Swing Down, Sweet Chariot: Bernie Worrell Returns to the Mothership

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Everybody’s got a little light under the sun.

Except a little less right now. One of the brightest lights in the universe just went out.

George Bernard Worrell, Jr., is among the space people now. Maybe you know him as Bernie Worrell. Or Bernie ‘daVinci’ Worrell. Maybe Bad Bosco Bernie Worrell. Possibly Bernie (U.S.S. Woo!) Worrell. Or The Wizard of Woo.

Because he appeared as every one of those on at least one album cover.

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What did he play? Now it gets even more convoluted. Keyboards and melodica. Spaced Viking keyboards and vocals. Musical Directorius of Cosmic Esteeming Keyboard Manipulation; all sorts of pianomals, synthesizers and electronically-created effectives. Kosmic Keyboardactory Kommotion and Synthesizerian Sauces.

Often referred to as one of the Goofin’ Gooey Quacy Quirkin’ Glueon Key Bangers, one of the Keybo’ Dans & Sythezoidees, one of the Keyboard Battlecruisers.

THAT Bernie Worrell.

He died of lung cancer Friday, June 24th. He was a titan, one of the most important musical influences of our time, although most people do not know him by name. But they certainly know what he contributed to the world of music.

He was best known, of course, as the keyboard wizard, co-arranger and heart of the Parliafunkadelicment Thang, that incredible mix of horn-driven soulful Parliament and psychedelic rock-propelled Funkadelic. Were there, technically, two different bands? Theoretically, yes, but when the U.S. Funk Mob showed up at your doorstep, there was no telling where one ended or the other began.

Worrell hooked up with George Clinton in 1970, right at the time that The Parliaments, whose 1967 hit was “I Wanna Testify,” abandoned the doo woo approach and moved to Detroit. And the James Brown College of Soul went to grad school.

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The first real splash came in 1970 when Funkadelic released an album so far out in the cosmos that it seemed unreal. I can still recall a college friend handing me a copy of an album called Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, saying, “You need to listen to this.” The tone of his voice spoke volumes, and that album was the gateway to, well, the rest of the lyric is: “the kingdom of heaven is within.”

It was. Then out came Maggot Brain (1971), whose title track was a face-melting 11-minute guitar onslaught. Jimi Hendrix was gone, but his spirit was alive and kickin’. By the time the band released its fourth album, the double-disk America Eats Its Young (1972), Worrell’s keyboards were front and center in the mix, he was co-writing tunes with Clinton, and he had become co-arranger.

Funkadelic continued releasing mind-blowing, genre-twisting albums with Worrell clearly in control of the musical aspects of things along with Bootsy, Garry Shider and Eddie Hazel, while George was ringleader of the interstellar musical invaders (have you ever looked at the drawings in the gatefold albums?). Cosmic Slop (1973) and the brilliant Standing On the Verge of Getting It On (1974) continued the deluge of black rock guitar (“Who says a funk band can’t play rock?”).

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Meanwhile, Parliament was resurfacing, Funkadelic’s alter ego, with 1974’s Up for the Down Stroke and then the eye-opening Chocolate City. These albums were dripping with Worrell’s keyboards, especially his spacy synthesizer work; he was one of the first true Moog pioneers.

The album that put the P-Funk movement, as it would come to be known, on the celestial map was Mothership Connection, and songs from that 1975 album would forever remain at the heart and soul of the band’s shows for more than 40 years. “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” and “Mothership Connection (Star Child)” highlight Worrell’s playing and also his horn arrangements, another crucial contribution to the overall sound.

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There are dozens of P-Funk highlights, but three in particular are best known and some of the most sampled music on the planet: “Flash Light” from Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome (Parliament 1977) with Worrell’s unmistakable synth bass lines, the title track from One Nation Under a Groove (Funkadelic 1978), and “(Not Just) Knee Deep” from Uncle Jam Wants You (Funkadelic 1979).

