by Rahmana Finney
MC: Absolutely. We had our own complex there. Downstairs was the record store, owned by the manager, and he was taking some of the money that we were making, and he was investing it for us and we wound up buying the Melody Lounge, buying that building. There was an apartment upstairs, and a nightclub downstairs. And of course we turned the night club into a rehearsal hall. And a recording studio! We had an 8-track recording studio with everything in there, all together, control room and everything. It was something to see, I wish we could have taken pictures of it.
WWF: I wish you had too.
MC: Cause it was really, really, something to see. To have guys that young own something like that. And it was totally functional. We would be rehearsing, and the building was so popular as a night club, that we’d be rehearsing, and we kept the neon sign, the city took it from us in later years, but we kept it and turned it on every night. And people would come in looking for a drink, and we’d say “nah, you can stay and listen to the music but this is no longer a bar. And we used to have a ball man, people would come in off the street and stand there and watch us. So yeah, the band was professional long before we signed a recording contract. Long before we went to Memphis we were totally professional.
WWF: Wonderful! So back to how you got to Memphis …
MC: Yeah, so we did that concert with the Soul Children, which was very, very successful.
WWF: Yeah after you did all that shedding, how did it go?
MC: We did great, and they immediately hired us. They asked if we would be willing to move to Memphis, and we said yes, and they got a station wagon and a big U-Haul trailer, and said ok we’ll see you guys in Memphis in a week. We hugged our mom and dad, they looked at us like oh my God, what are you guys doing. We said, look at it like college; we’re all 18, 19, 20, matter of fact I turned 21 in Memphis. We said we are going to Memphis to get with Stax Records, and back up the Soul Children, and I told them just look at it like it’s college, this is the college you wanted us to go to. They got behind us; they stuffed our pockets with money, and off we went. We arrived in Memphis and stayed at the Elvis Presley Motor Inn.
WWF: So, was it a total culture shock coming from Vallejo to the South?
MC: Oh absolutely. Scared to death. We clung to each other (laughter). Like little boys; little brothers. But the Soul Children had gotten with us and showed us the ropes—where to shop, where to go, where not to go, and keep in mind we weren’t 21 yet! Everybody we were going down there to be with, they were in their late 20’s and early 30’s, so they had to really take care of us. We got our first apartments, they stuffed us into two 4-bedroom apartments. It was pretty interesting at first.
WWF: Did you have to change managers?
MC: We were done with managers at that point. We had struck out on our own at that point. Managers at that time were 9 to 5’ers, they couldn’t pack up and go with us. Once we started with Soul Children, they were our managers. But they weren’t interested in us having a recording career, they were interested in us backing them up.
WWF: Ok so tell us how did that journey get moving, you know from you backing them up to Confunkshun?
MC: So in WattsStaxx ’72, the movie, was pretty much the kick-off of Confunkshun. We were Project Soul when we played that show, and then we changed the name –
WWF: Ohhh - ok, I thought I was crazy because that’s one of my favorite movies, I’ve seen it many times, and I’m sitting here like, oh my God I don’t remember ConFunkShun .
MC: No we were Project Soul, we backed up Rufus Thomas, and the Soul Children, now Soul Children didn’t make the movie.
WWF: Ok! gotcha.
MC: Rufus Thomas made the movie and that’s us backing him. You can see us right now if you go on to YouTube and put in WattStax Rufus Thomas. It was really something. When we did WattStax, we flew out from Memphis to LA and we were on this plane, I mean there was a bar, and you could walk around and have a drink at the bar and stuff, we were unbelievably ecstatic. When we got back we totally wanted to be professional at that point. When we got back, you know just like anybody else, you ask for a raise, and want to start moving up with it.
We were starting to get out and get gigs around town. The Soul Children weren’t trying to hear that. They were basically wanting us to rehearse their show and wait for the next gig, and we were going broke doing that. There was just no money in sitting around—I mean they were making great money on each gig and we were making little teeny money and then we would have to sit and wait two weeks for the next gig. So we said nah, that’s not gonna work. We started getting little small jobs at different clubs and things, and then finally one day we asked can we just make a little more money, and they said no, and we said ok, well, we’re gonna go it alone, and they said ok bye-bye.
