Living for the Funk
Most bass players don't get recognition, let alone fame. You can probably count on two hands the bassists that found the limelight in the past 40 years. I'll spot you Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke; good luck coming up with eight more.
It's an unfortunate casualty of the instrument. It happens in every genre, but in funk, where heavy bass lines drive the music forward, it's particularly egregious. A man can lay down some of the thickest bass grooves in history, on tunes like "Hot Pants Road," "Pass the Peas," and "Get on the Good Foot," and still be anonymous. And then, if you're, say, Fred Thomas and you're playing that badass bass while you're backing up someone like James Brown, well, you're playing bass behind him, no two ways about it.
This is what Thomas has had to live with for the last 36 years, the obscurity and the fame. You'll be hard-pressed to find a group that defined the sound of funk and soul more than Thomas' old band did — that's Brown's old backing band, the JB's. They're arguably the best funk and soul unit in history, and Thomas was the longest-serving bassist Brown ever had. But Google Thomas' admittedly common name and you'll get a barrage of links to indie pop bands, Christian rock bands, and a prominent New Orleans Saints running back (who probably couldn't play a bass guitar to save his life). You'd think some of this might bother the 62-year-old Thomas now that his time playing with Brown is done, but when I chatted with him last week on the phone, it was easy to tell that he's content to let his work speak for itself.
I first got wind that one of the JB's was coming to town via an email that wrongly asserted "James Brown's band" was playing at Van Dyke's in Miami. I knew that couldn't be right; and anyway, Brown shifted his lineup around so much that expecting a full set with Maceo Parker and the boys was out. When I dug around and found out it was Fred Thomas, I practically shit a brick.
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While he wasn't the best-known Fred in the band — that was trombone player Fred Wesley — Thomas was right there through Brown's most creative period, backing him nearly every step of the way. It was Thomas who replaced young Bootsy Collins after Collins left Brown in '71, and it was Thomas who laid down some of the funkiest, nastiest, deep-in-the-bottom-of-the-pocket bass lines on "Papa Don't Take No Mess," "Giving Up Food for Funk," and my personal favorite, "Doin' It to Death," AKA "We're Gonna Have a Funky Good Time." Like most of Brown's musicians, Thomas left the group several times for personal (read: financial) reasons. Brown was one of the toughest band directors of his era, notorious for cursing out musicians in an instant and fining them for the smallest of things, like having unshined shoes or wrinkles in their shirts. It was nitpicking, but he demanded perfection at every step, something that Thomas learned the hard way.
"With James, it had to be right," he says from his home in Brooklyn. "You could learn a lot from that, but hell, sometimes we didn't even feel welcome. It was like, you dealt with it or you didn't deal with it. When it got too rough, you take a break. But that happened with all of his musicians. Folks were out and in all the time."
Thomas played with Brown from '71 to '76, quit, went back for a stint in the '80s, quit again, rejoined the band for a third time in 1992, and remained at Brown's side until his passing on Christmas Day 2006. To some, that ensures Thomas will go down in history as one of the greatest bassists ever.
He laughs when I ask him about the notion that he's the most sampled bassist in hip-hop history.
"You know, that's something that James used to say when he would introduce me. I don't really get too far into it... A lot of that stuff that they sampled, I was on — like "it takes two to make ya thing go right" — that's my bass line. And there's a whole lot more."
The song he's referencing is "Think (About It)" by Lyn Collins. But when I bring up Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, the hip-hop group that made that song popular again in 1988, he seems to have no idea who I'm talking about.
"I really don't even know the names of the hip-hop groups, 'cause I don't keep up with 'em," he says with his heavy Southern country accent. And hip-hop apparently returns the favor. "Producers take this and that and think, 'I'm sampling James Brown' — but they don't think about who played the bass lines that attracted them to that break in the first place."
Surprisingly, with as much as he's offered to the evolution of modern music over the years, Thomas has a lot more in the tank. He put together his own group last year, the Fred Thomas Band, with as solid a rhythm section as you'll find these days (Dap-Kings included). Based on his experience taking cues from Brown, he knows a lot about how tight a band is supposed to sound. As for what audiences can expect when he hits town this weekend: "Man, I'm just bringing memories of the funk," he says. "That clean, uncut, raw-dog style."
So this is gonna be the real deal? I ask.
"Sho ya right!"
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