Bernie Worrell: 10 Essential Tracks From the P-Funk Keyboardist
One of the most wildly innovative and technically dazzling musicians in pop music history, Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell was like “Jimi Hendrix on the keyboards,” according to one-time bandmate Bootsy Collins, and that’s not a hyperbolic estimation. A classical-music child prodigy who attended the New England Conservatory of Music and Juilliard, Worrell’s journey to the funk began by hanging around George Clinton’s Newark, New Jersey barbershop. By his early twenties, he was a full-fledged P-Funkateer, and soon became de facto musical director, organizing and orchestrating the anarchic collective’s sprawling jams and riffs into iconic compositions and performances.
Worrell died of cancer on Friday at the age 72. Here are 10 essential songs from Worrell’s catalog that show how the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer created the funky lingua franca that dragged us through the cosmic slop and invited us to flee reality on the mothership.
Funkadelic, “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow” (1970)
This pissed-off plea and year-zero invocation opens Funkadelic's second record – one of only two full-lengths featuring the group's ferocious core: Clinton, Worrell, guitarists Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross, bassist Billy Nelson, and drummer Tiki Fulwood. Mythically recorded in one day when the entire band was supposedly tripping balls, it's an uneasy transmission, given eerie, stereo-panning shape and flow by Worrell's reverbed chemtrails. About seven minutes into the 10-minute manifesto of howls and chants, he blasts off to another realm entirely, cranking his RMI Electra keyboard (an electronic piano with settings that sound nothing like their indicated instruments – lute? Harpsichord?) and unleashing a torrent of distorted squalls and prayer calls. Call it cosmic agit-slop. C.A.
Funkadelic, “Hit It and Quit It” (1971)
Wailing lead as well as arranging the ingenious backing vocals, Worrell pumped out a mammoth Hammond B-3 organ groove and a blistering jazz-tweaked solo (like Booker T. on "Cloud Nine") before Eddie Hazel's psych-metal guitar dropped a match on the whole acid-overdriven funk flex. C.A.
Parliament, “Chocolate City” (1975)
Bernie Worrell arranged the music for this homage to Washington, D.C.'s majority-black population and their then-untapped political power. He also proved that he was more than a keyboardist celebrated for his futuristic and funky melodies. On "Chocolate City," he collages his spacey synth abstractions with a stride piano rhythm that evokes Forties boogie-woogie, lending a stately feel to Bootsy Collins' prophecy of a black White House, with James Brown as the President and Aretha Franklin as the First Lady. M.R.
Funkadelic, “Atmosphere” (1975)
A bewildering blur of the comic and the deathly (which spoke to the mood of the Seventies better than any droopy singer-songwriter). Shifting from the Hammond B-3 to a Minimoog synth, Worrell breathes aching, absurd pathos into technology's alien oscillations, skulking like a calliope player in a haunted amusement park (as Clinton babbles about "dicks and clits"), sucking the blood of a Bach fugue like an Afro-futurist fiend, and presiding over a hushed church service (delicately echoed by Hazel's guitar), before flipping it all into proggy laserium melancholy. It was later sampled by Prince Paul for his dazzling DJ turn on Stetsasonic's "Music for the Stetfully Insane," in addition to providing the primal ooze from which horrorcore rap emerged (see Gravediggaz and Three 6 Mafia). C.A
Parliament, “Flash Light” (1978)
This 1978 R&B Number One began as a demo for Bootsy Collins' Rubber Band. The Parliament team picked it up, with Worrell playing the bass parts on a trio of Minimoog synthesizers. Collins, Worrell and George Clinton shared songwriting credit. "Worrell's bass tones sounded louder than any other bass track heard on the radio," wrote Rickey Vincent in his seminal 1996 history Funk, which featured a foreword by Clinton. "His wizardry with freakish note-bending effects created a mind-scraping, Thumpasaurus gribble grind that forever changed the bottom groove in popular music." In a joint interview with Worrell, Collins later noted how countless black artists began copying "Flash Light"'s" bass synthesizer sound. "Bass players started getting mad … [because] they started losing sessions," he said. M.R.
