Bernie Worrell, the funk keyboardist who changed the game with his work in Funkadelic-Parliament, passed away at age 72 following a battle with lung cancer, according to his Facebook page.
“At 11:54, June 24, 2016, Bernie transitioned Home to The Great Spirit. Rest in peace, my love — you definitely made the world a better place. Till we meet again, vaya con Dios,” a statement on his Facebook, presumably written by his wife (who had been updating his Facebook during his cancer battle), reads. “Check BernieWorrell.com for further input, anything you want to post. PLEASE do NOT call/text me. Only family etc. right now.”
As part of Parliament-Funkadelic, Worrell’s indelible keyboard skills — including his pioneering use of Minimoog on songs like Parliament’s “Flash Light” — were a major influence on R&B in the ’80s, hip-hop, new wave and early electronic music. Worrell was also a regular contributor to Talking Heads in the ’80s, appearing on several of their albums and featuring in the classic documentary Stop Making Sense. Thirty-one years after that film, Worrell reunited with director Jonathan Demme to play a keyboard player in Meryl Streep’s band in Ricki and the Flash.
Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, Worrell was a piano prodigy who eventually linked up with forward-thinking funk mastermind George Clinton. As part of the Parliament-Funkadelic collective, Worrell’s synthesized keyboard sounds were an essential part of the P-Funk sound that set the template for hip-hop. Starting with Funkadelic’s self-titled 1970 debut, Worrell became an essential part of Funkadelic’s subsequent 10 albums. By 1974, he had joined sister band Parliament during the party funk band’s mid-to-late-1970s heyday, helping craft mammoth staples of the genre such as “Up For the Down Stroke,” “Dr. Funkenstein,” “Chocolate City,” “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” and “Mothership Connection (Star Child).” His wobbly bass line on “Flash Light” from 1977’s Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome — one of the funkiest ever recorded — was crafted not by longtime bassist Bootsy Collins, but by Worrell running three Minimoog synthesizers together.
Alongside Clinton and Collins, Worrell helped define the sound of that decade by co-writing many of the band’s bombastic hits, and eventually their work would underline the G-Funk era of hip-hop ushered in by Dr. Dre in the early 1990s. In later years, he released several funk-inspired solo albums and contributed to projects from Ginger Baker, Mos Def and more. His most recent work with the P-Funk collective was on Funkadelic’s 2014 reunion album First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate.
In 1997, Worrell was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame alongside Clinton, Collins and 13 other members of Parliament-Funkadelic; the late great Prince was on hand to give the induction speech.
Despite their immense influence on the music of the next two decades, Parliament’s highest-charting studio albums both peaked at just No. 13 on the Billboard 200. The essential Mothership Connection reached No. 13 in 1976 and Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome hit the same peak in 1978. Funkadelic’s highest-charting studio album on the Billboard 200 was the immortal One Nation Under a Groove, which reached No. 16 in 1978.
This January, Worrell’s health took a turn for the worse, and his wife Judie Worrell announced he was suffering from two different types of cancer. “Bernie was first diagnosed with prostate cancer but a mild form and the doctors said men can live with that 20 to 30 years,” his wife wrote to the The Asbury Press at the time. “Then tests showed 4th stage liver cancer that has metastasized to his liver and the pleural cavities.”
This past April, his family in collaboration with the Black Rock Coalition hosted a fundraiser at New York City’s Webster Hall — appropriately billed as a funkraiser — called All the WOO in the World, the title of his 1978 debut solo album. The five-hour-plus show was a memorable, star-studded tribute to Worrell that doubled as a march through his career; Clinton, Collins and Byrne all took the stage, as did Living Colour, Paul Shaffer, Screaming Headless Torsos, Leo Nocentelli of the Meters, Fred Schneider from the B-52’s, Questlove and former P-Funk band members Michael “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton, Billy “Spaceman” Patterson, Gary “Mudbone” Cooper, as well as collaborators Carlos Alomar, Melvin Gibbs, Jerry Harrison and more. Rick Springfield, Meryl Streep and director Jonathan Demme, who worked with Worrell on the 2015 film Ricki and the Flash, were also on hand to pay tribute to the legend.
“I did a movie with Meryl Streep and Bernie happened to be in it,” Springfield said from the stage that night. “We all fell in love with Bernie and that’s why we’re here.” Later in the evening, Worrell was honored by the City of Newark for his contributions to the state of New Jersey.
“God bless everybody here,” he said when accepting the proclamation. “I was just given a gift like all of us. God is everything. I don’t know what to… Thank you. I love you too.”