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Bernie Worrell, a pioneering and masterful musician who made significant contributions to American music, died of cancer on Friday at the age of 72. The prodigious keyboardist, session man, and musical director was the origin point for a singularly influential form of funk through his work with Parliament-Funkadelic, and later with everyone from Talking Heads to Deee-Lite. He spent his creative lifetime recording and performing some of the very funkiest expressions of blackness, love, power, and freedom in contemporary popular music.
It’s easy to remember the popular caricature of Worrell: a 1970s groove man, writhing over a bank of keyboards in a colorful and floppy top hat, drenched in sweat, cigarette dangling from his mouth as he dials up a host of wild spaceship sounds. Worrell’s shadow looms so large over the last five decades that his greatest achievements can look like cliché. But now that he’s gone, it’s time to recognize how slim the likelihood is that we’ll ever hear someone like him again.
By all reports, Worrell was a child prodigy. Born with perfect pitch, he was learning and interpreting classical pieces at the age of three, composing and performing a concerto when he was eight, and playing with the National Symphony Orchestra by the time he was 10. According to P-Funk bandmate Bootsy Collins, Worrell’s mother recognized his talent early, found him teachers, and enforced a daily practice routine. Worrell studied at Juilliard and got a degree from the New England Conservatory of Music, but he hungered for a plan of his own. It happened that Plainfield, New Jersey, was also home to a young hairdresser named George Clinton. Worrell, starved for normal life, would hang out in Clinton’s barber shop. Clinton was then a member of the fledgling doo-wop group the Parliaments, and he had heard about Worrell’s talent long before he stepped through the door.
By 1970, Worrell had ditched his concert piano career, joined Clinton’s Funkadelic, and made substantial contributions to the psychedelic funk-rock masterpiece Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow. Funkadelic pioneered a wild, gritty, raunchy, wholly undeniable sound that merged James Brown’s martial R&B, acid rock, and unbridled Afrofuturism. Worrell, as the band’s de facto musical director, harnessed jams into fastidious arrangements and deeply stirring chord progressions and voicings. At the same time, it was his ceaseless experimentation and his wholly off-the-grid approach to synthesizers that led the group’s ferocity. Bizarre, whirring, eerie, high-pitched whistles; fuzzy, rumbling bass runs; explosive howls that were both futuristic and soulfully earthbound at once — all this unspooling over relentless and determined grooves with the only band that could have matched his freaky energy. The result was an irrefutable expression of potency, a decidedly black sound that foretold the coming of nearly every genre of music for the next four decades. P-Funk was about the rising of a wholly alien version of black grace and power; Worrell’s extensive dexterity with classical music and all its variants made this cosmic vision into a down-and-dirty reality.
Worrell’s arrangements with P-Funk sit at the intersection of all that was glorious and righteous in American music. In the 2005 documentary Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth, Bad Brains guitarist Dr. Know went so far as to declare them punk. More astounding than this, though, is Worrell’s influence on the music that followed him. Nearly all of Dr. Dre’s career — and thus the lion’s share of West Coast hip-hop since the 1990s — owes a heavy creative debt to Worrell’s keyboard sounds, whether through direct samples or homage. Worrell’s fingerprints are all over East Coast rap from that era, too: He was the key ingredient on Mtume’s 1983 sex jam “Juicy Fruit,” which provided the foundation of Notorious B.I.G’s breakout hit “Juicy” a decade later. On the other side of the dial, Worrell’s 1980s stint with Talking Heads transformed them, by their own account, from stiff rock nerds into a deeply funky, forward-driving pop outfit. You can hear the echoes of Worrell’s work in contemporary music everywhere from Erykah Badu to LCD Soundsystem.
For all of Worrell’s vast influence, he remained unsigned and underpaid at the end of his career. In his final years, he turned toIndiegogo campaigns to fund album production. After he was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in January of this year, the Black Rock Coalition organized a benefit to assist with his medical bills. Worrell’s business story is a common one in music history — particularly for black musicians. Despite being a favorite of other artists, he lacked the kind of institutional support that might have cemented his legacy with numerous box sets and awards-show plaudits. Indeed, no one mentioned him at last night’s BET Awards, just two nights after his death, at a ceremony where a great percentage of the acts in attendance owed something to his influence. (Full disclosure: BET, like MTV, is owned by Viacom.)
Worrell could have dressed himself in a suit and tie and pursued a life in concert halls, but his spirit was too restless, his vision too eccentric, his commitment to push beyond the boundaries too great. If there is any justice, his legacy will grow with each passing decade, until the day comes when he is properly recognized as our Warhol — a singular musical mind who did more than nearly anyone else to define the future we live in.