Once we jumped out there on our own we discovered that the name Project Soul was not gonna work. We also knew we needed to record something, and get it on the radio. We recorded a song by Bob Dillan called Mr. Tambourine Man at a place called Free-Tone Records. I don’t know who has a copy of that record today, but it got on the radio in Memphis and in Little Rock, and it made some noise. The album sold 10,000 copies.
WWF: Let me ask you a question; was that strategic? Were black artists remaking popular tunes by white musicians the way they did to us, to try to give you a little boost—get a wider listening audience?
MC: Well in our case, we had nothing—we had lots of original recordings, but we decided to get something popular, with a popular name. Like Otis Redding had done Satisfaction. So we decided to do Mr. Tambourine Man and of course radio went crazy for it. They loved it. Now keep in mind, we only had one record contract with these guys, and they were trying to tie us up. We got an attorney, and the attorney took us to court, and said, these guys have a chance to get a recording contract and go nation-wide, you need to let them go.
And wouldn’t you know it, 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; it took 7 people to sign this contract and two of these people are under age. So you have no contract. And you guys are free to go. And that’s how we got outta that.
WWF: Wow. You got a musician judge.
MC: And about two months after, we got an audition, from a guy named Judge Phillips, for reps from Mercury Records, same company that the Ohio Players were signed to, Charlie Fash, Charles Fash, that was the guys name, that flew down and came to the club. This was 8 am in the morning, we suited up, got all our smoke and bombs, and did a one hour show for him. He didn’t even bother to come out from the back of the club, he stood up in the back of the club and yelled “Hey Mike, I gotta go! Tell Judge he can give me a call!” and he walked out the door and we went back home.
You know we didn’t have any answering machines or cell phones, so we sat by the phone for 3 hours watching TV. The phone rang and Judge Phillips said, “Are you guys sitting down? Congratulations, you are a Mercury Recording Artist. I got you a two album deal.” And we lost our minds. We. Went. Bonanas. We went crazy. We were just ecstatic. We were calling home. OH my goodness. We started dressing different!
WWF: Well you worked hard and you earned it. How many years did you all spend in Memphis?
MC: We were in Memphis for 8 years. But we had made up our minds that we were not going home until we were successful. The first album didn’t do all that good, but the second album contained Fun, Fun, Fun. It went no. 1 in the nation, the album went gold, and that’s when we decided ok, it’s time to go home. Once the album went gold we got signed for another 3 albums and of course that got us another big stack of money from the record company, and so we decided to go home. Everybody went home and bought houses. That’s how we came back to California.
WWF: Did you come back to Vallejo?
MC: Yes everybody came back to Vallejo and Fairfield. And believe it or not the building was still there waiting on us, and we resumed shop, only this time we had a recording contract, and that’s what you call coming home successful.
WWF: In style. No doubt. Oh my goodness what a great story. Whew. So that’s a long wonderful amazing story full of success, and clearly yall were meant to do this. Why do you think it ended in the 80’s? You don’t have to give us salacious details, but was it inter-personal stuff, or a change in the music business?
MC: All of the above. I’m going to say this to you. It was about 3 gold records into the contract, maybe 2 or 3 tours behind us. We had actually head-lined a tour, ConFunkShun, Gap Band, and Anita Ward. At that time, we actually sold out a 15,000 seater arena in Charleston, SC with that show, and our manager had partnered up with some local guys, basically gangsters, and they decided that people our age had no business taking that kind of money out of their market. All we had was our road manager.
When it came time to get paid, these guys surrounded our road manager, who was only like maybe 23-24 and told him you guys need to give us a kick-back and the road manager was like what’s that? The Road manager wasn’t exactly up on exactly how much money it was, so he goes down to the bus driver—now we’re on stage closing the show—he goes down to the bus driver he says “Mac, I want you to get up go over to the Holiday Inn across the street, here’s the keys to everybody’s room, take all the stuff off the bed, throw everything you see in a sheet, tie the sheet up, bring the sheets and throw it into each person’s bunk. He said don’t ask me no questions, just go in there and clear out everybody’s stuff out of the hotel. He said when they come off stage, be ready to roll.
