Bernie Worrell was the key to the P-Funk sound

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Bernie Worrell and Funkadelic

The Funkadelics: (left to right) Eddie Hazel, Billy “Bass” Nelson (with cap pulled down), Bernie Worrell, Tiki Fulwood, and Tawl Ross.

 

“Bernie is like a genius of geniuses.” –George Clinton

“There’s perfect pitch and absolute pitch. I was born with perfect pitch,” this founding father of funk informs me. “That means you could tap on a piece of metal, and I’ll tell you what pitch it is. I’ll hear a jet flying overhead and tell you what frequency, tone, pitch it is.”

So if you find yourself talking with Bernie, don’t take it personally if he suddenly seems distracted by something you can’t hear. Don’t blame him for blurting out the keys or pitches emanating from birds chatting near or far. The man simply can’t help it. He also can’t help mastering any keyboard put before him. Name it, chances are he’s tamed it: piano, Hammond organ, pipe organ, Farfisa, Rhodes, Clavinet, Wurlitzer, RMI, melodica, Moog, ARP, Yamaha, and many more; the man is a virtual grab bag of keyboard wizardry.

 

Originally published as “The Synthesizer” in Wax Poetics Issue 18, 2006.

 

In fact, as one might with Herbie Hancock or the late Billy Preston, you could almost trace the evolution of the electronic keyboard via this one man. A man that enabled Parliament-Funkadelic and every resultant P-Funk baby (be it Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Brides, Parlet, or the Horny Horns), like no mob before them, bum-rush any musical genre they pleased. A man that helped bring serious props to the Talking Heads and gave folks like De La Soul, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg (who calls him “Uncle Bernie”) endless fodder to change popular music forever.

Moreover, a dynamic list of who he’s recorded with outside of said universes is plain stupefying: Fela, Tony Williams, Mtume, Pharoah Sanders, Manu Dibango, Johnnie Taylor, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Buddy Guy, Yoko Ono, and on and on. Simply put, Bernie Worrell lives to play music, whether it’s recording a melodica-only record for a Japanese label, spazzing out with Mos Def’s Black Jack Johnson, making featured spot appearances with George Clinton’s current P-Funk posse, or pushing his own band, the Woo Warriors (which includes Derrick Davis, son of Raymond Davis, on bass), who with their own brand of funk can hit it and quit it like a heart attack. Yet, why does it seem so many people are still sleeping on one of the most underrated musicians of his generation? A soon-to-be released documentary, Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth, tries to answer that very question by asking several musical heavyweights who have lived a while in Bernie’s Woo-niverse. Bernie would much rather play music than talk about it, but he was kind enough to let us try anyway.

 

Bernie Worrell and George Clinton hangin’ with the suits.

Bernie Worrell and George Clinton hangin’ with the suits.

 

“I didn’t know music; all I could tell Bernie is I wanna see green; he could interpret it to damn near precisely what I was saying.” –George Clinton

Bernie Worrell: I was a child prodigy. My mom showed me a scale on the piano when I was three and I played it back: then I was gone. I was born with a gift: perfect pitch. My first concert was at four years old. I wrote my first piano concerto at eight and played three piano concertos with the Washington Symphony Orchestra at ten years old. I played forty classical pieces up through twelfth grade. I’m sixty-two now and been playing for fifty-nine years. I can play anything.

My mom, of course, wanted me to be a classical pianist. She had a beautiful voice, was a vocalist in the church, and she would accompany herself. My father was a truck driver; my mother a domestic worker. We moved to Plainfield [from Long Branch] when I was eight years old. My teacher was Ms. Fay Barnaby Kent, a Quaker lady. Her teacher was one of the first American composers: Edward MacDowell. My mom used to clean her house, and that’s how lessons happened. I was, like, her favorite. I would pass all her college students—I was twelve—and be the highlight of her recitals, the only Black kid there. [laughs] I was also the pipe organist for the Episcopalian church (my mom would go there too), then I’d accompany my mom at her church—Shiloh Baptist—when she had a solo, and when she sang at fashion shows and teas in town. So I played pipe organ for the Episcopalians, Hammond organ for the Baptists, and then piano for her little shows. I was raised Catholic, and was in the chancellor choir at the Catholic church. One day I heard “Rockin’ Charlie”—a piano instrumental—and I started playing that over and over. Then, listening to R&B radio stations in my room, anything I heard I could play.

