by Rahmana Finney
Best known for hits like Fun, Fun, Fun, Too Tight, Got To Be Enough, I’m Leaving, Love’s Train, and more ConFunkShun made HITS for almost two decades via legendary labels Polygram and Mercury Records. With numerous top ten singles, 4 gold records, and 1 platinum record, ConFunkShun is one of the most legendary Funk bands in our history. We are pleased to have been able to chop it up with founding member and leader of ConFunkShun, the very awesome, Mike Cooper:
WWF: How did you get into music in Vallejo?
MC: It started in junior high, I was in the school band. And also just you know, radio and going to record stores, but really the school band. My father had been into music and in the business for a while, and my mom actually gave me my first guitar. My cousin gave me a guitar, had about 3 or 4 strings on it, an acoustic guitar and a mandolin which I learned to play. So between the acoustic and the mandolin, that’s how I got my fingering together. Then I got a band together in high school.
WWF: You met all the members of ConFunkShun in High School?
WWF: So where did you guys perform?
MC: So there was the Travis Air Force Base, Mare Island Naval Ship Yard, Hamilton Air force base, both Naval Hospitals—there were a lot of different military establishments. And in Vallejo the different High schools - Hogan & Vallejo High, St. Pats, and then Armijo in Fairfield. So we had plenty of places to play, especially during football season. We had the after-game dances and stuff like that, so we had lots of places to play. It was actually when we became very popular as a cover band that we started getting hired for what in those days was good money.
We played places like Travis Air Force 21 Club, which at one point we weren’t even old enough to go in the club, but they let us in to play. So we had to have one parent show up and stuff. We were driving, but we weren’t supposed to be in the club. Our bass player’s mother then became our manager. The doors started opening up for us at other air force bases, so we started really getting serious about it. We were big shots! She would collect the money and we would all make about $25 bucks a piece, and you know back then gas was .20-.25 cents a gallon, so we would buy some gas, run over to Denny’s, and still go home with $15 in your pocket. So you in good shape you know?
Project Soul later becoming ConFunkShun, backing up Stax recording artist, Rufus Thomas at WattStax '72.
That’s when we learned that the business of music was possible for us, and we were having tons of fun, lots and lots of fun. This was before we knew that the music would attract the girls (laugh) cause it was still all about the music.
WWF: So it’s so interesting that you say you got your love for music from your junior and high school band experience, you guys are so versatile - ballads, funk and dance tunes, epic soul songs like Love’s Train— were you being exposed to all those styles of music in the school bands?
MC: No, it was mainly radio and older bands and musicians in the place where I was, called Floyd Terrace. You had blues musicians that would come to town to play, and I was big on knowing who would be playing at the Y, because I would go down for their sound check or rehearsal, and I would go backstage and listen to those guys play, and you know they would also have outdoor concerts. But it wasn’t until my dad took me to this place called the Veterans Memorial Building where James Brown would come to town. I actually saw James Brown 3, maybe 4 times at the Veterans Memorial Building in Vallejo, California, if you can believe that. James Brown and the Famous Flames.
WWF: And I bet he gives it up just as good every time!
MC: Oh it was unbelievable. I saw Ike & Tina Turner, when I was maybe 11 or 12, there were blues musicians like Lowell Fulson, and then I hooked up with my older cousins and wound up going to a place called The Sportsmans Club over in Oakland, another place I had no business going into, and the bands over there were Marvin Holmes and the Uptights,
WWF: And that’s where you got your band name from right?
MC: Well no, the band name, later on down the road, when we had established ourselves pretty good around the area, and we got hired by Sacramento State College as one of probably 15 bands to play an event called the Unity Festival, which was over a 3 day period of time. They brought bands from all over California, and we just happened to be one of them, and there was a band that was hired, they had a recording contract with RCA records, and they were the back-up band for a group called New Birth, which was a singing group.
WWF: Oh New Birth is awesome.
MC: This band got hotel rooms in the same student housing that we did, and that student housing happened to have a swimming pool, and this was all going on during summer break. And the band, you know we were all ‘big shots’ —everybody had a room, and we were in the student housing with this band, and they were called The Nite Liters. They had 5 horns—2 trumpets, a trombone and 2 saxophones.
These guys showed up one morning at the pool, in their swim trunks, rehearsing. And we went out to the pool, standing there with our mouths wide open. These guys were playing these horns and they were phenomenal, just phenomenal. They sounded so good we couldn’t believe it. So they were practicing this riff. Later on that night it came time to play, so we played our little show, a couple of other bands played, and the finale of the evening was The Main Ingredient, and they were being backed up by The Nite Liters.
