While I work on his official biography, I thought it would be a good idea to find different ways to celebrate the life and music of the legendary Bernie Worrell. He was best known as the keyboardist for Parliament/Funkadelic in the 70’s, but Bernie was MUCH more than that.
He was a classically trained pianist with perfect pitch, yes. But he was also a composer (a LOT of the credit given to George Clinton for P-Funk’s sound and songs really belongs to Bernie, as you will read), producer, arranger, band leader, mentor, and friend to pretty much everyone who knew him. His career included his involvement in some 500 albums, covering just about any genre you care to mention. Bernie was a true MUSICIAN.
I have plans for a feature on my forthcoming YouTube channel. But for now, I have started a Spotify playlist featuring Bernie’s musical highlights. I’ve started with 20 songs, but keep checking the link, because I’ll be adding and updating it frequently.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?!?
March 26, 2020
It all started with a direct message on Facebook.
A very nice lady asked me if I would call her relative to a writing project. I was intrigued. The nice lady was named Judie Worrell. I didn’t make any immediate connections.
I returned the DM. “Sure, I’d love to talk about it. I am on the verge of starting my second and third books as I prepare to retire from my day job,” I said. “But I’m always interested in hearing about other things.” My tone was pretty casual, and I wasn’t thinking all that deeply about it. And in the process, I nearly torpedoed myself.
Clearly, I was busy. Judie took that to mean I wouldn’t want to take on another project. Then she let the cat out of the bag. “I’m looking for someone to write a biography on my husband, Bernie Worrell. But it seems like you’re too busy …”
It would seem Judie had been aware of or had been made aware of my writing, which led her to contact me. I have been saying for a couple of years that one of my goals was to get my writing in front of the right set of eyes, which could lead to bigger (and more widely seen) things than my own personal musical adventures. It would seem this has actually happened.
I assured her I was interested. Bernie Worrell is, after all, a legendary musician! How could I pass up a chance like this? I agreed to call and talk to her, which I did from my patrol car near the end of an afternoon watch.
Our conversation was quite pleasant, and it almost sounded like Judie was ready to offer me the gig then and there. And I was ready to take it! Instead, she asked me to “sell myself” via a brief proposal explaining why I thought I was qualified, and where I would take this body of work. And that’s what I did. It appears to have paid off.
There were negotiations, of course, but no real sticking points. Judie and I have been on the same page since our very first conversation. But there were a couple of details to iron out. That has been taken care of.
Shortly after, I was over the moon to put these words on my social medial pages:
“Bernie Worrell is a legend. His work with Parliament/Funkadelic in the 1970’s, and the impact it had on funk, rock and R&B music, cannot be overstated. He was a prodigy, an A-list keyboardist, a brilliant composer, a sound innovator, and one of the biggest influences in the history of music. Bernie passed away in 2016, but his work continues to resonate, and will for years to come.
And I am his biographer.
With the blessing of the Worrell estate, I have been commissioned to write Bernie’s life story. I can’t begin to express how honored and humbled I am. My first #semiretirement project will keep me very busy, indeed. I’ll still be doing my CirdecSongs work, but I’ll have to get a LOT better with my time management.
Thank you to everyone who made this possible. I won’t let you down.”
And with that, my semi-retired life — which I refer to as #ChapterTwo — officially had a purpose.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
March 27, 2020
I’m one of those writers.
Most of the time, it’s hard for me to write without giving what I’m working on a title.
It doesn’t have to be a permanent title. But it should give me a good idea of which way to steer the ship.
For a day or two, I struggled with titling Bernie Worrell’s life story. Should it be something based off one of the bands he played in? Something to do with keyboards or synthesizers? Funk? I really wasn’t sure.
A couple of days ago I woke up, and there it was:
The Woo Warrior: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell
I ran my thought past Judie, whom I’ve come to think of as Quality Control. When in doubt, I bounce what I’m thinking off her.
She quickly pointed out that Bernie’s band was called The WOO Warriors. Bernie himself was known as The Wizard of WOO. “And make sure you capitalize the WOO,” she said kindly but firmly.
I was aware of the distinction. But in my mind, my title hit just a little harder. I mean, did it really matter that much? Or it could be that I was just being stubborn and didn’t want my brilliant idea changed.
In the end, I put forth the best argument I had in my holster:
And just like that, a barrier was cleared. It’s not temporary. The title is set:
The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell
On to what’s next.
ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS
Now that I know where I want to go, it’s time to figure out how to get there. The map of Bernie Worrell’s musical output is a broad one indeed.
