RIP: Bernie Worrell (1944–2016)

The funk pioneer succumbed to cancer at the age of 72.

Bernie Worrell, the funk keyboardist who played with everyone from Parliament-Funkadelic to Talking Heads to Les Claypool, has passed away. As NPR notes, Worrell was diagnosed with terminal cancer earlier this year.

Worrell grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, and received formal education at both Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music. In the 1970s, he met George Clinton, who at the time was fronting a doo-wop group called The Parliaments. After moving to Detroit, the group transformed themselves into the galactic funk collective Parliament and the heavy-rock group Funkadelic, with Worrell’s piano and synth playing forming the signature of their sound.

Worrell knack for style has had an enormous impact on the sound of modern music. With Parliament and Funkadelic, he twisted his organ lines in on themselves, treating his sound like a putty to be built up, shaped, and reshaped around gaps in rhythm. In his hands, the nascent Moog synthesizer found its perfect match; the squelching and warped blobs he would create for P-Funk would influence Prince and, later, the g-funk sound of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.

In the 1980s, Worrell was invited to tour with Talking Heads, most notably playing in the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense.

In later years, he would flit between continued touring with P-Funk in its various formations and working the jam-band circuit with acts like Primus’ Les Claypool and guitarist Buckethead, with whom he formed Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains.

He was diagnosed with stage-four liver cancer and a “mild form” of prostate cancer in January of this year. “Bernie transitioned Home to The Great Spirit,” his wife wrote on Facebook this afternoon. “Rest in peace, my love — you definitely made the world a better place.” He was 72.

Below, watch Worrell and Parliament play “Rumpofsteelskin,” as well as “Much Thrust,” from Worrell’s 1978 solo album All the Woo in the World.


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