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Faking the Funk: How Bootsy Collins Impostors Pulled Off the Ultimate Music Biz Scam


A
S THE EIGHTIES
began winding down, Bootsy Collins was in his element during nights on the town in Washington, D.C. Flashing his signature star-shaped shades, according to one report, he was chilling with fellow musicians — including some who’d played with Miles Davis — and sharing stories about his former boss and colleague George Clinton from their Parliament-Funkadelic days. Every so often he’d slip into one of the giddy, over-the-top voices heard on Bootsy stompers like “Bootzilla.” And he was living as large as one would expect: “We’re gonna have fun with this plastic here!” he told a crowd in a restaurant, waving around a credit card. 

But as the hours and days went on, the musicians he was spending time with began to think something was amiss. For starters, Bootsy didn’t live in D.C. Despite being one of pop’s monster bass players, he never picked up the instrument either, and kept complaining that Clinton and others in the P-Funk world had ripped him off. “He started going in on how George did this to him and so-and-so did that to him, and that he was starting to have hard times,” recalls Davis’ bass player Foley, a.k.a Joseph Lee McCreary Jr. When Collins began asking him for money, Foley really began growing suspicious. “I said, ‘What did you do with your royalties?’” Foley says. “He couldn’t really answer that. You’re Bootsy — you should be loaded. He would go into the Bootsy voice and try to change the subject.”

As it turns out, it wasn’t Bootsy Collins at all, but instead one of the most brazen impostors in music history. What’s more, this fake Bootsy wasn’t the only one strutting around.

Almost as long as there have been rock stars, there have been impostors: not tribute-band impersonators, but con artists claiming to actually be that person and hustling people out of cash or cadging free goods along the way. In 1964, a group of fake Beatles got away with playing shows in South America; around the same time, an unscrupulous promoter hired a bunch of ex-bank robbers, bus drivers, and lingerie salespeople to pretend to be the Ronettes and Temptations for a tour in the U.K. In 1977, a David Bowie impostor made his way around the U.S., persuading a woman to leave her husband and run off to Hawaii with the Thin Fake Duke. Faux versions of Steve Miller and the Eagles’ Randy Meisner were also scamming in various cities, as was, notoriously, a fake of Kiss drummer Peter Criss. The Criss impostor told a tabloid that he was a homeless drunk scuffling for change, leading the real Criss to confront the fraud on The Phil Donahue Show.  

But few have had to swat away fakers for as long as Collins has. Nearly 50 years after William Earl Collins transformed into the larger-than-life character known as Bootsy, he remains a singular icon in pop — the man who rocketed R&B to new universes, with a costume to match (star glasses and top hat to this day, with star-spangled flared pants and open-chested jumpsuits during his Seventies pinnacle). Even Collins’ smile was dynamic, capable of winning over invading armies. “He is full of the joy of language, joy of sound, joy of life,” says Dr. Cornel West, who saw Parliament-Funkadelic live during their heyday and later befriended and worked with Collins. “He is the highest level of what it is to be a soulful human being. That’s the most courageous and liberating thing anybody can be.”

For those same reasons, but especially for his signature, defining regalia, Collins has become the icon of choice for celebrity impostors. “It wasn’t like impersonating Prince, where you had to worry about height,” says Archie Ivy, who managed Clinton but also handled some of Collins’ early business matters. “With Bootsy, you make yourself tall with platform boots, put on a top hat and star glasses and a lot of shiny stuff. Bootsy’s voice is basically a cartoon character, so if you had the right phrase and attitude, I can see it being pulled off.” 

And it has been — a lot. For decades, Collins impostors, including the one who tried to con members of Davis’ band, have appeared, then disappeared, then materialized again. Clinton himself admits that he gave the Bootsy disguise a try, at least once, for a female backstage visitor. “Somebody came to see Bootsy and they had never seen him up close, and I put on the star glasses and said, ‘Yeah, bubba!’” he says with a laugh, recalling one of the catchphrases in “Bootzilla.” “I was with the girl for two or three days before Bootsy showed up. I told Bootsy I was him!” 

