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Fred Wesley: 'Recollections of a Sideman'

Hit Me Fred: Recollections of a Sideman, by Fred Wesley, Jr. Published by Duke University Press, 2002.
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Hit Me Fred: Recollections of a Sideman, by Fred Wesley, Jr. Published by Duke University Press, 2002.

Trombone star Fred Wesley, Jr. is best known for his work as a sideman with James Brown in the 1960s and 70s, when he helped move Brown's sound from soul to funk. But Wesley is also a legendary R&B, soul and funk veteran, whose musical career spans five decades. He's made major musical contributions to acts and artists such as the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, George Clinton's Parliment/Funkadelic, Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis.

In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, Wesley recalls the twists and turns of a long and storied career, which he explores in an autobiography called Hit Me, Fred, and subtitled "Recollections of a Sideman." And Wesley brings along his trombone to illustrate the music he was playing at different points in his career.

The South Carolina native started with his father's big band at the age of 14. He also played in marching bands in high school and college and later with a U.S. Army band. After his military stint, he caught on with jazz groups, including Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and Count Basie's band. By the mid-1960s he had gone in a slightly different direction, joining the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.

But in 1967 Wesley found himself out of work and at a crossroads. Just as he took a job as the first black milkman in Mobile, Ala., he got an offer to play with the James Brown band. His musical career was not only back on track, it was headed for bright lights.

"James Brown put that stamp on me," Wesley recalls. "I had to come up to it when he said, 'Hit me Fred.'"

Eventually he took his jazz-funk sound to the influential George Clinton band. During the 1980s and 90s he toured and recorded with the JB Horns, Maceo Parker and with Pee Wee Ellis. And he's recorded with his own group, Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns.

Through it all, Wesley says, he's established a firm musical identity: "I have accepted my position as a funk trombone player... I don't suppress the funk. I'm a funky player who can play jazz."

He will release a new CD in April. In the meantime, he continues to tour, lecture and write.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.

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