I had the honor of interviewing a legend! Felton Pilate Of Con Funk Shun Although I could say a lot about this amazing man, I will keep it short to not spoil everything in this interview, but I will say this, reading his story may shock you. During our interview, I learned something about him that I didn't know. Those who read my articles know that I am a funk baby who loves everything funky, from the music to the style of clothing. So I was looking forward to interviewing Felton. The accomplishments of Feltons are impressive! Besides working it back then and in between, he's working it now with new music flying off the shelves and making its way to the top of the charts, as it should. That's how good it is! During my interview with the amazing kind-natured musical genius of Con Funk Shun, I learned a lot about his life and his journey in the entertainment business.
Good morning, Felton. How are you? I'm doing great, how about you?
I'm having a fantastic day! Thank you so much. You’re welcome.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me this morning. It is an honor and privilege to talk with such an extraordinary man who has had such a fantastic career. Oh, that's somebody else. Let me get him on the phone. (laughs)
Felton, when you called, and I answered the phone, I almost hung up because as funky as Con funk shun is, I thought you would have a much funkier tone. You know, more like James Brown. (laughs)
Every move I make has got to be ultra-funky! I'm a funk baby! I grew up in the '70s, and that's where I've parked my life. (laughs) I love funk music, bell bottoms, afros, and everything about the '70s! It's 2022, and I'm still rocking the 1970s funky look. I'll probably never get away from the funk. So, I am excited about interviewing you today. This is right up my alley! It’s my pleasure to be talking to you. Thank you for taking the time.
Felton, let's take a trip down memory lane. What is the origin of your love of music? Did your family influence you in any way? The piano has been a part of my home for as long as I can remember. In my earliest memory, I can recall playing on my grandmother's piano at the age of four. I find it fascinating that I still remember that.
Wow, it sounds like there was someone musical in your family. Yes, my mother was a music major, so my family has always been involved with music. In an interesting twist, my father was a doctor.
Like your mother, was he a music lover? Jazz was his favorite music, while classical was my mother's. Therefore, on any given morning, whoever turned on the hi-fi first dominated the house music for the first hour or two.
Can you tell me what albums they played? My dad would listen to Frank Sinatra, Ellington, Count Basie, and similar artists. Brahms, and Beethoven, were some of the pieces my mom would play. Thus, that's the music I grew up listening to.
You were slightly different because you were drawn to another genre. (laughs) How did that happen? Please help me to connect the dots. (laughs) I attended a dance in Junior High. Even though I was at a dance, throughout the evening, I stood transfixed, watching the band. After that night, I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Which person was the most influential to you? Eugene Blacknell, the band leader, mentioned earlier, was a massive influence on my wanting to perform.
Could you tell me about your first band experience? In the middle of learning how to play guitar, a young man living around the corner asked me to join his band. He was about 17 at the time.
How old were you? I was almost 16.
Ok. Tell me more. Yes, well, he had an older brother who was the IT In Vallejo, where I grew up. This guy's picture appeared in the paper every weekend. He was always doing something like playing for a fashion show or something like that. He was popular. As a result, his younger brother became tired of living in his brother's shadow. Eventually, he formulated his band, and I was asked to play guitar for him. So, I'm like, yeah, sure, yeah! (laughs)
Can you tell me about some of the songs you played? About three songs in, he announces, "we will learn "Alfie." The song was written by Burt Bacharach and sung by Dionne Warwick.
So, at that age, I could sing Alfie in the same key as Dionne because my voice hadn't changed. I said, “Hey, I love this song; let me sing it!” Although he looked at me strangely, he agreed to allow me to come over to audition. I believe it was on a Saturday.
When Saturday morning came, I anxiously got up and went to his home. While he played the piano, I stood there and sang Alfie. I'll never forget what he said to me.
What did he say? He said, “Felton, if I were you, I would stick to playing guitar because you’ll never make it as a singer.”
