Bernie Worrell knew that listeners outside the United States had long treated classic American music more honorably than had those within it. Likewise, he'd heard plenty of stories about veteran jazz, country or rockabilly artists who'd either moved to foreign locales or made most of their money overseas. But as the preeminent funk keyboardist of all time, thanks to his association with George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic combine and P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins, he never thought something similar would happen to him. He was wrong.
"In Europe and Asia, we're like kings," Worrell says. "Things over there are so much better than they are here."
That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Worrell has been touring of late with his own band, the Woo Warriors, and he generally draws well in the U.S. Large stateside crowds also gather whenever he's accompanying Collins's New Rubber Band ("featuring Bernie Worrell," he points out). But this onetime sideman for the band heard regularly on David Letterman's Late Show is without a record deal in his homeland. His latest solo CD, Free Agent: A Spaced Odyssey, was issued by a Japanese imprint, Polystar, and can be attained here only at import stores, at Worrell's concerts or on the Internet at his Web site, http://bernieworrell.com. He's in much the same boat with regard to the upcoming studio debut of the Woo Warriors, which he expects to have completed sometime this fall. And he's not happy about it.
"I feel that there's a conspiracy," he says. "It's planned this way to silence us, because we're older. Older black folk, like me and Bootsy and [P-Funk trombonist] Fred Wesley, we know a lot, and the record business can't control us like they can control the younger generation of any race or color. They're like, 'We don't want them'--unless it's like it was with Tina Turner. She got no help from the States, so she went to Europe and hit it--and then all of a sudden, it's like, 'Oh, Tina, Tina, you're so great.' That's the kind of bullshit I have to deal with."
And then there's the matter of sampling. Since the dawn of the hip-hop era, P-Funk has arguably been sampled more frequently than any other single collective. For several years in the early Nineties, in fact, artists such as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre drew so heavily on the timelessly trippy funk of the Clinton-Collins-Worrell axis that they practically seemed like auxiliary members of the band. Unfortunately, the creators of the sounds that formed the basis of these contemporary cuts seldom profited from their popularity. Things are somewhat better today--lawyers at most nationally distributed companies understand that if they don't clear samples in advance, they'll wind up in court--but Worrell has never received the big payday he says he deserves. He hopes that will change soon: "I have a new person who's handling publishing and administration and a new lawyer who's getting ready to kick some ass," he says. Nonetheless, he has complex feelings about the issue of sampling as a whole.
"I met the keyboardist from Digital Underground at one of my shows a couple weeks ago," he notes. "He bowed to me and said, 'It's an honor.' And I teased him a little bit and said, 'Where's my money?' Then I said, 'I'm joking. I know it's not you; it's the record companies.' But there's been some serious struggling over this.
"I don't mind if they use it, but it depends on how they use it. If they use it as an art form and intertwine it, intermingle it with the real stuff, then that's one thing. And if they like a riff, and if it helps them to create their lyrics or the drum beats to go with it and they do it in a creative way, that's good--as long as it's not those negative lyrics about killing and accosting women. But on the other hand, if all they know how to do is push a button and they don't even know the rudiments of music, then we're losing, and they're losing, too."
Worrell is a strong advocate of music education, in part because he refined his astounding keyboard skills at tony institutions such as Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. But his talents were so vast that they likely would have blossomed whether he'd attended school or not. He was born in Long Branch, along the New Jersey shore. "They call it Springsteen country, but it's not all his," he says. "Count Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, not far from there." There was no shortage of music around the house thanks to his mother, who sang at an assortment of local churches: "She had a very beautiful soprano voice, and she could play piano well enough to accompany herself very slowly." But it was still a shock to the family when Bernie clambered onto the piano stool and began hammering out melodies at age three. The following year he gave his first concert, performing a slew of classical pieces to a dumbfounded audience at a local high school. "I don't mean to brag, but they called me a genius," he says.
The prodigy developed at a startling rate, writing his first concerto when he was eight ("One day I'll look at it again and redo it," he says) and serving as a guest soloist with the Plainfield, New Jersey, symphony just two years later. But even though he was being groomed for a career in classical music, he also had a taste for rhythm and blues--and he found a kindred spirit in Clinton, who fronted a vocal combo called the Parliaments. When Worrell was in his mid-teens, he would sneak out of the house in order to get his hair processed at the barber shop where Clinton worked, and he subsequently put together some lead sheets for the band. Clinton was impressed and told Worrell that when he could afford to expand his lineup, he'd call--and he kept his word. After graduating from the conservatory, Worrell was hired as musical director for soul singer Maxine Brown, and while he was in Bermuda with her band, he received a summons. Clinton had relocated to Detroit, and he wanted Worrell to be part of his increasingly idiosyncratic musical projects.