The story left its mark on the real Collins, who finds it so dispiriting to recall those times that he agreed to answer only a few questions about it, by email, for Rolling Stone. “At first I thought it was funny, until some close friends started to tell me about how the Almost Bootsy started to rip people off,” Collins wrote in one of his responses. On this topic, his wife and longtime manager, Patti, does most of the talking for her normally genial husband. “All I can say, it was very disheartening,” she says. “Bootsy doesn’t even talk about it to this day.”

But the saga of “Almost Bootsy” — and how many there may have been over the decades — is still worth recalling. It’s a reminder of a pre-viral time when anyone could get away with almost anything (in this case, for years) before being caught. “Why you would have somebody trying to imitate Bootsy was totally understandable,” West says. “I’ve always wanted to be like Bootsy myself. But I’m not gonna do what the brother did!”

Collins has been part of the American musical tapestry for so long that it’s easy to take him for granted, or forget all the funk and charisma he has injected into pop. Growing up in Cincinnati and nicknamed Bootsy by his mother, Collins joined his brother Phelps’ band, the Pacemakers, before starting a yearlong tenure with James Brown’s original J.B.’s, where he played on volcanic tracks like “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.” Two years later, he and his brother joined George Clinton’s Funkadelic, eventually becoming part of the larger P-Funk universe. If Clinton was the overlord, Collins was his key lieutenant, playing on every Parliament and Funkadelic record until the early Eighties and co-writing classics like “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and “Flashlight.” And his Soul Train-goes-to-Mars look made him one of the most recognizable of Clinton’s band of merry funk pranksters.

Even bandmate George Clinton, onstage with Collins in 1992 (right), once tried it: “I put on the star glasses and said, ‘Yeah, bubba!’”

David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

In 1976, Clinton made Collins the star of his own side project, Bootsy’s Rubber Band. The music he made with them — playfully freakalicious jams like “Stretchin’ Out (In a Rubber Band)” and funk ballads like “I’d Rather Be With You” — launched Collins to another level of recognition and success. “It’s hard to put your head around how much impact this guy had, specifically in Black culture,” says Tom Vickers, a former Rolling Stone writer who became Parliament-Funkadelic’s “Minister of Information” in the Seventies. “He never really had a crossover hit, but he was a force of nature, lightning in a bottle, all the clichés you hear. As big as P-Funk was, Bootsy was bigger.” Collins and the band went from playing midsize theaters to 20,000-seat arenas, making $25,000 to $35,000 a night (easily $125,000 to $150,000 now). During Collins’ heyday, Jet reported that he was offering to play right in fans’ homes for $40,000, pioneering the private-party, one-percenter gigs currently in vogue.

During this initial phase of Bootsy Mania, Ivy started hearing about someone claiming to be Collins getting paid to sign autographs and shake hands in small clubs in remote cities. At first, the idea was flattering. “There were Bootsy sightings all over the place where Bootsy wasn’t,” Ivy recalls and laughs. “We just shrugged it off and said, ‘Bootsy’s a real star now!’ We didn’t take it as anything seriously.” Neither Clinton nor Ivy recalls specifically how Collins responded, but generally think he was amused: As Clinton says, “He thought it was funny, that someone got away with it that far.”

Collins himself may have even egged on impostors with his 1978 album, Bootsy? Player of the Year, which came with fake cardboard “sunglasses” on the inside cover for fans to cut out and wear. “It seems that in the past year there’s been a lot of Fake-a-Teers running around, ‘Almost Bootsys,’ who’ve been trying to be me,” he said at the time. On “She Jam (Almost Bootsy Show),” from his 1979 album, This Boot Is Made for Fonk-N, he alluded to those who dressed up as him, for fun or maybe profit: “Said everyone they were almost Bootsy/Decked out in their star-shaped shades/Little boys and girls they were almost Bootsy/Shining all over the place.”