Oh no! That's not the way the story was supposed to go! I'm sorry! (laughs) that's a horrible thing to tell someone. True, but to this day, I thank him for telling me that because I quit immediately and started my band, the rest is history.
There it is! Wow, that's awesome! It’s funny, for negative situations can push you into your God-given destiny. Let's revisit our childhood home. Your father was a Naval doctor. Yes
How was that experience for you as a young child? In my early childhood, we moved around quite a bit. He was stationed in Winston Salem, NC, during the birth of my sister.
At one point, we traveled to Chicago, and then my parents left me in Jackson, Mississippi, with my grandmother for about a year. As soon as the family settled in Vallejo, CA, there was no more moving around; it was a base.
At what age did this occur? Age 5
Ok. Yeah, so from then until my parents separated, I lived a comfortable life.
OK. My father was the first black physician to set-up an office in Vallejo CA.
That’s awesome! As a side note, later, when he moved to LA, he became Farrah Fawcett's and Tina Turner’s Dr.
Wow! That’s awesome! Yeah, after my parents divorced, my father moved to LA. However, I would not refer to my family's life as affluent, but because my dad was a doctor, we had a good standard of living.
Have you studied any other instruments? Yes, during my 5th-grade year, I studied trumpet. After that, I took two years of piano lessons. I also taught myself to play guitar and trombone.
Wow, your family is full of geniuses! Felton, I grew up in the 70s, and the music scene back then was very different. It was common for people to stand in front of the Capitol Records building in Los Angeles and sing their little hearts out in hopes of being offered a deal. Sadly, the process no longer works that way, but what was your experience? I didn't have one. When I was in my first couple of years of college, music was a means of income and a source of fun.
Other than music, what else interested you? It's funny that you asked that question. I once dreamed of becoming an actor. I was supposed to major in theater arts.
May I ask why you didn’t pursue it? We were blessed with an opportunity. We were asked to be the backup band for “Stax Records” recording artist “The Soul Children.” That was in August of 1972. We were their backup band a year before. Project Soul, which later became Con Funk Shun, was the competing group when my first group started.
I was brought in by Michael to play backup band for the Soul Children at Oakland Auditorium. The following year, after I officially joined the group, Mike and I went to their concert and had to sneak into the club because we were not yet 21. (laughs)
Hilarious! During our conversation with The Soul Children, someone said, "Hey, what are you guys doing" and I can't remember who said it, but Michael or I said, "Oh, we're just hanging around waiting to be your backup band."
(Laughs) In response, he replied, “really?” Gina, he fired his band that night, giving us four days to move to Memphis to become their new backup band.
What an incredible story! That night was our life-changing moment, and the night we officially became touring musicians. Michael, I, and Louis, the drummer, also became musicians for Stax Records, working in studio C.
Initially, we auditioned for Stax Records, but they turned us down. However, we dodged that bullet because they filed for bankruptcy approximately six months later. Despite where we are today, we did not set out to be here. Being a Top 40 band was enough for us. We first heard about a recording contract when we were invited to guest perform on a TV show.
What was funny about the TV show's appearance is that we thought we were there to perform live, but unbeknownst to us, they wanted us to lip sync. So, we had to go into a studio to record the track. And the guy there kept encouraging us to come back before presenting us with a bill for $10,000.
Oh no! That’s horrible! Yes, we were shocked. He told us, "You didn't think it was free, did you?" we told him, "Yes, we did because you kept inviting us back." He replied, "No, no, no, you have to pay." Then he tells us that behind his back is a recording contract, and once we sign the deal, we can forget about the $10,000 we owed him.
Oh no! That was our quote, “introduction to the music business.”
Welcome home. (SMH) Right! But it was through signing that contract that got us signed to “Free Tone Records” and eventually Mercury Records.
Well, it says in the Bible that God can take things that Satan meant for evil and turn them into good, so in your situation, good came out of it, so I'm happy to hear that. Yeah.