The biggest issue I will have with this biography is also the most obvious: I won’t be able to speak to the subject personally. It’s always helpful to speak directly to your subject, as it enables you to capture things you might not otherwise pick up on.
It would be nice to see how Bernie reacts when he talks about certain bands, musicians, and records. That goes a long way toward learning what the subject really thinks about the subject at hand, as opposed to the “sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows” version record publicists prefer.
I won’t have that advantage.
There’s no sense crying about it. I have to live with it. So it’s off to the next best thing.
I’ll be spending hours pouring through pretty much anything I can learn about Bernie online. Interviews, record reviews, articles, YouTube videos … there’s more than enough background information to be found.
Then I can start in my own batch of interviews, which I plan to make as extensive and detail-oriented as the subjects will allow. I only get one chance to get it right. I don’t intend to miss that chance.
And not to worry: I love doing research.
Down the rabbit hole I go …
THIRD PERSON DEADLINES
March 29, 2020
When it comes to an engaging book, narrative flow is everything.
My first book was written in first person, because it was my personal point of view. In fact, three of my first four planned books come from that angle. Not because I’m self-centered (usually), but because of their personal nature.
I can’t do that with Bernie Worrell’s biography.
There is no personal connection with my subject outside of the appreciation of his music. For the first time in a very long while, I have to be a true journalist.
This isn’t a problem. I did it in school, as well as the military. Police reports start in first person, then shift to third. Which is to say I’m more than capable of conducting interviews, sequencing them, and writing about my findings without making myself part of the story.
And so, I gather my information like the reporter I once wanted to be. To be honest, I’m rather enjoying it.
I’m also dealing with something I haven’t had to deal with in a very long time: a deadline.
I promised the Worrell Estate I would have a first draft completed by the end of the year. On the surface, that seems rather ambitious. Truth be told, it is. After all, it took me 26 months to research and write my first book.
Nevertheless, I accepted the challenge, because I have three distinct things going for me:
- I won’t be researching and writing while working as a police officer during a period of massive social upheaval. I started my last book during the early stages of the Ferguson uprisings.
- I’m convinced I could have completed I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This in half the time working my regular hours. For this book, I will actually be semi-retired. I don’t plan on doing anything job-oriented for four months. That makes for a wide open calendar. Should make it a lot easier to conduct research and write. I can do it full-time. When I’m not on the golf course.
- My book was 450 pages in print. It was an easy read, but the number was what it was. The Wizard of WOO will clock in at around 300-350 pages, give or take. Much easier.
So this is a challenge. But a manageable one.
Speaking of which, I’d better get back to it.
MORE THAN MEETS THE (CASUAL) EAR
Here’s something casual music fans don’t know: Bernie Worrell appeared on at least 500 recordings during his career.
Sure, everyone knows about his impact in the funk/R&B world. Mention Parliament/Funkadelic, and people in the know light right up, practically dancing in place. For casual fans, the knowledge ends there.
Slightly more hip fans will tell you about Bernie’s stint with Talking Heads or about his band, The WOO Warriors. Really hip fans will bring up bands like Praxis or Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains. They might even mention collaborations with Bill Laswell. And that’s all well and good.
But they’re only scratching the surface.
Five. Hundred. Recordings.
Will I get to hear everything? Probably not. But I’ll make the largest dent possible. Because rock and funk are also just the tip of a very large iceberg. As Judie loves to point out, Bernie entered the musical world as a child prodigy playing classical music. He was also highly adept at jazz, blues, reggae, “world” music, and countless hybrids therein.
This is how genius works. It doesn’t remain stationary. It makes its way into as many nooks and crannies as possible. And I get the honor of following all the bread crumb trails.
I expect to have my eyes opened widely more than a few times during my research. Realizing how many places already existed within my collection elicited both wonder and joyous laughter. Lord knows it opened the door to the possibility of interviews with musicians I’ve never dreamed of talking to. Assuming I can get through their managers and agents. Hopefully, Judie’s name still swings a heavy bat. Mine sure as hell doesn’t.
Expect the unexpected. That’s advice to both myself and you. There will be more than a few twists and turns. I’m thinking most of them will be a lot of fun to discover.
REACHING FOR THE STARS
My music journalism has, for the most part, focused on musicians rather than rock stars.
The difference is relatively simple: you can reach a musician and engage in a conversation without a ton of effort. The talks you wind up having can be really special. With rock stars, you must navigate the machine, which is designed primarily to frustrate potential interviewers. The end result is rarely as satisfactory as one might hope.