But then came a call to Ivy from the Burbank headquarters of Warner Bros., Collins’ label. The employee said that Collins was in the office, asking for an advance on his next royalty check. Ivy thought it was odd, since Collins’ payments went through Clinton’s company, not the label; also, Ivy had spoken with Collins two days before, from his home in Ohio, and Collins had a well-known aversion to flying. The label executive stalled and left the room, and by the time he returned to the office, the apparition we’ll call Almost Bootsy No. 1 was gone, never to be seen again at the office.

Meanwhile, Vickers was hearing reports about someone in Cleveland claiming to be Collins and trying to buy musical gear on a store charge account; Vickers knew Collins was elsewhere in the country at that point. “Going around collecting money as the person, that’s pretty weird,” says Clinton. “When it leads to getting a deal or some money, that’s when you have to get worried about it. To go to the record company itself!” 

As quickly as he seemed to arrive — it was just a few months, everyone recalls — Almost Bootsy No. 1 vanished, fortunately without causing any grievous harm. “Luckily, the guy didn’t go out and assault somebody or rob a bank,” says Ivy. “That could have been problematic.”

Looking back, Clinton feels the sightings didn’t even jibe with Collins’ offstage personality. “Bootsy was shy,” Clinton says. “He couldn’t have been to all those parties. But people wanted to see Bootsy and be with him. I went to a few places and people would say, ‘I just saw Bootsy!’ There might have been a couple of them.” Little did Clinton know how prescient he would be. 

Just as the initial Almost Bootsy appeared to pack up his imitation glasses and go home, the actual Collins beat a retreat as well. According to David Libert, Collins’ booking agent at the time, Collins was always on, especially in his garb. “I never saw him running around in Bermuda shorts and a tank top,” Libert says. “He was always Bootsy.” But by the early Eighties, the pressure of being a bandleader as well as a walking, talking, bass-slapping caricature began to wear on Collins. “I got so tired of living up to that Bootsy character,” he told Rolling Stone in 2000. “I’d become a so-called star, and I just didn’t know how to handle it.” 

The stress led to a debilitating case of shingles, compounded by drug abuse (LSD was his go-to) and a motorcycle accident where he wound up with an injured arm. “He created this persona that eventually led him to a nervous breakdown,” says Vickers. “He didn’t disavow the character, but he didn’t want to be Bootsy anymore. Bootsy was so visual, and he was Bootsy all the time, which was a blessing and a curse. That’s what drove him crazy.” By 1982, Collins decamped to his 23-acre ranch, where his mother told him to take off his costume and be himself again.  

In 1984, Collins took a few tentative steps back into the business. “I throwed all my drugs away and I stopped taking them,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017. “That’s when it started to become clear what I needed to get back to, which was the music.” By then, he had a hard-charging new manager, Bill Waller, who also worked with boxers; Collins nicknamed him “Dollar Bill” after Waller landed him a lucrative record deal. By way of Waller, Collins was introduced to Michael Lane, a local R&B singer and songwriter. The two began working up songs for Lane, who transformed into a Prince-inspired act named Mico Wave. At home, Lane saw Collins dressing in regular clothes and talking in a normal, non-Bootsy voice — all the exaggerations were gone. “He just wanted to be the guy in the band,” Lane says. “He’s always been real shy about things. He didn’t like being in the front.”

As Lane learned, Collins was nonetheless protective of his old image. Collins offered to put Lane up in his family home, and Lane was installed in a spare room. One day, to his surprise, he opened up a closet to find what amounted to a Bootsy museum: hats, star glasses, and everything else associated with Collins’ former persona. Heading out to see live music one night, Lane grabbed a rhinestone-crusted hat from the collection — and, next day, found a padlock on the door. “Bootsy didn’t say, ‘Don’t wear that hat,’” Lane says. “He didn’t get into a lot of conversations about things. The lock on the door said it all.”

