The more I listen to some of my favorite funk records, the more I realize what really made me love many of them was Bernie Worrell.
Bernie Worrell is the engine that made Parliament’s “Flashlight” move. The iconic intro? The intricate riffs, solos, the breakdowns? All Bernie. On “Mothership Connection,” Bernie’s keyboard solo on the “Sweet down chariot, stop…” bridge that still gives me goosebumps whenever I hear it. Worrell’s piano-playing on the dark and moody “All Your Goodies Are Gone” gives the song its delicately beautiful soul. The entirety of the Motor Booty Affair album is a master-class in keyboard performance.
And those were just a few of the songs he helped create with Parliament; Bernie made his musical voice ring clearly on the harder-edged Funkadelic as well. The band’s early work may be best-known for its rock and blues-infused guitar riffs and thunderous drums, but Worrell’s performances on “A Joyful Process” and “Good Ole’ Music” is the glue that holds those songs together. “Atmosphere,” a seven a half minute keyboard solo, is undeniably funky, but also shows strains of Bernie’s classical training. Bear in mind the man wrote a concerto at the age of eight and studied at Juilliard.
Bernie didn’t just limit expressing his musical genius on funk records: he’s prominently featured on Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense, my favorite live album of all-time. Bernie’s magic on the keys is what takes songs like “Slippery People,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Girlfriend is Better” to the next level. Though Worrell never officially joined the group, he became an integral fixture of the group’s live performances. He even joined them on stage during their 2002 performance for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Though best known for his work in conjunction with other groups, Bernie also had illustrious solo career; his All the Woo in the World is a largely slept-on funk gem. And unlike many of his funk cohorts, his musical instincts remained strong as the ’70s came to close. Funk of Ages, released in 1990, is sadly unknown to most funk fans. As is 2007’s Turn My Teeth Up!, the album he recorded as a member of Baby Elephant, along with super-producer Prince Paul and Don Newkirk.
Bernie sadly succumbed to cancer in June of 2016. It was sad to see a musical titan and member of the funk pantheon leave this world at the age of 72. The chariot swung down, stopped, and let him ride off into musical Valhalla.