My first book focused on the musicians I have loved over the years. Arranging interviews was often surprisingly easy. When I wanted to talk to Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, I reached him via Twitter. Next thing I knew, we were talking after a gig in my hometown. When I wanted to interview singer/songwriter Rob Fetters, I emailed his management, hoping they would connect me. Instead, I got an email directly from Rob. “Instead of going through all (the usual steps), why don’t you just call me?” he wrote. “Here’s my number.” We’ve actually gotten to be friends since then. In fact, I only got truly rebuffed once. Even then, I was much closer to getting the chat than I thought I was. Alas, my subject just … vanished shortly after.
Musicians … go figure.
I didn’t bother with trying to reach David Bowie, Prince (both he and Bowie were still alive when I started writing the book), Peter Gabriel, or anyone else on that Rock Star level. I knew I would have to go through management, agents, handlers, and God-knows who else just to get a 30-minute bare-bones chat with a rock star who could probably give a damn what I was all about, let alone be interested in really emoting. It didn’t seem worth it.
I thought I might get to talk to Fetters for 45 minutes or so. We talked for more than two hours. Mike Keneally gave me more than 90 minutes, twice what I was hoping for. Same for Markus Reuter and Andre Cholmendeley. We started talking, and nature took its course. I didn’t see anything like that being possible with someone like Thom Yorke. No doubt his manager or agent would be just out of view, pointing to his watch after 20 minutes or so. And I would barely get anything worth writing.
No rock stars, I determined. I will stay in my lane.
Bernie Worrell has played on 500 or more albums with a veritable “Who’s Who” of musicians and rock stars. Some of those rock stars are out-and-out legends. And Judie wants me to talk to them. All of them.
The list she has put before me is quite staggering. I won’t reveal any names now. What I will say is three or four conversations on this level puts me in a completely different stratosphere as an author and a journalist. If I can get through these doors, I should be pretty much set to talk to whomever I want for the remainder of my writing days.
To be clear, I’m not intimidated. Thirty years in uniform as a military journalist and police officer has put me next to more than a few celebrities. You might shake a little at first, but once the ice is broken, you’re just talking to someone who happens to go on television or play a sport for a living. It’s no big deal. When I was conducting interviews for my book, a musician friend said of meeting rock stars, “They’re just people, man.” That’s how I treat them, and it works out just fine. Vernon Reid is a prime example. Before getting into the questions for my book, I stood between him and Corey Glover talking Star Trek and Marvel movies. It was glorious. And completely humanizing. After that, the interview was easy.
Still, I had no plans to try and work at the Rock Star level any time soon. But that has officially gone out the window.
I must now prepare myself to enter a world of blockers, re-directors, and go-betweens. I have to be prepared to get what I need in 30 minutes or less, because the subjects will be busy and probably have little to no time for this nobody from Nowhere and his little book. My only hope is that Bernie’s name still carries some weight. I suspect it does. So does Judie. In fact, she’s working to open some of those doors for me. All I have to do is step inside and not say anything stupid.
I think I can handle that.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
I’m taking a week away from all things Bernie Worrell. This will probably happen three or four times in the course of writing this book. Sometimes I need to take a step back to clear my head. It helps free up the things stuck in my mind, unable to make their way to paper.
I’ve played the guitar off and on since 1997 or so. As such, I’ve come to look upon just about any form of music I listen to from the guitarist’s perspective. Bernie Worrell was a keyboard player. And while I have plunked out a few chords on a piano once or twice — I even had two synthesizers in my studio a few years back — I have never taken the time to look at music from they keyboardist’s point of view. This is a new challenge, and essential in order for this project to succeed.
Dizzy Gillespie once told a story about teaching aspects of composition to Miles Davis. Both were trumpet players, but Dizzy impressed on Miles the importance of being able to play the piano when writing music. “It enables you to see the entire spectrum of notes,” he said. I must admit, this makes perfect sense.
The guitar offers a wide spectrum of notes and possibilities, but not in the rigorously organized form of the keyboard. A guitarist looking for a particular sound can change the tuning of his instrument. The keyboardist does not have that luxury. Here are the notes. They are presented in this order. Make the most of them. For me, this is quite the foreign concept.
Years of playing and listening to guitarists gives one insight as to what the player is doing in the moment. Is he playing with an open tuning? Is he soloing using the pentatonic scale? Is he using a pick or his fingers to get the sound? How heavy are his strings, and what kind of pickups are in his guitar? Geeks like me love to listen to and analyze these kinds of things.
Keyboardists are no different. Trouble is, I don’t speak their language.
