Bernie Worrell’s mother wanted him to be a concert pianist. Born today in 1944, he started taking piano lessons as a toddler, gave his first public classical performance at the age of four, and composed his first concerto as an eight-year-old. Study at Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music put him on track for a distinguished career in classical music.
Instead, he dropped out of college and joined the Parliament-Funkadelic musical collective. The space age soul of his electronic keyboards— in conversation with the superfunky bass of Bootsy Collins — powered classic P-Funk tracks like “Flash Light,” “The Mothership Connection,” and “Give Up the Funk.”
Described by his bandmate Collins as “Jimi Hendrix on keyboards,” Worrell freed synthesizers from their prog rock pigeonhole and helped make them a standard instrument in popular music.
“I wasn’t really interested in technology,” he recalled, “but when I was in college, at the New England Conservatory in Boston, I used to listen to Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I loved the Tarkus album. Keith was the first guy I heard using the Moog. I liked the sound of that album and the things he was doing with the instrument. I found out that it was a Moog synthesizer, and later on I purchased my own Minimoog…. I started messing with the sounds. That’s all I really do: I turn the knobs until it does what I want.”
Worrell’s formal training enabled him to capitalize fully on the diverse sound palette offered by synthesizers. He remembered, “having been brought up classically and knowing a full range of orchestra, tympanis 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.”
In the early ’80s, the Talking Heads invited Worrell to join them as a sideman. “When I first got a call from the Talking Heads I didn’t know who they were,” Worrell recalled, but, “The Talking Heads wanted to funk.” “They were P-Funk fans…. David [Byrne] and Chris Frantz used to sneak into P-Funk concerts when they were students at the art school in Providence… they must have been the only white kids there.”
The affinity quickly became mutual. For Worrell, playing with the Talking Heads “was fun because they worked similarly in the studio to what P-Funk did, going in and jamming and having songs come out from that. Or there would be a part arranged and we’d build it up with overdubs…. They were a good bunch. Dave is a genius and a conceptualist like George Clinton.”
Worrell’s funk infusion helped propel a square new wave band to breakthrough success with their greatest album (Speaking in Tongues) and an acclaimed concert film (Stop Making Sense). He continued performing live with the Talking Heads until they disbanded in 1992.
The documentary Moog acknowledges Worrell’s status as a synth pioneer, and includes a fun, original jam with Bootsy Collins called “When Bernie Speaks.”
Another film — Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth — further details his outsize influence on the evolution of American music.
He is currently battling cancer. This article describes a recent benefit fellow musicians played for him and more thoroughly details the multiple dimensions of musical legacy.
Send up some prayers and give up the funk for my man Bernie Worrell.
Postscript, April 19, 2017: The Wizard of Woo tuned to a higher frequency on June 24, 2016.