So he promises the guys the world, he takes the briefcase, just full of money, he doesn’t even know how much. He comes back, we play the last notes of Fun, Fun, Fun, he meets us at the bottom of the stairs from the stage, he says get in the bus we are LEAVING. We said what is wrong? He said we are leaving. We went outside, the bus was running. We said what about our stuff, he said your stuff is on the bus, get on the bus. We turn the corner, hit the highway, these gangsters are back at the box office waiting for him to come back with some money. He had hired two police officers to walk him from the stage to the bus. So we get on all sweaty after an hour show, we are like what’s wrong? He calls us to the back of the bus and said look at this.
He opened up that suitcase, and there was $90,000 in 20’s and 5’s and 10’s! He said man yall don’t pay me enough money to go through what I went through. When he told the story he used an expletive every 4 words! Then he was like, man we have to work for these people tomorrow. I said don’t worry, we got it. So we called the manager on a payphone about 30-40 miles outside of town, told him to get on a plane and come to the next gig cause the dudes just tried to take our money from us. He met us at the next gig, and he said, welcome to the professional music business.
Then he stayed on the road with us for the next 4 or 5 nights. We left that particular tour with everybody paid about $75,000 a piece. Anyway, of course we fell into bad situations. We had two guys get hooked on drugs, so their decision making and all the other things that went with that, like their girlfriends at the time all had opinions at our meetings. About what we should and shouldn’t be wearing, what songs should be first, what songs should be last, and what songs they better have on the next album.
WWF: Oh my.
MC: Keep in mind $75,000 was a lot back then. So everybody was able to buy houses and everything. That tour was the beginning of the end of the band. You got people coming to meetings with big money. Wives and girlfriends were either with them, or had babies on the way, and they just had all kinds of opinions on everything, and it just wasn’t like it used to be. After about 2 years of that, things just started going wrong. I would then tell you to watch UnSung, cause we tell the whole story there. We would be on the phone another hour! So just check out the UnSung.
WWF: Wow! Well clearly you all are back with each other and able to perform; have you all worked all that out? Is everybody good now?
MC: Oh now is a whole other story. Now it’s like we watched a movie starring our younger selves. Now we look at it like it’s just the funniest thing. Now, I am the boss! I run Confunkshun. I listen to your opinion, and I’m like thank you very much, but this is what I’m gonna do.
WWF: Allrightnow! So what are your thoughts on how much the music business has changed?
MC: Yeah, the interaction of New Jack Swing coming in on top of Funk, and our last contract didn’t pick up on 3 albums, it picked up on 2, so we knew things were gonna change. I think it was the Burning Love CD, we had lost Felton Pilate, he wasn’t the lead singer anymore, so we bought this new guy in, restart with a new sound. The horns were no longer the thing to do anymore, it was all about electronics, then it didn’t help us that we had one top 10 hit that was basically a rap record called Electric Lady. We had a Hip-Hop/Rap record that went to the top of the charts, which was surprising.
We didn’t like to perform it live, we had a song with this producer Larry Wright, who had that song The Freaks Come Out at Night that he had produced, and so he produced this Hip-Hop record, and we were chasing Strange by Cameo. We were on the same label. So we had a hit rap record, and that spiraled into us doing other things that did not contain the horn players anymore. All electronics, drum machines, and all this kinda stuff. So that was the beginning of the end of ConFunkShun. On top of the fact that we had cats in drug rehab, and just you know, animosity. It was time for a change, and it brilliantly worked out, because I announced that I was gonna go solo.
Now there are two versions of what I’m gonna tell you. One version is on UnSung from one of the members, clearly delusional, I would have never thought this guy would say that, but the truth is, I never left ConFunkShun. I announced that I was going solo, and I had a Warner Brothers contract set up by Club Nouveaux. I told Warner Brothers that I’d like to bring ConFunkShun along as guest artist to go into the studio with me and they said, absolutely not. You can do what you want when it comes to live music, but we’re only going to sign you as a single artist. So ok. I took this back to the group, they became so incensed, that they said well let the door hit you. We don’t need you no more if you’re going to be a solo artist. So I said well, it ain’t gonna work like that, because Felton’s already gone, and when I’m gone, out goes our recording contract with Mercury records.
