At the age of 17, William “Bootsy” Collins packed up his homemade bass guitar and left home to tour the world with James Brown. He was heading off in pursuit of the funk. Or, as he calls it now – aged 68, in his high-pitched rasp down the phone from Cincinnati, Ohio – “the fonk”.
In the five decades since, Collins’s bass has changed the shape of music. Not only did he play on some of Brown’s best-known and most political records – Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine, Superbad and Soul Power – but he has also had a hand in pop hits from Deee-Lite’s Groove Is in the Heart to Fatboy Slim’s Weapon of Choice and Snoop Dogg’s What’s My Name (Snoop Dogg). After working with Brown, he would discover LSD, join George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic and help carry the torch for unapologetic bohemian black music after Jimi Hendrix’s death. He found his signature style – star-shaped sunglasses, skin-tight leathers and top hats – and became an icon of afrofuturism.
Born in 1951 in Cincinnati, Collins spent his childhood with his guitarist brother, Phelps, AKA “Catfish”, and his mother – who worked several jobs to make ends meet. “Growing up, we were tough,” Collins says. “We came up during the civil rights riots. We were street kids.”
On the day we speak, it is a week on from the horrifying police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. Protests are erupting throughout the US, and Donald Trump has called for aggressive policing. Having lived through the civil rights movement, does he feel this is a moment of reckoning for race in the US?
“A lot has changed over the years,” he says. “We [black people] have been allowed to gain more, maybe, in terms of money – but the wider mindset is the same. As far as who we are as people and a race and what we got to give, we haven’t been allowed to advance that much.”
What has changed, he says, is the availability of images of police brutality. “Now, everybody sees when these incidents happen. There’s no secret, it’s recorded, it’s straight out into the world. We’ve been through enough and we need to come together. I know it has been said for ever, but it feels like time really is running out now.”
In typical Collins fashion, his response to the global pandemics of Covid-19 and systemic racism comes in his own brand of galactic funk. Holed up in his ranch – known as Bootzilla – Collins has been spending the lockdown finalising his 10th solo album, The Power of the One. “It’s been a strange time; really good for music, but bad in many other ways.” While the album is not due until October, a charity single, Stars, was released last week, featuring a sample of the academic Cornel West talking powerfully on CNN, in the wake of Floyd’s killing, about the ways the US has failed its black citizens. “Covid gave me some time to reset,” Collins says. “I decided to put something out that was uplifting and that would hopefully help heal the planet.”
Collins genuinely believes music has the power to heal. “Funk just brings people together, from the ground up,” he says. “It doesn’t have nothing to do with colour. It has nothing to do with status. It just brings you to ‘the one’, and the one thing that we all have in common is that we all just want to live. That’s what it’s really all about. It’s making something from nothing, like me.”
Growing up, Collins and his brother had “two dollars a week between us”, he says. Catfish, who was seven years Bootsy’s senior, got a guitar first. “I started off trying to emulate him by playing the guitar. I would hang out with him and his band, trying to see if they would let me join.” One day, they needed a bassist. So he improvised. “I took this guitar we had and just put bass strings on it and that was all it took – I was a bass player.”
The pair started spending time at the local King Records studio, hoping to run into more prominent acts that might recruit them as a backing band. Their break came when a record executive, Charles Spurling, heard them play and enlisted them as the band for blues and black country-and-western acts such as Bill Doggett, Hank Ballard and Arthur Prysock.
It was when Brown heard them in 1969, though, that they struck gold. Brown had been recording at the King studios and was just entering his spangly cape-wearing “godfather of soul” phase. “When James Brown came along, suddenly we were living the big life. We got all the girls and we would get loaded,” he says. “What else could a kid want?”
Brown would provide much more than fame, women and drugs, however. While his own success was reaching frenzied levels internationally, he was also gaining notoriety for his domineering and overbearing presence. His previous backing band had walked out after disagreements over pay and he had started to fine members for lateness or mistakes. “I never had a father and he took that role on. He did a good job. I needed that discipline. I would do any kind of wild thing otherwise.” He was never fearful of Brown. “He couldn’t intimidate us like the others because we were already tough.”
Over the course of 11 months spent with Brown as part of the backing band, the JBs, Collins rehearsed until his fingers bled, trying to hone in on the heartbeat of this nascent, stridently black genre of music. The group toured and recorded relentlessly, making a “homecoming” trip to Africa and visiting Fela Kuti in Nigeria, who afterwards kept up a friendly rivalry with Brown.
