Born c. 1945 in Long Branch, NJ. Education: Attended Juilliard School and New England Conservatory of Music. Addresses: Record company--Gramavision, 33 Katonah Ave., Katonah, NY 10536. Publicity--Patrick Communications, 100-13 Carver Loop, Bronx, NY 10475.

"I work by sound and feel," Bernie Worrell told Keyboard magazine. "And you must feel it first, baby." As "musical director" of the P-Funk family--an outrageous assemblage of projects that dominated dance music in the 1970s and continues to exercise a huge influence two decades later--Worrell can fairly be designated one of the architects of modern funk. But his work as a solo artist and sideman and his considerable classical training demonstrate that even this designation tends to foreshorten his accomplishments.

Moving from the P-Funk circle to avant-pop gurus Talking Heads and contributing session work to the Rolling Stones, Pretenders, and many others, Worrell has proved himself one of contemporary music's most versatile keyboardists. On his solo albums, he has attempted to reconcile many of his disparate passions, exploring modern classical music, jazz, funk, and hip-hop. Talking Heads leader David Byrne once dubbed Worrell "a genius"; College Music Journal (CMJ) referred to him as "perhaps the fullest manifestation of the universe-roving, ever-questing P-Funk work ethic." And Keyboard critic Bob Doerschuk summed up Worrell's gifts as a "combination of classically trained chops, street-bred soul, and carefully honed showmanship."

Worrell was born in the mid-1940s in Long Branch, New Jersey. His mother sang in church and introduced him to music. "She could pick out notes on the piano, too," he told Doerschuk, "so I used to go to the keyboard every day and practice a scale she'd taught me. She observed me, and pretty soon she started wondering if maybe there was something there." He had his first lesson with a piano teacher at the tender age of three; at four he gave his first concert. The family moved to the town of Plainfield a few years later, and he continued his studies. By the time he was ten, Worrell had performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. "It was a child prodigy thing," he recalled. His classical repertoire began with "Schubert Impromptus, a little Bach, Beethoven Sonatas, and a lot of Mozart" and was tempered with a homegrown appreciation of church music. As for rock and roll or rhythm and blues, however, he was in the dark.

Seeing rock idol Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show changed all that: Worrell was suddenly smitten with popular music. It was during this time that he met an ambitious young hairstylist named George Clinton, who sang with a vocal group called the Parliaments and enlisted the 11-year-old Worrell to help him with the technical end of his music. Even so, Worrell continued to study classical piano; he was at the famed Juilliard School at age 14. He went on to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. During this period away from familial supervision, he told Keyboard, "I went wild. Everything I'd kept inside just busted out." His father's death one semester before he was set to graduate meant the end of his tuition money. But, as Musician' s Scott Isler remarked, "The conservatory's loss was the nightclubs' gain." Worrell had been backing up R&B acts in the Boston area while attending school, which seemed like easy money since, as he told Isler, "I was able to pick up anything I could hear." Thus, a spot was waiting for him in vocalist Maxine Brown's band after he left the Conservatory.

While on tour with Brown in Bermuda, Worrell got a long-distance call from Clinton. He and his group were at New York's Apollo Theater, the R&B performer's mecca. "The message was: 'Worrell, come on up. We're ready,'" Worrell recalled to Keyboard. He joined Clinton in 1968; the civilized soul harmonies of the Parliaments had metamorphosed into the acid-rock-tinged experimentalism of Funkadelic. As critic Mark Jacobson wrote in Esquire, nobody had quite seen anything like it: "Wham, there were these impeccably cool black people running around in bed sheets and diapers and less, and they were playing some kind of rock 'n' roll. It was more outside than Sly [Stone], raunchier than [Jimi] Hendrix, a big-bottomed, acidic R&B conjured to the coat-pulling smack of something new. The Bomb."

Funkadelic began on Detroit's Westbound label and over the years fashioned a rock hybrid that would transform the psychedelic soul of the late 1960s into a ferocious mind-expanding sound that many credit as a precursor of heavy metal. Worrell's eclecticism pushed the envelope ever further, incorporating classical and jazz lines as well as way-out noises. "His keyboards," wrote Isler, "could be surprisingly ethereal or funky-butt as needed." In 1974 Clinton and company launched the other half of the equation: Parliament, a theatrical, horn-driven troupe that performed booty-shaking anthems with freakishly conceptual lyrics about "motherships" and 'bop guns." It was this group that popularized the phrase "P-Funk"; the "P" stood for "Pure." For "Flash Light," one of the most played--and, later, sampled--dance tracks ever, Worrell concocted a bass line on his minimoog synthesizer, providing what Isler called "an influential funk crossover landmark."

Funkadelic signed to Warner Bros. and in the late 1970s scored some dance-floor hits, notably "One Nation Under a Groove" and "(Not Just) Knee Deep." Parliament continued to sell millions through the decade with its immaculately off-kilter hits and elaborate, science-fiction-themed stage show. Worrell also assisted Clinton and bassist Bootsy Collins in Bootsy's Rubber Band, not to mention such P-Funk offshoots as the Brides of Funkenstein and Parlet. Worrell released his own solo debut in 1978; a single demonstrated that Clinton had reserved a modest but telling moniker for his musical director: "Insurance Man for the Funk." But Worrell left the organization in 1980--partly due to disputes with Clinton that resulted in litigation. Even so, he would later perform with Clinton's group in the wake of the singer/leader's solo hit "Atomic Dog."