I went to see the Parliaments at a grammar school and a local roller rink. I managed to get out of the house to see that. See, I used to sneak out of my bedroom window and go down to the barbershop and get my hair processed. My mom was strict; she wouldn’t let me hang out on the street corners with “the hoodlums” as [she] would call them. “You’re not going down to the barbershop with George Clinton!” Sometimes she would follow with switches and switch me out of the barber chair and switch George. [laughs] The Parliaments were also barbers, and the barbershop was a meeting place in any neighborhood, and they would be there rehearsing. Music and hair went hand in hand, I guess. They heard that this new kid came to town, heard he was “genius” material. Later on, I did some lead sheets for them, sat in—think I was still in high school. And George said, “One day when I can afford you, I’ll call.” That happened maybe eight years later.

After high school, I had maybe a half a year off. Had private lessons at Julliard, then went to the New England Conservatory for Music. My piano teacher was Yugoslavian—Michelob Schwab. He taught me the wrist technique, ’cause his hands were really short, so in order to reach an octave he’d rolled his wrists, which would put you in forward motion to reach the next octave. Before college, I had had harmony and theory for about four years from Professor John F. Noge from the New York College of Music. I met him through Fay Barnaby Kent. My mother used to take me to Linden, New Jersey, every Saturday for three to four years, so when I got to college they skipped me to second year of theory. I took timpani lessons from Vic Firth from the Boston Symphony; he’s a character. He liked my cousin, and I liked his wife. Anyway, I was away from home: freedom! So I went crazy; I am crazy; I like being crazy.

Since I had perfect pitch, there was some envy from other students: “How you do that?” I didn’t know myself that I had it. Everyone would test me: Bernie what’s this, what’s that? And I could sight-read like a snap, because I would accompany all the vocal operatic majors for their promotion recitals and daily lessons during the week. I’d practice, if I could stand it, maybe three hours a day. A lot of the kids were jealous, ’cause they’d be in there like an eight-hour day. Not me. I’d hit the road, be hanging out in town partying, ’cause I had it in me. When I’d get to my teacher’s for my weekly lesson, half the lesson, he’d say, “Play some jazz.” So I’d improvise and [Schwab] was hooked.

There were about five Black students in the school at the time, but no one messed with me. I see no color except when someone messes with me. Whoever it is: Black, White, yellow, green, they’re gonna hear it. The classes were a drag. But I was accompanying recitals, orchestra, playing timpani. These were side gigs to earn a little money. My other side jobs were accompany[ing] on Saturdays a male Jewish choir, and a French ballet teacher. And then at night, I’d play nightclubs. I didn’t get in much trouble, [because] I could hear something then play it, so I was cool. Besides, the professors were lushes! When I found that out, I didn’t worry too much; they were just like us. Everybody—Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops—they were all drinking; lot of alcoholics, full of snobassery. Hypocrites. Not just them but society. European. American. Society. Highbrow. Blue bloods. Classical thing. This is “superior”—I don’t think so! I didn’t like the idea of classical music being elevated above everything else. That’s bullcrap.

For my club gigs, I was mostly playing in organ trios. I was part of the house band at the Basin Street South club in Roxbury. There’d be a whole show: dinner, the comedian, dancers, then the main act, which would be a vocalist or a saxophonist. So [I was] coming out of the church thing, going into the jazz and R&B organ. Organ, sax, drums, sometimes guitar, but mostly just the Hammond, ’cause the Hammond could sound like a full orchestra if you knew what you’re doing. I saw Charlie Earland, the Silver Fox [Jack McDuff], Houston Person. The club would be packed, the sweat pouring. It was just invigorating. Only three pieces, but the fullness would sound like a ten-piece band. And you cut down the expenses.

