Warming Up

Warming Up

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I recently finished reading legendary trombonist Fred Wesley’s autobiography “Hit Me, Fred” (2002, Duke University Press) and I thought I would post a few words about it. Of course you know that Fred Wesley, Jr. was the trombone player on all of those great James Brown tracks from the late 60’s and early 70’s. What you may not have known (I didn’t) was that Fred was also the musical director for Brown’s band and technically the composer of a lot of those classic tracks. His tenure with the JB’s is how Fred is most remembered today but he has had a really busy career in music that a lot of people just don’t know about – I was one of those people.

So, after reading Fred’s well-written, chronologically-ordered account of his musical life I can definitely say that it should certainly be required reading for trombone players. That’s a given. But musicians in general would enjoy and learn a lot from this book. But I think even fans of funk music – musician and non-musician - will also find Fred’s book a revelation, especially fans of James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic in particular. This book is also a great document of life on the road as well as an interesting take on the record business and how it has changed over the years. “Hit Me, Fred” is also a compelling personal view of R&B from the inside out. I would even go a step further and say that this book is also a valuable document of African American culture, pre-Civil Rights era through the Hippy/Vietnam era, through the crazy 70’s and right on up to the present day. Sounds like some high praise but let’s stay grounded here. I’m not going to go on record and say this is the best autobiography I’ve ever read or some masterful piece of literature, but I do believe that a huge spectrum of people would really get a lot out of reading Fred’s book.

Alright so here are some random (not in any special order) thoughts after reading the book - and again these are my thoughts and impressions; yours might surely be different):

·        Fred Wesley is extremely confident of his abilities, especially his ear. He’s not afraid to admit when he’s learning about something (he always seems willing to admit errors in judgment) but he consistently comes across as confident. Not usually arrogant, but sure of himself.
·        Fred mentions about one hundred times that his dream is to be a jazz musician. I haven’t heard his one real jazz album. Might be good, but somehow I can’t see him as a real jazz player (at one point he mentions the extremely limited number of tunes he really knows – its even less than what I know! :) ). Nothing wrong with that. He’s probably the greatest funk trombone player ever. Being one of the funkiest dudes ever is absolutely nothing to scoff at.
·        Tina Turner was amazing; Ike Turner was an asshole. Big surprise, right?
·        Black R&B shows were full-on productions. An overload on the senses: visual, aural, olfactory (Fred dubbed the P-Funk costume trunk the “Trunk of Funk” because none of those clothes ever got washed!), sensual, sexual. The whole spectrum. The performers thought of everything. A James Brown show was an unbelievable spectacle. Same thing with Funkadelic and eventually Bootsy Collins shows. You witness an event, not just a concert. And the event would be mind-blowing!
·        James Brown was a controlling, ill-tempered, manipulative, insecure, egomaniac. And according to Fred’s claim, James Brown was nowhere near as musical as I had imagined (Fred and other guys in the band were the true composers. Mr. Brown often just came in at the end to add his vocals – and criticisms). That said, Fred is emphatic in his claim that James Brown was the greatest performer ever. I believe him.
·        James Brown got filthy rich while his sidemen remained in a state of just getting by.
·        Life on the road was/is often filled with sex and booze and drugs, crappy food, and crappy lodgings.
·        The musicians of Parliament/Funkadelic were supremely talented – as musicians and as performers.
·        Fred should have signed a contract with George Clinton and the P-Funk guys before he wrote all of their horn arrangements.
·        There are a lot of very fragile egos in the music business.
·        When technology changes, you have to adapt.
·        Prince changed everything when he arrived on the scene.
·        Fred had a family yet he barely ever mentions them. Almost completely randomly Fred mentions that, oh yeah, by the way, I married my childhood friend Gertrude. Then later, oh yeah, we had a daughter. And then, later, another. And then, later in the book, Fred mentions a son. But we never even heard about that son being born! Fred constantly mentions that he is making his decisions about what he needs to do musically so that he can make enough money to support his wife and kids back home, yet he always seems to be on the road somewhere and never at home. And we never hear anything about his family. For most of the book I was thinking that maybe Fred was a pretty crappy father. He claimed to care about supporting them but he never seemed to physically be there. But it’s not fair for me to judge. I don’t know what arrangement he made with his wife. Another thing to consider is that when a person writes a biography they chose what details and things that they want to include and what to omit. Maybe Fred purposely doesn’t include family information. Maybe there is a reason for that. I don’t know. It’s not my business. So I shouldn’t judge. Still, to me, it seems a bit weird to constantly mention making money to support the wife and kids when it seems like what he is really focused on is himself (he alludes to plenty of extra-marital activities). Just an observation. And one coming from a guy with three kids who has made a decision to put parenting first, sometimes at the expense of me getting better as a trumpet player. I’m working at it though!

·        Fred went through a dark period of addiction. Drugs and sex. Several years when music and everything else came a distant second place to the addictions. Fred spends about two pages talking about this. He says there’s enough to talk about from this period to fill another book. Hmmm. Kinda want to read that book. Reminds me of the mid to late 70’s retirement period in Miles Davis’ autobiography. Miles seems ashamed to really, truly admit what he was doing. All we know is that it was sick and twisted. Maybe some things are better left a secret. I can respect that.

So yes, all in all, a satisfying read. Thanks so much for having the courage to share your story, Mr. Wesley. You are one of the greats! I sure learned a lot and again, I’d highly recommend “Hit Me, Fred!”


  1. Yeah, Bart. Nice review. Great book. I particularly remember Fred saying that he loved James, owed him everything, was the godfather of his kids . . . But couldn't stand to be in the same room with him

  2. Yeah Dave! Definitely seemed to be a love/hate thing going with JB. More hate than love most of the time. But in the end, total respect for JB's immense contribution as a performer and music figure. I really enjoyed the book and will plan on picking up more of Fred's music. Lotsa good stuff on YouTube as well. Thanks for reading!!