by Matt Bauer
Former Rick James Bassist Still A Part of Funk & Soul Heritage For an artist who has played with some of the greatest legends of soul music and was a key fixture in one of the most innovative funk bands of all time, Oscar Alston is an incredibly humble cat.
Kismet has always played a role in the venerable Buffalo-born and bred bassist’s career and Alston will be paying tribute to the soul and funk sounds of yesteryear with the Oscar’s Back To The Community Tribute Concert on Saturday April 21 at Schiller Park Center. Raised partly in the Jefferson projects, Alston had no prior experience to music, except for listening, when his friend’s cousin offered him the choice between a bass guitar and a trumpet. “I had no inkling for either one but I preferred the bass to the trumpet,” he explains.” It was a guitar really and I just played the top low strings and for whatever reason it wasn’t very difficult to hear the notes and I was able to apply it to the guitar at that time and I wound up just practicing and practicing. I didn’t know it but I was becoming good. People would say ‘you’re getting pretty good with that.’
As it turned out we did a couple house parties around, people liked us and next thing you know we had a band called the ‘Soul Busters.’ I got my first bass which I’ve still got the Fender Precision. We weren’t into it for drugs or smoking, we were in it for the fun at that point.” An opening slot for local Northern Soul legends The Debonairs during the Christmas holiday week would herald the beginning of Alston’s professional career when Debonair leader Tyrone Williams offered Alston and Erskine Williams as bassist and organist, respectively.
Williams’s and Alston’s persistence, not to mention gift of gab, got them backstage for shows by The Stylistics and Blue Magic at The Century Theater. A meeting with the latter would take them to Philadelphia and New York and then on the road, with Blue Magic and then The Manhattans where fatefully, Levi Ruffin, would spot Oscar behind the iconic group as they sang “Kiss and Say Goodbye” on television.
At the same time, Rick James was finishing his breakthrough, “Come Get It” but didn’t have a band. Oscar auditioned and was shortly bustin’ out of L seven square as a member of The Stone City Band, performing and recording for James on classic albums like “Fire It Up” and “Street Songs,” his mini-empire of artists, including Teena Marie and The Mary Jane Girls, and not to mention three highly collectible Stone City Band albums which featured songs co-written and written by Alston such as the title track of “In N Out,” “Party Girls” and “Keep Love Happy.” “We weren’t as talented as someone like The Time or The Ohio Players, to me individually,” he explains with humility of the group.“ You couldn’t put me up against Marshall Jones in The Ohio Players, us doing a battle of the bassists and me winning. It wouldn’t be like that, Together as a group we were phenomenal. With Funkadelic, The Ohio Players, Cameo and all of those groups we were considered the top funk band in the country and that pretty much came behind Rick James.”
Regarding his relationship with the king of punk funk Oscar shares: “What I tell people about is that Rick and I were very, very close . I wasn’t his friend so to speak, he was my boss and I respected him as a boss. My contribution to Rick was never really a hang out buddy. I would never get a call from Rick to hang out and get high. But if ever Rick was working on a song or putting together something that had to do with music I would be the first person he’d call. Whenever we were recording in the studio, regardless of which album, he would want me to be present, especially for the music part.
For the music, he’d look back at me to see if something was ok or it was something that he questioned. He’d just turn around at me and if I gave a puzzling look or a look like I’m not crazy about that he would go back and check it.” Still a vital part of the funk and soul heritage that he’s helped foster, Alston is using music to give back to the community he still loves.
The event on April 21 will feature tributes to The Delfonics, The Isley Brothers, Frankie Beverly & Maze and The Time from The Next Level, Uncle Willie, The Exoutics’ Thomas Hall and Denzel Ward. “At the concert \
I’m not going to be preaching to the people but someone’s going to drop in about investing in yourselves and your community. It’s the community where you live and you can make you better.