicians refusing to let him play, Bootsy had a musical chip on his shoulder.

"He had the fire and the desire. When you want to get in and nobody will let you, that's a terrific incentive."

Back then, Bootsy was switching between bass and guitar, as was his brother. One night, Catfish needed a guitarist for a club date. Unable to find anyone, and tired of Bootsy's begging, he hired his kid brother.

The problem was, "I only knew two songs, "Memphis' was one of them, and I don't remember the name of the other one.

"I played those two songs for like 2 1/2 hours, until Cat couldn't take it no more. And he said, "I've had it up to here, man, you take the bass, give me the guitar.' "

From then on they were a team, playing every night in local clubs. It was a lifestyle that didn't fit with high school, and Bootsy convinced his mother he should drop out in 10th grade.

"I just wanted to play, I just had my heart set on it, and she said OK. I think she really believed in me, and that's probably what helped push me. I just felt that I had to be the guy to make something happen. I wanted to take care of Mom. She gave us all she had to give. And I just never forgot that."

Things began happening in the mid-60s, when Cincinnati was a hotbed of R&B. James Brown, cranking out hits at King Records, led the roster of artists.

As the Pacesetters, first with drummer Will Jackson and then with Frankie "Kash" Waddy, the brothers became the hot young group in town. One night at a club, a man from King invited them to the Evanston studio.

"That was the entry," Bootsy says. "We did any and everything that they asked. We didn't know what the heck we were doing, but at the same time, we had an ear for whatever they wanted."

The group became King's rhythm section for the next year-and-a-half, playing dozens of sessions, from R&B to country. "Man, that was such an education," Bootsy says.

That led to several tours for the Collins brothers, first backing Hank Ballard ("The Twist"), then singer Marva Whitney. Both acts were part of James Brown Productions.

It was not quite the big time. On tour with the lower-level King acts, musicians were rarely paid and frequently sneaked out of hotels to avoid the bill. But at 16, it was all good to Bootsy.

"We just wanted to get out there, and when we didn't get paid, it was like, "OK ... ' It just became so routine we didn't even feel we were doing nothin' bad, "OK we didn't get paid, so we have to sneak out the back.' "

The Pacesetters were in Cincinnati, playing local clubs, when they got The Call: James Brown wanted them to play with him, that night. Figuring his opening act had canceled, the band headed to the airport and Mr. Brown's private Lear jet. It was Bootsy's first plane ride.

When they got to the auditorium, they found that Mr. Brown's band, the Famous Flames, had quit and, with no rehearsals, the Pacesetters were to replace them. They passed the audition and at 17, Bootsy was touring the world with one of soul music's biggest stars.

"I think Bootsy is one of the greatest bass players that ever was," Mr. Brown says. "He and Phelps and me, we cut two smashes back to back - "Sex Machine' and "Super Bad.' And we cut them both in one night."

Bootsy became a favorite of Mr. Brown, who had him ride in the Lear jet instead of the band bus and took him along when he visited radio stations. Bootsy was the only one who could get away with calling the boss "James." But at that point, Bootsy needed a father figure to rebel against, rather than look up to. In 1969, there was a lot of rebelling going on.

"I was at that age," he says. "Bands were up front singing and dressing crazy. Jimi Hendrix was on the scene. And we had to have our straight tuxes on, playing Las Vegas.

"It was a great learning thing, but it got to the point where it was just, "Man, we just want to look wild and freaky and crazy and we just want to have fun. And James didn't want us to have no fun. It was like we were in the service. We were in the military for real."

Mr. Brown fined musicians for infractions, from musical mistakes to dress-code violations to behavior. Bootsy, who still lived with his mom, didn't care about the money, but one management technique really bothered him.

"Every night, he would call us in there (his dressing room) and drop his head and say (he adopts Mr. Brown's hoarse rasp), "Bootsy, uh, you just ain't on it, you just ain't on the mark, son.' And he would do me like that every night. And that was after we were killing the people, they were laying in the aisles.

"His whole thing was to break a mug down. But I didn't know that, and I wasn't used to that, so that was my excuse to start taking acid. "Well, since I ain't happenin' I might as well not be happenin' for real.' "

The LSD dissolved what little authority Mr. Brown had over the young musician. When Bootsy broke down laughing during one such lecture, it was the last time Mr. Brown called him.

Not long after, the band was playing New York's Copacabana nightclub when they were told they would be paid half-salary. They balked and, as usual, sent Bootsy to plead their case. But things had changed. Mr. Brown called his bluff and instead of riding the Lear, Bootsy was on the Greyhound, riding home with Catfish and Mr. Waddy.