So I left the band but as far as I was concerned, ConFunkShun was still together, you guys are now renegades. You can go out there and try to tell the public that you’re ConFunkShun, but you’re not. Now that version of ConFunkShun lasted 3 months. When the booking agents and everybody found out that me and Felton were no longer in the band, then the band had to break up. However, I had signed with Warner Brothers, and Prove My Love dropped, and it was almost like another ConFunkShun record! I was up on the charts with Keith Sweat and Pebbles, and what you’re listening to is me and Club Nouveaux, right, and on that same album is Dinner for Two, which is me and Felton. So the sound was right back on the radio within a year.
That went on for 6 years, I did 5 top ten hits with Warner Brothers, as a solo artist. At the end of 6 years, I knew I was gonna be leaving Warner Brothers. My manager just gave me a call and said I just got a call for Confunkshun to do a show on New Year’s Eve. I went to Felton, who was the director with MC Hammer, and asked him to help me get the guys together to do one show, and we performed two ConFunkShun songs that brought the house down, and then they offered us $25 grand to play the New Year’s Eve show. That was history.
We rehearsed a week. We did that one show. We never looked back. That was in 1993.
WWF: So fast forward to now. Are you currently working on any projects?
MC: So, I’m trying to do a book. I been trying to do this book called On Love’s Train: The Life, The Love, The Man, The Music. I start and stop, start and stop, so now with voice typing and all this I have no excuses. I actually left off when I was 9 years old, so I’m gonna pick it up, and go a lot deeper into how things affected the band, politics and such, and hopefully I will have a hard cover and CD that will be called The Man, The Music, The Best.
WWF: So you’re letting us share this exclusive information with our readers on We Were Funky?
MC: Absolutely! I’m going to shoot the album cover, I’m going to put all my Grandkids on it, and my ex-wife is now speaking to me again.
WWF: (laughter) That’s good!
MC: The mother of my children! So I’m gonna put both wives in the picture, it’s gonna be one of those things where I’m sitting either in a King’s Castle Chair, or one of those old wicker African chairs with the high back. But I’m gonna be holding my 3 great-grandchildren, the little ones, and my family.
WWF: Well we don’t want to keep you on for too long, but we did want to talk a little just about music. Do you think it’s gonna come back? Or did it even end in your estimation?
MC: First of all, I definitely think it’s coming back around. It’s a slow turn, but I think it’s coming back around. And yes it did end, with the creation of Hip-Hop and New Jack Swing, and Rap, when you start sampling music, and getting rich over-night. I mean rehearsing, and getting on the road, and all the things we had to do, I mean now you can get Pro Tools, a phenomenal thing, you can literally record an album in the airport now.
WWF: On your phone almost!
MC: On your phone! So the whole thing is yes it has changed, but it’s coming around. You got guys like Bruno Mars, playing live drums, live in the studio, and that stuff transports to platinum selling music, that’s what Ohio Players, S.O.S. band, that’s what we did back in the day. So all we need is 10 or 12 Bruno Mars type of groups, and for radio to get behind those groups.
WWF: Ok so final question, so you got a book coming, you guys are performing, is there anything else, any other future plans, anything else you want your fans to know?
MC: Well, ConFunkShun is gonna do at least one more mainstream CD. That basically comes from me. You got a copy of More Than Love? You gotta get a copy. The latest Confunkshun album came out in 2016. You can find it on YouTube, big red rose and some lips. You gotta check out that record. That tells it all, in terms of what we sound like and what we’re about.
WWF: Ok we will check it out, and we will make sure to push you all’s music on our website as well and let your fans know whats going on.
MC: Ok and there is a record on there called It’s On Tonight, not a great title, but it’s sort of my tribute to Gerald Levert. It’s a mid-tempo dance record, that tells the story of a woman who has done all the house-work, all the kids are put to bed, what have you, or she’s raised all the kids, and she’s gonna hook up with the sisters to go out. It’s all about - you heard of step right, step records?
WWF: Oh yes!
MC: So it’s mainly a step-record, and it tells this story, and the album is jam-packed with stuff like that. Great story-telling, a real ConFunkShun album. And you’ll like the song More Than Love. Felton sounds great on that.
WWF: Awesome sounds good. Thank you so much for talking to me!
MC: Oh sure! I look forward to doing it again. We are also going to have a 2020 Christmas album with ConFunkShun, and the best of Mike Cooper.
WWF: Again, bless you, thank you for everything you’ve given us, thank you for all the good music, the good times. It’s such a part of our culture and our history and I just thank you for everyone.