`Kings' For A Day -- Famed Trombonist Fred Wesley Recalls The Scene At 1974'S `Rumble In The Jungle,' Which Led To An Oscar-Winning Film

From the ballrooms of the '60s to the turntables of the '90s, the music known as "funk" encircles the world. Prefigured in the ancient grooves of West Africa, it now pulses through the loops and samples of hip-hop. But what does it feel like to turn on a radio - and hear a music you helped invent more than 30 years ago? How does it feel to watch yourself bringing funk to Africa, 23 years ago, in the company of Muhammad Ali?

These are things musical legend Fred Wesley has been pondering as the trombone player pens his autobiography, "Hit Me, Fred!" Wesley's book has not been optioned yet, but already it is the talk of musical circles - where his stories and personality have long been famous. For 35 years now, Wesley has been at the center of musical action; his funny, insightful recollections come "from stage left."

From this privileged viewpoint (as from the hotel rooms, restaurants, tour buses, watershed gigs and studio sessions), Wesley's life parallels modern musical history. He set out to be a jazzman but was sidetracked by a different project: James Brown's invention of funk. Having cut his teeth on tours with Hank Ballard and the temperamental Ike and Tina Turner, Wesley was prepared for Brown's whirlwind '60s and '70s. For eight years, he remained one of its mainstays: Brown's music director, arranger and primary composer. "Hit Me, Fred!" is now a mantra from history; but for Wesley, it was a nightly command.

The tales of Wesley's time with Brown - and, later, with George Clinton and Bootsy Collins - are funny, fascinating and often downright scary. But they are matched by his stories of many others, artists from Count Basie up to De La Soul. Too often, musical histories are written by pundits. Thanks to Wesley, fans and historians can have the real article. Here, he remembers the experience captured onscreen in "When We Were Kings."

- Cynthia Rose Seattle Times staff reporter

----------------- `Kings' for a day -----------------

Fred Wesley Special to The Seattle Times

Yes, I was there in 1974. I saw all the cameras, although I had no idea that there would ever be an Academy Award-winning movie made about it.

What they were filming was a monumental undertaking by fight promoter Don King and music festival producer Lloyd Price. They had teamed up with President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire to promote a fight between then-heavyweight champion George Foreman and popular challenger and former champion Muhammad Ali.

I was there because the fight was to be preceded by a gigantic music festival featuring James Brown. I was Brown's music director and featured soloist at the time. Twenty-two years later, Leon Gast and David Sonenberg put bits and pieces of footage from the music festival and the goings-on around the two training camps, the activity around the hotels and the fight itself and made a movie titled "When We Were Kings."

I, along with the James Brown band, had flown to Kinshasa, Zaire, on the same overloaded DC-8 as Muhammad Ali and his crew. The plane was so overloaded because the organizers had tried to get all the people who participated in the music festival on that same airplane. I don't think they had properly anticipated the amount of equipment the performers carried with them. I bet the wardrobe for the Pointer Sisters alone took up an entire bin. The plane barely got off the ground.

Along with Brown and the Pointer Sisters, the cast included B.B. King, the Fanya All-Stars, the Spinners, Bill Withers, the Jazz Crusaders, Sister Sledge, some African bands and dancers and a lot of artists, I'm sure, I am forgetting. I sat with Big Black, the great percussionist. I remember asking him how it felt to be returning home to Africa. He told me that contrary to his persona and attire, he was from South Carolina and that this was his first trip.

There was a prevailing feeling of excitement throughout the plane as we interacted with one another, laughing and talking and anticipating each other's performances in Africa. Johnny Pacheco of the Fanya All-Stars provided much of the entertainment with his flute and his comedy during the long flight over.

When we arrived in Kinshasa the real fun began. I was personally greeted by Hugh Masakela. For some reason he had sought me out and we were frequent companions for the whole two weeks. We checked into our hotels and were told to charge all food and drinks to our rooms. This was hard to believe. Who in their right mind would let a bunch of entertainers eat and drink free with no limit?

I think maybe some of the economic problems Zaire is experiencing today are a residual effect of that 1974 music festival.

I, for one, went crazy. My drink of choice was immediately upgraded from beer to cognac. Double cognacs at that. On the nights we didn't perform we were treated to fabulous concerts by such great artists like Celia Cruz backed by Ray Baretta and the Fanya All-Stars, a favorite of the Africans, Sister Sledge, the Spinners, B.B. King and my personal favorites, the Pointer Sisters and the Jazz Crusaders. I had idolized the Crusaders during my formative years, and I loved the Pointer Sisters just because they were the Pointer Sisters.