My first big professional gig was with the Joe Thomas and Bill Elliot Quintet. Bill was going with Dionne [Warwick] then so I backed her. I also backed Tammi Terrell (known as Montogmery then), Freddie Scott, Tommy Hunt, Pigmeat Markham, Baby Seals, Moms Mabley, different artists that came through. Then I got hooked up with Maxine Brown. She and my mom was tight. If you were playing baby grand and organ with Maxine Brown, you knew what you’re doing. She was with Chuck Jackson for a while, and they were great. I toured with Maxine for five years or so, you know, doing the chitlin circuit, and then, while we were opening for Jimmy Smith in Bermuda got a call from Judie that she was going to meet with George at the Apollo. This is around ’69. So George told Judie, “Okay, I can afford Bernie now, but you’re gonna have to move to Detroit.” And we said, “Wow, okay.” George had moved the group to Detroit. Maxine’s career was on the downturn. So, went back to New York, then moved to Detroit for the first Funkadelic album. It was crazy, and the rest is history.

 

BERNIE’S BREAKDOWN

Other than George Clinton, Bernie Worrell is the one person who has experienced nearly all of the Parliament-Funkadelic lineups and contributed to all of the many satellite projects. So we start the rundown from the beginning and listen to a few records along the way.

Bernie Worrell: The Parliaments. Let’s see. Calvin Simon: lead vocalist on some songs, background, costuming, and percussion. Slick, pimp-mode. Ray Davis: lead on some songs and background. Ray [had a] voice like Paul Robeson. Aries like me; you don’t tell him what to do. Sweetheart, ladies man; deep voice, slay them with that. Shy, but when he opened his mouth, they’d fall out. Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins: my roommate, lead and background vocals, dance the sex dance on stage, wore the long johns. Gemini, energy galore, he had you laughing on the long road trips 24-7, and practical jokes, you’d have to watch your back. Grady Thomas: the purple man, he started purple way before my wife or Prince. Everything purple: motorcycles, clothes, everything. Purple and patchouli oil. He’d play percussion and drums. Mostly background [vocals]. Grady was a Capricorn, slow-moving, too slow for me, but earthy. Liked flea markets. Then you got George Clinton: writer, lead vocalist. [laughs] Whatever! Sage, business head, slick, y’all know the deal. George’s favorite singers were Smoky Robinson and Anthony Newly, the English balladeer. [laughs]

The Funkadelics. Billy “Bass” Nelson, the original Funkadelic bass player. Lots of vibe, very intelligent. George would have a lot of his arguments with Billy; he’d never quit. Eddie Hazel: guitar. The original Maggot Brain. I don’t wanna say another Jimi [Hendrix] but that status, that same gift; special. He could also sing and play drums. Tawl Ross: original rhythm guitarist and vocalist. He was out there. I think the acid did it. He was a performer. His moves—Iggy Pop type of theatrics—some people called him strange back in the day. He was! Tiki Fulwood: drums. Out of Philly, was playing with, I think, the Intruders. I met him at the Apollo when I was with Maxine Brown. He was bad, full-up rock and funk, in the foot, hit hard.

On the early records, did you guys have a particular process for recording?

Bernie Worrell: Whatever the process that captured the moment. A lot of times—I don’t want to put it into percentages, because the percentages changed depending on whose project it was and the project’s different parameters—just going in to jam captured the spontaneous thing. We’d take just a little piece of that jam into song form, maybe no lyric content at that moment. The original Funkadelics—Billy, Eddie, Tiki, and Tawl (when they let him in)—they jammed, you know. That shit be bad. George would track it, then put it together.

I’d sometimes play with them, but mostly I’d be at the board putting the thing together in a format or helping with the arrangement. Or, sometimes, I’d go into the recording room and George’d be inside the control room; then I’d put my parts on later. Mostly, I’d get everything together, arrangements, and whatnot, and then put my parts together, whatever was needed, so there’d be some keys with the rest of the stuff. Then after some lyric content, we’d overdub. Then I’d put the sweetener on it. Build the track to whatever it became.

George, his thing is stacking vocals; that’s what Garry Shider learned [from him]. Other times maybe George or someone would say something like a chant thing, then the story line would be built later. That was usually George’s department, besides melody and tempo.

Like James Brown, it seems George always managed to get songwriting credit.

Bernie Worrell: [laughs] How’d he do that? He didn’t write everything. That’s ’cause Westbound and George were all tied up together. [Label owner] Armen [Boladian] won’t say shit though.

You’re on 1970’s Funkadelic even though you’re not credited on the original notes? 

Bernie Worrell: I’m playing on it, for sure. My picture is on the back. Had every instrument on the same line; you know, come up with the theme and have everyone stack up. Make it heavier, like in rock. Before that, the [Funkadelics] were just playing.

