Instantly recognizable by either his popping melodic basslines or his highly charismatic vocal pronouncements, Bootsy Collins is both an all-time great funk and R&B musician and a consummate character. Catapulted to fame in his late teens as a member of the J.B.'s, Collins became a pupil of James Brown and was immediately crucial to the singer and bandleader's reshaping of soul into tight, hard funk at the dawn of the '70s. Remarkably, Collins was only getting started by the time he was accepted into the Parliament-Funkadelic family, where he played a greater role as a songwriter and vocalist. He was central to P-Funk hits such as "Up for the Down Stroke" (1974) and "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker" (1976) by the time he made another splash with "I'd Rather Be with You" (1976), his first big single as the head of Bootsy's Rubber Band. His discography as a leader and proper solo artist is set further apart by the gold LPs Ahh...The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! (1977) and Bootsy? Player of the Year (1978), and the number one R&B hit "Bootzilla" (1978). Furthermore, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has remained a constant collaborator for decades. He has worked extensively under an assortment of guises beside Bill Laswell, and has initiated reciprocal relationships with scores of rap artists, documented on animated solo albums extending from Fresh Outta 'P' University (1997) to The Power of the One (2020).
Born in Cincinnati, William Earl "Bootsy" Collins started on guitar, inspired by Jimi Hendrix and older brother Phelps "Catfish" Collins. When the bassist in Catfish's band was a no-show, the younger Collins substituted and stuck with his new instrument. The Collins brothers became the nucleus of the Pacemakers, a unit that also included vocalist Philippe Wynne, later of Spinners fame. The band made the local King Records their adoptive home base and established themselves as a session and live band for label artists such as Hank Ballard, Marva Whitney, and Lyn Collins. When most of James Brown's road band bailed before a 1970 gig in Columbus, Georgia, the Godfather of Soul sent Bobby Byrd on a jet to collect the Pacemakers as emergency replacements. They were soon absorbed into the band that became known as the J.B.'s. Collins' inspired, clever progressions and patterns were a vital part of Brown's subsequent hits such as "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine," "Super Bad," "Soul Power," and "Talkin' Loud and Sayin' Nothing."
The Collins brothers left the J.B.'s in 1971 and in Cincinnati formed a core group that took a number of names -- House Guests, House Guest Rated X, and Bootsy Phelps and Gary, among other variations -- and released a handful of singles over the course of a few years. Most of these musicians, the Collinses included, moved up to Detroit and joined George Clinton's Funkadelic in 1972. Bootsy Collins would eventually pull double duty for Clinton with Parliament, and went on to co-write numerous P-Funk classics, including the Top Ten R&B hits "Up for the Down Stroke" and "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)," and the chart-topping "Flash Light." During this run, Collins formed Bootsy's Rubber Band. This spirited ensemble emerged in 1976 with Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, and Rick Gardner, also known as the Horny Horns, along with Catfish, Leslyn Bailey, Gary "Mudbone" Cooper, Robert "Peanut" Johnson, Frank "Frankie Kash" Waddy, and Frederick "Flintstone" Allen all in the initial lineup. Collins featured his alter egos Bootzilla and Casper as part of the stage act. The band's debut LP, Stretchin' Out in Bootsy's Rubber Band, and their second release, Ahh...The Name Is Bootsy, Baby!, equaled anything issued during Clinton's peak period for idiomatic diversity, clever, bizarre humor, and outrageous lyrics. Both Ahh... and the third LP, Bootsy? Player of the Year, peaked at number 16 on Billboard's overall albums chart and earned gold records from the RIAA. Nine of the band's singles reached the R&B chart before the end of the '70s. "The Pinocchio Theory" went Top Ten. "Bootzilla," one of Collins' signature songs, topped it.
In the '80s, Collins recorded both with the Sweat Band -- Bootsy's Rubber Band under a new name, thanks to legal action taken by an obscure Rubber Band -- and as a solo artist. He also did some special projects, such as Bonzo Goes to Washington, a 1984 one-off collaboration with Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison that produced "5 Minutes," featuring Ronald Reagan declaring nuclear war on the Soviet Union.
In 1988, he returned on Columbia with What's Bootsy Doin'? The set's "Shock-It-to-Me" was co-written and co-produced by the prolific Bill Laswell, with whom Collins formed a close and lasting alliance. Across 1989 and the early '90s, Collins led the Bootzilla Orchestra on Malcolm McLaren's Waltz Darling, became a featured guest of dance music trio Deee-Lite (heard on the Top Ten pop hit "Groove Is in the Heart"), and toured with a group co-led by longtime partners Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. Bootsy's Rubber Band reappeared during this period with Jungle Bass, a Laswell-assisted EP cut for 4th & Broadway. A vast array of projects involving Laswell arrived throughout the end of the '90s. These included Praxis' Transmutation and Sacrifist, Bootsy's New Rubber Band's two-disc Blasters of the Universe, Zillatron's Lord of the Harvest, and Axiom Funk's Funkcronomicon. Additionally, Collins waxed Fresh Outta 'P' University, a 1997 album with roles for rappers including MC Lyte, Rodney O, and Dru Down, as well as many P-Funk associates. Around the time it was released, Collins was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Parliament-Funkadelic.
As the 21st century opened, Collins' profile was maintained with touring, reissues, and other catalog titles, such as the Rhino label's 2001 double-disc Glory B da Funk's on Me!: The Bootsy Collins Anthology. Additionally, Collins provided the vocals for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" and finally became a Grammy winner when the song's video (depicting only a dancing Christopher Walken) won the 2001 award for Best Short Form Music Video. New studio albums in the 2000s were limited to 2002's Play with Bootsy and 2006's Christmas Is 4 Ever. Meanwhile, Collins was in the experimental metal band Science Faxtion and was part of a couple Fred Wesley endeavors. The musician's freely collaborative ways continued throughout the 2010s, marked by Tha Funk Capital of the World and World Wide Funk, adventurous solo flights issued respectively in 2011 and 2017. As a Parliament-Funkadelic alum, Collins was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy in 2019. He added to his solo discography the next year with The Power of the One.
© Andy Kellman & Ron Wynn /TiVo