Say what! 'Con Funk Shun' Legend Felton Pilate Shares Something Even I Didn't Know!
Updated: May 11
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.