Keyboard wizard and funkster extraordinaire Bernie Worrell has died after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 72. Worrell’s wife, Judie, posted his passing on the musician’s Facebook page thusly:
“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 native of Long Branch, and later Plainfield, N.J., George Bernard Worrell, Jr.’s talent was quickly recognized by his parents, and the budding prodigy was duly enrolled at New York City’s Juilliard School, then on to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In college he demonstrated a taste towards eclectic forms of music by performing at a variety of after school gigs, such as organist for an Episcopal church, accompanist for a Jewish men’s chorus, and backing a vocal group that later became the chart topping quintet Tavares.
Another musician that jammed with Worrell in the bar bands around Boston was drummer Joey Kramer, who later formed the seminal hard-rock band Aerosmith.
Shortly afterwards, he encountered a fellow Plainfield resident and nominally successful singer/songwriter named George Clinton, who was eager to move beyond the traditional doo-wop that had been his stock in trade. Over the next few years, using Clinton’s already established Parliaments singing group as a springboard, they invented a new psychedelic-infused brand of soul, with instrumental backing by the electronic-rhythm and blues band Funkadelic.
While not a headliner, Worrell was its principle architect, serving as musical director, and especially as an instrumentalist providing the keyboard-based textures that gave Parliament/Funkadelic its unique sound. He was among the first to explore the possibilities offered by a then novel electronic sound generator called the Moog synthesizer. Worrell is prominently featured in the 2004 documentary profile of Robert Moog, the synthesizer’s inventor.
Fellow “Funkateer” and later a headliner in his own right, bassist William “Bootsy“ Collins reminisced about his former band mate’s contributions recently on his Facebook page.
“Bernie wasn’t much of a talker, but his keyboards did all the talkin’ & then some,” he recalled.
By 1975 this musical experiment hit commercial pay dirt, as the funk-rock-soul collective (known to the public as “P-Funk”) became a bridge between their more conservative R&B contemporaries and the larger pop record-buying public. In an age where satire was the order of the day, P-Funk attracted attention for their provocative lyrics and comical song titles like “Aqua Boogie,” “Bop Gun,” “Chocolate City,” “Cosmic Slop,” “Sir Nose D’voidoffunk,” and “Yank My Doodle.”
Their standout album “Mothership Connection” (1975) prefigured the Afrofuturism movement by mingling the novel coupling of Black people and science fiction. It went on to be included among Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time. A stage prop of the Mothership—a space vehicle central to P-Funk’s live performances—eventually found its way into the collection of Washington, D.C.’s (“Chocolate City”) Smithsonian Institute, as a symbol of the possibilities for people of color.
But the “Wizard of Woo,” as he was called by fans, had a talent that transcended musical genres. During a hiatus from P-Funk, he joined forces with David Byrne’s avant-garde “Talking Heads” rock band, recording and touring to critical acclaim throughout the 1980s. Other musical couplings included stints with “Cream” rock supergroup bassist Jack Bruce, Afro-beat instrumentalist Fela Kuti, and as a member of Academy Award winning actress Meryl Streep’s fictional band in the 2015 motion picture “Ricki and the Flash.”
Early in 2016, Worrell announced that he was afflicted with stage-four lung cancer, along with complications from prostate cancer. In short order, former colleagues and admirers such as (vocal group) Labelle, rock band Living Colour, (James Brown band member) Maceo Parker, (David Letterman musical director) Paul Shaffer, and (pop singer) Rick Springfield banded together to put on a benefit concert in New York City.
Like many of his contemporaries, Worrell struggled to secure the royalties he’d earned during the decades during which he was prolific, with closure still pending after his demise. Among the accolades he did receive were induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his P-Funk band mates (1997), and an honorary Doctor of Music degree from his alma mater, the New England Conservatory of Music in May of 2016.
A 2005 documentary focusing on this overlooked master musician, titled “Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth,” features interviews by frequent collaborators David Byrne of Talking Heads, George Clinton, and rapper Mos Def.
Fans are encouraged to sign the guest book in his memory at http://www.bernieworrell.com/.