Bernie Worrell, the keyboardist, songwriter and synthesizer pioneer who served as co-founder of Parliament-Funkadelic and a key Talking Heads collaborator, died on Friday after a battle with cancer, according to his Facebook page. He was 72.
Diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in January, Worrell was the guest of honor at a massive benefit concert last April, with the likes of George Clinton, Questlove, David Byrne and Meryl Streep performing and paying tribute. In mid-June, however, his wife Judie Worrell announced his health had taken a turn, writing, “Bernie is now heading ‘Home.’”
As a member of Parliament-Funkadelic, Worrell’s synth playing provided the funk innovators with some of their most distinctive and immediately recognizable elements, which subsequently became signature sounds of the more futuristic strains of R&B, and the bedrock of hip-hop’s West Coast “g-funk” wave, with Dr. Dre in particular sampling Worrell’s music almost religiously. From the gurgling, staccato Minimoog bassline of “Flash Light” to the whiny, minor-key synth lines on “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” Worrell introduced a wealth of completely new elements into pop music’s sonic vocabulary. Former bandmate Bootsy Collins described Worrell as “the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboards,” while Talking Heads frontman Byrne once noted, “Bernie changed the way I think about music, and the way I think about life.”
Born George Bernard Worrell in New Jersey, Worrell began playing piano at age three, and performed with the Washington Symphony Orchestra at age 10. He attended Julliard and the New England Conservatory of Music, and met up with fellow New Jersey native George Clinton while playing in bar bands. He followed Clinton to Detroit, where Funkadelic rewrote the rules of black popular music several times over throughout the 1970s.
Worrell only appeared on a single track of Funkadelic’s 1970 self-titled debut, but he featured heavily on follow-up “Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow,” and by the time of 1971’s psych-rock freak-out masterpiece “Maggot Brain,” he was firmly ensconced in the lineup, even singing lead on single “Hit It and Quit It.”
Worrell’s role as a keyboardist, songwriter and arranger grew throughout the decade as Funkadelic and Parliament – during the ‘70s, the two groups consisted of the same core members – evolved into a more radio-friendly, dance-oriented outfit, alongside former James Brown bassist Collins, who arrived in 1972. Thanks to his grasp of classical music composition, as well as his ceaseless curiosity in exploring state-of-the-art synthesizer technology, Worrell was essential in imposing structure and melodic order onto the group’s more freewheeling experimentations.
Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” elevated the collective’s profile substantially in 1975, reaching No. 4 on the R&B album chart and becoming the first P-Funk album to go platinum. The group’s popularity peaked with Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove,” which topped the R&B chart for six straight weeks in 1978, while Parliament’s “Motor Booty Affair” and Funkadelic’s “Uncle Jam Wants You” both reached No. 2 in the months that followed. The P-Funk staples co-written by Worrell in this period include “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” “Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadaloop)” and “Flash Light,” which still stands as perhaps the group’s most widely played and influential single track.
Worrell recorded a solo album in 1978 – “All the Woo in the World,” produced by Clinton – and recorded with Collins for his splinter group Bootsy’s Rubber Band, whose 1977 album “Ahh…the Name is Bootsy, Baby!” is a particularly essential funk collection. But as loose and sprawling as the P-Funk universe could be, the spine of the group began to splinter at the end of the ‘70s, and Worrell officially left in 1981.
Shortly after his departure, Worrell was recruited by Jerry Harrison, guitarist for the art-rock/New Wave group Talking Heads, whom Worrell had never heard. Though he found their earlier music “stiff,” Worrell joined the group as a session musician, contributing synthesizers to 1983 album “Speaking in Tongues,” which would go on to become the Heads’ highest-charting release. He toured with the group for years, and his importance to their live sound is made abundantly clear in the Jonathan Demme-directed 1984 concert film, “Stop Making Sense.”
During the ‘80s, Worrell also recorded with Keith Richards, Fela Kuti, and Jack Bruce, and after the breakup of Talking Heads, he released a spate of solo albums in the early-‘90s. (1991’s “Funk of Ages” is the clear standout.) He continued to record and tour throughout the following decades, with groups the Bernie Worrell Orchestra and Bernie Worrell’s Woo Warriors, and as part of the supergroup Black Jack Johnson alongside rapper Mos Def. Worrell was the subject of Philip Di Fiore’s 2005 documentary, “Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth,” and he had a role as a member of Meryl Streep’s bar band in Demme’s 2015 feature “Ricki and the Flash.”
Worrell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Parliament-Funkadelic in 1997, and performed with the reunited Talking Heads during the group’s induction in 2002. Earlier this year, he was given an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the New England Conservatory of Music.