The Godfather of Soul, the late James Brown, was a hard taskmaster, fining his musicians for every mistake they made on stage. In March 1970, when most of his band quit after failing to get a pay rise, he didn't panic. He simply asked his right-hand man Bobby Byrd to put the Pacemakers, a young group from Cincinnati he had jammed with at King Records, on the next plane to Columbus, Georgia, where they backed him the following night. Among the musicians who became "the nucleus of a very good band" – as Brown put it – were bassist William "Bootsy" Collins and his older brother, the guitarist Phelps "Catfish" Collins.
The JBs, as their new boss renamed them, went on to play on "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine", "Super Bad (Part 1)", "Get Up, Get Into It and Get Involved", "Soul Power", and "Talkin' Loud & Sayin' Nothing", the extraordinary run of Brown singles that laid the foundations for the funk genre. Catfish's clean, insistent, syncopated rhythm-guitar parts, played on a Vox Ultrasonic with built-in sound effects, featured prominently on Brown's Sex Machine live album in 1972 – applause was overdubbed – though his prowess is best heard on the electrifying Love Power Peace: Live at the Olympia, Paris 1971, released in 1992. "James never went off on us," Catfish recalled. "He never fined us, like he did with Maceo [Parker] and those guys. We just got the job done."
Yet, after a little more than a year, following another argument over money, the Collins brothers left Brown and gravitated towards George Clinton and the flamboyant intertwined groups Parliament and Funkadelic. Catfish contributed to America Eats Its Young, the 1972 Funkadelic album, and played the distinctive rhythm-guitar motif on "Flash Light", the Parliament single which topped the R'n'B charts in 1978. He also seconded his bass-playing brother in the formation of Bootsy's Rubber Band, another offshoot involving Clinton, and appeared on most of their albums, including Bootsy? Player of the Year and the "Bootzilla" single, another US R'n'B No 1, in 1978. Catfish followed his brother into the orbit of the dance trio Deee-Lite and helped them record Infinity Within, their second album, in 1992.
Born in 1944, Phelps Collins wasnicknamed Catfish by Bootsy, who was eight years younger. They had a difficult childhood, though matters improved after the older Collins confronted their father with a butcher knife and swore he would kill him if he hurt their mother again. Bootsy borrowed his guitar whenever he could so Catfish eventually gave his brother an old guitar with bass strings and set him on his way to becoming one of the funkiest players around.
By 1968, they had formed the Pacemakers, an R'n'B band whose personnel also included Philippe Wynne, later of the Detroit Spinners. They became regulars at King Records and backed artists such as Marva Whitney and Hank Ballard on tour. During their tenure with Brown, they travelled to Nigeria where they met Fela Kuti.
The first incarnation of the JBs proved a great showcase not only for Bootsy but also for Catfish on theirinstrumental singles "These are the JBs", "Across the Tracks" – credited to the Believers – and in particular "The Grunt", which has been sampled by many hip-hop acts including Erik B & Rakim, Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan.
The Collins siblings then formed the short-lived House Guests and issued a couple of singles before hooking up with "the group of maniacs with George Clinton" as Bootsy said. Catfish also discovered Roger Troutman and Zapp, in Dayton, Ohio, and introduced them to his brother and Clinton. In 2007, Catfish and Bootsy Collins were among the funk musicians assembled by Lyle Workman to record the soundtrack to Superbad, the American comedy directed by Greg Mottola.
Keyboard-player Bernie Worrell, a member of Parliament-Funkadelic alongside Catfish, paid him the following tribute. "He was a loving, caring person, but at the same time, he wouldn't take any bullcrap when it came to business. 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."
Phelps "Catfish" Collins, musician: born Cincinnati, Ohio 1944; married (two children); died Cincinnati 6 August 2010.