 

“Bernie should be credited for creating an entire language.” –Bill Laswell

It’s impossible to even begin to grasp the impact of Bernie’s musicianship without closely listening to the entire P-Funk catalog. As the ’70s wear on and overdubbing becomes prevalent, many songs are virtual conversations between Bernie and his keyboards (or, rather, himself). If you’d like to get a quick taste on this man’s diverse palette, check the following:

Hammond organ: “Funky Woman,” “Hit It and Quit It,” “Wars of Armageddon”

RMI: “I Wanna Know If It’s Good to You?,” “Free Your Mind,” “Loose Booty”

Acoustic piano: “Funky Dollar Bill,” “Jimmy’s Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him”

Clavinet: “Joyful Process,” “Up for the Down Stroke,” “Red Hot Mama”

Minimoog: “Flash Light,” “Aqua Boogie,” “Knee Deep,” “Let’s Take It to the Stage”

ARP String Ensemble: “Chocolate City,” “Undisco Kidd”

Harpsichord: “Oh Lord, Why Lord?”

 

Let’s listen to some original Funkadelic. 

“I Call My Baby Pussycat” Live: Meadowbrook, 1971 (Westbound)

Was this the typical live sound for Funkadelic then? 

Bernie Worrell: Sometimes we was just vamping for days and days. It would get a little tiring, but people loved it ’cause there was so much to look at. Nowadays, the audience gets tired of a forty-five-minute song. See, the outfits started because George couldn’t keep anything straight. He’d be losing shit all the time—ties, shoes, socks—couldn’t keep a suit clean, so he started mismatching shit, which I loved, ’cause I was coming from Maxine where you had to wear suits: that whole chitlin circuit thing. We [did] a lot of rock shows too: MC5, Mitch Ryder and Detroit Wheels, Bob Seger, Alice Cooper. That started the cult following. That’s when George was stripping and crazy hairdos and acid: Funkadelic.

Any other Black band doing that at the time?

Bernie Worrell: No, we were taking it a little further. Audience was White, and they didn’t want that shit over the airwaves or live in front of their White ladies. George’d just be wearing a sheet and barefoot with moons and stars cut in his head. [laughs] We played a lot of dates with Ted Nugent. That’s the wild man, a hunter like George. Him and George, the wild boys, would go hunting together.

“Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow” Free Your Mind… (Westbound) 1970

Bernie Worrell: This is Tawl [on vocals], with Tiki doing the high part. Crazy thing Tawl. “Free of the need to be free.” [That’s] the concept. Everyone trying to be free, well, you are. That’s the RMI [Rocky Mountain Instruments Electra-piano]—pre-Moog—I’m playing the whole song. Before, I’d play a lot of Hammond, but then the RMI came out: had piano, organ, harpsichord, flute on it, and you could mix the combinations. I heard Stevie [Wonder] bought the first, so I got the second one in Detroit. Everybody thought I was playing synthesizer.

“Maggot Brain” Maggot Brain (Westbound) 1971

Bernie Worrell: This makes me cry. Where’d he get the idea? [Eddie] was probably hiding up somewhere; George be fucking with him, calling him names, or he might’ve been arguing with him (we all argued with George) and started calling Eddie “Maggot Brain,” that his brain [was] turning to jelly. So he probably went to the studio feeling that way; I think we recorded this at A&R Studios in NYC. “Funky Dollar Bill” was also cut there.

“Funky Dollar Bill” Free Your Mind…

Bernie Worrell: Yeah, this is the shit here. Yeah, Eddie! [laughs] That’s Tawl leading this [on vocals]. Distinctive, ain’t it? Like Iggy. [crazy piano runs] Oh shit, I’ve got the solo here too. I used the upright piano with the attacks on the hammers. See, I’m free. I do what I want. That just happens by magic—the rhythm picking up with the piano. We’d do this live too; it’d be a little more raggedy but… Someone ought to do this over again. I know who: Robert Randolph would kill this.

“Hit It and Quit It” Maggot Brain 

Bernie Worrell: Ahh yeah, I arranged this. I’m doing lead [vocals]; I don’t tell nobody. I just started doing it again with the Woo Warriors. It jumps in on the “off” beat. They couldn’t get the right intro, ’cause the accent was here. [laughs] My patience was going with them. I’m playing the line on the organ—that’s an example of everybody on the same line. Oops, that was a mistake. [laughs] They messed the chord up. I try to teach them the chords; sometimes they get it. This was psychedelics mixed with funk. I arranged those backup vocals. We just messed around, and George said, “Fuck it, hit it and quit it, next!”

