August 6, 2010 – Catfish Collins was born Phelps Collins in 1944 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Born into a musical family, Catfish began playing the guitar as a child. When his younger brother Bootsy showed a desire to learn the bass, Catfish stripped the strings from one of his old guitars and put bass strings on it, helping to define Bootsy’s signature funk sound. From then on, the brothers made music together. He received his nickname Catfish from Bootsy, who thought his brother resembled a fish. The nickname appeared to suit the happy-go-lucky guitarist, who always had a broad smile on his face.
By the mid-1960s Catfish began to get work as a session musician at King Records, the pioneering Cincinnati independent label that had a roster of rhythm and blues stars including James Brown. Catfish also introduced his brother to the music of Indiana blues guitarist Lonnie Mack.
The siblings first played together in the Pacemakers, a funk act, in 1968. They quickly acquired a reputation as the most dynamic r&b band in the midwest. In early 1970, when several members of Brown’s band quit in a dispute over money, he immediately hired the Pacemakers, flying them in to perform, without rehearsal, behind him on stage. The jewel in King Record’s crown, James Brown, had taken good note of Catfish’s skills on rhythm guitar. As it was, Catfish’s clean, funky strumming was integral to Brown classics like “Super Bad,” “Get Up,” “Soul Power,” and “Give It Up.”
“It was like playing a big school with James as the teacher, like psychotic bump school, only deeper,” Bootsy told Rolling Stone in 1978.
The youth, verve, wit and spontaneity of Bootsy and Catfish’s playing pushed Brown into recording some of the most remarkable music in his long career. Brown named his new band the JB’s, and they played on such Brown hits as Super Bad, Soul Power, Give It Up Or Turnit a Loose and the awe-inspiring Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine. The music’s driving rhythms, popping bass lines and crisp, choppy guitar became defined as “funk“. Funk proved to be a liberating tool for African American pop, rock, soul and jazz; provided a soundtrack for the Black Power political movement and Blaxploitation films; and created a sonic blueprint for disco and then rap.
By 1971, the freewheeling Collins brothers had tired of Brown’s autocratic leadership and both of them left his band. They formed the House Guests and then joined George Clinton’s psychedelic band(s) Parliament-Funkadelic, immediately contributing to the album “America Eats Its Young. Together, the Collins brothers helped direct Clinton’s visionary project towards a broad audience.
Bootsy would soon become a huge star in the US as leader of Bootsy’s Rubber Band, a side project that grew out of Parliament-Funkadelic. As ever, Catfish was at his side when he joined Bootsy’s Rubber Band four years later. They enjoyed huge popularity. The two brothers, along with Waddy, Joel “Razor Sharp” Johnson, Gary “Muddbone” Cooper and Robert “P-Nut” Johnson and The Horny Horns, played on such US r&b hits as Tear the Roof Off the Sucker, Bootzilla and Aqua Boogie, creating music filled with spontaneity, joy and pumping funk. Catfish would continue to play with his brother and with Parliament-Funkadelic until 1983.
In 1983, Catfish split from Funkadelic and maintained a low profile from then on. He would tour and record with Bootsy on occasion, but he found session work more lucrative, guesting on Deee-Lite’s 1990 hit Groove Is in The Heart, Freekbass, and H-Bomb and reuniting with old friends to contribute to the soundtrack of Judd Apatow’s 2007 comedy Superbad soundtrack.
Catfish lost his fight with cancer on August 6, 2010. He was 66.
“My world will never be the same without him,” said his brother Bootsy Collins in a statement. “Be happy for him, he certainly is now and always has been the happiest young fellow I ever met on this planet.”
Bernie Worrell – “He was a hell of a musician. He taught me a lot about rhythms. People seem to forget that the rhythm guitar behind James Brown was Catfish’s creative genius, and that was the rhythm besides Bootsy’s bass.”