Taken from Daily Telegraph (July 22, 2016)
How barber and hula-hoop maker George Clinton became the godfather of funk
George Clinton the man who defined a genre
by Troy Lennon, History editor, The Daily Telegraph
A publicity picture of Funkadelic from the 1970s
At the 2012 Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, singer Prince described funk music as “the force that tore the roof off the sucker that is modern music”.
“The great George Clinton is the father of this funk mothership,” he went on
The “mothership” he was referring to was Parliament and Funkadelic, bands which pioneered funk music under the leadership of Clinton.
Clinton, who turns 75 today, helped change the face of pop.
A sometimes outlandish singer who in recent times has toned down his penchant for spacey outfits, garishly coloured hair and drug trips, pioneered a genre of music, known then as P-funk, which influenced other music styles including disco and hip hop.
He was born, according to a family legend, in an outdoor lavatory in Kannapolis, North Carolina, on July 22, 1941. He would later say this ignominious entry into the world gave him a “legitimate claim on the funk”.
The family later moved to New Jersey, but his parents separated. Clinton lived with his mother in East Orange but spent some time with his father. His love of music came from his mother, who played blues artists like B.B. King and Muddy Waters, but he was also exposed to live performances by the Shirelles, the Drifters and the Flamingos. New Jersey at the time was a breeding ground for a new generation of African-American music. Clinton’s next door neighbour was Reverend Mancel Warwick, a promoter for gospel records and the father of Dionne Warwick.
George Clinton has been a regular visitor to Australia.
Inspired by the success of local group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, who had a 1956 hit with Why Do Fools Fall In Love, Clinton formed his own “doo wop” group. He named them the Parliaments, after a brand of cigarettes. They rehearsed in the back room of the barber shop where Clinton worked at the time. Over time they became one of the most popular groups in the neighbourhood and soon Clinton was losing interest in school and contemplated a career in music. He fell in love with one of his school groupies, Carol Hall, with whom he had a daughter in his senior year at high school. A son followed.
He found work as a songwriter in New York, a job that taught him a lot about music and promoting music and standing out from the pack. But this job failed to pay the bills and he was forced to take a job in a hula-hoop factory. When that work ran its course he went back to cutting hair, to help fund his musical career.
The Parliaments had their first hit in 1967 “(I Just Wanna) Testify,” which hit No.3 on the R&B charts. When their record label folded in 1968 they lost control of the name and renamed the band Funkadelic, a name once used for the Parliaments’ backing band.
The name drew on the psychedelic (hallucinogenic) drug craze and also nodded to the emerging music trend funk, which had a “funky” bass sound, influenced by soul, rhythm and blues, gospel and jazz. Clinton didn’t invent funk but helped define the genre and became its chief innovator.
Inspired by the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic struggled to find its niche.
“We was too white for the blacks and we was too black for the whites,” Clinton said.
They released their first self-titled album, Funkadelic, in February 1970. Its strange surreal sounds and extraterrestrial references, influenced by Clinton’s love of Star Trek as well as his drug trips, gained a cult following.
A second album, Free Your Mind ... And Your Ass Will Follow, came in July 1970, their third album was Maggot Brain in 1971, its cover showing a woman buried to her neck in dirt.
Clinton recovered rights to the name Parliaments, shortened it to Parliament and launched a second band which ran parallel to Funkadelic, both dominating the style that became known as P-Funk in their honour. The bands shared members and dressed in bizarre outfits making reference to imaginary extraterrestrial origins. Never exactly mainstream, they still became a model for other more popular bands that emerged using a similar but more polished sound, that gave birth to disco.
Clinton left Parliament and Funkadelic in the 1980s to work solo but occasionally performs as part of a P-Funk all stars group. In the 90s many young musicians rediscovered the band and sampled the music for rap and hip-hop music. The ageing rocker has produced albums with other artists, collaborated with many young admirers and is a frequent visitor to Australia, appearing last year at the Byron Bay Bluesfest.