“Super Stupid” Maggot Brain

Bernie Worrell: Ahh shit, yeah. This is about Eddie, this is all him, and all the Funkadelics snorting heroin. It’s about us, just super stupid. That’s Eddie singing lead—yeah baby! Zeppelin! And I put this [short organ bridge] in to set up the solo. Here we go! Zeppelin! Those congas might’ve been Eddie “Bongo” [Brown] from Motown.

“Wars of Armageddon” Maggot Brain

Bernie Worrell: Oh shoot, damn, this is bad too. That [Armageddon] is what was getting ready to happen. Billy and Tiki jamming.

Kind of has that Miles Davis feel at the time. 

Bernie Worrell: Oh, well, he was listening to us. Someone was telling me years later that Miles was trying to find me; he wanted me to take somebody’s place. I met Miles a couple of times. Miles took Tiki. There was a jazz club in Boston called Paul’s Mall, which I played with Maxine, across from Jazz Workshop—it’s not there anymore—on Boylston Street. Miles was at the Jazz Workshop; we were at Paul’s Mall, which was unusual—P-Funk at Paul’s Mall? O-kay! So we had just come off and Miles walked in, stood in the middle of the doorway, didn’t say a word, just stared. You know those eyes of his when he stared at you; that shit go right through you. Ain’t nobody say nothing. He just looked, then turned and left. Next day, Tiki was gone! He went with Miles [laughs] but he came back, off and on.

 

“It’s like Jimi Hendrix on keyboards.” –Bootsy

Around this point in time (circa ’72 and America Eats Its Young), a slew of musicians join the Parliament-Funkadelic collective, recording (credited and uncredited) under Funkadelic and then, a little later, Parliament, setting in motion the satellite groups like the Rubber Band and Brides of Funkenstein, that will develop throughout the remainder of the decade. Bernie has both hands in all of them.

Things begin to blow up and you are there for it all. Let’s quickly talk about some of the main players by instrument: Drums.

Bernie Worrell: Tyrone Lampkin, out of Conneticut, took over when Tiki left. Tyrone was brought up in jazz, Broadway, funk; he could play all styles. His technique was fluid, came from marching bands along with the funk, jazz. Jerome Brailey: “Bigfoot.” Met him before P-Funk when he was with Chambers Brothers, then with the Five Stairsteps, on “O-o-h Child,” which you still hear today. He was funky, light touch, heavy on the foot. Then Dennis Chambers: he was a monster. Out of Baltimore. He and Rodney “Skeet” Curtis on bass, they came together. Phenomenal. Last I heard he’s with Santana. Bootsy [also] played drums, and of course Frankie “Kash” [Waddy].

Bass.

Bernie Worrell: Cordell “Boogie” Mosson came with Garry Shider. Libra. Boogie had a special style, just felt good, was more bouncy. Billy’d stay on the bottom, be down on it, more rock-like lines. Boogie’d move around more. Similar to Bootsy. Bootsy played a bit off the beat. [He] brought the J.B.’s discipline and the comedy, cartoon thing. When I was doing Bootsy’s camp, it was more organized than P-Funk. The guys admired their structure and discipline. Prakash John: Indian brother. Ladies loved him. From Alice Cooper, Lou Reed. Then “Skeet” Curtis: a whiz, jazz phenomenon; he could play anything. Oh, then this guy Bernie Worrell: keyboard bass.

Guitar.

Bernie Worrell: Harold Beane, out of Memphis, from Isaac Hayes and that Memphis Stew feel. R&B background. Ron Bykowski: our Polish cohort out of Detroit. He and Eddie did a version of “Cosmic Slop” together. Ron was master of feedback, could hold it for days. Catfish: all the rhythm, discipline. He wouldn’t move; that shit’d be there in the pocket. Catfish wasn’t so much with P-Funk, but was a vital part with the Rubber Band. Practical joker like Fuzzy, ladies’ man, liked his alcohol, but his business straight.

