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: It’s a brand new day. When we was starting out, bass was like the bottom of the totem pole. ... And now bass has become so prominent.

If you don’t have a great bass player, it’s like you ain’t even in the—

McBride: You’re one of the main people we can thank for that. Seriously. You and Larry Graham. Especially the electric bass.

Collins: Let me just say one thing: After meeting this mug right here [points to McBride], we gotta do something. Once we got together today, he feels to me so much like Fred Wesley. I get the same exact vibe from Christian. And you know, I don’t just go out and meet somebody and get that.

McBride: That’s beyond touching. I was telling Bootsy, I almost didn’t play the acoustic bass because I picked the trombone. I was in middle school and I had to pick an instrument to play in the school orchestra, and I picked the trombone, because I wanted to be Fred Wesley. I didn’t want to play the acoustic bass at first. So, I was gonna play electric bass and trombone. But I had no skills on trombone.

Collins: He said the trombone was playing him.

McBride: Oh, man. I was turning blue trying to get some sound out that thing.

Collins: When I was in the sixth grade, getting ready to go to the seventh, I was trying to make my mind up on what instrument I’m gonna play. The guy upstairs was playing clarinet. I would hear him and I was like, “Well, maybe I should play clarinet.” Because I got somebody that possibly could teach me right upstairs.

So, I kinda chose clarinet. And once I got in there, the teacher suggested, “Man, you should play upright bass.” And I said, “OK, let me try it out.” And then I started trying to—[mimes play- ing upright strings] “Nah, I don’t think so.” I felt the weight and I felt how you have to pull the strings. It was like, “Man, this boy is playing me.”

Did you pick up the slap bass style from listening to Larry Graham on Sly & The Family Stone records?

Collins: Well, not so much the records. It was when I got a chance to go to his house, [when] we were touring as Funkadelic. ’Cause I didn’t know what that was on the records. We didn’t get a chance to go to the shows and none of that. But I knew that sound was different. And you gotta understand, the finger playing on the electric bass—that was new. That was like the thing to do. I thought I was going really good with the finger thing and everything was moving in that direction, until Larry pops on the scene.

McBride: I was telling Bootsy that my dad played with Brenda & The Tabulations. He played with The Delfonics, Blue Magic, Billy Paul, Major Harris—all the Philly soul groups. My dad remembers being on a triple bill—he was playing with Brenda & The Tabulations, and James Brown was the headliner. And my dad told me, “Man, I remember James Brown had this tall bass player. We were like, ‘Who is that? That dude is bad!’”

Thats—especially because Bootsy didn’t play with James for that long, right?

Collins: About a year on the road. But in Cincinnati, we started recording earlier. This was like, 1969.

McBride: But y’all were prolific.

Collins: Well, actually, 1968. Because we went out with Hank Ballard. He was the first one we went out on the road with—which was James Brown Productions. And then the next year, with Marva Whitney—which was [also] James Brown Productions.

Was the band already called The JB’S?

Collins: Definitely not. He called us The Blackenizers.

McBride: Right. That was a [1969] Hank Ballard tune: “Blackenized.”

Collins: So, we got all caught up in the middle of everything: [imitates Brown] “Listen boys: Y’all the baddest band in the world. The only thang, you just can’t play.” And when he would say that—it would hurt you. ’Cause all you wanted to do was please him. And, man, every time we’d come offstage, he had his whole rap: “Listen, y’all didn’t do it, man. Y’all didn’t kill me. You wasn’t on the 1. Y’all gotta practice, man.”

McBride: Oh, that must’ve drove you crazy.

Collins: It did at first, until he slipped up on this one thing. One night he called us in and we knew that we didn’t kill. We knew that we had a bad night: [imitates Brown] “C’mon back to the dressing room. I got something to tell you, fellas!” He had a whole new energy. We come back there: “Ah! Man, y’all killed me! Killed me dead!” And we’re like—

McBride: [laughs] What?!

Collins: You know, it’s like, “This motherf-, um, is crazy.” ’Cause we knew we didn’t kill him. When we killed him for real, his knees was bleeding, he was sweating profusely. And those were the nights he would tell us: “Baddest band in the world! You just can’t play.” In the long run, it only made us practice that much harder. What he was doing to us, telling us, “Guys, y’all need to hook it up, ’cause y’all ain’t got it.” ’Cause when you start thinking you got it—

McBride: That’s when you start going downhill.

Collins: So he was building us [up]. Even though it felt negative, it was a good thing for us. DB

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