Before The Main Ingredient came out, The Nite Liters were introducing their first single on RCA, the B side of their first single, and they started that horn riff they were playing at the pool that day and we recognized it! So they played this instrumental—very funky
and they said “the name of this song is “Confunkshun” C - O - N - F - U - N - K –
WWF: They spelled it! (laughter)
MC: Oh yeah. And we NEVER forgot that. We tried to play it by memory. So one day, way way down the road when we had been hired by the Soul Children, years later in 1973, we were going to record in the studio, and this guy told us we needed to change our name, that Project Soul was not a very good recording name. So we went in, drew things out of a hat, brainstormed, voted and came up with a bunch of funny names, and at the end of our efforts, I forgot who it was, somebody said “Hey, yall remember that song by The Nite Liters?” and somebody said, “Yeah, Confunkshun” and it was like somebody had taken a magic wand and waved it over our heads and we all looked at each other and said —
WWF: That’s it!
MC: That’s it! That’s our new name. We went around the room and voted and everybody said yep that’s our name. The next night we were playing at a place called Club Rosewood and outside on the Marquis it said Project Soul. When we went in on that night and played our first set we told everybody, and we pronounced at every single set “We are now known as ConFunkShun”, every night, same thing.
The club didn’t like that, people coming through the door for your old name. We eventually went to a new club called the Family Affair, and of course they had to put ConFunkShun up on their marquis. Now they had a very light crowd, but we went to a bigger club, and our loyal fans showed up from Memphis State, and they packed the club, like 900 to 1000 people in there, and we made the
announcement again, and that was it. Everybody cheered, we had champagne, we had a great party that night. Next thing is we had to convince the booking agents to call us ConFunkShun.
It took about 6 months; we got new pictures taken and everything, you know no internet or cell phone back then, it was a lot of mailing and word of mouth, and the name of the song, you can go to YouTube right now, and put in Nite Liters, and type in the song ConFunkShun, and you will hear this instrumental with the saxophone wailing on it, and it’s how we got our name. And then we put a song on our album called Nite Liters, by ConFunkShun.
WWF: Awesome. Awesome.
MC: Same instrumentation. Saxophones, horns —
WWF: By the time you changed the name, how many band members did you all have?
MC: It was the same 7 guys, 2 man crew.
WWF: Ok so we know you play guitar; do you play any other instruments?
MC: Well my main, first, number one instrument was drums, and then I started playing bass. My mom bought me a guitar for my 14th birthday, and then after that, my mom worked very hard and got me my first bass guitar.
WWF: You know we just love talking about how, especially for our readers, how back in the day, everybody played multiple instruments. Is that the case for the rest of the band as well?
MC: The majority of the guys in the band play at least 2 instruments. Even I was shocked to find out that our trumpet player Carl, Reverend Fuller, actually does play a little drums, and I would say Felton would be the number one guy as far as instruments, He plays trumpet, trombone, keyboards, guitar—all extremely well.
WWF: So how did you get to Stax and an invitation to play with the Soul Children?
MC: Well, our manager’s of course over the years changed, and our first real professional manager was a guy named Jesse Cane, and then it changed to his good friend, a guy named Joe Connors.
.....we got a judge, an old white guy who happened to be a violinist in the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and that judge told the studio, you are not gonna tie these guys up with no ridiculous 2-page contract for 3 years when they can go make some money. I declare this contract null and void.....
Connors actually owned a record shop, and we took turns working in that record shop, and that record shop got its records from Stax records. Joe was from Little Rock, Arkansas and had a friend named Al Bell.
WWF: Wait—They were directly shipping records to the store from Stax Records?
MC: Yeah back in those days you didn’t have to have a distributor, and because Connors knew Al Bell, who was head of Stax Records, he got us a big discount and when there was a release, it came directly to the store. So anyway, Al Bell told Joe that the Soul Children were coming out here and that it would be cool for his band to go and check them out—see the show.
Well what we didn’t know is that Soul Children had a big falling out with their band, and the band had refused to play with them so they
told the band, ok you’re fired. Joe said listen, Soul Children just fired their band, they’ve gotta play tomorrow night, you guys got all day today and tonight to learn 3 songs.
WWF: Oh my goodness!
MC: They had three hits! And he said their drummer stayed, and the drummer’s gonna come over and help you. That’s how we got Felton in the band, cause we knew that musically we weren’t ready to back up Soul Children. We had the instrumentation, you know, but we didn’t have the total knowledge that we needed. So we went and borrowed Felton from his band, he came over, hooked up with their drummer, listened to the music, and we wood-shedded for a whole night and a whole morning until we got those 3 hit records down. And we went, nervous as hell to the Berkeley community theater to back up the Soul Children.
WWF: Now this is in Vallejo or Memphis?
MC: This is in Berkeley, CA; now the rehearsal and the hiring happened in Vallejo. At that time we owned the Melody Lounge, and ...
WWF: I’m sorry did you just say you owned a lounge?
MC: Yeah we owned the, we owned a building, the Melody Lounge.
WWF: Wow. So you all were not only being creative together but using your money together to create business as well. Amazing. Go ‘head!