So, Mercury Records became home for you? Yes
Awesome! You spoke about being a multi-instrumentalist playing piano, trumpet, trombone, and guitar. Have you used any instruments in your Con Funk Shun recordings? Oh yeah, all of them.
Awesome! An example would be. During the recording of "The Love Train," Louis McCall played drums, Michael performed all the vocals and one guitar track, and I played the other guitar track and everything else.
Wow, you guys did it all! Write, arrange, produce, and everything! That's amazing! Sadly, it's not often that we hear this type of talent portrayed in the recordings today. Everything is done hurriedly. Although I see young, gifted musicians playing their instruments on social media platforms, unfortunately, others today don't have an appreciation for true talent. In my opinion, this is no fault of their own; it's just the way of the world today. Everything is recorded digitally and quickly. It's all about making a quick buck and not taking the time to steer these artists into finding their true talent.
So, Felton, why do you think many of today's bands find it difficult to stay intact? There seems to me so much infighting and discord amongst band members for, in my opinion, power and position. What is your opinion on this matter, and what is your advice to newly formulated bands? What is the key element to keeping a band together? Being in the band is like being married but without the s*x.
That's good. It is. In my humble opinion, if the band is going to succeed, there must be cohesiveness. Our determination not to go home to Vallejo, CA, with anything less than how we left, kept us together and going strong. Alternatively, we were determined to come back stronger and better.
Uhm. The other suggestion would be to recognize that it is the music business and is called the music business for a reason. Another suggestion would be to recognize that it is the music business and is called the music business for a reason. Another thing I would say is to play to your strengths. I'm going to use "Heatwave" as an example. If there's one guy who writes incredible material, play to your strengths. Go with what is best for the band instead of what's best for the individuals. Those things can help you win and make your band more successful from that business part of it.
All great advice. In my observation, one of the main reasons why bands split is because of egos. There’s always someone wanting to shine more than the other or feeling that their other bandmate is singing lead more than they. Therefore, I like what you said about dropping the egos and finding the best person whose more suitable for the position. Right.
In your young adult years, has the band ever had unresolved conflict before a show that had to be put aside and dealt with later to get the job done? If yes, how do you switch from having disagreements to getting on the stage and acting like everything is cool? I can honestly say that we never had that kind of thing happen to us.
Awesome! Certainly not before walking on stage because we recognized that our performance is not about us but the audience. Also, we recognized that even as a top 40 band. If there was ever anything, we would sort it out afterward. Were there minor conflicts? Of course, there were, but we dealt with them outside.
I knew it was important to delineate between personal differences and what was in the band's best interests. As a rule, I stuck with that theory. Have there ever been times when a band member made a personal decision to do something different from a choice I would have made in a similar situation? Yes, of course. However, regardless of minor conflicts in choices, in the end, we were always able to come together for the greater good of the band and give our best to our audience.
I'm glad to hear that! The fact that you guys were able to keep the band harmoniously working together is amazing. So, tell me, what do you love most about performing live? What drives you to what you do? Do you know that good feeling when your employer tells you that you've done an excellent job?
Yes. I get that feeling every night from all my 5000 employers. The applause at the end of my show tells me I've done a great job. For me, that has been my drug.
That's beautiful! So eloquently spoken. I love the fact that you referred to your fans as your employers. That's beautiful because so many people get to a particular position in the industry and start treating everyone else as though they're beneath them. I love your humility, and I love the fact that you recognize that you wouldn't be where you are today without the support of your fans buying your music and attending your shows. Now Felton, if music wasn't a thing, what do you think you would be doing right now? If music wasn't a part of my life, a career in theatrical arts would have been my choice. I would be an actor.
Tell me about any funny or embarrassing experiences that Con Funk Shun has had while on stage. Where do I start? (laughs) Uhm, our second major tour with "A Taste of Honey" Con Funk Shun and The Commodores. I'm promoting the "Loveshine" Album on the second night of the tour. Well, on that album, there's a song called "Make it Last." Now the 1st 16 bars of the song, there's nothing but a piano, so we came up with the idea that Michael, who played guitar, and Cedric played base, would put down their instruments for a minute. So, with a five-man frontline, we had the choreography for the song's intro. It was cool. Now I must add that we were at the Jackson Coliseum theatre with over 10,000 people playing to a sold-out crowd.
