Bernie Worrell – the keyboard genius who was 'as bad as Beethoven'

Bernie Worrell was a crucial part of Parliament’s Mothership – and then he went on to help Talking Heads change gear

If Bernie Worrell – whose genius sent the Parliament/Funkadelic mothership rocketing into hyperspace, and helped nervy, cerebral New Yorkers Talking Heads find the funk within – packed a lot of music into his 72 years, it’s because he started young. “I was born with a natural gift,” he told one interviewer. “My mother recognised the talent at three-and-a-half years old.”

Hoping to raise a concert soloist, Ma Worrell taught her boy scales on the family piano, before scouring their hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey, for a teacher to train her prodigy-in-waiting. Bernie played his first classical concert a year later; by the age of eight, he’d penned his first piano concerto, and two years later was performing with the Washington Symphony Orchestra, in advance of studies at Julliard and the New England Conservatory Of Music.

It was while studying in Boston that young Worrell slipped the parental leash, and turned his fingers from classical to jazz and R&B, playing Hammond in nightclubs, before a phone call from George Clinton sent him to Detroit. Worrell had met Clinton years before, having snuck away from home to illicitly get his hair processed at Clinton’s New Jersey barbershop. Back then, Clinton juggled hairdressing with doo-wop crooning, but as the 70s dawned, the band-leader reshaped his barbershop quintet the Parliaments into a wild, polymorphously perverse outfit named Funkadelic, whose credo was: “Anything goes”.

Worrell wanted a part of that. “The major factor was the freedom to be able to play what I wanted to,” he later said of his attraction to Funkadelic; “I didn’t want to be a classical pianist, I wanted to play music.” He emphatically revelled in that freedom on his maiden voyage with Funkadelic: the opening title track of their 1970 second album Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow (a set that was, legendarily, cut within 48 hours, with all involved allegedly hopped-up on psychedelics), 10 minutes of wild chants, Eddie Hazel and Tawl Ross’s acid-fried Hendrixesque freak-outs, and Worrell switching between Cro-Magnon sci-fi synthesiser noises and heavy funk keyboards.

As Funkadelic matured from drug-damaged freaks to drug-damaged funk-rock overlords, to drug-damaged dancefloor geniuses, it seemed to be composer/arranger/keyboardist Worrell’s ambitious creative vision ever nudging them onwards – you can hear him champing at the bit on the apocalyptic groove of Wars of Armageddon, the tempo-juggling prog-funk runs of You Hit The Nail on the Head (Worrell was an admirer of Keith Emerson’s work), the classical-meets-gospel symphonics of Atmosphere. “What Bernie brought to the table was his schooling and his vibe,” said P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins. “I brought the James Brown groove, George brought the vocal ideas, and Bernie brought all these different colours.”

An early adopter of electronic instruments (he treasured his early Minimoog, later telling inventor Bob Moog: “I play sexually … the Minimoog is like a female to me”), Worrell pioneered the synthesiser’s place within funk on chart-smashes for Funkadelic’s more pop-oriented sister-group, Parliament, the futurist likes of Flash Light, Aqua Boogie and Mothership Connection later sampled into the fabric of West Coast G-Funk by Dr Dre and his acolytes.

Throughout the late 70s, Worrell was kept busy working with Funkadelic and all their many off-shoot projects (Parlet, Brides of Funkenstein, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and so on), but as the new decade dawned, Worrell exited the company. “There were too many people in that band,” he later said. “George liked the circus effect, the extravaganza. Then I’d come in and crack the whip. ‘OK, let’s do Flash Light.’” Additionally, like many of his Parliafunkadelicment brethren, Worrell had contractual issues with his former paymaster. “The business became too negative and one-sided for my management to allow it to continue,” he explained, regretfully.

Worrell moved on to join Talking Heads, CBGBs veterans who’d just cut an album with Brian Eno – Remain In Light – drawing heavy influence from African music. The quartet was looking to expand its touring band to make this new, polyrhythmic, funk-derived sound a reality, and Worrell was the perfect hire. “Although Jerry Harrison served as band leader, Worrell had most to do with crafting the sound,” wrote David Bowman, in The Adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th Century, adding that “when Worrell played, he left spaces for the others to play in”.