If and when the first impostor came up, Lane remembers that Collins thought it was amusing. “He didn’t take anything like that serious,” he says. “He’d say, ‘Yeah, those mothers tried to impersonate me, but they didn’t get too far with it!’ He would laugh about things like that.” Recalling the Bootsy? Player of the Year packaging, Lane says, “He was telling everyone to be Bootsy. So when somebody did it, it didn’t bother him too much.”

Unfortunately, Collins wouldn’t be chuckling about it much longer. He signed with Columbia, and in 1988 released What’s Bootsy Doin’?, his first new record in six years. Featuring collaborations with Lane, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and guitarist Stevie Salas, it integrated electro and hip-hop elements into his trademark funk playground. That same year, Collins met his future wife, Patti, at a local gym; the two became a couple almost immediately (and married in 1996). 

Collins with his wife, Patti, at a 2011 tribute to Clinton at the Apollo Theater in New York. Having his identity co-opted by impersonators was “very disheartening” to the musician, according to Patti, who married Collins in 1996 and speaks on his behalf. “Bootsy doesn’t even talk about it to this day.”

Johnny Nunez/WireImage

It should have been a time of joyful renewal for Bootsy, but that moment would have to wait. Lane remembers hearing that someone claiming to be Collins had dropped off some dry cleaning in his name. One night at their Cincinnati home, their fax machine jolted to life, and out came a message asking if it were true that Bootsy had been in Los Angeles the day before. Patti called back, saying no, not true. Then she was told he’d supposedly checked into an upscale hotel and asked for a free room and room service. “I was like, ‘No, he’s here — he’s at home,’” she says. “It was very annoying.” Another such call came from Vegas. “We had to say, ‘Well, that’s not Bootsy, it’s the impersonator,’” she recalls. “But he’d already gotten his goods and done his damage.” 

Patti never met the man we’ll call Almost Bootsy No. 2, but she would have been able to tell the difference right away: The real Bootsy, unlike the person pretending to be him, has a star on his eyetooth. Others were fooled more easily, especially during the spring of 1988. As Rolling Stone reported at the time, Almost Bootsy No. 2 appeared at the New York Music Awards, where he hobnobbed and possibly tricked the likes of Lou Reed, Paul Simon, and LL Cool J. (Neither organizer Robbie Woliver, Reed’s ex-wife Sylvia, or LL remember him, although, Woliver says, “A number of us have that ‘sounds familiar’ feeling.”)

That same spring, Foley, Davis’ bass player, first encountered the con artist at the Manhattan hotel where Davis was staying. He’d heard Collins was in the lobby, went to check it out for himself, and saw, briefly, someone who appeared to be his musical hero. “I knew what Bootsy looked like,” he says. “I had seen all the interviews and had the posters on my wall as a kid. He’s staying in the same hotel as Miles. I was like, ‘Goddamn, it’s him. It’s got to be him.’” 

The man who would be Bootsy slinked away before Foley had much time to chat with him, but Davis’ band interacted more with Almost Bootsy No. 2 when he hitched a ride with them from New York to D.C. At first, the musicians were flattered to think Bootsy would want to spend so much time with them. But he never went off to his hotel room or even suggested having any plans of his own. “I’m thinking, ‘Here’s this established, famous musician — what’s he doing hanging with us?’” recalls keyboardist Adam Holzman. “‘Why aren’t we going out to a proper dinner and then saying goodbye, like normal?’ If you ran into one of your heroes, you’d hang out, but it wouldn’t turn into a 24/7 thing.” After Almost Bootsy No. 2 began his complaints about money and — the telltale — asking Foley for a handout, he vanished once again. 

Meanwhile, Salas showed up at the annual convention of NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants, the trade group of musical-instrument stores and manufacturers) in Anaheim, California. As he made his way around the vendors’ booths, he kept hearing people remark how he’d just missed Collins. “Everyone’s saying, ‘Bootsy’s here!’” he says. “I would say, ‘What are you talking about? He’s in Cincinnati. He was here five minutes ago?’” But Salas never saw the impostor. Waller found himself with bills from limo companies, and Ibanez Guitars sent $10,000 worth of gear to a post-office box in Louisiana. “He got away with a lot, from what I’m told — thousands and thousands of dollars,” Patti says, speaking for her husband. “Negative energy. It was very disheartening.”

