(Top photo by Alicia Funderburk)
During a meeting with my friends on the Make Weird Music staff the other day, I took a minute to inform them of my Bernie Worrell book writing progress. I also discussed the arduous efforts that go into finding and securing a literary agent. This is something next to NO author looks forward to, given its immensely time consuming nature.
It was suggested that I simply look for a publisher (which I ultimately did for my first book). I explained that taking that path was fine for my first book, which was a passion project above all else. Bernie Worrell was a subject with MUCH more mainstream appeal. It needed the full weight of an agent that could get me to a major publisher. That publisher would be able to create the publicity push I would never be able make on my own. This book was bigger than that.
I was asked why I believed that. Why did people need to read a book about Bernie Worrell?
Admittedly, my brain was not yet completely locked into the meeting. Because of that, the first words out of my mouth were “I don’t know.” This is what usually say while I give myself time to formulate a thought. But I’ll admit, it’s not the answer one would seek during a pitch meeting.
That’s the wrong answer, I was told. And that’s right. It is the wrong answer. I swore I would have a better answer once I’d taken a little time to think about it.
I’ve got it now.
The answer is relatively simple: Because Bernie Worrell is in your music collection whether you realize it or not. You, as a listener, need to know why that matters. Bernie made a lot of the music you know and love better, and you didn’t even know he was there!
You need to know how the legendary sound of Parliament-Funkadelic had a LOT less to do with George Clinton than so many have given him credit for. To be certain, Clinton was a brilliant conceptualist. But the MUSIC — the engine that moved that concept train forward — was driven by Bernie, along with Bootsy Collins, Billy “Bass” Nelson, Eddie Hazel, Tiki Fullwood, Fred Wesley and many others. But it was Bernie who created most of the arrangements, wrote the band charts, and directed the music from his keyboard riser while Clinton handled the frontman duties and made himself the center of attention.
You need to known why Talking Heads sought Bernie out, and how his addition to the band helped elevate them and their music to the next level. Don’t believe me? Grab the Speaking in Tongues album or watch the Stop Making Sense concert and listen for the synth parts. You’ll hear it almost immediately.
You need to know why Steve Jordan thought Bernie’s keyboard sound would be the perfect for Keith Richards’s first solo album, Talk is Cheap. You need to know why Bill Laswell sought him out for so many projects in the 80’s and 90’s, including Johnny Lydon’s Public Image Ltd. project, Album. You need to know why Rita Coolidge, Nona Hendryx, Fred Schneider (of the B-52s), The Pretenders, Fela Kuti, Les Claypool, and Warren Haynes deemed Bernie’s sound essential to their records. You need to know how Bernie took a solid band based in the Native American sounds of the Pacific Northwest and made them legendary.
This was no fluke. Bernie played on some 500 records. He’s in your collection. I can almost guarantee it!
You need to know how Bernie, a classically trained pianist with perfect pitch, took the Hammond organ, Moog synthesizer, and Hohner clavinet (among other keyboards) to a new plane with his deft touch, ear for detail, and sense of humor to make him, as Rolling Stone magazine called him, “The most influential keyboardist you’ve never heard of.”
You need to know how Bernie’s keyboards are LITERALLY one of the bedrock sounds propelling the hip-hop sounds of the early to mid-90’s. To say Dr. Dre might not have the career he’s had without Bernie is NO exaggeration. Bernie’s sound and innovations were omnipresent whether or not he was physically in the room. He was being sampled and placed into a new context that caught fire and changed the course of music.
You need to know how Bernie left his mark on just about everyone he ever met, musically and otherwise. He was more than just a musical presence. He was a friend, mentor, teacher, and motivational coach. To say nothing of being a husband and father. And he did it all while often saying precious few words.
You need to know who Bernie Worrell was. You need to know how he affects the music of your past and how he will affect the music of your future.
Does that answer your question?
Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.
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