New York City

A founding father of funk, bandleader Fred Thomas is among the most influential bass players alive today. Principal bassist with James Brown’s band for over three decades, Thomas’ signature basslines are the backbone of dozens of funk’s most iconic hits. With a career spanning over half a century, this elder statesman shows no signs of slowing down. Now leading his own seven-piece funk band, he’s holding down the groove he helped build.

In the mid-1960s, African American musicians blended soul, jazz, and R&B to create funk. Described as “more a feeling than a definable genre,” funk is above all an invitation to dance. With heavy beats and syncopated bass, funk features extended vamps on a single chord, stress on the first beat of a measure, and a dynamic horn section. Today, funk is extensively sampled in house music, R&B, and hip hop, styles it helped inspire.

Originally from Georgia, Thomas moved to New York City fresh out of high school in 1965. After a few lessons on the bass from his cousin, he was gigging in barrooms around the city. “I did my own thing,” he says, “which is to keep a nice bottom in the pocket.” It was at Harlem’s Smalls Paradise club in 1971 that James Brown took notice, joining Thomas’ band for an impromptu performance. That evening, Brown hired the entire band, and the rest is history. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Thomas recorded on multiple releases with the J.B.’s, the backing band for Brown, as well as other singers associated with the James Brown Revue. Many of Thomas’ basslines from these recordings have been heavily sampled in hip hop, including the song “Pass the Peas” and “Gimme Some More.”

After Brown’s death in 2006, Thomas spent some time as a recording artist with several other artists including Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens, but ultimately felt the call to return to bandleading. “I’ve got to do the singing, playing, talking, moving, directing,” he says. His band currently features Gabriel Caplan on guitar and keys, saxophonist “Kiki” Nakajima Caplan, trumpeter Tyrone Cox, trombonist Alex Asher, guitarist Mark Marshall, and Andy Bauer on drums. “You never let up, man,” he says, when asked what his secret is. And at almost 80 years old, it seems his philosophy is working in more ways than one.