The whole scene was one big party. Every night after the concert we were invited to the home of a different local dignitary where we would be treated to more drinks and fantastic, exotic food. Some of the food was so exotic it left us wondering what exactly it was. Sticks Hooper of the Crusaders dubbed one pasty substance "cellulose." Since then it's become a private joke between Maceo (Parker, James Brown's saxophonist) and me to describe any food we don't understand as "must be cellulose." This was the most legal fun I ever had.

We were there for two weeks, eating, drinking and generally enjoying one another's performances and company. I think Big Black's solo performance on three giant drums was the highlight of the festival for me and a lot of the Africans. Every now and then we would run into Ali and Foreman. At different times I got to shake both of their hands. The difference in the size of Foreman's hands compared to the relatively small hands of Ali led me to predict a victory for Foreman. I didn't see how any man, even Ali, could withstand a punch to any part of his body from this young, powerful giant of a man and live to compose a poem about it. I had seen what Foreman did to Joe Frazier. Even so, I knew Ali would put up a good fight, and we all were eager to witness the outcome.

As fate would have it, Foreman injured his eye during training and the fight was postponed for two weeks. Well, even the eloquence of Don King couldn't persuade President Mobutu to house and feed all these musicians for another two weeks. I didn't care. I was satisfied. I had spent two weeks enjoying the performances and company of some of my favorite artists. I had made some lifelong friends in Hugh Masakela, Stu Lavine and many others. Besides, I like music way better than I like fights. We - the musicians, the performers, the sound crew - were sent home. We had to hear about the fight via TV and radio like everyone else.

The Zaire Music Festival preceding the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" was one of the greatest experiences of my career. But after 23 years, even the Pointer Sisters began to fade from memory.

Only an occasional mention of cellulose between Maceo and me ever brought Zaire to mind - until the night I got a call from Leon Gast. When I finally remembered who he was, he told me he needed a signed written release from me so he could use a part of my performance with the JBs in a soon-to-be-released movie about the Zaire event. I had no recollection of the piece he described, something about "I Am, Somebody." Of course, I agreed to sign. Leon also sent me an advance copy of the movie.

As I watched the movie for the first time, I was really looking to see myself. I had no idea where or in what situation I would appear. About a minute into the film, I saw what I thought was me, but I was hearing "The Young Rabbit," a composition by the Crusaders. That's when I realized I had made the same error many had made before, mistaking Wayne Henderson for me. Wayne and I fit the same general description and play the same instrument. (However, you must admit, I'm much better-looking than he is.)

After that, I was into the movie. The poetry of Ali. The narrations of Spike Lee, Bundini Brown, Howard Cosell and others. The footage of Foreman and Ali's previous fights. I had forgotten what I was looking for and was really enjoying the film. An interview with Foreman and more poetry and preaching from Ali had my complete attention when, all of a sudden, there I was, onstage, in a red cape, long curly hair, horn in hand, admonishing the crowd to repeat after me. I commenced chanting Jesse Jackson's words, "I Am, Somebody," and the audience answered. This piece lasted only about 10 seconds. After I replayed the segment about 10 times, I let the movie continue and was enjoying it very much, remembering some of the things depicted in the film and seeing some things I had never seen before. About 43 minutes into the movie there was a James Brown "Cold Sweat" segment where I got a glimpse of myself in a shiny black suit.

It looked as though I had seen all the footage of me when I suddenly heard the vamp to "Doing It To Death." I saw me and James Brown doing our little dance and singing "Gonna Have a Funky Good Time." We did the whole thing as they showed scenes of the Zairian countryside, the inner city of Kinshasa, and the crew setting up for the shows. The segment ended with me playing my famous "Funky Good Time" solo and Ali skipping rope and jogging. What a thrill to see Ali dancing to my music.

Around the end of 1996 I began to hear about the movie in the press, on TV and other media. I was alerted by my son to a music video by the Fugees, Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest about the movie. The kicker came when I got a call from Scott McCracken of Gramercy Pictures inviting me to the premiere of the movie at Radio City Music Hall in New York. There was to be a mini-concert after the movie featuring B.B. King, the Fugees, Zelma Davis from C&C Music Factory, Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest and singers Brian McKnight and Diana King, who did the theme for the movie. They wanted me to open the show with the "I Am, Somebody" thing from the film. This went very well. I got a chance to see what it felt like to attend the premiere of a major movie. The double kicker was when it won the Oscar.

I couldn't have been more thrilled if I had won it myself. Maybe after they see my performance in the movie, they will create a new category: best supporting trombone player.