When word surfaced earlier this year that keyboard virtuoso Bernie Worrell — of Parliament and Funkadelic, the big-band version of Talking Heads, and numerous other genre-exploding projects — was fighting stage-four lung cancer, a group of colleagues, friends and admirers decided a benefit/tribute was way better than a memorial. “This year has been tough — we’ve lost so many great musicians,” Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid told Rolling Stone. “Bernie is facing a serious situation, but he’s determined to make art, to play it out. This will be a great opportunity to recognize and celebrate a person while they’re still here with us.”
“All the WOO in the World: An All-Star Celebration of Bernie Worrell” — billed as a combination “benefit/funkraiser” — is set for April 4th at Webster Hall in New York City. To date, the still-evolving lineup includes Worrell with P-Funk colleagues George Clinton and Bootsy Collins; Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads; Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash of LaBelle; Living Colour; Questlove; Buckethead; the Meters’ Leo Nocentelli; the B-52’s’ Fred Schneider; Paul Shaffer; Meryl Streep (who fronted a band featuring Worrell in her recent Ricki and the Flash); director Jonathan Demme; and the Black Rock Coalition Orchestra, the night’s presenters. The program is still coming together, but plenty of P-Funk is expected, plus surprises; Reid says he looks forward to covering Talking Heads’ “Memories Can’t Wait” with Jerry Harrison and Living Colour.
Worrell will be travelling from Bellingham, Washington, where he recently relocated from New Jersey. “He’s been fairly comfortable and performing a bit,” says wife Judie Worrell, noting a recent set with Native American funk band Khu.éex’. Worrell is being treated with a combination of chemotherapy and naturotherapy; his wife notes that Washington’s new laws make it easier to obtain marijuana-based medication. “Cannabis oil is keeping the side effects of the chemo in check, and also helps when Bernie gets anxious and, well, afraid.”
Worrell, 71, studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, and made his name alongside George Clinton in Parliament/Funkadelic, performing and co-writing oft-sampled signatures like “Flashlight.” Many credit Worrell with creating a new sonic vernacular; in the documentary Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth, bandmate Bootsy Collins describes him as “Jimi Hendrix on the keyboards”; others praise Worrell’s ability to function as a sort of musical coagulant, creating sounds so integral to an arrangement he can sometimes seem invisible. “Bernie had a huge influence on Talking Heads, and on me,” David Byrne observed in Stranger. As a colleague, Worrell is beloved. “He’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, and a good friend,” says Jerry Harrison, who collaborated with the keyboardist in Talking Heads and other projects. “He played the ‘Wedding March’ at my wedding!”
“I wanted to do something where Bernie could hear people sing his praises while he’s here.” —Nona Hendryx
Worrell has struggled to obtain royalties on his work, given past publishing lawsuits around the Parliament/Funkadelic catalog. He recently completed an LP, Retrospectives, via the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo, which includes instrumental versions of “Flashlight” and “Sir Nose D’void of Funk.” Sweet Relief, the non-profit musician assistance project, has set up a Bernie Worrell Fund for donations to offset his medical expenses.
“Artists don’t get 401Ks; they don’t get insurance with their record deals; they don’t get a lot of stuff that other people get in corporations, like the people inside the music business get,” notes Nona Hendryx, who is spearheading the April 4th benefit. “I wanted to do something where Bernie could hear people sing his praises while he’s here.”