Christian McBride & Bootsy Collins: ‘All for the Funk of It’

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Bassist Christian McBride (left) and Bootsy Collins sat down for a moderated conversation with journalist Andy Hermann in Los Angeles.

(Photo: Paul Wellman)

Collins: Yeah, [and with] Wilbert Longmire. Actually, Wilbert Longmire embraced me first. He was the Wes Montgomery [of Cincinnati]. He had me going out on the road when I was like 14. I had to tell the club owners I’m 18. So, yeah, I’ve been surrounded by all kind of jazz cats, but like I say, once the funk master put you in his thang—

McBride: You in.

Christian, when you played with James Brown, did you go back and study Bootsys bass parts?

McBride: I was a huge fan of Bootsy’s before I knew he had played with James Brown. One of the first records I heard as a kid was Stretchin’ Out In Bootsy’s Rubber Band [1976]. I just thought he was this cool musician that sang these great, funny songs. I’m maybe 7 or 8 years old. Around the time I was graduating from high school ... I fell madly in love with James Brown’s music.

But back then, you didnt know who played on his records.

McBride: They didn’t list the musicians on any of [James Brown’s] records. I knew just about all James Brown’s hits, from “Please, Please, Please” all the way up to “Bring It On.” When I was just starting to learn to play the electric bass, “There Was A Time” was not too hard of a bass line to learn. “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” “The Payback,” “Make It Funky”—they all were bass lines I could kind of put together. [But] “Soul Power,” “Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing,” “Sex Machine,” “Super Bad”—especially “Soul Power.” “Soul Power” blew my mind.

I remember even as a kid thinking, “Whoever’s playing bass on this is not the same bass player on them other songs.” [laughs] Not to take nothing away from the other guys, but whoever’s playing on “Soul Power” and “Super Bad”—the sound of the bass, the technique. I was like, “Man! Who is that?” And then later on when I read that interview and saw it was Bootsy Collins, my world was blown to bits, man.

Jaco [Pastorius] is also my electric bass hero. But when I heard Jaco, it was obvious to me that he listened to Bootsy. He got all this stuff from Bootsy, James Jamerson, Larry Graham, “Duck” Dunn: All them guys made Jaco. He was a force of nature, but he was inspired by somebody. And listening to “Soul Power,” I was just like, “Look, I know some of y’all think Jaco’s bad, but y’all need to get inside ‘Soul Power.’” ’Cause if you take the bass line of “Soul Power” up an octave, it almost sounds like a rhythm guitar part.

Would you agree with that, Bootsy?

Collins: I never thought of that.

McBride: ’Cause you played guitar first.

Collins: Yeah, I played guitar. That totally makes sense.

Your brother played guitar, too. Is that why you switched to bass?

Collins: Yeah, I wanted to play with my brother. One night his bass player wasn’t gonna show up. And I’d been begging him, “Let me play.” But you know, older brothers don’t want the responsibility of a young long-haired sucker hanging around.

So, that night came that the bass player didn’t show, and he had to take me. And we was playing the show and my brother starts seeing how the people—although I [only] knew about three or four songs—just started gravitating toward me.

Did you connect with the bass right away?

Collins: Well, I asked my brother to get me four bass strings. Because I was thankful to get the $29 guitar, I knew I couldn’t ask [my mother]: “I switched my mind—I wanna play bass.” So, I asked my brother for four bass strings, and I took the edge off the top of the strings and put them in the little guitar pegs. And that bass was the bomb. It was short. Short neck. It was greenish-blue and everybody hated [that color], which made me love it that much more. But the sound of it was a cross between an upright and an electric.

James hated it. He didn’t hate the sound of it; he hated the look on the stage. He said, “Son, you don’t ever get up on my stage with that kind of bass. What kind of bass you want, son?” And I had been dreaming of this Fender Jazz bass.

McBride: There you go.

Collins: So, I asked Mr. Brown: “I’d like to have a Fender Jazz bass.” “You got it, son. You just gotta get rid of that green thang. Never come back up here on my stage—on my stage!”

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