He had had it after the Rubber Band, couldn’t be bothered with all the shit. Shider and Boogie also play guitar. Then Mike Hampton, that’s Kidd Funkadelic. He’s forty-something now but we got him when he was eighteen; had to learn “Maggot Brain” note for note. Little baby genius. Big shoes to fill and he did it. Blackbyrd McKnight: was with Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. West Coast, L.A. Phenomenal, can play anything. Great person, of course; Aries—two days before me. Kick ass. Who else? Too many….

Horns.

Bernie Worrell: Fred and Maceo, more J.B. influence with the P-Funk sound. Another emergence, another arm, another limb from the tree. They brought trumpeters Rick Gardner and [Richard] “Kush” Griffith. Then that shit was funky!

Vocalists, women.

Bernie Worrell: Mallia Franklin, Debbie Wright, Jeanette Washington—Parlet. Then my babies—Brides of Funkenstein—Lynn Mabry and Dawn Silva. Lynn was Sly Stone’s cousin. We met them in Baltimore at the Convention Center; Sly opened for us, and then they were over here. They did all background for Parliament-Funkadelic, then their own sessions [and] Junie’s albums. The Brides were more polished like Parliament, whereas Parlet was more raw like Funkadelic. “Disco to Go.” Both of them were hot. I’d take both groups to go!

Vocalists, men.

Bernie Worrell: Garry Shider—church you know. Damn, can’t forget that voice, in his younger days. Glenn Goins: absolutely incredible. Church.

Larry Heckstall—the original Sir Nose.

Junie Morrison came when Ohio Players broke up. Monster producer, songwriter, arranger, vocalist, keyboardist. I welcomed [him], ’cause it freed me up.

By 1975, you guys are recording under Funkadelic, Parliament, and Bootsy’s Rubber Band, adding the J.B. horns. It was a real party. 

Bernie Worrell: Yeah, it was a circus, but George loved it. He loved the chaos—something going on all the time. Up to forty people on stage. Including techs: fifty. It was crazy. Too many for my liking!

How was it kept together?

Bernie Worrell: [laughs] I don’t know! I didn’t get into that. Be on the bus, plane, hotel, house, whatever, on time. I was musical director and bandleader, that’s it.

How did you direct?

Bernie Worrell: I could hear everything. I’d give cues with my head.

For the rookies out there, how would you sum up the main differences between Parliament and Funkadelic?

Bernie Worrell: Funkadelic was very raw, heavy, intense, more rock. Parliament was slick, more horns, a little more funk.

Let’s listen to some more music.

Parliament “Up for the Down Stroke” Up for the Down Stroke (Casablanca) 1974

I did the primary arrangements on the whole thing, wrote all the charts, the horns, and basic rhythm track. That’s the Detroit horns with Fred and Maceo. Bootsy’s on bass. Heavy. Hear that? Climbing up above the bass: dah dah dah dah. That’s the Clavinet going through the wah-wah. I like the mix on this. Lots of Clavinet!

Funkadelic “Loose Booty” America Eats Its Young (Westbound) 1973

Bernie Worrell: That’s me on the RMI; sounds like a synth. [laughs] [George] is messing around with everyone.

Was “loose booty” slang for anything?

Bernie Worrell: For “junkie.” [Bernie wobbles a bit] Loose, wobbly. [laughs] He was talking ’bout everyone; muthafuckas were loose—male, female—loose butt, so I played like I was loose, drunk, all over the place. Hey, there’s “Pop Goes the Weasel.” I can do different combinations of songs within the song—enjoy doing that. That’s Boogie on bass there.

Funkadelic “Standing on the Verge of Getting It On” Standing on the Verge of Getting It On (Westbound) 1974

Bernie Worrell: During the live shows, this was bad. That guitar is bad. That’s Boogie on bass. Hear the difference? He’s an Air sign. Billy’d be more in the rock, funk, heavy; that heroin tempo. This here is the cocaine tempo. We were doing the coke—Parliament. Funkadelic was more heroin.

Parliament “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” Mothership Connection (Casablanca) 1976

Bernie Worrell: That’s the connection, the whole theme, the whole everything right there. We coming at you from every angle. This put us over the top. I’m playing at least five different keyboards on this one.

