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Keyboardist Bernie Worrell Dies at 72

Funk pioneer's influence broke through genre barriers

Bernie Worrell at Winter Jazz Fest 2012
Anthony Braxton (left) and Bernie Worrell receive honorary Doctor of Music degrees from New England Conservatory; May 22, 2016

Keyboardist Bernie Worrell, whose synthesizer playing and composing as the musical director of Parliament-Funkadelic made him a key figure in the development of funk and hip-hop, died yesterday at his home in Everson, Wash., the New York Times and other outlets have reported. According to the Times, Worrell was informed he had late-stage lung cancer early this year. He was 72.

Worrell’s work in P-Funk had a rare ability to evoke both the earthy and the otherworldly in equal measure. His playing on the Moog bass synthesizer-“he is the father of Moog bass and the auteur of the funkiest basslines in history,” the company said in a press release-anchored what was perhaps the hardest-grooving ensemble ever, while also serving the band’s space-age Mothership aesthetic.

His contributions as an architect of funk made him an icon whose influence spread across genres; that reputation, coupled with his serious, versatile musical learning and his reputation as a gracious collaborator, granted him a marathon list of credits snaking through all sorts of musical camps. He worked fruitfully in jazz, blues and the avant-garde, collaborating frequently with Bill Laswell and performing on albums by Screaming Headless Torsos, Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, Robben Ford, Buddy Guy, Pharoah Sanders, Jason Miles, Reuben Wilson, James “Blood” Ulmer, Herb Alpert, Arto Lindsay, Jonas Hellborg and others.

Worrell was revered within the jam-band scene for his playing with P-Funk, of course, as well as with Gov’t Mule, Spin Doctors and a group he shared with Primus’ Les Claypool, Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains. (His own groups, including the all-star collective Icons of Funk, had a particular appeal within the jam scene.) Alternative-rockers looked to Worrell’s synth and keyboard expertise early on: He played on several important documents by Talking Heads, including The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues and the Jonathan Demme concert film Stop Making Sense; he also racked up credits with Mike Watt, Throwing Muses and Matthew Sweet, among others. His influence on hip-hop, especially the West Coast G-funk style pioneered largely by Dr. Dre, is incalculable. Worrell’s official site claims he was “among the most sampled musicians ever,” with indirect contributions to classic tracks by Dr. Dre, Digital Underground, De La Soul, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube.

Worrell was born in New Jersey in 1944. He began studying piano at the age of 3 and gave his first public performance a year later. At 8 years old he wrote his first concerto, and he performed with the Washington Symphony Orchestra at age 10. Throughout his adolescence, Worrell took private lessons at the Julliard School of Music before he entered the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC), where he was recently awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree alongside Anthony Braxton. Worrell also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from NEC in 2010. After graduating from the Conservatory in 1967, he served for several years as musical director for R&B singer Maxine Brown.

Then, in the late ’60s, Worrell teamed up with George Clinton, contributing to Funkadelic’s self-titled debut LP in 1970 before joining the P-Funk crew fulltime. He penned such funk classics as “Chocolate City,” “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Mothership Connection” and “Dr. Funkenstein” with Clinton and bassist Bootsy Collins. Other hits include “Flash Light,” “Atomic Dog,” “Aqua Boogie” and “Cosmic Slop.” “When the synthesizers came about, my having been brought up classically and knowing a full range of orchestra, timpanis and everything, I knew how it sounded and what it felt like. So, if I’m playing a horn arrangement on keyboard, or strings, it sounds like strings or horns, ’cause I know how to phrase it, how a string phrases, different attacks from the aperture for horns, trumpets, sax or trombones,” Worrell said on his website.

Worrell also released a series of critically acclaimed solo efforts, including Funk of Ages, Blacktronic Science, Pieces of WOO: The Other Side, Free Agent: A Spaced Odyssey and Elevation: The Upper Air, a solo piano album. His 2013 song “Get Your Hands Off” received the Independent Music Award for Best Funk/Fusion/Jam song.

In 1993, he became an integral member of the orchestra for David Letterman’s new Late Show on CBS. Four years later Worrell, along with P-Funk, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Prince.

Home page photo of Worrell and producer Bill Laswell by Yoko Yamabe.

Originally Published