The Mothership’s Navigator: A Eulogy for Bernie Worrell (1944-2016)

If there were any justice in this world, Bernie Worrell would need no introduction. His name would have gone down in history as one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. Bob Moog may have invented the electronic synthesizer as we know it, but it was Bernie Worrell who made it sing—and sigh, and groan, and squeak, and churn, and roar, and make a seemingly endless array of sounds and timbres—while his peers and predecessors of the late ’60s and early ’70s used the synthesizer as a replacement for specific instruments (such as Wendy Carlos’ 1967 album Switched-On Bach, where a synthesizer stands in for a Baroque ensemble playing selections from the catalogue of Johann Sebastian Bach), in Worrell’s hands the synthesizer became more like a superposition of all possible instruments, capable of becoming seemingly anything he desired, in any style he desired.

“Aqua Boogie” off of the 1978 Parliament album Motor Booty Affair. If you listen to hip-hop music you’ve probably heard samples of these keyboard parts many times.

The driving, lurching synth bass lines that formed the backbone of an entire generation of hip-hop and dance music in the ’80s? Bernie Worrell invented them (and in the process became one of the most-sampled musicians in hip-hop history). The ethereal, gossamer keyboard melodies used in much of modern electronic music that seem neither classical nor jazz nor rock nor R&B, but simultaneously none of them and all of them? He did it first. The ridiculous “wizard” persona attached to many modern rock and metal keyboardists? Bernie Worrell was “The Wizard of Woo” before anyone had even heard of most of them, and unlike them it didn’t feel like meaningless pretense when he did it. Worrell was a colossal musical talent, who simultaneously understood seemingly every musical tradition that created the professional music culture he entered in the 1960s, but could conjure novel and amazing ideas out of them seemingly at a whim.

Bernie Worrell and Praxis play “Seven Laws of Woo” at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2014. The video title has guitarist’s Buckethead’s name instead of Bernie Worrell’s despite the song being written by Worrell, named after him, and dominated by a beautiful organ solo performed by him.

Born George Bernard Worrell, Jr. to a middle-class black family in Long Branch, New Jersey, Worrell’s early immersion in and incredible talent for music made him an immediate prodigy. He began formal piano training at only three years old and was composing concertos for piano before puberty. A deep understanding and total command of both the European classical and black American church traditions formed the foundation of his musical language, rich with harmonic complexity and emotional power. To this foundation he amalgamated seemingly every musical idea and style he came across—jazz, blues, rock, Americana, and especially the highly rhythmic fusion of R&B, soul, bebop, and psychedelia that would later become known as funk.

Locked out of the higher echelons of the classical music world by systemic racism, Worrell found his way into George Clinton’s then embryonic doo-wop ensemble The Parliaments, and in the process changed the future of music forever. Of the many funk ensembles that exploded onto the scene in the early ’70s, none were more musically ambitious and talented than Parliament-Funkadelic, and their success owed much to Worrell’s musical knowledge and imagination. Songs like “Star Child”, “One Nation Under a Groove”, and “Atmosphere” contained sounds and styles nobody had even imagined before, let alone played, and beautiful harmonic backdrops that could have come only from a classically trained musician.

Unfortunately, Worrell’s talents were never as appreciated by the general public as his more boisterous P-Funk compatriots like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and he was cheated out of much of the money he was entitled to by Clinton and the record industry. His wife Judie Worrell lays out the story of how he got ripped off in her blog Wooniversal Truths. While he was in demand with many extremely talented musicians during the 1980s, such as the Talking Heads (where he was essentially the de facto fifth member of the band but denied proper membership and songwriting credits), Bill Laswell, and Cream/Fela Kuti alumnus Ginger Baker, the general public, obsessed with lead singers and “guitar heroes”, took little notice of him and he struggled to make ends meet. He released a succession of excellent solo albums in the ’90s, culminating in the prog rock-infused Free Agent: A Spaced Odyssey (my favorite of his solo career), but they were released on small independent labels and sold poorly.

“Afro-Futurism (Phazed One)” from Free Agent: A Spaced Odyssey. Can we call this prog-funk? Especially with the interlude around 12 minutes where he seems to take a page from Rick Wakeman’s playbook and then improve it, I think we certainly can.

Even in his old age, Bernie Worrell never stopped moving forwards. He has appeared on several excellent recordings with Bill Laswell, Les Claypool, and Gigi, and his last known recording, “Black Space Invocation” (released posthumously through Bill Laswell’s company), revisits his roots as a classical musician. Composed and performed shortly before his death from lung cancer, it is less a “song” than a classical requiem, distant, icy, and ominous. The only instrument is a Hammond organ, but it sounds as huge and elaborate as an entire room full of ’70s electronics thanks to Worrell’s incredibly advanced harmonies and chord voicings and Bill Laswell’s masterful production. While the sound and the mood calls to mind German kosmische musik of the 1970s, the intricate thematic development in the composition makes it far more sophisticated than the often quite static music of artists like Klaus Schulze, Popol Vuh, Ashra, etc. It is available for download on Bill Laswell’s Bandcamp, and is a must-listen for any lover of the organ or of art music as well as a fitting capstone for Bernie Worrell’s career.

While his amazing talents, accomplishments, and influence have never been appreciated by the popular music business, Bernie Worrell will forever be remembered by musicians and hardcore music fans alongside the likes of Herbie Hancock and Keith Emerson as one of the people who created and first embodied our modern idea of a keyboard player and had a hand in shaping some of the greatest and most important albums of the twentieth century. If you listen to funk, R&B, hip-hop, new wave, electronica, progressive music, or anything else made in the past forty years that involves keyboards, Bernie Worrell’s legacy has touched your music somewhere, somehow. From east coast hip-hop rhythms to symphonic dirges, from raunchy humor to pensive contemplation, Bernie Worrell was far more than just a “funk musician”, he was a consummate musician who could express himself musically in almost any way imaginable. The music world is poorer for his loss.

Requiescat in pace.


By: Harrison Murray

1 Comment

  • Met Bernie Worrell only once, when he came to teach a workshop at my kids’ local School of Rock outlet. While the kids got their lesson, I got an earful from his wife about how screwed he’d been by the biz in general and Dr. Funkenstein in particular. Not a pretty story.
    As you say, rip’d off. RIP, Woo Warrior.

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