At 74, George Clinton finds new lease on creative life with Parliament Funkadelic
by Mark Jordan, Special to The Commercial Appeal
Funk godfather George Clinton brings his Parliament Funkadelic revue to the New Daisy Theatre tonight to celebrate the venue's 74th birthday. (Photo by William Thoren)
As one of the original, most popular, and most enduring progenitors of the sexy, sticky dance music known as funk, it's clear that George Clinton knows how to party.
Throughout most of his 50-plus-year career, performing with various groups under the Parliament Funkadelic banner, he was known for his outlandish, Halloween-cranked-to-11 costumes and sets. But even he admits that things often go to a different level when he and his band hit Memphis.
"Every time we go to Memphis, it's like a party," says Clinton, recalling in particular the night in 1977 when the band's notorious P-Funk Earth Tour landed at the Mid-South Coliseum complete with a funk-powered spacecraft (now enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution) called the Mothership. "Aw, yeah, when we did the Mothership there, all the stars in Memphis — Sam & Dave, the Bar-Kays, everybody — came out. Those were our friends, so backstage was like a big concert."
The Bar-Kays bassist James Alexander remembers the show well. The Memphis group opened up for Clinton and company on the Mothership tour.
“George Clinton was the turning point of the Bar-Kays' career,” says Alexander, recalling the period after the demise of Stax when the band was trying to establish itself as a top funk act, a task that was accomplished by the end of the tour. “He put us on 8- something shows, the biggest venues, including Madison Square Garden. He was so instrumental that we stopped the show in the middle and presented him with a gold album for (1977's "Flying High On Your Love") on stage at Madison Square Garden.”
Clinton expects there will be at least a few guests on hand when he and Parliament Funkadelic return here Friday, June 3, for a show at the New Daisy Theatre. The reason for this party is the anniversary of the Beale Street venue, which, like Clinton, is 74 years old.
"The 74th anniversary is the perfect opportunity to tie together the venue's historic past with its bright future," says Steve Adelman, new co-owner of the New Daisy, which over the past year has undergone a complete renovation. "And if you really want to throw a great party, you can't do better than George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. The fact that Mr. Clinton is also 74 years old and still putting on epic shows is icing on the cake. He and the New Daisy have something pretty unique in common."
One of the most sampled and influential artists to three generations of hip-hop performers, Clinton started his musical career as a teenager with his doo-wop group The Parliaments. In the early '60s he was a staff writer at Motown. By the close of the decade, he had fully embraced the burgeoning funk-rock sound and was balancing the rechristened Parliament with a new outfit, Funkadelic. The two groups had the same lineups of musicians, including revered bassist Bootsy Collins (the first of many P-Funk-ers to be lifted from James Brown's band) and guitarist Eddie Hazel, but slightly different sounds. While they continued to record separate albums, over time on stage the two merged into one.
In the '70s, Parliament Funkadelic was the biggest (literally, few bands ever had more members on stage) and most outrageous band in funk, no small feat in a genre known for science-fiction costumes, elaborate light shows, and scantily clad women. They also enjoyed their biggest commercial successes, including dance floor staples like "Flashlight," "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)," and "Up From the Down Stroke."
Beginning in the '80s, Clinton went solo and began to bask in the adoration of younger groups whose music he influenced. He produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers and later began recording with some of hip-hop's biggest stars, including Tupac Shakur, Outkast, Wu Tang Clan, and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. In the late '80s, he signed with Prince's Paisley Park label. The two men had met a decade earlier before Prince became a star and maintained a decades-long friendship that ended only with Prince's death this spring.
"He was a pupil of entertainment, period,"Clinton says. "That's why he was such a rock star. He could go back through Elvis; Sly Stone, who is probably all of ours idol; all the Beatles; all the variations of Little Richard and Chuck Berry. He studied everything. And he knew how to perform. He knew the concepts of the theater. The other thing that set him apart was he knew how to take care of business business-wise. He and Michael (Jackson) were really on a par when it came to that."
Although Prince learned a lot from Clinton, in business it was a matter of the pupil becoming the master. Clinton's business struggles are detailed in his 2014 memoir, "Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You?." For more than three decades, beginning in the 1980s, Clinton has fought a variety of legal battles to wrestle back the rights to his music. The suits forced him to shelve Parliament Funkadelic as a recording entity for much of that time.
(In a new legal twist, longtime P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who also co-wrote some of the band's biggest hits, recently accused Clinton online of defrauding the members of his band.)
Now it seems most of those fights are behind him. And if Clinton, who turns 75 in July, seems younger than his years, it may be because he feels he has a new, hard-won lease on creative life. He has a whole slate of projects in the works, all under his own company. The same year his memoir came out, Clinton released the first Funkadelic album in 33 years, the 33-track "First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate." He currently is developing a long-form video of four of the album's tracks as a follow-up to the singles "Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You?" and "The Naz," a collaboration with the reclusive Stone. Up next, with no set release date, is a new album from Parliament, whose last album, like Funkadelic's, came out in 1980.
"We're going to be working the Funkadelic album even though the Parliament album is coming out," says Clinton. "We're in no hurry. We own the company, so we ain't trying to keep up with no charts or nothing. Our thing is to make the music serious. That means you have to perform it and let people get used to it. It takes our records a long time for people to get them, but once they do, they be around a long time."