If Almost Bootsy No. 2 did walk away with instruments or recording gear, his scheme may have been to pawn them off. Bill Laswell, who began collaborating with Collins in the Eighties and continued into the next decade, recalls conversations about those fears. “We used to talk about that constantly, and every day someone would say, ‘We heard he was in this place, or he was here,’” he says. “Bootsy was always smiling about it. Then when everyone found out the guy was pulling a lot of endorsements, meaning he was getting a lot of gear, everyone was thinking, ‘Well, maybe that’s not cool.’ Because he could sell that stuff.” 

Or unload it? In New York, musician Freddie Perez was introduced to Almost Bootsy No. 2, who was dressed exactly as Perez expected he’d be and offered to buy a studio’s worth of equipment for the musician. “You couldn’t tell the difference, in his appearance and the way he spoke,” Perez says. “He used the same words Bootsy used. Even the sound of his voice, everything — it was amazing.” But, as with the Davis band members, Perez never saw Almost Bootsy No. 2 even attempt to show off his musical ability; when he asked him to play just a few riffs on a bass, Almost Bootsy No. 2 would demur or change the topic. “I said, ‘I want to hear the funk!’” says Perez, a bassist himself. “He declined. Very strange.” Almost Bootsy No. 2 did reportedly sit in with a house band at a club in Washington, D.C. — singing, but again not playing bass — but that was one of the few, if only, times he was seen actually making anything close to music. 

The outrageous look of Collins, in London in 1978, was easy to mimic.

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

At that point, Team Bootsy, led by Waller (who died in 2017) and Collins’ longtime lawyer, Bob Donnelly, began taking action to shut down Almost Bootsy No. 2. “It was very troubling because Bootsy might be the single nicest person,” says Donnelly, who remains a key member of Collins’ legal team more than 30 years later. “He’s the last person on the planet who would ever take advantage of anyone. The notion that someone was doing that stung hard.”

Exactly what happened to Almost Bootsy No. 2 remains a matter of conjecture, lost or buried legal paperwork, and blurred memories after several decades. No one, including those in the Collins camp, recalls the fake’s real name. As Patti was told, a DJ at a New York hot spot heard that Collins — or the impostor, it turned out — was in the club one night. The crowd roared its approval, and Bootsy was treated to free champagne. A few days later, a dance-music executive at Columbia called the DJ to see how Collins’ current single, “Party on Plastic (What’s Bootsy Doin’?),” was going over with the crowd, and the DJ mentioned Collins’ appearance. According to what Patti was told, the executive said it wasn’t possible; she had just spoken with Bootsy and he was physically in another state. Luckily, the DJ was able to get a phone number for Almost Bootsy No. 2 and passed it along to the label, who in turn shared it with authorities. 

Another story is that, in a type of sting operation, Almost Bootsy No. 2 was lured into a meeting, making it especially clear, possibly with Waller’s help, that he had to stop. “Bill was from an old school, and I’ll just say [he used] old-school rules,” Ivy says. “Bill definitely wasn’t [former Death Row Records CEO] Suge Knight. But he wasn’t anybody you wanted to take lightly.” Donnelly thinks a local district attorney, possibly in the Midwest, helped shut the faker down. The Collinses both recall a degree of FBI involvement. (Rolling Stone filed a Freedom of Information Act request about the case; in a written response, the Bureau said it could “neither confirm nor deny the existence of such records.”)

Rolling Stone may have even been involved. In November 1988, the magazine published a story about the Eighties’ Almost Bootsy’s exploits. Soon after, writer David Thigpen received a call from a female college student in the Boston area, asking if he was the same person who wrote the story — and shocking him with news that Almost Bootsy No. 2 was in her apartment at that very moment. Thigpen suggested that she call the police, which she allegedly did, although what part that played in Almost Bootsy’s vanishing act remains unclear. 