As with any father-and-son relationship, though, the rebellious streak soon emerged in teenage Collins. “James would start accusing me of being high, even when I wasn’t, so one day I just decided to drop acid to prove him right,” he says. The consequences were, of course, disastrous. “You had to be so tight with his music, there was no way you could play it when you were high. He called me into the back room and I was out of my mind – my bass had turned into a snake – and he fired me, but I just couldn’t stop laughing. I don’t remember what happened with the rest of that night.”
It was 1970 and Collins was revelling in acid-fuelled hedonism; he told this newspaper in 2011 that he took LSD every day for two years. It was during this time that he met Clinton, a singer and producer with a penchant for wearing nothing but a white sheet on stage and whose band performed a mutant kind of funk that swapped Brown’s adrenaline-fuelled charge for a looser, more sexual lassitude. “James had taught me about the one [playing on the first beat of the bar, a Collins staple of funk bass] and he’d made sure that we were in good shape, rehearsing all the time, dressing all the same way and recording everything in one take,” Collins says. “When I met George, though, we wanted to find our own identity. With him, you could just come as you are. It was perfect, because he allowed us to experiment and he wasn’t like a father figure. He was like: ‘If you wanna get loaded in the back seat, go ahead!’”
Being in Parliament-Funkadelic “was just total freedom”, Collins says. “It was like being finally accepted. We could play whatever we wanted and fully express ourselves in whatever we wanted to wear, too. There were no walls between us and the sky, you could just keep reaching and reaching.”
There followed an intensely creative decade of work with Clinton and his P-Funk collective, with Collins part of Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as playing with his own Bootsy’s Rubber Band and under the names Caspar the Funky Ghost and Bootzilla. He even landed a solo US No 1 with 1978’s playful single Bootzilla.
After Hendrix’s death in 1970, Collins and Clinton were some of the few black musicians continuing his legacy, now with added theatrics. While Hendrix may have torched his guitar in a state of devotional rapture at Monterey Pop festival, by 1976 Parliament-Funkadelic had built their own “spaceship” under the chaotic leadership of Dr Funkenstein – one of Clinton’s alter egos. The P-Funk Earth tour, in which the mothership landed on stage, was a carnival spectacle of celebratory blackness.
“When we brought the spaceship down to the stage, it was like a religious revival,” Collins says. “We realised we were a part of a bigger thing, a larger expression of community. When the mothership would come down, there was this rapture; it was like the first time you made love and you would never forget it.” It was a new vision of audience communion, something akin to the hippy love-ins of the previous decade.
But the party couldn’t last. “I was losing touch with myself and it was hard to separate the Bootsy on stage from the person I was beneath the outfits,” Collins says. “I wasn’t in a very good place and I realised I was in too deep.” With help from his partner, Patti, he got sober in the mid-80s. Collins married Patti in 1996 and she now helps him run the Bootsy Collins Foundation, a charitable organisation for children’s musical education.
By the time he returned to music in 1988, with the electrofunk record What’s Bootsy Doin’?, hip-hop was in the ascendant. It was a genre predicated on the sampling of P-Funk and Brown. That same year, NWA released their debut album, Straight Outta Compton. Dr Dre of NWA was so indebted to the P-Funk sound that he would call his later work G-funk. In a matter of a few years, Collins had morphed from the young, prodigal tearaway of a tumultuous funk orgy into an elder statesman of a revered genre; a superhero of the bass.
Today, it is this legacy on which he is focused. This summer, Collins will restart his online Funk University, providing tutorials and lessons for aspiring musicians. “We have to nurture the talent that we have now, as it’s just so much more difficult for them to get noticed,” he says. “The funk is in the power of the one and so we have to work together to spread that message. That’s what I’m interested in.”
It might seem trite or overly optimistic for Collins to be so focused on a blanket message of unity while race relations in the US feel on the verge of an irrevocable and violent rift. Yet hope has seen him through other dark times, such as the trauma of the late 60s.
“People are so status-obsessed and they just don’t realise that we are all the same, that this whole Earth is our mothership and we’re all on board,” he says softly. “You can laugh if you want to, because I’ve been laughed at before, but none of that means anything to me any more. What means something is that we all get a chance to get heard and that we help each other out. We’re all funky, just not all of us know it.”
Bootsy Collins’s Stars is out now; all proceeds from the streams and downloads go to the MusiCares Covid-19 relief fund