The funkiest keyboard player who ever lived is no longer with us.
Parliament-Funkadelic keys man Bernie Worrell died Friday, June 24, succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 72. A master of both cosmic synthesizer explorations and gritty, down-and-dirty rhythm parts, he leaves behind a legacy and a body of work as brilliant and influential as any artist who ever touched a piano over the last five decades.
For those not familiar with his work — and for all his genius, Worrell remains a surprisingly unheralded figure, overshadowed by his more flamboyant P-Funk bandmates George Clinton and Bootsy Collins — here is a tiny sampling of what made him one of the greats.
5. Parliament, “Up for the Down Stroke”
For the title track of Parliament's 1974 album, Worrell started off using his Clavinet almost like a second bass, injecting snarling counterpoints to the track's chanted chorus and bright horns. Then, during the extended bridge/fadeout, he turns his keyboard into a rhythmic, textural element, banging out a choppy riff that gradually evolves into the track's funkiest element.
4. Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”
Those trippy keyboards in Talking Heads' biggest U.S. hit were the work of Worrell, who was an unofficial member of the band for several years in the early '80s after leaving Parliament-Funkadelic. You can see him rocking out on keys and synths in the band's classic 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense. In addition to providing the track's signature eerie synths, Worrell also propels the tune's funky climax, laying down a squelching groove that allows drummer Chris Frantz and percussionist Steve Scales to really go wild.
3. Bernie Worrell, “Insurance Man for the Funk”
For his 1978 debut solo album, All the Woo in the World (his P-Funk nickname was “The Wizard of Woo”), Worrell put his vocals and otherworldly keyboards front and center, especially on this rambling, 13-minute jam, which features vocal support from some of his Funkadelic cohorts and horns by legendary James Brown/P-Funk sidemen Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker.
2. Parliament, “Flash Light”
Worrell's Minimoog bass line on this 1978 Parliament single was heavier and funkier that what most four-string players could pull off at the time, and effectively opened the door for the explosion of synth bass sounds in pop, rock, funk and R&B over the next decade. But no one ever quite equaled Worrell's genius for syncopation and quirky bent notes that somehow just took the groove deeper.
1. Funkadelic, “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow”
Allegedly recorded while the entire band was tripping on acid, this 10-minute jam from the 1970 album of the same name sounds light-years ahead of its time, a mind-bending mix of Hendrix, Zappa and Sly Stone propelled by Eddie Hazel's blazing psych-rock guitar and Worrell's distorted, herky-jerky keys, panned back and forth in the final mix to match the frenetic energy of his playing.
With P-Funk and Talking Heads, as a solo artist and on countless other projects, Worrell freed more minds than any other keyboardist of his generation and influenced countless other innovators, from Roger Troutman to Flying Lotus to Prince. In a year of huge losses for music, his will be among those felt the deepest.