George Clinton is bringing the funk

(Above: This song is a “Quickie” but George Clinton’s musical career as a funk pioneer has encompassed more than five decades.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

If James Brown cleared the road from soul to funk, then George Clinton paved it.The link between the two is undeniable, not only in the style of music Brown and Clinton created, but because they used many of the same artists to create that music, and because Clinton modeled his P-Funk empire in part on Brown’s business blueprint.

Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, which includes his longtime drummer Frank “Kash” Waddy, play Crossroads, 417 E. 18th St., on Wednesday with 4 Fried Chickens and a Coke and Browntown.

The Godfather of Soul

George Clinton’s first impression of James Brown was not favorable.

“Back then, in my Motown days, we used to criticize him, until we knew better,” Clinton said of his days in the mid-’60s as a songwriter at the legendary Detroit label. “At Motown, we specialized in lyrics. Berry (Gordy, Motown’s president) made sure we got a story out of every song.”

Brown’s storytelling skills didn’t measure up to Hitsville U.S.A.’s standards.

“Everyone thought James wasn’t saying anything,” Clinton said. “It wasn’t until hip hop came along that we realized James was saying more in one ‘unh’ than all of our stories combined.”

Clinton left Motown and started a doo-wop group called The Parliaments. When The Parliaments record label folded, their backing band, The Funkadelics stepped into the spotlight. Funkadelic ushered in the 1970s with an aggressive blend of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown.

While Clinton was tinkering with the formation of Funkadelic, Brown was turning America on to hard funk and inspiring countless imitators.

“Bootsy Collins, his brother Catfish and I all grew up in Cincinnati together playing music,” said Frank “Kash” Waddy. “Back then, every town would have a group that tried to sound like James Brown. We’d come up with false IDs, draw moustaches on our faces, wear sunglasses and a shirt and tie — anything to try to look as manly as possible so we could sneak into bars and play.”

The mid-adolescent trio of Bootsy on bass, Catfish on guitar and Waddy on drums did well enough on regional tours and local shows to eventually attract the attention of The Godfather himself.

“Little by little James got word of us and he’d come and sit in on our shows. That was some major validation,” Waddy said. “Really he was prepping us for if he needed us to join his band, but we didn’t know because we were totally naïve.”

After sitting in on studio sessions and short tours with Hank Ballard, Arthur Prysock and other artists on Brown’s King record label, Waddy and the Collins brothers got the call to join James himself onstage.

“It all happened so fast. He start by calling off a song and a key and count off,” Waddy said. “Since I was behind the drums I could see the whole scene. Bootsy and Catfish were bunched up by me. Kush (trumpet player Richard Thompson), Strawberry and (saxophonist) Pee Wee Ellis — all guys we idolized — were onstage with us, and in front was the biggest crowd we’d seen. We were scared out of our minds.”

Brown formed the original lineup of The J.B.s around those musicians and for the next couple years, Kash, Bootsy and Catfish toured the world with Brown.

“It was a good two months that we went around pinching ourselves, because we went from nothing to James Brown,” Waddy said. “James Brown had hotels. He was so powerful it was unbelievable. He had his own radio stations and record label.”

Brown had built a vertically integrated empire of recording, publishing, airplay and promotion, but he didn’t have everything.

“We got to looking at the guys who were with James all the time, and they all seemed to be kind of depressed,” Waddy said. “We didn’t understand it, but it wouldn’t be nothing to see a grown man cry or be upset, and James would keep them like that. I began to realize there was not happiness at the end of this rainbow.”

In 1971, the Cincinnati trio bolted from Brown and formed The Houseguests, a band whose sound was constantly being compared to Funkadelic’s.

“We had never heard Funkadelic before, but one night in Detriot we were playing on a bill between Funkadelic and Gladys Knight,” Waddy said. “George heard us that night and hired the whole band. The rest is history.”

The Hardest Working Man In Show Business

Recruiting Brown’s old rhythm section opened the door for more defections, as Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and others eventually joined the Funkadelic family.

“At one time, we had all of James Brown’s band with us,” Clinton said through a laugh. “Working with James was something they’d complain about and idolize at the same time. You had to be the best in the world to be with James, because coming out of it almost any of those guys could run their own organization.”

Freed from the militaristic management of Brown, Clinton’s band was a playground for Brown’s former musicians.

“We left such a regimented, staunch environment with James, and got total freedom from George,” Waddy said. “It was a happy medium. We brought professional discipline and introduced George to The One (Brown’s style of emphasizing the one beat in his grooves).”

Clinton didn’t manage, he made sure shows were lined up, studio time was available and let the results speak for themselves.

“Man, I just got onstage and let them play what they wanted to play,” Clinton said. “Personality-wise I’d just let them be the bandleaders and tell them what I wanted.”

Building on the Motown model and Brown’s King label, and foreshadowing Prince’s Paisley Park empire, Clinton let his musicians front their own outfits under his production and input. Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker led the Horny Horns, while Waddy and Catfish became core members of Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Other Clinton combos included The Parlets, The Brides of Funkenstien and Parliament, a happier, dance-friendly outlet for the Funkadelic musicians.