In 1981 Worrell was approached by Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads; the seminal alternative rock band had retooled its minimalist avant-pop image and begun to pursue a multi-ethnic, funk-based sound. Worrell joined the group in the studio after first working on Harrison's debut solo album. His contributions to the Heads' 1983 album Speaking in Tongues led to his inclusion in the tour that followed, which in turn resulted in both an album and a film called Stop Making Sense. "In live performances he can really change the texture of a song, or add another level," Byrne told Musician. "We're playing, say, really straight and he'll play along. But then he'll throw in all these little things--chord inversions or whatever--that kind of throw the whole thing into a different perspective for a couple of seconds. Then he whips right back into a straight reading, or does a completely unexpected thing at the end of a song."

Worrell brought his considerable resources to a number of different projects during the 1980s, playing with artists as diverse as the rock band the Pretenders, the spoken-word group the Last Poets, African pop innovator Fela Kuti, and the eclectic shifting-roster band the Golden Palominos, as well as a plethora of activities with bassist-producer Bill Laswell, including Material. He also appeared on the first solo album by Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. In 1990 Worrell released Funk of Ages on the Gramavision label; many of his former collaborators, including Bootsy Collins, Richards, Byrne, singer Phoebe Snow, jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock, and guitarist Vernon Reid lent a hand.

As the 1990s unfolded, it became clear that the legacy of P-Funk was far greater than could have been imagined. The sampling of Parliament-Funkadelic records, many of which were dominated by Worrell's keyboard lines, became an industry unto itself as funk-based rap ruled the charts. Clinton himself returned to the spotlight and by 1993 had released a high-profile new solo album, on which Worrell appeared. Meanwhile, Worrell and bassist Collins joined forces in the avant-garde band Praxis. Worrell also worked briefly with the CBS Late Show Orchestra after talk show host David Letterman changed networks and his musical director, Paul Shaffer, expanded his former World's Most Dangerous Band.

Worrell also continued session work, but in 1993 he too had a new solo album out, Blacktronic Science, which USA Today called an "ambitious, wildly eclectic project." Among the disc's highlights: Worrell accompanying a string section on harpsichord for some original modern chamber music; a greasy jazz trio collaboration with funk sax king Maceo Parker and former Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams; and some state-of-the-art hip-hop with Clinton, Collins, funkateer Gary "Mudbone" Cooper--their first writing with Worrell since his departure from the P-Funk fold--and several rappers. Clearly, Blacktronic Science represented a quantum leap in stylistic reach from Worrell's previous solo efforts. "It's like creating a motion picture, only it's musical, because it takes you through different changes, different vibes, different feels," the keyboardist told Billboard. "I'm not trying to be trendy or current, but as I see it, making it pure and just doing a 'feel' thing so that it is timeless. I work on emotion."

The album received largely enthusiastic reviews; Tom Moon of Request called it "an integrated patchwork of ideas from many styles," noting, "The juxtapositions between simple rap lyrics and florid, far-reaching music become compelling and expansive, embracing Duke Ellington and [rap production wizards] the Bomb Squad in the same breath." New York Newsday' s Frank Owen praised "Worrell's consistently inventive playing," adding that Blacktronic Science "furthers the case, if indeed it still needs to be made, that funk has as much right to be considered a serious musical art form as jazz or the blues." For its part, the Washington Post termed the set "one of the best P-Funk albums in several years."

Bernie Worrell had at last come to be recognized as more than merely a great funk player; his compositional versatility, not to mention the range of his chops, was now a matter of public record. He announced his intention to appear on an album paying tribute to Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who died in 1993, and possibly to reunite with Clinton and friends for a P-Funk road trip. The "Mothership" tour, Worrell told the Chicago Tribune, "is gonna get done, it's just a matter of time." As Jazz Express critic Will Montgomery mused, "Who would have thought those guys in space suits would have cast such a long shadow?"

by Simon Glickman

Bernie Worrell's Career

Toured with singer Maxine Brown and performed with numerous artists in Boston area, including Tammi Terrell, Freddie Scott, Valerie Holiday, and Chubby and the Turnpikes (later known as Tavares); joined Funkadelic, 1968; performed and recorded with Funkadelic, Parliament, Bootsy's Rubber Band, the George Clinton Band, the Brides of Funkenstein, and other "P-Funk" projects until 1980; released solo debut, All the Woo in the World, Arista, 1978; recorded and toured with Talking Heads, 1983-84; recorded and/or performed with numerous artists, including the Pretenders, Keith Richards, Jerry Harrison, the Last Poets, Nona Hendryx, Material, Praxis, Billy Bass, and George Clinton, 1981-93; played with CBS Late Show Orchestra, 1993.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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