For me, the three greatest touring bands of the 1970s were the Grateful Dead, P-Funk, and whatever collective was touring with Frank Zappa. Their music was simply titanic. No other word adequately explains their overreaching influence.

Meanwhile, Worrell had released his first solo album, All the Woo in the World (1978), where his credits include ARP synthesizer, ARP string ensemble, ARP 2600, Mini Moog synthesizer, Yamaha polyphonic Synthesizer, Yamaha baby grand piano, and Hohner clavinet. The album, loaded with Funksters, was “produced & designed with your woo in mind,” including the song “Insurance Man for the Funk.”

He played on albums by offshoots of P-Funk, including the Brides of Funkenstein, Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns, Phillippe Wynne, Parlet, Eddie Hazel, Mutiny and Fuzzy Haskins.

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Meanwhile, he became a contributor to three albums by The Talking Heads from 1982 to 1984, including Speaking in Tongues and Stop Making Sense, also a brilliant concert film by Jonathan Demme. He played on Fela Kuti’s 1985 album Army Arrangement and Ginger Baker’s 1986 Horses and Trees. There were numerous other collaborations and guest appearances, including three albums with Praxis.

Worrell was part of Les Claypool’s group Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains with Buckethead. He reconnected with Bootsy Collins and toured in 2011. In 2012, he formed a quartet with guitarist Steve Kimock that toured. He also performed on four albums with Jack Bruce, from full band outings to Monkjack that features Bruce on piano and vocals and Worrell on Hammond B3 organ.

And there were ten more solo recordings of all types (not to mention concert recordings). 1990’s Funk of Ages drew in plenty of Funkateers, but add to that list Keith Richards, Herbie Hancock, Vernon Reid, Sly & Robbie, and more. Similarly, Blacktronic Science (1993) contained funk, rock, jazz, and classical elements, Bill Laswell and Tony Williams in the mix.

Pieces of Woo: the Other Side (1993) and Free Agent: A Spaced Odyssey (1997) followed. Then there a ten-year gap before Improvisczario, Christmas Woo (2009), I Don’t Even Know (2010), and 2011’s Standards (yes, jazz standards).

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He toured occasionally with the Bernie Worrell Orchestra from 2011 to 2015 and recorded BWO is Landing in 2013. The next year, he released Elevation: The Upper Air. Retrospectives came out this year.

He developed a great relationship with Warren Haynes and Gov’t Mule and recorded with them a number of times. In the past several years, Worrell also played with the Joe Marcinek Band in several of his all-star collectives, including New Year’s Eve 2015. Worrell also reconnected with Jonathan Demme and appears in Meryl Streep’s band in the movie Ricki and the Flash.

Buddy Guy. O.A.R. Deee-Lite. Burning Spear. Mos Def. James Blood Ulmer. Johnny Taylor. Pharoah Sanders. Manu Dibango. Zapp. The Pretenders. Gil Scott-Heron. The Last Poets. Freda Payne. Worrell has hundreds of recording credits with these artists and many more.

In April, Worrell appeared on Late Night with Stephen Colbert along with George Clinton, Bootsy, and the full Parliament-Funkadelic band. The video is now listed as ‘private.’

I consider myself very fortunate. I saw P-Funk with Worrell four times from 1976 (the glorious Mothership Connection tour) to 1980. I got his autograph in 2002 when he toured with his band the Woo Warriors featuring Jen Durkin (formerly of Deep Banana Blackout). I also saw him with Kimock once and with BWO.

The last time we met was in 2014 at the Dunedin Brewery. He had brought a band, and the show was a blast. When I saw him before the show, I extended my hand. He opted for a fist bump, decrying his arthritis (I can relate). And he signed a CD and an album for me.

More than anything, I remember that he was a musical genius and a warm, generous man. His memory and what he brought to music will long be revered.

Everybody’s got a little light under the sun.

Under the sun.

Under the sun.

Under the sun…


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