Bernie Worrell: Retrospectives

Published in the December 2015 issue of What’s Up! Magazine

At 71, and now living in Whatcom County, the keyboard wizard and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee is exploring new musical opportunities, and raising funds for a new album. 

by Brent Cole

This fall, one of the most brilliant keyboardists on the planet, one that helped changed funk in the 70s and New Wave in the 80s, made his home in Whatcom County. Bernie Worrell, who played in Parliament Funkadelic and later was an unofficial fifth member of The Talking Heads, has moved out to the county. Now at age 71, he is excited to explore musical opportunities in the Northwest and beyond, and play more music.

Worrell is a rare artist – a true prodigy with perfect pitch. Even from his early childhood in New Jersey, it was clear music was in his blood. He began taking classical piano lessons at three years old and had written a concerto by the age of eight. As it was noted in his documentary, “Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth,” that’s along the lines of Beethoven. He went on to study at Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music.

In college, Worrell briefly played in Chubby and the Turnpikes (later Tavares) with Joey Kramer, who left the band to form Aerosmith. He soon met George Clinton, who at that time was the leader of The Parliaments. In time, Worrell, Clinton, and the band moved to Detroit, where they revolutionized funk under the moniker Parliament-Funkadelic (though they toured as P-FUNK).

After a decade of cosmic funk including several offshoot bands, the collective broke up. From there, Worrell went on to play with The Talking Heads (check out the Stop Making Sense documentary, he’s on the keys), The Golden Palaminos, Praxis (with a young Buckethead, Bill Laswell and Brain from Primus), Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains (same lineup as Praxis, but with Les Claypool instead of Laswell) as well as most recently, his own project, the Bernie Worrell Orchestra and several other solo efforts.

In 1997, Worrell, along with the other 16 members of Parliament-Funkadelic, were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

All through his many musical lives, Bernie has pushed the envelope with the sounds, notes and textures he creates on keys – writing, creating and arranging music in his head.

Now that Worrell is settled in on the West Coast, he’s looking forward to what opportunities may arise. Last month, Bernie was part of a 30-piece orchestra that paid tribute to Dr Dre at the Holiday Bowl (ironically, it was Dr. Dre who sampled heavily from Parliaments’ catalog, especially on his first album, The Chronic) and next month he will potentially be playing with Tom Jones on a late night television show. Khu.eek, his project with Stanton Moore, Preston Singletary, Robert Lundgate, and Skerik, among others, will be releasing a double album in February. In addition, Worrell is currently raising funds to release an album of Parliament songs. The album, which is being recorded at the beginning of December in Bill Laswell’s studio back east, has Bernie playing all the instruments and sounds of Parliament songs with a live drummer.

But Bernie, ever the working musician, is looking forward to more opportunities in the Northwest region, including speaking at schools and exploring new bands. Last year Rolling Stone reported a new project with Bernie, Mike Watt (ex-Minutemen), Theresa Wayman (Warpaint) and Evan Taylor, though details are still being sorted out.

While Worrell still has the talent to play anything he hears and has music constantly playing in his mind, he is now contending with the realities of getting older. He battles arthritis and natural memory loss, though the latter is compensated by his ability to write and arrange songs as he goes.

More than anything, as Worrell heads into the twilight of his career, beyond his needs as a working musician, he wants to enjoy his work. A man of few words, he said with a smile, “I just want to have fun.”

MORE DETAILS: For more information about Bernie Worrell, follow his Facebook page or visit his website at bernieworrell.com. To donate, or for more details about his fundraising campaign for a new album, check out www.indiegogo.com/projects/bernie-worrell-retrospectives#/.