When it finally ended, the Collinses breathed a sigh of relief and found solace in fans who had heard about what was happening to their hero. “You would get letters,” Patti recalls, “like, ‘I know these things are going on in your life with this negative energy of this impostor, but I went to the show last night, and I left a new person. I was healed.’ Faxes and fan letters would come in, encouraging him, and he would read every single one. We were both able to just take a deep breath and let it all out.”  

With that, Almost Bootsy No. 2 was gone. Or was he? In 1990, he — or maybe even another Bootsy clone — was said to have been spotted at a Reggae Sunsplash festival in Jamaica. In Los Angeles the following year, someone dressed as Collins popped aboard the tour bus of the Alarm, the Eighties British guitar band, claiming he wanted to enlist them for a Live Aid-style event to benefit veterans of the Gulf War. But when he tried to get them to pay for his hotel room and expenses, the band members, like so many others before, sensed something wasn’t adding up. Only then did they learn that the real Collins was on tour in Europe with Deee-Lite, who had reignited interest in Collins thanks to his cameo on their psychedelic 1990 club anthem “Groove Is in the Heart.” According to a post on the band’s site, Almost Bootsy No. 3 or 4’s luggage was kicked off the bus, along with a large pet dog that someone thinks may have been a pet wolf. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyers. You’ll regret this!” were the last words anyone heard him — or any of the wanna-be Bootsies — mutter. 

Collins himself has moved on, multiple times over. At 71, he’s remained strikingly productive. His cameos on last year’s Silk Sonic album reminded everyone of his cultural footprint (he named Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s throwback duo and introduces the album), and he served as the MC for the music segment of last summer’s World Games in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s set to release new albums and singles, like the new “Funk Not Fight,” which addresses violence and features up-and-coming hip-hop artists. He’s also preparing to enter the metaverse world with “Funktropolis,” complete with NFTs, pay-per-view shows, and Bootsy bitcoin. Recalling his impostor in one of his emails to Rolling Stone, he writes, “He even ripped MC Hammer and tried it on Eazy-E, but they wasn’t having it. When Hammer and I met back in the Eighties and he realized he had been had, we both cracked up about it.”

But more than 30 years later, the legacy of the Almost Bootsies endures. These days, scamming celebrity impostors are all too common, especially online; you may get a direct message on social media from “Blake Shelton” or “Keanu Reeves” asking for a charity donation or a date. For Collins, the annoyances of the past have also made the transition to online: A slew of faux Bootsies have popped up on Instagram and Twitter, and unauthorized Bootsy merchandise continues to dog Team Bootsy as well, much to the Collinses’ consternation. “They take his image and just sell it without permission,” Patti says. “They should come to us and get an OK and get it approved. But when it’s his face or his glasses or hats with his image, sometimes they just do it. We have the fight to shut them down. It’s happening every day.”

“You can look at it two ways,” she adds. “You can look at it as a positive, because that means Bootsy is still popular. People want to be him, they want to have that iconic look. Or you can look at it as a negative: ‘How dare you do that?’ Bootsy chooses to look at it in a positive way. It’s kept his brand alive. We’re thankful for all of that.”

Meanwhile, from his home in Cincinnati, Collins continues to keep a watchful eye on his online fakes. He diligently monitors social media for Almost Bootsies, and even flagged a faux Bootsy Beer to his followers. Sometimes he reports them to ALG, the New York-based branding company he employs, which shuts down the accounts. But other times, his wife says, he lets it slide, feeling sorry for the low-rent scammers and their lot in life. After all these years, he understands, at least to a degree. “The lesson I took was, there will always be Fake-a-Teers,” he says. “They just can’t help themselves. I don’t like it, but I understand wanting to be somebody else. If I had not made good on being myself, that impostor may have been me. I totally get it.”

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