So, Danny, our keyboard player, begins to play the intro of the song. We started doing the choreography, and halfway through our routine, I noticed that he was playing it in the wrong key.
(laughs) Are you familiar with the song?
No, I've never heard that song before. (Felton sings the intro to me)
Song: “Here we are, sharing this moment. Oh, here we are” That’s how it's supposed to go. (He sang the song in a tenor voice)
OK. But he started in a much lower key than the original one.
(laughs) Let's not forget that we are standing in front of 10,000 people. I think to myself, "I can't do this." So, I break out of the choreography and walk over to the keyboard player. Gina, when I walk over to him, he's got his head down, just playing away!
This is hilarious, Felton! So funny! When I approached him, I said,” dude,” he said what? I said, "you're in the wrong key.” (laughs). He said, “what?” I said, “you're playing in the wrong key!” then he said, “oh,” and stopped playing. (laughs)
This just keeps getting worse! (laughs) I cannot! That’s hilarious! My back was turned to the audience when we were having this discussion. So, he stopped playing for about a second, then started playing again, but this time in the right key. So now, in my mind, the song is starting all over again, right?
Yes, you put out the fire! As I resumed the choreography, I did this fancy spin and noticed that everyone had left the stage.
Oh no! How embarrassing! Poor thing! Awe! One thing I can say is if this was a video call, I could assure you I could show you what that looked like.
(Laughs) As I turned around and looked at everyone, I started singing right away even though I was supposed to wait for eight bars. (laughs)
And the show must go on. Yes, and the show must go on.
As a performing musician, you must find creative ways to smooth over mistakes and make them look as though it was a part of the show. That's true in some instances, but some are irreparable. (laughs)
That's true. You can't repair falling off the stage. (laughs) Let me share with you another story.
Ok. We were in Albuquerque, NM. Normally at a concert, they put the lights alongside the soundboard so the audience can see the stage.
Right. Well, this promoter was too cheap to put lights out in the audience, so he had this light over on the side with this guy standing on the side watching it, and every time we would finish a song, he would make the stage completely black and wouldn’t turn it on again until the next song started.
On his headset, he also directed the guys in the front with the spotlight, telling them who to shine the spotlight on at any given moment. So, we're in the middle show, and Michael is talking on the mic in the dark because there is no spotlight on him.
(Laughs) Now my position is center stage, so when I noticed Michael talking in the dark, I yelled out spotlight! (laughs) There's no response. Michael is still up there, just talking away in the dark. All the while, I'm shouting in the guy's face, but there's no response. So, I decided to walk over to him; I got right in his face and hollered spotlight! (laughs)
The problem was I didn't remember that one of those monitor boxes was right in front of me.
Oh no! Say it isn't so! Yep, I fell over the monitors.
That’s insane! I know you were upset! Now, I'm on the floor, and guess what, he turns on the spotlight!
(Laughs) Oh no!!! That’s the worse! You can't recover from that. (laughs)
No, you can’t! (laughs) Thank you so much for sharing that with me. Felton, if you can jump into a time machine and come out on the other side, what year would you come out, and who would you take with you? Whoa, can I take with me the knowledge that I know already?
Yes, you can take all the knowledge that you have, and you can even take your band with you. It's only because I'm being flexible today. (laughs) Well, I'm required by law to take my wife, Jennifer. (laughs)
Yes, (laughs) you've got to bring your queen. Also, because Michael and I are such a great team, I would bring him back with me, and I will probably return to 1972.
Wow, awesome! And given the stuff I know now, I would write some cool songs. I would even present songs to Michael Jackson. I would say hey, Michael, I have this song called "I Wanna Rock With You, I think it'll be an excellent song for you to record. (laughs) But yeah, the early 70S was seemed to be an exciting turning point for music, so I would go back in time and re-ride that wave with a different surfboard.