Worrell’s playing – and those spaces – are heard clearest on 1982 live album The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, and in particular the storming version of The Great Curve. Worrell would remain a satellite Head until their 1992 split, guesting on their studio albums (their 1983 hit Burning Down the House bore Worrell’s synth wizardry, and was based on a P-Funk concert chant), helping out on their solo-projects, and even introducing frontman David Byrne to the soul food delicacy chitlins while on the road. Worrell also featured in Talking Heads’ acclaimed 1986 concert movie Stop Making Sense, although only after a stand-off with Talking Heads manager Gary Kurfirst over that old bugbear, wages. Worrell reconnected with Stop Making Sense director Jonathan Demme last year, starring in and contributing to the soundtrack of Meryl Streep comedy/drama Ricki & The Flash.

After Clinton and Byrne, Worrell fell under the spell of a third “conceptualist” in the mid-80s when he joined forces with Bill Laswell, working with the prolific producer/bassist on a number of avant-funk projects like Praxis and Axiom-Funk. Bernie went on to serve as a gun-for-hire, working with big names like Gil Scott-Heron, Fela Kuti, Keith Richards, Throwing Muses, Yoko Ono, Jack Bruce, Pharoah Sanders and The Pretenders (“Chrissie Hynde could be tough at times,” Worrell revealed. “Especially if you were wearing leather. No killing of animals for her, even for clothes.”), and indulging his deep and abiding love of reggae via collaborations with Black Uhuru and Sly And Robbie.

Bernie later mended his relationship with George Clinton, and the pair joined forces on projects like Clinton’s 1995 solo album Dope Dogs, while Worrell released a slew of albums under his own name, from 1978’s All The Woo in The World, to a 2013 set of solo piano performances, Elevation: The Upper Air; he was crowd-financing the release of another album, Retrospectives, at the time of his death. To the end, Worrell was beloved and admired by his fellow musicians; in 2005 documentary Stranger: Bernie Worrell On Earth, Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish – who played with Worrell in the 00s in rapper Mos Def’s rock supergroup Black Jack Johnson – summed up the respect many felt for Worrell, declaring Bernie “as bad as Beethoven, as far as I’m concerned.”


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Bernie Worrell obituary
Founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic who helped Talking Heads take new musical directions

Adam Sweeting

26, Jun, 2016 @11:10 AM

Article image
George Clinton: funk legend talks to Alexis Petridis
The leader of Parliament/Funkadelic was in London this week, to discuss his incredible career with our very own Alexis Petridis. Here’s what happened

Alexis Petridis

17, Mar, 2015 @12:12 PM

Article image
Ohio Players and P-Funk legend Walter 'Junie' Morrison dies aged 62
The multi-talented musician was the driving force behind some of the biggest hits of 70s funk – and an inspiration to scores of hip-hop artists

Michael Hann

17, Feb, 2017 @4:05 PM

Article image
Funkadelic – 10 of the best
George Clinton’s psychedelic funk pioneers didn’t throw in everything but the kitchen sink into their sound – they started with the sink and worked from there

Stevie Chick

27, May, 2015 @4:19 PM

Article image
When did you last hear live music? Stand up and be counted
The first ever UK Live Music Census is surveying a day’s worth of live music across the country. In a digital world with ever more ways to listen, is being there still the biggest thrill?

Flora Willson

08, Mar, 2017 @1:28 PM

Article image
Best albums of 2016: No 2 Blonde by Frank Ocean
The R&B trailblazer’s second record attempted nothing less than living up to the pan-racial, genre-straddling reality of 21st-century youth culture. No wonder we had to resize our imaginations to match

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

15, Dec, 2016 @7:30 AM

Article image
The best albums and tracks of 2016: how our writers voted
You’ve seen our end of year list (and our track of the year) – now it’s time to look behind the scenes and discover the favourite albums and tracks of the Guardian’s music critics• More best culture of 2016

Guardian music

20, Dec, 2016 @8:58 AM

Article image
Best albums of 2016: No 1 Lemonade by Beyoncé
Beyoncé’s vivid discourse on infidelity and race – with equally brilliant film accompaniment – was lacerating, astute and emphatically disruptive, turning her from mere pop superstar into an avenging angel

Kitty Empire

16, Dec, 2016 @7:29 AM

Article image
Amy Winehouse – 10 of the best
Winehouse’s heart belonged to jazz and 60s girl groups, but she was also inspired by hip-hop and Latin music. Here are some of her finest songs

Caroline Sullivan

22, Mar, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
Copy-and-paste songwriting for a switched-on world
It’s called interpolation – when you sing a riff from someone else’s song over your own – and it’s the sound of pop in 2016. But is it laziness or a clever response to the global playlist?

Rachel Aroesti

17, Nov, 2016 @11:49 AM