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    Fred Wesley was playing but James Brown was presiding

    “Fellas, everybody having a good time,” Fred Wesley called out. Yeah, the crowd cheered at the top of their voices.

    “Are you having a real good time,” he shouted through the cheers. “Ladies and gentlemen, are you having a funky good time?”

    We knew what was coming up. The next sound emanating from Fred Wesley and the New J.B.’s was from a songbook that was vintage James Brown. We instinctively recognized the music before we heard the lyrics. We rocked and danced and hummed and listened as the mix of  instruments laid open that very familiar tune.

    “We’re gonna have a funky good time.”

    Fred Wesley (center) and members of the New J.B.'s at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC.

    It was Fred Wesley playing, but I felt James Brown’s presence. They were two men talking at the same time, saying the same thing, playing the same tune, melded. It was hard to separate the two. Wesley wasn’t sliding across the floor in the foot antics of Brown; his trombone spoke for him and it talked with finesse.

    Wesley and his band were among the Rhythm and Blues groups featured at the recent Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The R&B portion of the festival was co-sponsored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture that’s being erected on the Mall near the Washington Monument.

    The R&B program featured some early groups I had never heard of – the Monitors, the Jewels, the Swallows and the Dixie Cups – along with ones I had – the Funk Brothers, Fred Wesley and New J.B.’s.

    The festival included craft demonstrations and other events, but a friend and I went for the music. I visited her in DC after she raved about seeing the Funk Brothers, the house band behind Motown’s stable of hits, the week before. WABW travel blogger Jennifer Beaumont was at the festival Friday on the final day of her Black History Tour via Amtrak.

    A saxophone player with the 1960s Motown group the Monitors and his lovely old instrument.

    Before Fred Wesley and the New J.B.’s came on, the dance floor and the air were jumping with the sounds of the Monitors, a 1960s Motown group. As I stood there listening to them, I spied this huge saxophone, a little paint missing but an eye-catcher. Later, I listened as its musician-owner blew out a sound that was as beautiful as the instrument and as big as it was large. I love the sax.

    The J.B.’s had their own sax man, whom Wesley specifically introduced to us as “the finest”: Ernie Fields Jr. Fields was the son and namesake of an entertainer whose name was new to me. He played sax in his father’s band, and has been a band leader, producer and talent scout. Fields has worked with Bobby “Blue” Band, Marvin Gaye, Rick James and others. He also was a top Hollywood studio player in the 1980s. By the 1990s, he was back with the saxophone as a jazzman, touring with Wesley. He also plays the bagpipes.

    Some of my favorite James Brown tunes have Fred Wesley written all over them, especially one that was our black college anthem in the 1970s: “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Wesley was born in my home state of Georgia but raised in Alabama. His grandmother taught him classical piano but he preferred the big-band sound of his father. He started out with the sax but switched to the trombone.

    Saxophonist Ernie Fields Jr. with the New J.B.'s.

    He was the soul of the J.B.’s, and he had an on-again off-again relationship as Brown’s band leader. He left the band twice – he even played with George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelics for a time. He has done studio work with other groups and has produced his own music, finally settling on jazz.

    Wesley was the one we came to see at the festival, but he didn’t hog the show. He was very pluralistic, putting the light on not only Fields but each of the musicians, including one who played a mean guitar on “Funky Good Time.”

    I didn’t know as I sat there and listened that the name of the song was actually “Doin’ It to Death” and that those words were some that Wesley used to say all the time. The song was recorded as a single by Wesley and the J.B.’s in 1973 and featured James Brown.

    Early on in the show, Wesley sang “Breakin’ Bread,” which reminded me of a folk tune. Those of us in the audience joined in on the chorus: “Breakin’ bread with my mama, breakin’ bread with my mama, breaking bread.” It was a tune he and the J.B.’s recorded in 1974.

    He was singing about hoecakes (which I blogged about), and it brought back memories for my friend Elaine. She didn’t recall how to make the flat pancake-like bread but, she said, “my great aunt made them for me.”

    Her great aunt likely had some Southern in her because we had hoecakes when I was growing up in Georgia. For us, it was cornbread cooked in a skilled and we, too, called them hoecakes. Elsewhere, they were called journey cakes or johnny cakes. One saying was that slaves in the hot fields would cook bread on a hoe, thus the name hoecakes.

    Plenty of dancers took to the floor during the New J.B.'s performance.

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    2 Comments

    1. Wish I could have been there for the music. I remember the hoecakes, since I’m a Georgia native too.

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