The costumes that you guys had were so cool! Nowadays, they just pull something out of their closet to perform in and don't even iron it (laughs), but back in the day, the costumes were amazing! You can't compare what you see today to what you saw when I grew up. It was a whole different ball game. Thought and personality were ingrained in the fiber of the costumes, live musicianship, and strategic planning. All that was present in the former music, which is why the music has sustained itself throughout the years. Do you still have the costumes you had on stage, and who designed the album covers? The design varied from album to album. The company typically had someone who had a concept in mind, and we pretty much relied on them. As for the costumes, I still have mine. They're in storage somewhere. But no, I never got rid of mine. Once I find them, I probably will donate to a place like "The Hard Rock Café" or someplace like that. But I didn't have access to them for at least 15 years.
Have you been brave enough to try one of your older outfits on today? No, the last time I tried, it was like putting on one of my kids' clothes. (laughs)
It is always fun taking a trip down memory lane. Now and then, I get bold enough to go into my closet and try on something, thinking that one great day I'll be able to get into it again just to end up putting it back in the closet once more. (laughs) Did someone sew your outfits? Yes, they were specifically designed for us. I remember one set of uniforms; each uniform cost $2500. Let me repeat that, each one costs $2500.
Wow! Ouch! And that was back in the 70s.
The costumes were very detailed back then. Were they heavy? Yes, they were heavy. You're talking 10 to 15 pounds. Can you imagine spending an hour and a half jumping around with that much weight on your body every night? All I can say is don't be skinny. (laughs)
Yeah! (laughs) that's why when you look back at all the pictures from the 70s and see people performing, everybody was sweating. It didn't matter if they were skinny fat tall, short, whatever. Everybody was pouring buckets of sweat. I remember those pictures. (laughs) especially Luther Vandross; he was always sweating. One of the things that we would do when we first moved to Memphis is that since everyone in the band had a good voice when the Horn section would put down the horns, it became an effect. The singing group, at least visually, we wanted to get that effect. So, we started doing uniforms while we were in Memphis. We did not want to do that in our stage clothes because then it doesn't look right. We're still doing that even today. We like to keep it as classy as possible.
Who did you guys work with as a dance choreographer? Maceo, our saxophonist, and I did most of the choreography.
Maceo like James Brown Maceo? No, we called him Maceo because he was a saxophone player. His real name is Paul Harrell.
Ok (laughs) We hired a guy named Clifford out of Memphis, and he choreographed a couple of songs for us. Do you remember an old TV show by the name of dance fever?
Yes. The host was Danny Terrio, and there were two girl dancers, one white and the other black?
Yes. The black girl's name was “Flow Sober.” she did the choreography for our "Chase Me” tour.
Wow! Love it! Yes, that was the tour that promoted our " Chase Me” album.
Did Con Funk Shun ever win any awards? Unfortunately, Con Funk Shun never won, nor were we ever nominated for any awards as far as nationwide. We did win some smaller local awards.
Well, in my opinion, you guys should have. Thank you. We did, of course, have gold and platinum albums, so that was good.
Achieving gold and platinum status on an album is a significant accomplishment. Nowadays, people struggle to get three likes for their music on their social media pages. So, in my opinion, that's great! Yeah, that was an amazing experience. We had four gold albums and one platinum.
Wow, that's awesome! We're very blessed!
Who keeps it in their home? Everyone gets one to keep in their homes. I got my additional albums working with a guy named “holy ghost boy.”
Wow, what an interesting name. Tell me about that? After I left Con Funk Shun in 1986, I met him. We started working together at that point. Between 1986 and 1993, I opened my recording studio and began recording local artists. At this time is when I met this guy.
What was the birth name that his parents gave him? (laughs) His name was Stanley Burrell, but he called himself "holy ghost boy." So, we did an album, and I remember conversing with him about his name. I said, "dude, I get it, I do, and I respect where you're coming from, but you might want to change your name.