They were broke but they'd never have to wear tuxes onstage again. Enlisting Philippe Wynne, who'd sung with the Pacesetters, they formed the Houseguests, their own band with their own rules and visuals for the glam-rock '70s.

"People went crazy. We had a style and were colorful. We had been all over all these countries, picked up on a lot of different stuff and just made it our own. These things that maybe women would wear or maybe you wouldn't usually see a dude in, we wanted to do that sort of stuff onstage - the long cape with short hot pants, the chains, the fur boots, all this crazy stuff. When we came in, we were just fresh and we knew it. We took it to the stage and just tore it down."

The Spinners asked them to be their backup band. At the same time, George Clinton, leader of Parliament/Funkadelic, was looking for a band to replace the one that had walked out on him. Mr. Clinton said they could keep the Houseguests name and be billed as Parliament/Houseguests.

Mr. Wynne became a Spinner; the rest of the group joined the P-Funk psychedelic carnival.

"We got with George and freaked out for a couple of years," Bootsy says with a laugh. "It was so different. It was the kind of different that I wanted. We got a chance to really act a fool the way we wanted to, dress the way we wanted to onstage, stay up all night, meet the girls, take the girls with us in the car to the next gig. All the things that a young cat would dream of doing, we did it. That was the best time."

But there were problems. P-Funk fans refused to stop calling the band Funkadelic. And, Bootsy, schooled at the James Brown military academy, found P-Funk a little too crazy.

"I just learned so much from James Brown, how he took care of business and George never took care of business. And I had to kinda come up with a balance."

In 1975. he tried to find his balance with yet another off-shoot, Bootsy's Rubber Band, which included Gary "Mudbone" Cooper on vocals and, from the Famous Flames, saxophonist Maceo Parker and trombonist Fred Wesley. For a few months, Bootsy played in both bands.

Soon the hits started coming - "Body Slam," "The Pinocchio Theory," "Stretchin' Out (In a Rubber Band)," "Ahh..The Name Is Bootsy, Baby." That period is documented in the new two-CD set, Glory B Da Funk's on Me (Rhino). He began headlining arenas and festivals, topping the charts, able to afford all the drugs, women and superstar trappings he could imagine.

He didn't like it much.

"It's sad to say that, but once you get the fans, the No. 1 record, it starts being like no fun. You can't hang with the people no more, everybody's after you... It got so crazy, and then the responsibility - "Where's the bus? What happened to the truck. We gotta get a new PA.' What happened to all the fun I used to have? Now I have to take care of business. I hate it."

Five years later, in 1980, he quit.

"I just couldn't handle the pressures. I had to stop and try to figure it out. I came back to Cincinnati. I just needed some time for myself. That Bootsy thing, being Parliament/Funkadelic. I needed some time to just get away from the autographs and just find that same little guy that used to go over to King Records and just play and just have fun doing that ...

"I didn't know why I stopped, and everybody was asking me why and I didn't have no answer other than what my mother told me one time, "If you ever get to the point of not knowing what to do, just stop.' "

He gave up the road, the band, the $100,000 paydays. But he couldn't escape Bootsy.

"I was trying to get away from that, and I didn't know how to do it. There are no books on that. Nobody told me, 'cause everybody wanted me to be Bootsy. "Where's the star bass? Where's the glasses?' I never could get away from that cat, even though I had been building him all my life. That same monster that you build, it will definitely turn on you."

After a few years away from music, he met avant-garde producer Bill Laswell in 1984. The two collaborated on several projects for Bootsy the bassist instead of the star. It began a steady stream of efforts from jazz to a strange hybrid called Groovegrass that featured Bootsy jamming with bluegrass greats Del McCoury and Doc Watson.

In 1997, Bootsy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work with Funkadelic. That same year he became the first recipient of the Michael W. Bany Lifetime Achievement Award at the first Cammy Awards.

He has made peace with Bootsy, found the middle ground between the glam superstar and the funk musician. Now he's passing on what he's learned to a new generation of players.

"I feel very, very blessed to be working with and guided by a person with such a deep spirit as Bootsy," Cincinnati bassist Chris "Freekbass" Sherman says. "As an artist, Bootsy has that knack to be one step ahead of pop culture and not rest on the laurels of past accomplishments, but stretch his own musical projects to a new degree."

Arriving at his current peaceful state wasn't easy. "It took me to have to come off the road to clean myself up, kind of like a rehab," Bootsy explains. "That's why I named the studio Bootzilla Rehab. This is the place where I bring in all the musicians that come in from everywhere, and it's like this is a rehab.

"When they come in, it's time to clean up. Not just drugs, but the whole lifestyle, just so they'll have a clue.

"We didn't even have a clue what we were gonna run into. I had to go through all of that other stuff to find that balance, and a lot of people don't make it through that."

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
 

 

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