*Unquestionably, Dr. Bernie Worrell forever changed the sound of modern popular music.
As keyboardist, integral member and co-writer for George Clinton’s legendary funk band Parliament/Funkadelic, Worrell, who passed away at 72 on June 24 after battling lung cancer, squeezed out of his battery of keyboards a myriad of otherworldly sounds that heavily influenced the style of keyboard and synthesizer playing in contemporary R&B.
When musicians weren’t emulating his keyboard lines, patterns and sonic wizardry as best they could play them on recordings, hip-hop producers were using the sounds outright: Worrell’s work on such Parliament and Funkadelic classics as “A Joyful Noise,” “Cosmic Slop,” “Star Child (Mothership Connection),” “Flashlight” and “Knee Deep” have been sampled on a multitude of hip hop recordings.
In particular, Worrell’s phat, intestines-rattling, if-you-go-any-lower-you’ll-end-up-in-China keyboard bass lines on P-Funk records–which he executed on the Minimoog synthesizer (he and Stevie Wonder were among the first black musicians to record using the instrument)–did as much for the synthesized bass sound in ‘70s pop/soul/funk as James Jamerson’s Fender bass playing did for soul music in the ‘60s.
Worrell was the surreal genius center of the famed P-Funk sound. He, William “Bootsy” Collins and George Clinton made up the funky triad that wrote and produced most of the best material for the Parliafunkadelicment Thang, Clinton’s collective of P-Funk acts.
In a move indicative of Clinton’s crafty sense of hustle, P-Funk acts recorded for different record labels concurrently—-Parliament and girl-group Parlet recorded for Casablanca; Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Warner Brothers; The Brides of Funkenstein and the Horny Horns were at Atlantic—yet all the acts were essentially comprised of the same musicians and vocalists.
No matter the moniker under which they recorded, all benefited from the far-reaching musical prowess of Mr. Worrell, who, at any given time played grand piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, Hohner Clavinet, Hammond B3 organ, ARP String Ensemble and Moog synthesizer, and wrote horn and rhythm arrangements.
Worrell’s credentials don’t immediately suggest a man who would make history as an architect of modern funk. Born in Long Branch, New Jersey and raised in nearby Plainfield, Bernie was classically-trained. A musical prodigy who began piano lessons at age three, he wrote a concerto at age eight.
After studying at Julliard, in 1967 Worrell earned a degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. As a young man, he played with a sibling vocal group called Chubby & The Turnpikes that later became ‘70s pop/soul act, Tavares. Shortly afterward, Worrell met Clinton and joined Funkadelic.
No doubt Worrell was just hitting his stride with that early line-up of Funkadelic during the winter of 1972 which is when, at age sixteen, I caught the band opening for Stevie Wonder at Oklahoma City’s Fairground Arena. Childhood partner-in-crime Don Minnis drove us there in his father’s wine-colored Plymouth Satellite.
We were there for Stevie–his Talking Book album, featuring the hit single “Superstition” was just out–but I’d heard about Funkadelic. The lousy distribution and non-existent promotion of Westbound Records, the small, independent for which they recorded at the time, gave Funkadelic the aura of an underground delicacy. What little of their music could be played on Oklahoma City radio was funky, rebellious and lyrically irreverent. Yeah! Bring it on!
It was the first time I’d ever experienced live music while intoxicated. Donnie and I split a beer, but I had never had beer before, and what little alcohol there is in that can of Coors kicked in just as Funkadelic hit the stage. They seemed to be high—-we wanted to believe they were—and almost oblivious to the audience as they ripped into the first song, a steam-rolling instrumental.
That number, I’d later learn, was a Worrell song, “A Joyful Process.” I can’t say that I paid any attention to Bernie; I didn’t know who any of them were, including Clinton. I just remember the groove being really, really funky and the purpose that filled the players’ faces as they made this funky music.
Remarkably, in 1978, I’d find myself on the road with Funkadelic, covering a stretch of their “anti-tour” of east coast cities for Soul Newspaper with photographer Bobby Holland. This was supposed to be work, but to us, getting to hear Funkadelic live every other night was a funk-filled vacation.
At the venues, during afternoon pre show sound checks, I’d chat with some of the musicians, but I only observed Worrell, without bothering him. He seemed gentle and friendly—-always a smile—-but, at least to me, quiet and shy. He was about the music–making it, not talking about it.
Worrell’s gift to P-Funk was depth. His colorful and occasionally dark imagination for what would work inside, on top and under a groove-—the purposely meandering notes, the sideways chords, the downright spooky synth work—-all served to give P-Funk its dimension and mystery. You listen to Worrell on something like “Aqua Boogie” and ask yourself, “What the hell made him put that sound there?” And you laugh because it works.
In the early ‘80s, when it was clear that it was over as we all knew it, Bernie left the P-Funk fold (because of decades-long legal and financial disputes, Worrell would die without collecting his fair share of songwriting royalties from some of Parliament/Funkadelic’s biggest hits). David Byrne of Talking Heads came calling and Worrell recorded and toured with the band until the top of the ‘90s.
From there, over the years Bernie would write, record and perform with a variety of artists and producers, including his own bands, panning the genres of rock, jazz, hip hop and experimental music.
On the afternoon of June 23, a day before Worrell’s death, I had a sudden, inexplicable yearn to hear Mothership Connection and other P-Funk works, so I put them on.
I knew Bernie was sick, but I hoped he’d somehow pull through. The next day when it was announced that he had passed, I realized my yearn was actually Worrell gathering up his soul for a journey that didn’t require a space ship.