Bernie Worrell, “Woo Together” (1978)
Worrell's 1978 debut All the Woo in the World is a solo project in name only. Sonically, it's another P-Funk jam session, with Worrell sharing vocals with Clinton, Junie Morrison, Bootsy Collins and many others. However, it's Worrell that leads the album's best-known track, "Woo Together." He shouts out major cities with daffy lyrics like "L.A., you're really out of sight/Especially on a winter's day," and he's got a slangy, somewhat hoarse voice that's irreducibly funky. Meanwhile, he colors around the track's platform-stomping groove with abstract keyboard notes. "[Worrell] will step up behind you and make you sound like the best thing in the world," wrote George Clinton in his autobiography, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard On You? "But All the Woo in the World proved that there was also magic when he was at the center of things." M.R.
Mtume, “Juicy Fruit” (1983)
Worrell was one of the most diverse and prolific session musicians and producers of the 1980s. His credits during those years span country-pop (Rita Coolidge), weird New Wave dance rock (Fred Schneider of the B-52's), mainstream pop-rock (The Pretenders and Keith Richards), dub reggae (Sly & Robbie) and Mtume, the latter a project formed by onetime Black Power fusion jazz percussionist turned pop producer James Mtume. Thanks to the Mtume brand name, Worrell didn't get the credit he deserved for co-creating the band's R&B Number One hit, "Juicy Fruit." When you hear that staccato keyboard that responds when Mtume whispers "Juicy fruit!"; and that noodle-y synthesizer freak out during the song's bridge, you're hearing vintage Worrell. M.R.
Talking Heads, “Girlfriend Is Better” (Live) (1984)
As the point man of Talking Heads' revamped 1980 lineup – with percussionist Steve Scales, bassist Busta Jones and back-up singer Dolette McDonald – Worrell helped give the Heads' clink-y, post-punk stabs at syncopation a profoundly funky whomp. When asked in a Wax Poetics interview to describe the band's "vibe" prior to the change, he said, laughing: "Stiff, no rhythm, man." By '84, though, that was definitely not the case. And here, Worrell keeps the tempo wound tight, moving from freewheelin' synth-funk delirium to a swirling, squealing backdrop for David Byrne's big-suit soft-shoe. C.A.
Fela Kuti, “Army Arrangement” (1985)
Bernie Worrell didn't actually work in the studio alongside Fela Kuti. The Afrobeat blueprint drafter recorded the original 30-minute demo with his Egypt 80 band and then mailed the tapes to New York in advance of a mixing session. But as Kuti prepared to embark for America, the Nigerian government arrested him on a trumped-up charge of smuggling foreign dollars out of the country, leading to his 20-month imprisonment and an Amnesty International campaign. Meanwhile, Bill Laswell recalled in a later interview, "The tapes I received weren't really musical or necessarily well-recorded. So we felt that if we just mixed it, it wouldn't bring anything to new to what Fela's legend was." He decided to remix the Army Arrangement tracks with contributions from drummer Sly Dunbar, Senegalese multi-instrumentalist Ayib Dieng and Worrell. The latter added crunchy and emphatic Hammond B3 organ notes as Kuti's inveighed against his country's government and how it had been corrupted by oil money. M.R.
Praxis, “After Shock (Chaos Never Died)” (1992)
Worrell's post-P-Funk career through the Nineties and beyond has been a series of experimental, collaborative collisions, many involving bassist/producer Bill Laswell. Here, on a 16-minute freeform jazz-funk odyssey, co-written with ex-P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins and future Primus drummer Brian "Brain" Mantia, he amps up the expansive playfulness of Funkadelic's "Atmosphere." After the Laswell-led supergroup throws down a churning, sampladelic funk-rock groove and guitarist Buckethead shreds himself silly, Worrell settles in for more than 10 minutes of synth and Hammond organ badinage. Improvising in stormy spurts and oddball squiggles amid a patchwork of treated sound effects, "After Shock" displays the Wizard of Woo's devotion to creating uniquely bent emanations. C.A.