Yeah, it's blasphemous. And he was doing positive flavored rap, and even one of the songs was called "Son of the king," right? So, he was trying to pay homage to his gospel roots. So, I'm not trying to be offensive, but I did say to him, "you might want to change your name. "So, we did ten songs, and I sent him on his way. I didn't hear from him until at least a year later. The next thing I knew, he told me the record went gold!
(Laughs) I was like, "huh? What record? He said, "the record we did." I said, "man, "that was a demo. As a matter of fact, you were supposed to come back and let me fix the mixes." he then said no man, the record company likes it just the way it is, then he wrote me a check for 2 million dollars.
You must be kidding me. No, I’m not. My jaw dropped! I should have charged him more.
(Laughs) These young people or something else! Then he said, “Oh, and I changed my name. My new name is MC Hammer.”
Felton! You got me on that one! That’s an awesome story! He bought me out of my studio and then hired me to work with him exclusively, which is how I wound up producing “Can’t Touch This.”
You produced, “Can't Touch This? Yes.
Felton, you are amazing! You’re a musical genius! That was one of my favorite songs! Also, I Produced and Co-wrote “To Legit to Quit.”
That’s awesome! Thank you. So, Yeah, I produced Hammer’s first three albums. “The People's Choice Awards,” and all the other awards I won, came from producing his albums. I was even nominated for producing " Album of the Year."
All I can say is wow! I'm so proud of you! Thank you!
You’re welcome. Did you win that award? No, I did not win that one. Unfortunately, I lost to Quincy Jones. But hey, if you lose somebody, Quincy is the man.
That's right! That's amazing because many artists often get to a point in their lives where they hit a brick wall. It's sad because many artists have had outstanding careers in bands with significant success. I love that you continued exploring your journey and didn't just sit there complaining about what the man did to your career; on the contrary, you became proactive and forged forward like an army. You were successful in migrating into the new generation's musical style.
People often don't realize that God gave you multiple missions when he made you. Many people have no idea what they are sitting on, a wealth of gifts waiting to be discovered. Not just one but multiple skills.
While that is true, some people focus on only one thing and say, my job is to do this. As a result, they spend a lifetime wasting their lives away.
It's lovely to see you go out there and succeed. I'm incredibly proud of you. I feel like giving you a standing ovation because so many people didn't continue the journey. Great job, Felton!
I know that "Bruno Mars "re-recorded one of your songs, Love Train.” How does it make you feel that somebody in the younger generation respects your legacy so much that they will record a song in your honor? Not only did you influence yours and my generation, but you influence my son's generation, and now the younger generation, Generation Z. what does that feel like? Ah, wow. It's hard to describe the feeling. They re-recorded the song and did a great job keeping the original version's emotion and integrity. Keep in mind, that's a 40-year-old song. So, it's such a tremendous honor to have someone love something I did 40 years ago and think it to be good enough to put on their record. That goes for Bruno or anybody. It's just a huge compliment. His song went #1, so for me, it's mind-boggling. I was different when I was with Hammer because I was part of the recording process.
Yes. In this case, someone else chose to record the song, and that means so much more.
Yeah, it's like being adopted; you were chosen. Right! In Vegas, Jennifer and I had the opportunity to thank them in person. I also want to add that Bruno and Anderson are beautiful people with outstanding personalities. They were friendly and accommodating. The beautiful thing is that they were as excited to meet us as we were to meet them.
I want to mention one more thing: we are returning the honor to “Silk Sonic” by including one of their songs on our album.
Are you currently working on any new projects? My production company, we're still producing and writing. We've had six releases hit the charts over the last two years. I'm also finishing up my solo CD.
Awesome! Tell you about that. OK, this will be my second solo CD. I recorded one after I stopped working with Hammer. The song is called “Nothing But Love Spoken Here.” Regarding what’s going on with Con Funk Shun, our goal is to have something out by the summer. Currently, we're six songs into the project.