Another day in 2016, another beloved musician taken from us much too soon. On June 24, 2016, it was reported that the renowned 72-year-old American keyboardist and composer Bernie Worrell had lost his battle against stage four lung cancer.
Best known for his time in the George Clinton-led Parliament-Funkadelic and David Byrne’s group Talking Heads, Worrell is considered to be a revolutionary R&B artist, but his influence has stretched across many genres and generations.
Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, George Bernard "Bernie" Worrell, Jr. was a musical prodigy almost from birth. According to his official biography, Worrell began taking piano lessons at the age of three, and by eight, had already composed a concerto. To commemorate the passing of one of the greatest soul and funk keyboardist of our time, let’s take a look back at all of the accomplishments from the life of the 'Wizard of Woo'.
1970s: Worrell Moves to Detroit, Starts The Parliaments With George Clinton
Worrell then moved to Detroit with Clinton and the rest of the funky crew, and began officially recording with Funkadelic on their second album Free Your Mind... and Your Ass Will Follow. From then on out, Worrell and Clinton worked extremely close with one another, and he played a major role in a number of legendary Funkadelic records, including Maggot Brain, the politically charged America Eats Its Young, and many other classics.
Worrell is One of the First to Play on the Famous Moog Synthesizer
Aside form Keith Emerson, the keyboardist from the classic English prog-rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Worrell was one of the first musicians to get their hands on the synthesizer that would alter the course of rock music for many years to come. With his Minimoog, Worrell helped bring forth the futuristic funky sound that Parliament-Funkadelic is still known for today. In addition to his Moog, Worrell also frequently played grand piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, Hohner Clavinet, and many other instruments. He had also been credited for writing the horn and rhythm arrangements on numerous hit recordings for both Funkadelic and Parliament. Worrell was widely recognized for playing the bass line for the song “Flash Light” on three connected Minimoog synthesizers, and has had a handful of his iconic funk sampled by a variety of hip-hop artists, influencing the West Coast rap movement of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, which uncoincidentally was known as G-Funk. It was with P-Funk that Worrell earned his nickname the “Wizard of Woo”, and he truly was magical when on the keys. In 1978, Worrell released his first solo endeavor, called All the Woo in the World, which featured the musical backing of P-Funk members.
After P-Funk had taken a hiatus in the early 1980s, Worrell joined up with David Byrne’s new wave band Talking Heads, performing and recording with the band throughout a majority of the decade. Worrell was considered a de facto member of the Talking Heads, but was consistently featured on studio albums and playing on tour with them. Worrell utilized his vast knowledge and skill in musical arrangements to help Byrne pioneer the new wave genre. Worrell was featured in Jonathan Demme’s film Stop Making Sense, which documented the band’s 1983 tour. Although the band broke up in 1991, it wouldn’t be the last time the two prestigious musicians would share the stage.
Late 80s: Worrell Branches Out Across Musical Spectrum
Later on into the 1980s, Worrell began branching out to a wide array of prominent musicians in need of the Wizard’s keyboard prowess. In 1985, he recorded for Fela Kuti’s album Army Arrangement, and also working with famous avant-garde and funk producer Bill Laswell and with Jack Bruce, best known as the bassist and vocalist of the legendary British supergroup Cream. Throughout the later years of his life, Worrell remained heavily involved in the music circuit, playing shows with the jam band Gov’t Mule, starting a band with Primus’ Les Claypool and Buckethead, joining Mos Def’s rock band Black Jack Johnson, among other musical collaborations. During this time, he continued to release solo records as well.
1997: Inducted Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
In 1997, Worrell and 15 other members from the Parliament-Funkadelic were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Just five years after that, Worrell performed with Talking Heads at the Hall of Fame when they were inducted in 2002. Aside from his extensive work as a keyboardist in the music industry, Worrell also wrote tunes for television and film, and even played the role of a keyboardist in Meryl Streep’s band in the 2015 movie Ricki and Flash. Coincidentally, that film was created by Mr. Demme, the individual who made the 1983 tour documentary for Talking Heads.
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Diagnosed With Stage Four Cancer
At the beginning of this year, Worrell was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Before his hard-fought battle with the disease ended this past Friday, a tribute and benefit concert produced by the Black Rock Coalition, which featured a number of musicians from his past, was held to help raise funds for Worrell’s cancer treatment. Shortly after his wife, Judie Worrell, issued a statement about his faltering health, Worrell headed home to New Jersey, which is where he would live out his remaining days. Before passing away, the Wizard of Woo released his last solo album, Retrospectives, which revisited his favorite P-Funk compositions as instrumentals. Admired by all who have basked in his colorful and soulful sound, Worrell’s funky rhythms and legendary keyboard work will continue to influence musicians across a wide-range of genres for many years to come.