Bernie Worrell, the virtuoso keyboardist who helped define the Parliament-Funkadelic sound, died today after a battle with lung cancer. His family broke the news this afternoon on his Facebook page. He was 72.
Worrell, a child piano prodigy, grew up in New Jersey and went on to study at Juilliard in New York. While at that school, he bagan playing with Chubby And The Turnpikes, which would go on to become the ’70s funk group Tavares. But Worrell left that band when he met George Clinton, whose doo-wop group the Parliaments were just gaining steam around 1970. Worrell moved with Clinton to Detroit, where he and Clinton went about reinventing the group’s sound, turning it into both Parliament and Funkadelic.
With those two intertwined groups, Worrell played a number of different synthesizers, organs, and electric pianos, all of which would have a huge effect on the two groups’ loose, spaced-out sounds. Both groups included a number of other absurdly talented musicians, including Bootsy Collins and Eddie Hazel, but Worrell was the closest thing they had to a musical mastermind. He played on dozens of records from the two groups and from the various side projects that they spun off, and he also released his own solo album All The Woo In The World in 1978.
The members of P-Funk went their separate ways in the early ’80s, and soon afterward, Worrell joined the Talking Heads. He never became an official member of the band, but he toured and recorded with them extensively, and he’s a crucial part of their 1984 movie Stop Making Sense, one of the greatest concert movies ever made. He also worked extensively with producer Bill Laswell and played on records from people like Fela Kuti and Mos Def. In recent years, his band Bernie Worrell And The Woo Warriors made the rounds on the jam-band circuit, and he acted in Jonathan Demme’s 2015 movie Ricki And The Flash. He kept touring and recording until very recently.
Worrell’s warped, woozy, psychedelic keyboard sounds effectively changed the sonic identity of ’70s funk, moving it from the sweaty, raw sounds of late-’60s soul into something gooey and otherworldly. And given the influence of P-Funk, as well as the way rap producers like Dr. Dre would sample his synth lines, it’s hard to even imagine how different music would be without his input. Below, watch some videos of Worrell at work.