He didn’t invent funk, but for five decades Bootsy Collins has been one of the genre’s most recognized ambassadors. From behind his signature star-burst glasses, outsized top hats and custom made “Space Bass,” his lilting vocals bespeak depths of mellow most of us mere mortals can only imagine.
From his lips, the Bootzilla can take a single word—“baby”—and transmute it into something divine, instilling it with all the glory and poetry of a Shakespearean sonnet.
And then there’s his bass playing. Collins’ progressions are perpetually shifting and inventive, yet unpretentious—firmly grounded in the classic funk traditions pioneered by the likes of James Brown and further spun out by Funkadelic—two acts for which Bootsy played before striking out on his own.
The iconic funk bassist, will headline San Jose’s 2014 Jazz Festival on Friday, Aug. 8, but when he speaks with Metro from his home outside Cincinnati, where the Mothership is refueling between stages of a European tour, he has his sights set on his next stop: Batumi, Georgia—a resort on the Black Sea, which once served as a playground for Communist Party bigwigs.
The 64-year-old Collins laughs, tickled by the notion that the Soviet Union is long gone, but he remains, and will soon spread his technicolor gospel to the former Eastern Bloc.
“There’re a lot of things going on that, you know, we can expose the funk to,” he says. “It’s gonna be a blast!”
It’s just the latest improbable episode in a life full of improbabilities. Born in Cincinnati in 1951, the son of a single mother, William “Bootsy” Collins was just 18, and didn’t even own a bass, when his group, the Pacemakers, was tapped to become James Brown’s backing band—a huge break, which the young Collins quickly turned his back on. Just 11 months later, in 1971, Bootsy walked.
As luck—or perhaps destiny—would have it, lightning struck a second time when Bootsy met George Clinton, the mad genius behind Funkadelic, whose acid-funk freakouts were attracting fans in the Detroit area. In Clinton, Collins found a musical mentor and collaborator, and with Collins, Clinton scored some of his biggest hits.
Collins finished the ’70s as the frontman of Bootsy’s Rubber Band. Since then, he’s done countless collaborations with artists as diverse as Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, house-era charmers Deee-Lite, Snoop Dogg, and even the Reverend Al Sharpton.
By his own admission, music was Collins’ ticket out of a hard-knock life that seemed likely to land him in prison. But that’s not how it felt at the time: Then, as now, Bootsy was just following his bliss.
“It seemed like everybody was always happy around music and having a good time,” he recalls. “That pulled me toward wanting to play—watching people getting off and having a good time. That was a big part of it. And of course the girls—definitely.”
However, the biggest draw may well have been was Collins’ older brother, Phelps—also known as Catfish. “I was just trying to prove to [Catfish] that I was worthy of hanging with him,” Bootsy confesses. Eight years older than Bootsy, Catfish was already playing in bands when Bootsy was barely a teen.
Though the Collins brothers would ultimately enter into a musical partnership that lasted until his older brother’s death in 2010, initially, Catfish wasn’t so keen on Bootsy getting into the profession. “He didn’t take me seriously,” Bootsy recalls. “In fact, he was kind of like against it.”
But persistence and talent won over the skeptical brother. In Bootsy’s retelling, success was just an easy glide from there: “Once I did that, everything started clicking. Everything started, just, you know, working.”
Perhaps it’s true, because it was soon after that James Brown came calling. Virtually overnight, the Collins brothers went from obscurity to funk aristocracy.
Regarding his decision to leave Brown and join Funkadelic, Bootsy recalls the shifting sounds of the early ’70s: “Things were definitely changing. You used to have a solo artist and maybe, like, a saxophone. But Jimi [Hendrix] changed that. By him coming on the scene with the wild guitar thing, that led into bands wanting to be the front guys—like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. It was more than just a singer with a back-up band. The bands became the stars.”
It’s a crooked pedigree that traces itself from Hendrix to the marching-band prog-rock of Chicago to Funkadelic—but therein lies genius.
When asked how it felt to step out from the band and become a frontman, Bootsy laughs, saying, “In the first place, it was George [Clinton] who who talked me into the frontman thing. He always said I was a star—whether I wanted to be one or not. I never looked at it like that.”
It’s hard to believe a man with star shaped glasses doesn’t recognize his own star power, Bootsy insists with a laugh that he still can’t believe he’s come so far and lasted so long. “I don’t know what was happening,” he says. “I just went with it. I know I took a lot of LSD, though.”