“We had a whole studio in Detroit called United Sounds to ourselves,” Waddy said. “We weren’t told you work on this and you work on this. You’d just go in, listen to a track and jump in if you could. George would come in and listen and might give one cut to the Horny Horns, another to the Rubber Band. Sometimes we’d go in and wouldn’t see daylight for three days.”

By the end of the decade, nearly all of Clinton’s bands were dominating dance floors and concert stages across the country. The ripple effect of that music was inescapable from the onslaught of imitators trying to capture that sound and feeling.

“For us funk was a way of life,” Waddy said. “We wouldn’t listen to TV or the radio because we didn’t want our stuff to be tainted. That’s why these songs have stood the test of time; they weren’t a fad, they were a way of life.”

Soul Brother No. 1

Clinton first got the idea for the mothership watching Lt. Uhura on an episode of Star Trek.

“I was thinking about putting black people where folks wouldn’t picture them. That’s why I got the idea of a spaceship with me sitting outside like a pimp mobile,” Clinton said. “Once Parliament got a hit record with ‘Up for the Downstroke,’ I took the royalty money and bought a spaceship. I wanted to do something big onstage like Sgt. Pepper or The Who’s Tommy.”

With the Brides of Funkenstien, The Parlets and Bootsy’s Rubber Band opening the show and everyone onstage for Parliament-Funkadelic’s set, Clinton set the new standard for stage performances.

“It changed the whole industry, because prior to us it was all three-piece suits with bass, guitar and an amp. Black guys would try to get by with as little as possible to keep overhead low,” Waddy said. “Now after us, all acts had to invest to compete.”

The stage wasn’t the only place Clinton was reinventing music.

“Our language was street talk,” Clinton said. “At the time black DJs with personalities were on the way out for Quiet Storm. We became our own DJs on our records and made that the standard. After that, DJs in the club started doing the same thing. Give yourself a few more years and artists were doing it over records, which became hip hop.”

There’s not much subtlety in the Clinton catalog, but the political content of his lyrics are a consistently understated element.

“I never wanted to write about boy/girl, black/white issues. I wanted to keep it vague, Clinton said. “I always avoided strict interpretations of politics, because I thought if people got caught up in that, the political winds were libel to change and people would just end up fighting against a particular stance.”

There are brains behind the bounce on songs like “Chocolate City” and “Think, It Ain’t Illegal Yet.”

“I applaud George, because he was always reading and wanting to teach. Issues we’re talking about today, like cloning, we talked about 30 years ago on ‘Placebo Syndrome’ when they were not mentioned,” Waddy said. “Politically, George was East Coast and James was Southern. James was just a dead hit with his lyrics. George was a little slicked up, more coy.”

Mr. Dynamite

Despite all his success and innovation, shortly after the 1980s dawned, Clinton and his bands found themselves without record contracts.

“One or two somebodies orchestrated all the negotiations with the labels in 1980,” Clinton said. “I didn’t think they’d throw us to the curb that quickly with all our hit records, and it all stopped at the exact same time I started Uncle Jam records.”

Clinton likened his experience to what happened to Prince in the early ’90s and revealed, “we’re just starting to get into the courts to see those papers and see what really happened, and I promise the full story will come out soon.”

“A lot of people say we got high and used up all our money on drugs,” Clinton said with a laugh. “It’s not true. We hadn’t gotten paid yet!”

Clinton had some success, but several of his musicians drifted away. Fortunately, for every musician who left, seemingly 10 rappers discovered the P-Funk sound. Clinton’s songs, along with Brown’s, are the most sampled in hip hop.

“Hip hop kept funk alive,” Clinton said. “I made a relationship with the artists, that instead of fighting them, I kept them close to me. Our records are like James Brown’s – they never get old.”

The proliferation of Clinton samples kept his catalog fresh. Even if listeners had never heard a P-Funk song, they probably knew “The Humpty Dance,” which relies on Clinton’s “Let’s Play House,” “Me, Myself and I,” which uses “(Not Just) Knee Deep” or any number of songs that liberally borrow “Atomic Dog.”

“We’ve been traveling around and playing so long that live music has caught back on,” Waddy said. “People don’t want to hear music from sequencers anymore. They want to hear live instrumentation and be entertained. Our crowds range from high schoolers to middle aged people.”

Or as Clinton puts it: “The charts don’t mean near as much anymore once you have a following.”

Today Clinton has a reality TV show in the works, a new record label, a reputation as a great live act and when Brown died on Christmas Day, claim to being the biggest living link to the funk era.

“There’s a lot of James Brown in our music, but it’s not only James Brown. We’ve got Motown and Jimi and Sly Stone and Ray Charles,” Clinton said. “There’s always so much of that stuff built into our music that by the time it got there, it was hard to pick out just one thing.”

Waddy, who is working on a book about his times with Brown and Clinton, is less modest.

“In my mind, James and George were nose and nose for years, but James always had a bit more of the edge because of seniority,” Waddy said. “Now that James is gone, George is the man. People are feeling it without realizing it. The public always has to have their guy, and right now George is on top of the heap.”

Keep Reading:

Concert review: George Clinton (2007)

Concert Review: George Clinton, May 6, 2005 at the Beaumont Club

Concert Review: George Clinton heats up cold night

Review: George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars (2009)


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