Bernie Worrell, a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic, died June 24, 2016 of stage 4 lung cancer according to his wife, Judie Worrell. He was 72.
Worrell announced in January 2016 that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, as well as liver cancer, and was undergoing treatment. He discussed the fact that he had rejected chemotherapy and was using a naturopathic approach.
As the keyboardist with Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk, Worrell helped influence musical genres from funk to disco to new wave to jazz. With bandmates including founder George Clinton and bassist Bootsy Collins, P-Funk became a musical collective with an ever-changing lineup, encompassing multiple side projects and solo recordings from its many members. Full of big personalities and impressive talent, P-Funk grew from its origins as a 1950s doo-wop group into a hit machine that put on futuristic stage shows and found its way onto numerous lists of all-time greatest bands.
Worrell found fame with P-Funk, but his musical roots were planted long before even its earliest incarnation. Born April 19, 1944, in Long Branch, New Jersey, Worrell was a musical prodigy, excelling at the piano when he was still a toddler. He was sight reading music before he turned 4, and he performed his first classical concert shortly afterward. In an interview with MusicRadar, Worrell downplayed his history as a prodigy, saying that he “was just into music.”
“I was just enjoying myself. It came naturally to me,” he said.
It was a natural talent that led Worrell to take private lessons at the Juilliard School of Music and then study at the New England Conservatory of Music. While still in college, he began performing with a soul group called Chubby & the Turnpikes before joining Clinton as a member of the P-Funk collective.
With P-Funk, Worrell became an innovator of electronic music. He was one of the very first musicians to use the Moog synthesizer, creating futuristic sounds that drove P-Funk’s popular songs and earned him the moniker the Wizard of Woo. Among his other instruments were the more traditional Hammond organ and Wurlitzer electric piano, as well as the Arp String Ensemble, Hohner Clavinet, and Minimoog compact synthesizer. Worrell also played a grand piano and wrote some of the arrangements for P-Funk songs. He can be heard prominently on many P-Funk hits, including “Flash Light” and “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker).”
Worrell began releasing solo albums in the late 1970s, and in the early 1980s, he began to branch out to work with other bands. Perhaps most notable was his time as an unofficial but regular member of Talking Heads. The pioneering new wave band contacted Worrell at a time when, as he told the New Times, they “wanted to funk.” Worrell began working with them on their 1982 album “The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads,” recording and touring with them until their 1991 dissolution. He performed with Talking Heads in the recordings for their 1984 concert film, “Stop Making Sense.”
Other artists with whom Worrell worked include Fela Kuti, Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, and Gov’t Mule. In 2011, he formed the group the Bernie Worrell Orchestra, touring and recording.
Worrell is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 1997 as a member of P-Funk.
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