Funkadelic “(Not Just) Knee Deep” Uncle Jam Wants You (Warner Bros.) 1979

Bernie Worrell: Junie Morrison and me. I believe we were both playing keys at the same time. Acoustic piano, doing the Minimoog bass line, and Junie’s doing it as well. That’s why it’s so heavy. We were always on the same wavelength, and with the vocals, that put the icing on the cake. Put more icing on it anyway, ’cause there was already plenty there. We got the sugar, but it won’t harm you.

All these ensembles going on and you seemed to have hands in all of them. Talk about working with the Rubber Band. 

Bernie Worrell: The process was more organized but we’d jam also, ’cause they were influenced by P-Funk. Main writers were George, Bootsy, and myself. Used P-Funk personnel and then Maceo and Fred Wesley. Backgrounds would be Shider and some of the Brides. [Gary] “Mudbone” [Cooper] would sing the leads, and [Robert] “Peanut” [Johnson], mostly. Wild and crazy character.

Bootsy’s Rubber Band “I’d Rather Be with You” Stretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band (Warner Bros.) 1976

You have that great melodica line in this. 

Bernie Worrell: Thank you. Mudbone was a classic vocalist. His sound is one of the most important factors in this song. This man could (can) sing. And you hear Bootsy’s bass sound in this. It is so big! And wet! And you can quote that. Bootsy: big and wet! [laughs]

And you start performing for a more African American crowd, as the funk festivals start to take off.

Bernie Worrell: Went from White to mixed to all Black. Word spread, the cult thing snowballed, then came the Asians, and then different generations, all nations, all colors. The Blacks were as closed-minded as the Whites. Each group had their cynicism, racism, prejudices; we all got it. Funk was a bad word, and now everybody uses it. I remember George and Bootsy saying, “Watch, one day, they”—whoever they was—“gonna take it.” Now look. [For a while] it was underground. Except for James Brown. He didn’t like George at all. James wanted nothing to do with us. George made fun of him in “Let’s Take It to the Stage.” Everybody really [e.g. “Earth, Hot Air and No Fire”].

 

“What would life be on Earth without ‘Flash Light?’ ” –Mos Def

Around the mid- to late ’70s, you really started using the Minimoog.

Bernie Worrell: “Flash Light” sealed the deal on that instrument.

Well, I know you get asked about it all the time, but I gotta ask… So that bass on “Flash Light” is all Minimoog?

Bernie Worrell: I’m playing everything on this except drums, guitar, and vocals. I’m playing all the keys, I don’t think there’s a Clavinet on it. There are at least four Minimoogs I’m using­—all set differently to give that different thick bass sound—and I’m using the ARP String Ensemble.

The Gap Band stood behind me at a show, saw how I was doing the Minimoog, then they came out with their hits. Stevie had the larger model. Keith Emerson, my baby—his Tarkus is still one of my favorite albums.

Any shows in particular stick out for you?

Bernie Worrell: When we sold out the L.A. Forum, that was the first real recognition. I saw a sea of cars and people in limos riding back to our hotel after sound check—damn. Sold out Madison Square Garden three times. We could go to D.C., the Capitol Center, and sell out every few months. Philly, the Spectrum.

And the funk festivals?

Bernie Worrell: Chaos! Crazy. Getting high, chattin’ up a chick—that sounds English—sleeping wherever, getting contacts, watching bands. Play, next! We were tight with the Ohio Players, Sly, Bar-Kays, Mandrill—real tight. Chaka Khan, Rufus. Brothers Johnson—we had to take them under our wing, ’cause they’d fight like Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Earth, Wind and Fire were sort of like our rivals after we wore ’em out. One show we went on first; after we finished, supposedly Verdine said to Maurice, “We can’t follow that.” Sometimes we preferred to go on first, then get out of there. We didn’t give a shit, ’cause we were the mob, the Funk Mob, Uncle Jam’s Army. [laughs] No real rivalry. What they gonna do? Get their ass kicked. And the music and the vibe would back it up. Come on, try it!

Then you had your first solo record, 1978’s All the Woo in the World, that has “Insurance Man for the Funk.”