It was the late Sixties, and the times were wild. "Everything was so psychedelic, but it was also backbreaking, because we had to tour in rent-a-cars or station wagons at the time," he says about his early work with Funkadelic and Parliament (the "s" was dropped because of a lawsuit over its name). "But it didn't matter so much, since we were young and it was so exciting."
There were oodles of drugs on hand as well. Worrell doesn't know how much acid was gobbled during this period, but he admits with a laugh that "some people probably took too much. Me, I didn't do a quarter as much as some others. I experimented, because I'm an experimenter, but I'd only take half a dose when everyone else was taking a whole one. And since our friends were the MC5 and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels and Ted Nugent, you can imagine what that was like. It's a blessing that so many of us are still here, especially since so many of my favorite ones didn't make it." Among the casualties: brilliant guitarists Eddie Hazel and Glenn Goins and drummer Raymond "Tiki" Fulwood.
Despite the volume of their chemical intake, Clinton and company managed to put out some of the weirdest, most original, most enjoyable albums of the era: crazed Funkadelic opuses like 1970's Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, 1974's Standing on the Verge of Getting It On and 1978's One Nation Under a Groove, and Parliament fantasias such as 1975's Chocolate City, 1976's Mothership Connection: The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein and 1977's Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome. The platters, overflowing with scatological references and science-fiction lunacy, are most assuredly products of Clinton's imagination, but the inventive musicianship of players like Collins and Worrell helped push them into the stratosphere. Worrell's bubbling grooves were utterly singular, and even though players have spent the past several decades trying to clone his sound, no one's yet managed it.
The solo work churned out by Worrell is intriguing but considerably less accessible than the grooves he produced for Clinton. Blacktronic Science, released in 1993 by Gramavision, juxtaposes funk workouts featuring P-Funk compatriots with avant-gardisms in which Bill Laswell and others struggle to keep pace with odd time signatures that draw equally from classical and jazz. The same formula is utilized on Free Agent. "WOO Awakens, the Wizard Cometh" is an eleven-minute epic whose art-rock intro, which wouldn't sound out of place on a mid-Seventies Genesis record, leads to an extra-funky synthesized bass line and a free-jazz guitar solo courtesy of Buckethead. The sixteen-minutes-plus "AfroFuturism (Phazed One)," co-written by Worrell and Laswell, is just as adventurous, and even "Warriors of the WOO," the most straightforward tune on the CD, sports the occasional snippet of space racket.
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The forthcoming Woo Warriors salvo should be just as eclectic. Worrell says that he and his assistants (drummer Van Romaine, keyboardist Greg Fitz, bassist Donna McPherson, guitarist Michael "Moon" Reuben and vocalist B.J. Nelson) dabble in so many different genres that attempting to categorize the result is a waste of time. These sounds are mated to a sci-fi storyline with a very Clinton-esque feel. "See, there's the Wooniverse, and I'm the wizard--and I call on my different warriors and the woo-boos, which are little animalettes like those little furry guys in Star Wars. I call on them using different notes, and my mission is to try to rid the world of the negative through music and enlightenment by wooing them in. And the villain is the negative, which could be mama, papa, girlfriend, the government. Definitely the government."
Given Worrell's current label situation, the Woo Warriors' tale may not be widely heard, but Worrell isn't ready to surrender yet. He's heartened by the support he receives from the young audiences that come out to see him, many of which are dominated by neo-hippies who see a link between Worrell's extended funk excursions and the jamming of the Phishy bands they love. Worrell does, too. "Everything's related," he says. "A new form is being created, and the new generation is in tune already. They haven't been deadened or had their sensitivity cut off by radio stations or by programming. They're a new breed, just like we were. People talk about the Sixties, with the flower children and the psychedelics and all that. Well, the new generation is different, but it has a connection to us. I feel it.
"The future is being written as we live it, as we do it, as we create it. That's all part of the breakthrough--and so are the young people coming up. That's going to be the surprise that's going to get them--that's going to show them that they can't keep us quiet. Record companies can't control Mother Nature."
Bernie Worrell and the Woo Warriors. 9 p.m. Saturday, September 5, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $12, 303-443-3399 or 303-329-6353.