Funk pioneer Jesse Rae heading over the sea after final Borders performance

Larger-than-life Kelso-born funk music legend Jesse Rae is lining up what is billed as his final concert in the Borders this weekend before heading over the sea for good.

By Paul Kelly
Monday, 9th September 2019, 11:45 am
Jesse Rae is quitting the Borders and heading over the sea.
Jesse Rae is quitting the Borders and heading over the sea.

At the age of 68, the pioneering musician and songwriter, having made it his life’s work to promote funk music in Scotland, says he feels frustrated with the region’s music scene and wants to try his luck in the US instead.

Too often in recent years, he has prepared for a live performance, only to have gigs cancelled at the last minute, he says.

Now Jesse, of St Boswells, is preparing to put his energies into his role as funk ambassador at the Funk Music Hall of Fame and Exhibition Centre in Dayton, Ohio.

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He said: “I was back in Dayton last year when I was invited to attend a funk symposium.

“I feel really appreciated there, much more than I do in the Borders. Last time I was there, I played to 2,500 students, whereas it’s hard to get a crowd in the Borders.

“There are many parallels between Dayton and the Borders, and there are lessons to be learned too.

“When the authorities in Dayton took away the provision of musical instruments for the schools, it was found that the attainment of pupils in other subjects was very poor. That’s a lesson for Scottish Borders Council not to cut budgets for drama, music and the like.

“It’s often said that an artist is seen as a stranger in his own hometown. It seems people are more interested in artists coming from outside the Borders.

“There are no promoters or agents here, and gigs have been cancelled left, right and centre, with insurance issues a big part of it.

“When I started off all those years ago at Kelso High School, it was in a soul band, Paint Box, and we played all across the Borders.

“This is not the end of my career. I just don’t feel the audience is here.”

Despite his frustrations, Jesse is giving fans old and new a chance to see him perform one last time.

He’s bringing his live music video show, the Funk Symposium, to the Tipsy Ghillie in Kelso on Saturday night, September 14.

Dressed, as always, in traditional Highland battle dress, he will play in front of a backdrop of video footage featuring some of the US funk music legends he’s performed with and befriended, including Roger Troutman and Bernie Worrell.

Those two musicians are no longer with us, but it’s important to Jesse to keep their musical spirits alive, he told us.

“Bernie was never acknowledged for the genius he is”, Jesse said, adding: “I’m so proud of the work that I did with him and of our friendship. I’m still trying to give credibility to funk music, in particular by establishing an award category for it at the Grammys.

“That’s why the Funk Music Hall of Fame and Exhibition Centre in Dayton is so important.

“We need to get recognition for these great funk artists.”

At Saturday’s gig, fans can expect to hear his two most successful songs, Inside Out, a top 10 hit for Odyssey in 1982, and Over the Sea, accompanied on its 1985 release by a video shot in New York, alongside more obscure tracks.

He said: “There will be a full spectrum, including some songs which never saw the light of day.

“There’s a song called Referendum for Your Love. Referendum is such an ugly word and I wanted to turn it into a positive word.

“On the song Bank Corrupt, I tried to keep it light-hearted, but musically sound.”

It was in the US that Jesse forged his reputation in the late 1970s, collaborating with and building lifelong bonds with the cream of America’s funk musicians.

His musical fate had been sealed earlier when, as a laddie, he stumbled on a record by the funk music collective Parliament-Funkadelic in a jumble sale and immediately realised it was the kind of music he wanted to be associated with.

As now, funk fans in the Borders were few and far between in the 1970s, so Jesse made his way to Cleveland, Ohio, where he spent three years working in clubs, moving on to Boston, where he met Parliament-Funkadelic member Worrell, becoming a collaborator and lifelong friend.

Along the way he has worked with such artists as Daryl Hall, of Hall and Oates fame, Saturday Night Live and David Letterman drummer Steve Jordan and 1980s pop legend Adam Ant.

Despite securing cult status in Scotland, Jesse has not enjoyed great chart success, Over the Sea’s No 65 placing giving him his biggest solo hit.

As a songwriter, he is best known for Inside Out, a No 3 UK hit for the US disco act Odyssey.

The music video for the single Over the Sea, in which he wore a kilt and helmet while wielding a claymore in both New York City and the Scottish Highlands, is fondly remembered and proved influential.

The video has enjoyed cult status ever since it was screened on the TV show The Tube and is said to have been an inspiration for the Highlander movies, and the segment in it when Jesse throws his claymore off Brooklyn Bridge back to Scotland was mimicked in Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart.

Jesse joked: “That video spawned a Hollywood industry!”

The proud Borderer and independence supporter has dipped his toe into the world of politics three times.

In 2007, he stood for the Scottish Parliament as an independent in Roxburgh and Berwickshire and again in the expanded seat of Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire in 2011. Both times round, he got less than 2% of the vote, though.

At the 2015 general election, he again stood unsuccessfully in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk.

His attempt at a political career was launched with the intention of opposing the Royal Bank of Scotland’s plans to close branches here.

“It was my way of sticking up for the Borders because the banks were going to desert the region, and I wanted to do something to inform people.

“In the end, I just got fed up with losing my deposit.”

Entry is free for Saturday’s gig at the Woodmarket pub, starting at 9pm.