Bernie Worrell: I didn’t really want to do [a solo album], but they persuaded me. George says it’s his favorite of all of mine. That and the Laswell-coproduced Blacktronic Science. To me, it’s ehhh—nice. I know “Insurance Man for the Funk” is now considered a classic; it’s a classic, with jazz flavorings. I get people asking me all the time to start playing it again, so I might add it to the set. But I don’t know. I like Blacktronic Science; that’s my favorite. Bill Laswell hooked that one up; he had the idea. I knew both of them [Maceo Parker and Tony Williams], of course, from before, but I was afraid to play with Tony. I used to play in the organ house band with Tony’s father, T. Williams, when I was in college. He was the saxophonist. I met Tony then. He was around nineteen then. And bad.

 

Bernie Worrell and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, circa early 1980s.

Bernie Worrell and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, circa early 1980s.

 

“If you could stick a microphone in the Milky Way, that’s what you’re gonna get: Bernie Worrell. It’s not a key, not a scale, not a mode; it’s life in the universe.”

–Will Calhoun

The ’80s rolled in and the whole P-Funk thing basically collapsed. Time for you to move on.

Bernie Worrell: I finally left in the early ’80s, ’cause P-Funk was crazy, all over the place. Got complicated with George. Tired of the shit. I was doing sessions and got a call from Jerry Harrison; I didn’t know who the Talking Heads were. Went to Sigma Sounds [NYC], listened to some, and I liked it. I went with the Talking Heads for about four years. I did, what, three albums and the movie [Stop Making Sense]. See, they used to sneak into P-Funk shows while they were still art students in Providence. I basically brought part of the band with me so that they would sound good—help Tina [Weymouth] and all them out with the instruments. They knew who to call.

What was their vibe?

Bernie Worrell: Stiff! No rhythm, man. [laughs] That’s why they hired five Black extras: Alex Weir on guitar, I brought Lynn Mabry, Dollette McDonald, Steve Scales from Tina Turner, and Busta Jones on bass to supplement Tina, give her a funky sound till she got better, and then we brought in Adrian Belew. Awesome.

What were your audiences like?

Bernie Worrell: Again, mostly White, depending where in the country. Then the Blacks started coming. We kicked the Police’s ass in Montreal once. The Police were headlining. They were bickering, trying to get us to go on early. One of them was saying nasty things about David, ’cause he’s the nervous-in-the-corner type. It was a full moon and cloud covered, so I said, “Wait, we aren’t going on yet. Wait till the moon opens up.” Cloud cover passed. “Now! Hit it.” We hit the stage and kicked their ass.

You’ve done (still do) many recording sessions. Which are some you remember the most?

Bernie Worrell: Let’s see. Sessions: double scale—I charge everybody that. There were all those from the Holland-Dozier-Holland stable. I was still with P-Funk. Chairmen of the Board, “Finders Keepers”—that’s me on the Clavinet. Freda Payne’s Band of Gold, 100 Proof (Aged in Soul), the “Want Ads” by Honey Cone. Then there was Johnny Taylor. Oh man, Don Davis from United Sound called me, Bootsy, [and] Harold Beane. “Disco Lady.” We did the arrangement. I put it together, and that sold over two million copies. I got a five-hundred-dollar bonus, and I basically wrote the cut; he wrote the melody.

Who took publishing?

Bernie Worrell: Don Davis, of course.

Sorry I asked.

Bernie Worrell: Then Mtume, Juicy Fruit. Great brother, yeah! He’s into the funk. I used to do a lot with him. Heath brothers were his uncles; he was hooked up. Bad. Played percussion with Miles. [Mtume] called: “Bernie, come here and sing!” I’m not much for singing, but I had a recognized falsetto tenor voice. Then I did a lot of stuff with Sly and Robbie; Yoko’s solo albums; the Pretenders—Chrissy, my baby (one of them). Manu Dibango, Toure Kunde out of Africa. Then there’re the Jack Bruce albums. Fela—through [Bill] Laswell, bass player out of Michigan. [Bill]’s like George, brings things together. I was introduced to him through Nona Hendryx. I was her musical director for a while. Let’s see. Oh, and there was Deee-Lite. [laughs] They were a serious trip.

You’ve been sampled beyond recognition. How do you feel about that?

Bernie Worrell: Well, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. But, at first, we got mad at them, then we realized it was the record companies that should’ve handled [all the licensing]. It’s all still tied up in the courts. I’ve never done a session with [Dr. Dre], but then again, I did all the times he’s sampled me. [laughs]

Last question. Was it tough for your mom when you joined P-Funk?

She came around in the end.

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