Originally named Project Soul, the group became a backup band for the Stax Records artists The Soul Children in the early 1970s Renaming themselves Confunkshun, the group moved to Memphis, Tennessee and became one of the label’s most sought-after studio bands. They supported themselves by performing throughout the mid-South and Japan at clubs and colleges. They came to the attention of Estelle Axton and recorded an album and several singles on her Fretone Records label.
The Mercury Records Years|By 1976, Con Funk Shun, was one of the most popular groups in the South but still had not secured a major recording deal. That all changed in July 1976 when Mercury Records A&R man Jud Phillips finally signed the group to a major recording contract. By that time, drummer Louis McCall’s wife, publicist/songwriter Linda Lou McCall, had “tweaked” the spelling of the band’s name (originally “Confunkshun”), and their first album, “Con Funk Shun”, was released later that year.
The band’s second album Secrets was released in 1977 to critical and commercial success. Their first hit single was “Ffun”, written by Michael Cooper rose swiftly up the charts and landed at “#1 With A Bullet” on Billboard magazine’s Top Soul Singles chart in July 1977. Over the course of 10 years, Con Funk Shun recorded 11 albums with Mercury, with five of them achieving “Gold album” status (selling in excess of 500,000 units). The band performed to sold-out coliseums all over the country. They had numerous Top 40 hits including “Chase Me”, “Love’s Train”, “Straight From The Heart”, and “Shake & Dance With Me”. They recorded their milestone album, “7” in 1981, the seventh album for seven bandmembers who had been together since their teens. It included “California 1”, “Straight From The Heart”, “Body Lovers” and the Billboard Top 20 Soul Single, “Bad Lady”.
The Later Years|In the early 1980s, sagging sales and poor support from their record company was beginning to cause tension between the boyhood friends. In addition, lead singer/songwriters Michael V. Cooper and Felton Pilate began to try to assert more control over the band. Co-founders McCall and Cooper were often at odds with each other. Cooper, an excellent musician and writer, had always resented McCall’s business acumen and negotiating skills (McCall and his wife, Linda Lou McCall, were responsible for booking the band’s first major tour in 1977, which resulted in the group’s national success and the first of their numerous gold albums). While McCall usually deferred to Cooper on artistic issues, he did not get the same support from Cooper on business decisions. McCall had frequently been voted group leader by the other members, each time causing the chasm between Cooper and the other members to grow wider. Pilate often sided with Cooper but since the band operated on the quorum principle of “participatory democracy”, their suggestions were often out-voted by the other members.
“Burning Love”, Con Funk Shun’s last album with Mercury, was recorded without lead singer/songwriter, Felton Pilate, who left the group in 1986 after a physical altercation with McCall. Melvin Carter, a frequent collaborator of Con Funk Shun, replaced Felton for their final album, “Burning Love”. The same year, the original group was essentially disbanded with Michael V. Cooper leaving for a solo career. Louis McCall also left to become a consultant and event producer with clients such as M.C. Hammer, Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte, and to join his wife in marketing such contemporary artists as Eminem, Puff Daddy (now “Diddy”), Mya, and the Black Eyed Peas. Con Funk Shun officially disbanded after their last album with Mercury in late 1986. Cooper went on to release a few solo albums with Warner Bros. Sales were disappointing but he did manage to have a few hits with “Prove My Love” and “Shoop Shoop”. One of the first musicians ever to have a home studio, Felton Pilate went on to become a successful producer and musical director for rap phenom, M.C. Hammer. He was later nominated in 1991 for a Grammy for co-producing Hammer’s hit record “U Can’t Touch This” and an Oscar in 1992 for “Addams Groove” on the “”Addams Family”” soundtrack. He, too, made several attempts at solo projects which went nowhere. However, he is still sought out as a producer and consultant.
In the 1990s, lead singers Michael Cooper and Felton Pilate began performing under the group’s name with sidemen in place of their former bandmates. They often include original members on brass, Paul Harrell (sax and flute) and Karl Fuller (trumpet). Although missing the tightness of its legendary rhythm section of McCall (drums), Thomas (keyboards), and Martin (bass), the reconstituted group still performs at “old school” concerts and festivals throughout the country under the moniker “Con Funk Shun, featuring Michael Cooper & Felton Pilate”, making no mention of long-time bandmates Harrell and Fuller. The original band’s music can still be heard in such recent films as “Gone In 60 Seconds”, “Next Friday”, and “American Pimp”, which was featured at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Ironically, one of the memorable characters in “American Pimp” was John “Rosebudd” Dickson, a childhood friend of drummer, Louis A. McCall. They played in the Vallejo High School band together and remained friends for life.
Tragically, co-founder/drummer McCall was murdered on June 25, 1997 in Stone Mountain, Georgia in a home invasion robbery. The case is still unsolved. With the exception of Felton, all of the other members of Con Funk Shun still reside in the San Francisco Bay Area.