Bernie Worrell, the monumentally influential longtime keyboardist for Parliament-Funkadelic, died Friday (June 24) at age 72. His whirring, buzzing synthesizer lines not only influenced keyboardists of all genres, they became a hallmark of ’70s funk and, 20 years later, formed the foundation of Dr. Dre‘s G-funk.
Here are 10 defining moments from his career, with P-Funk and beyond.
Funkadelic, “A Joyful Process” (America Eats Its Young, 1972):
Bernie Worrell was thick in the P-Funk soup well before there was even a P-Funk: As an 11-year-old hanging out at the local barbershop run by George Clinton, Worrell was drafted into writing the musicians’ lead sheets. This Clavinet-led orchestral-funk showpiece from Funkadelic’s fourth album is one of the period’s most evocative R&B numbers — with the title a subtle nod back to George’s old hairdressing specialty (specifically, finger waves).
Funkadelic, “Cosmic Slop” (Cosmic Slop, 1973):
One of Clinton & Co.’s indisputable masterpieces, a harrowing depiction of a single mother prostituting herself to feed her kids whose bubbling groove paradoxically airlifts the song into a better, more peaceful place. Bernie’s organ is the undertow, not the instrumental focus, which here is the great guitarist Eddie Hazel, one of Worrell’s favorite collaborators.
Funkadelic, “Atmosphere” (Let’s Take It to the Stage, 1975):
Having trained at Juilliard at age 14 and attended the New England Conservatory of Music, Worrell was more than justified in telling Musician, “I’m labeled as a funk musician, but that’s because of the success with Parliament-Funkadelic. I play everything.” This classically steeped seven-minute mostly solo organ number (Clinton is buried in the mix, muttering as only he can: “I hate the word pussy/ It sounds awful squishy/ So I guess I’ll call it clit”) is like a more restrained version of another big synthesizer player of the time that Worrell admired: Keith Emerson.
Parliament, “Flash Light” (Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome, 1977):
Funny to consider that arguably the most important bass line in R&B history was invented not by Bootsy Collins, who plays drums on this track (!), but by Worrell — who still plays keyboards. In this case, a Moog that, as Rickey Vincent writes in Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One, was “capable of not only playing low notes, but of stacking a number of bass tones onto one key — creating the fullest bass sound ever played.” Worrell’s canny, playful, and ever-so-on-the-one pitch-bends and squiggles just add to the groove — and helped put the song atop the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for three weeks.
Funkadelic, “(Not Just) Knee Deep” (Uncle Jam Wants You, 1979):
One of Worrell’s keenest riffs — so sharp it could cut through linoleum — meets one of P-Funk’s sleekest grooves, one fully capable of sustaining a 15-minute album cut, a much shorter single (another Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs No. 1 in the summer of ’79), and any number of samples from De La Soul’s definitive “Me, Myself & I” to Black Eyed Peas’ “Shut the Phunk Up” 20 years later. For Worrell, the song brought back memories of working with ex-Spinners vocalist Phillipe Wynne: “The track was done,” Worrell told Red Bull Music Academy. “He’s ad-libbing. He’d just roll tape … Man. That almost brought tears.”
George Clinton, “Atomic Dog” (Computer Games, 1982):
Speaking of sampling, quite possibly the most ransacked groove in P-Funk’s history wasn’t even supposed to be the big hit. “Loopzilla” was the first single from Computer Games, Clinton’s solo bow after P-Funk’s early-’80s dissolution; but the follow-up was, as they say, the bomb. And aside from the vocal, there’s no part of it that Worrell’s sparkling, stuttering synths don’t touch — even (or especially) when Clinton runs them, and the beat, backward.
Stephanie Mills, “You Can’t Run From My Love” (Tantalizingly Hot, 1982):
The demise of P-Funk meant a big rise in session playing for Worrell — in particular, he began doing a lot of work for the writer-producer team of James Mtume and Reggie Lucas. Mtume and Lucas had met while playing with Miles Davis’ ’70s fusion/fission units. (Lucas told Complex that Miles invited him in by asking, “You wanna be in my band, mother—-er?”) This track from Mills’ fourth Mtume-Lucas album wasn’t a hit (it only made No. 59 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart), but its irresistible boogie-funk gets its weight and accent from Worrell’s sharp-angled synth stabs.
Mtume, “Juicy Fruit” (Juicy Fruit, 1983):
Stepping out from behind the boards, Mtume scored a big hit (No. 45) with this risqué number (it’s about eating something, all right) featuring Worrell on the Fender Rhodes and singing backup. “They kind of forced me to do it,” he told RBMA with an embarrassed laugh. “I didn’t wanna sing on it.” Nevertheless, its airy groove made this yet another Worrell-featured track that became the backbone of a major hip-hop hit, namely the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” (1994).
Talking Heads, “Girlfriend Is Better (Live)” (Stop Making Sense, 1984):
When Talking Heads recorded Remain in Light in 1980, they knew they couldn’t reproduce it onstage without some help. So Jerry Harrison brought in some people he knew — including Worrell, who would play on Harrison’s 1981 solo debut The Red and the Black, and continued playing with the band live through the December 1983 shows in L.A. that were filmed for the classic 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. “His attitude, his take on things complements ours really well,” David Byrne told Musician magazine of Worrell. “It’s different than the usual way a musician thinks — [he’s] hearing things in interesting ways.” On the song that lends the Heads’ movie its title, Worrell take an already P-Funky synth part to the outer limits.
Bernie Worrell, “Dissinfodollars” (Blacktronic Science, 1993):
After George Clinton and the Mtume-Lucas team, Worrell’s third great producer-collaborator was Bill Laswell, who brought Worrell onboard for a slew of projects beginning in the mid-’80s, from Gil Scott-Heron’s anti-Reagan single “Re-Ron” (1984), to the Afro-fusions of Manu Dibango’s Electric Africa and Fela Kuti’s Army Arrangement (both 1985), to the heavy funk all-star team-up of Axiom Funk’s Funkcronomicon (1995). Worrell’s third solo album, Blacktronic Science, came right as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was blanketing the airwaves, so naturally “Dissinfodollars” highlights Worrell’s neon-toned MiniMoog. Not to mention that this track is, in fact, a joyous P-Funk reunion, featuring Clinton, Bootsy, Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, vocalist Gary “Mudbone” Cooper” and a title chant that, in grand P-Funk style, embedded a handful of meanings.