Bernie Worrell: The Most Influential Keyboardist You've Probably Never Heard Of Composer and keyboardist Bernie Worrell played funk, soul, and broke genres as a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic and a performer with Talking Heads. Worrell died Friday at the age of 72.
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Bernie Worrell: The Most Influential Keyboardist You've Probably Never Heard Of

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Bernie Worrell: The Most Influential Keyboardist You've Probably Never Heard Of

Bernie Worrell: The Most Influential Keyboardist You've Probably Never Heard Of

Bernie Worrell: The Most Influential Keyboardist You've Probably Never Heard Of

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/483537353/483537354" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Composer and keyboardist Bernie Worrell played funk, soul, and broke genres as a founding member of Parliament-Funkadelic and a performer with Talking Heads. Worrell died Friday at the age of 72.

RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Composer and keyboardist Bernie Worrell died Friday at the age of 72 following a battle with late-stage lung cancer. Worrell was a classically trained musician who bridged musical styles playing with everyone from Keith Richards, the house band of David Letterman's "Late Show" to the O'Jays and Mos Def. NPR's Eric Deggans has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARLIAMENT SONG, "FLASHLIGHT")

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Bernie Worrell might have been the most influential keyboardist you never heard of. His playing fueled a number of big hits. You hear his muscular synthesizer baselines on Parliament, Funkadelic hits like "Flashlight."

(SOUNDBITE OF PARLIAMENT SONG, "FLASHLIGHT")

DEGGANS: His quirky keyboard work spiced Talking Heads tunes like "Girlfriend Is Better."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLFRIEND IS BETTER")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) She's coming up, going right through my heart. She's going to give me...

DEGGANS: And his lush organ sounds backed Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders on the ballot "I Remember You."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PRETENDERS SONG, "I REMEMBER YOU")

DEGGANS: George Bernard Worrell, Jr. was born in New Jersey in 1944. A musical prodigy, he began playing piano at age 3 and had written his first concerto by age 8. He also studied at the Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory of Music.

Worrell told NPR in 1991 that such a genre-bending creativity came from knowing the fundamentals of music well enough to break them. That's a lesson he feared young musicians weren't learning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BERNIE WORRELL: The art of creating is not just pushing a button. We're going to lose the art of creating and composing because they won't even know how to make a chord.

DEGGANS: His own life would change when he snuck out of his strict household to hang out with local barber George Clinton and his band the Parliaments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AQUA BOOGIE")

PARLIAMENT: (Singing) Can't catch the rhythm of the stroke.

DEGGANS: By 1970, Morrell was with the group full-time, and they were rewriting the rules of funk. His funky, atmospheric textures from newly invented keyboards like the Minimoog synthesizer melded with the band's psychedelic sounds to create a new style.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARLIAMENT SONG, "AQUA BOOGIE")

DEGGANS: After Parliament, Worrell joined Talking Heads for their landmark record "Speaking In Tongues" appearing in their concert film "Stop Making Sense." His later work tended towards more experimental flavors, including an appearance with members of the rock band "Living Colour" on rapper Mos Def's 2004 album "The New Danger."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOS DEF SONG, "FREAKY BLACK GREETINGS")

DEGGANS: Worrell was never as well-known as bandmates like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, who once called him the Jimi Hendrix of keyboards. In January, Worrell announced he had cancer.

To help cover his medical bills, several of his friends and former bandmates held a benefit concert in New York in April, including musician David Byrne, actress Meryl Streep and "Tonight Show" bandleader Questlove. It was the kind of musical cross-pollination that defined Worrell's career, a fitting tribute to a pioneer whose talent couldn't be bound by any one style or category of music. Bernie Worrell was 72 years old. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUNKADELIC SONG, "KNEE DEEP")

SUAREZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Ray Suarez. Follow us on Twitter @npratc. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNEE DEEP")

FUNKADELIC: (Singing) She always makes me dance...

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Bernie Worrell, 'Wizard Of Woo,' Dies At 72

Bernie Worrell performs at the Black Rock Coalition Presents: All The Woo In The World — An All-Star Celebration benefit concert on April 4 in New York City. The concert was raising money for Worrell's medical costs. Al Pereira/WireImage hide caption

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Al Pereira/WireImage

Bernie Worrell performs at the Black Rock Coalition Presents: All The Woo In The World — An All-Star Celebration benefit concert on April 4 in New York City. The concert was raising money for Worrell's medical costs.

Al Pereira/WireImage

Keyboardist and composer Bernie Worrell, who helped shape the sound of the band Parliament-Funkadelic and influenced countless artists across a wide range of genres, died Friday at 72.

Worrell announced earlier this year that he had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.

His musical life began early — according to his official biography, he started studying piano at age 3, wrote his first concerto at age 8 and performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., at 10.

The classically trained keyboardist (he studied at Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music) made his name — and an indelible mark on music — in the world of P-Funk.

Worrell, aka "The Wizard of Woo," was an early member of Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton's sprawling, theatrical and wildly influential funk collective.

YouTube

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame notes that Parliament and Funkadelic "prefigured everything from rap and hip-hop to techno and alternative," with latter-day disciples including Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Worrell was one of the key collaborators shaping the sounds of the collective.

He was particularly famous for his innovative embrace of the sounds of synthesizers.

In the 1980s, Worrell helped reshape the sound of the Talking Heads and became a regular member of their expanded lineup.

Even if you don't know Worrell, you've probably heard his work. As a studio musician he contributed to scores of albums, and P-Funk songs are frequently sampled on hip-hop tracks.

In 1991, when his second solo album came out, Worrell spoke to reporter Andy Lyman for Morning Edition. Worrell said his mastery of musical fundamentals was central to his genre-mashing work.

"The art of creating is not just pushing a button," he said. "We're going to lose
the art of creating — composing — because they won't even know how to make a chord. The chords are already just on a button. What is the root? What's the third? What's the fifth of the chord?

"I feel that a lot of artists and parents who are interested in music should get music back into the mainstream in school systems," he said. "That's being lost also."

You can hear that whole piece, which also explores the social awareness of Parliament/Funkadelic as well as Worrell's lasting influence on the Talking Heads, here:

From 1991: Funk Legend Bernie Worrell, By Andy Lyman

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In January, Worrell announced that he had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. An online fundraiser and star-studded benefit concert helped cover his medical expenses — and gave many in the music community a chance to honor his life while he was still there to hear it.

George Clinton and Bootsy Collins of P-Funk, David Byrne and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, Fred Schneider of the B-52s, Buckethead, Living Colour and Questlove, among others, performed at the "All The WOO In The World" benefit concert in April. And Worrell played too, of course.

The crowd shouted "We love you, Bernie!" as he struggled for words, holding a proclamation from the mayor of Newark, N.J., in his honor. "I don't know what to --" Worrell said.

"Thank you," he finally said. "I love you, too."