“Oh man, New Orleans, wow,” exudes Bootsy Collins, the Bootzilla of funkin’ bass of his upcoming arrival at the Voodoo Music Experience. “New Orleans is so receptive to the funk. It’s kinda like we are from there. It’s like it is Tha Funk Capital of the World and they know it,” he adds, referencing the title of his 2011 release of that name.
Bootsy, of course, knows of what he speaks. He’s been layin’ it down since childhood, when he was playing alongside his brother, the late great guitarist Phelps “Catfish” Collins, drummer Frankie “Kash” Waddy and vocalist Philippé Wynne in a group called the Pacesetters in his hometown of Cincinnati.
“The way I got into it was my brother,” Bootsy remembers back to when he was 8 years old and his brother was 16. “He’s playing in a band and I’m admiring this. I’m wanting to be like him. I didn’t have a father in the house so he was the next best thing. I started on guitar because he played guitar. My mother was finally able to get me a $29 guitar. Then, lo and behold, my brother needed a bass player. ‘Take me to the gig, I can play bass,’ I told him. ‘No way — you don’t even have a bass,’ he said. So I took the guitar and I said if I can get four bass strings, I can make a bass out of it. He laughed and said I was crazy. He got me four strings, I put the strings on my guitar, and it became my bass. I played with him that night and none of us will ever forget it. That was the first night I played with him and we were together ever since.”
“Funk for me is always making something out of nothing,” Bootsy explains. “We’ve always been people to make something out of nothing.”
Remarkably, he took that hybrid guitar/bass to his first gig with Godfather of Soul James Brown, with whom he, along with other members of the Pacesetters, played as the J.B.’s from 1969 to 1971. “James Brown said, ‘Aw no, son, you can’t come on stage with me with that!’” Bootsy remembers, imitating Brown’s growl. It was the Godfather who bought the teenager his first legitimate instrument, a Fender jazz bass.
The next stop in Bootsy’s career was with funk master George Clinton and Funkadelic. “He allowed me the opportunity to be who I wanted to be, to play how I wanted to play, to address and write songs the way I wanted to,” says the still appreciative bassist. “When he allowed me that, I started finding myself, finding out what else I could do. James Brown only allowed me to do so much and it was all just for him. But that was good because I was young. He was like a father figure and wanted to teach me about the business and how it was about 75 percent business and 25 percent music.”
Bootsy, like Clinton and most of the P-Funkers, enjoys the theatrical element — especially when it comes to outrageous attire. It wouldn’t be Bootsy without lots of glitz. The tendency to have some fun and bring it on stylistically came, he says, from his early childhood experiences.
“Mama dressed us out of the Goodwill [store] so I would always have all kinds of colors on—I was always mismatched. Whatever she could get, we wore. So I got used to kids laughing at me when I was real young. I vowed to myself that whenever I got a chance to really express myself the way I wanted to, that I just was going to act a fool with it. And, lo and behold, I run into George Clinton. Who else in the world can you really be as open with other than George Clinton? There’s no love greater than his. That cat loves forever and he loves for real. He’s definitely the true funk. I’m so glad he gave me the opportunity to get out here and act the fool just like he do it. That’s what I’m telling New Orleans, to come out and we’ll all act the fool together.”
Bootsy Collins — a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, a low-down bassist and one-of-a-kind vocalist, the leader of his own groups including the killer Bootsy’s Rubber Band — has spread the rhythmic musical philosophy of “be on the one” around the world. He is also the creator of the online bass school Funk University, and lives close to his roots in Cincinnati.
“I have to be able to come back,” he says. “This is where I get replenished. This is where I get refueled. Everything I gather, it goes with me on the road and I give it all. Now I have sense enough to come back and get refueled. Before I used to go and go like the Eveready battery that I thought I was. I had to learn that—the hard way.”
“When we come through New Orleans, it’s the next best thing to Mardi Gras,” Bootsy says of his return to the city. “People come dressed as they want, act as crazy as they want, and just come to have as much fun as they can have.”