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What's Bootsy Doin'?

James Brown is the hardest working man in show business, but Bootsy's the busiest

The name is Bootsy, baby, and if that's all most folks know for sure about the world's most flamboyant practitioner of the low end, it's also quite likely all they need to know. It's also, unfortunately, all they're likely to get, at least from the horse's mouth, since William "Bootsy" Collins -- or Bootzilla, or Zillatron, or Casper the Friendly Ghost or whatever cartoon alter ego he's indulging at the moment -- isn't terribly hip on the interview process. Collins stiffed me on a late deadline phone interview over the weekend, but I'm not going to take it personally. He also blew off the New York Times and the Associated Press the same day. Keep 'em curious and they'll keep coming back for more could be the man's motto (he's got dozens of them), and when you're as jaw-droppingly good, as awe-inspiringly influential and as third-stone-from-the-sun weird as Collins is, you can get away with it.

So in lieu of insight from the man, let's have a little history lesson. Collins was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1951, and it wasn't long before Bootsy and his elder brother, guitarist Phelps, began playing around town as the Pacemakers. If you were black teenage musicians playing in a bar band in 1969, Cincinnati was the place to be, since the town also served as home to King Records and that label's ace in the hole, James Brown. Sure enough, the Pacemakers soon fell under Brown's wing and took advantage of James Brown Productions to land regular gigs supporting everything from gospel to jazz acts. But the real action happened almost by accident, when a last-minute call came in from Georgia, where Brown and his band, suddenly shy two members, were scheduled to perform. As Collins relates in the liner notes to Back in the Day: The Best of Bootsy, a compilation recently released by Warner Archives: "We flew to Columbus, Georgia, on James Brown's private jet and went straight to his gig. We didn't have any idea what was going on. Once inside, Bobby [Byrd, of the JBs] tried to rush us past the band and into James' dressing room, but the first person I saw was Kush [trumpeter Richard "Kush" Griffith]. He was standing over James and he wasn't smiling. I knew then tere was gonna be some serious trouble that night. I thought, 'Oh, man what have we walked into?'"

What Bootsy had walked into was two years of funk schooling from the master himself, and Collins was the band's bassist through a string of Brown's funkiest hits, including "Sex Machine," "Super Bad," "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothin', "Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved" and "Soul Power."

But history shows that Brown was better at finding players than keeping them happy, and two years later Bootsy had bailed the Brown family to organize the House Guests, a traveling funk emporium wherein Collins began to emerge as a bandleader in his own right, cartoon costumes and all. It was as leader of the House Guests that Collins first heard of Funkadelic, George Clinton's Detroit-based conglomeration, which was said to be mining a similar vein of musical outrage. When the two groups finally met up, they more or less merged, with Collins and the House Guests joining organist Bernie Worrell and guitarist Harold Beane to tour with Clinton as Funkadelic. The original partnership didn't last long, and Bootsy wound up back in Cincinnati, cut a single as the Complete Strangers and put together demo tapes that eventually led him back to Detroit and the Clinton camp. It was with Clinton that Collins' talents finally got their just due. Bootsy played the uncredited bassline of Funkadelic's "Cosmic Slop" and cowrote "Up for the Downstroke" with Clinton. He also cowrote more than half of Parliament's classic Chocolate City album.

In 1975, Clinton used his clout with Warner Brothers to leverage a solo deal for Collins, and Bootsy went to work assembling the first incarnation of Bootsy's Rubber Band and recording the debut Stretchin' Out in a Rubber Band. Ahh... The Name is Bootsy, Baby followed, with the Rubber Band on the road as a mix-and-match element of Clinton's P-Funk All Stars. Bootsy's albums were outselling Clinton's, but it wasn't until 1977 that the Rubber Band headlined its own tour, logging miles and, as it later became known, inhaling cocaine at roughly the same rate. According to the Back in the Day liner notes, Bootsy came off the road broken.

"I tried to figure out who I was," Collins wrote. "I started dealing with real people again instead of those who wanted me to wear the Bootsy glasses. When I'd come home my mama used to say, "You're in the house now, you can take those glasses off." That was like a smack in the face, and it helped me."

He finished an unexceptional album under contract to Warner Brothers and the Rubber Band disintegrated into a few Horny Horns albums on Atlantic, with sax master and onetime JB Maceo Parker joining P-Funk as emcee. Rubber Band guitarist Phelps Collins went home to Cincinnati.

Bootsy rested, and then returned to the studio to record Ultra Wave for Warners, and then Sweat Band for Clinton's Uncle Jam label. Through it all, he continued his contributions to P-Funk (who knew that it was Bootsy playing drums on P-Funk's "One Nation Under a Groove," "Knee Deep," "Funkentelechy" and "Flashlight"?). In 1982, Bootsy recorded his final Warner Brothers album, The One Giveth, The Count Taketh Away, and it almost instantaneously disappeared into a pop landscape that, weirdly enough, didn't seem to have room for Bootsy in the brave new world of dance music. A dance remix of "Countracula" from the album, retitled "Body Slam," made a small splash, but what the single really marked, according to Collins, was his final adieu to the white powder. "It happened right as "Body Slam" was coming out. On the first day I threw a big rock, probably three inches around, into the garbage can. I just knew if I was going to save my career I was going to have to clear my head," he recalled on the liner notes to his "best of" compilation.

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