The year 2016 has been a harsh year for music fans, and things just got a whole lot worse. Bernie Worrell is dead at age 72. His widow, Judie, announced the sad, but not unexpected news on her late husband’s Facebook page early Friday afternoon.
Even if you don’t know his name, you have certainly heard the music of Bernie Worrell. In addition to his groundbreaking synth work with Parliament-Funkadelic in the 70s and 80s, Worrell was a featured player on a number of Talking Heads albums, including Speaking in Tongues, The Name of this Band is Talking Heads, and Stop Making Sense. Worrell’s keyboard riffs have been sampled since the beginning of hip hop and can be heard on recordings by Outkast, Snoop Dogg, MC Hammer, Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, and others, says WhoSampled.com.
Bernie Worrell got an early start in the music biz when he was a toddler in Plainfield, New Jersey. According to his biography at Billboard magazine, Bernie Worrell was a child prodigy, who started taking classical piano lessons at age three and composed a concerto at age eight. NPR reports that young Worrell performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. when he was 10-years-old.
When Worrell’s bar band, Chubby & The Turnpikes, broke up, various members went on to found the bands Tavares and Aerosmith. Worrell went on to study music at Julliard and the New England Conservatory of Music.
Bernie Worrell met a doo-wop singing barber named George Clinton in 1970, altering the course of R&B music forever. Clinton’s band, The Parliaments, had been performing and recording without much success since the 1950s. After Worrell joined the band, they moved to Detroit and changed their name to Parliament-Funkadelic. P-Funk was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
According to Consequence of Sound, Worrell was only the second musician to own an original Moog synthesizer. It was love at first fingering, and Worrell’s synthesizer skills feature prominently on “Flashlight” and other P-Funk recordings.
Worrell explained his fascination with Moog synthesizers in Rolling Stone.
“I wasn’t really interested in technology, 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 – or George did. I started messing with the sounds. That’s all I really do: I turn the knobs until it does what I want.”
Worrell’s energetic and masterful keyboard skills are showcased in the 1984 Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense. Directed by filmmaker Jonathan Demme, the 88-minute movie also features vocalist David Byrne, keyboardist Jerry Harrison, and guitarist Alex Weir along with backup singer-dancers Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt. The rhythm section in this innovative concert film comprises drum virtuoso Chris Frantz, and his wife, bodacious bassist Tina Weymouth.
Bernie Worrell was an avid proponent of music lessons in school. In 1991, Worrell told NPR the following.
“The art of creating is not just pushing a button. We’re going to lose the art of creating and composing because they won’t even know how to make a chord. The chords are already just on a button. What is the root? What’s the third? What’s the fifth of the chord? I feel that a lot of artists and parents who are interested in music should get music back into the mainstream in school systems. That’s being lost also.”
In January, the one-of-a-kind keyboardist revealed to Rolling Stone magazine that he had been diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, advanced liver cancer, and cancer of the prostate.
Judie Worrell posted on her late husband’s Facebook page at around noon on Friday.
“Bernie transitioned Home to The Great Spirit. Rest in peace, my love — you definitely made the world a better place. Till we meet again, vaya con Dios.”
Funkadelic fans and music aficionados are invited to click here to share their remembrances and offer condolences to the Worrell family at Bernie’s official website.
[Photo by Matthew Eisman/Getty Images]