Bernie released a DVD covering his playing techniques and compositional methods. I have a copy. But Bernie was not the most talkative person in the world, and his interviewer wasn’t doing a whole lot better with translating what the star was saying. I was still confused. I needed a different approach.
In the end, the solution was simple: if you want to know what a keyboardist is thinking and how he’s making the sounds he makes, ask another keyboardist! I actually “hired” two keyboard players to assist me toward the aim of translating the style of Bernie Worrell. Between those points of view, I should be able to get closer to what I aim to describe in the book.
I’ve often told my fellow officers that it’s good to see policing from more than one angle. That way they understand what goes into the decision making process, and why bosses and others bring forth certain rules and policies. I have been known to think like a drummer or bassist from time to time, but I have spent next to no time thinking like a keyboardist. Well, that’s about to change.
This will be a fascinating journey.
SO MUCH TO READ
You hated me in high school.
I was the kid who loved doing research papers. I absolutely loved them! While the rest of my class groaned about the impossibility of writing 10-12 pages about pretty much anything, I groaned because I felt there was no way I could say all I needed to say in that highly restrictive format. Invariably, my teacher would remind me she had about 90 of these papers to grade, and it would be in my best interest to conform.
Fine. If I must.
Advanced mathematics gives me the shakes. My head hurts instantly when I think of Chemistry or Physics. But writing a paper? BRING. IT. ON. Why? Well, for one thing, I’m very comfortable when I write. It actually relaxes me. For another thing, I actually enjoy doing research. I see reading numerous items from multiple sources and conducting interviews as a great deal of fun!
And it’s a good thing, too. Because where Bernie Worrell is concerned, there is a TON of research to be done.
An artist who appeared on at least 500 recordings has interacted with a LOT of people. It’s my job to seek out as many of those people as possible. Since Bernie passed away in 2016, it is obviously impossible for me to interview him. But many others had the privilege in years past. Now I have to track down, read, and gather information from those moments. I can certainly chew what I’ve bitten off, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a mouthful.
The information has only just started to flow in. I’ve turned on the information spigot, but I sense the dam will come close to breaking at some point as more and more people learn about the project and feel the need to reach out to me and add their two cents worth. I had a lot more control over my first book than I will over this one. I’ll have to be extra careful not to let this one spiral out of control.
If I have one great advantage, it’s the Internet. In high school and college, my life was about going to the library, leafing through the card catalog (or the much more modern microfiche), then coming home with an armload of books I couldn’t highlight or mark in any way. All I could do was take copious notes, annotate where the info came from, then create a bibliography. At least this time I can read, download, and print off specifically what I need (while still making sure to give proper credit where it’s due).
I also remember the days when conducting an interview meant scribbling furious notes and relying on my memory to get the quotes exactly right. At least this time I have a recorder to make sure I get what was said word for word. It’s a lot harder for your subject to howl about being taken out of context with those handy devices.
And then there’s Bernie’s music. So much music! Different bands, different roles, different styles … and I need to hear nearly all of it in order to paint a complete and proper picture of the man, his life, and his career output. On the surface, it can seem a bit intimidating. But that doesn’t make it any less fun.
And so I take my first steps down this fascinating rabbit hole. I’m sure I’ll complain from time to time. But it will be a joy all the same. And you’ll be glad that nerdy pain in the ass from English class is on top of this particular case.
MOURNING THE END, CELEBRATING THE BEGINNING
I’m writing these words on June 24. Today marks four years since the passing of Bernie Worrell. The man’s mortal body could no longer handle the physical ravages being placed upon it. Had I been told that this time last year, the thought would not have resonated quite as much. Now that I am deeply immersed in writing about the man’s life, I can’t help but feel the day and the loss ten times more.
Work has begun in earnest on The Wizard of WOO. When this project will appear before your eyes is uncertain, and probably will be for some time. Rest assured, I am doing all I can to put together a work no sane literary agent or publisher would turn his back on. Bernie’s life and music will get everything my literary body and soul has to offer, and then some. He deserves at least that much.
One thing has become clear in the early stages of my research: Bernie Worrell was ADORED by any- and everyone he came in contact with. I’ve conducted about a quarter of the interviews I have planned as part of my research. Without fail — and completely unprompted — each person I have spoken to has told me that Bernie was so much more than a musical genius. Every person I’ve talked to so far — EVERY one of them — could not say enough about what a decent human being Bernie Worrell was. Friends, relatives, musicians, fans … we are all family in the eyes of the Wizard. I never met or spoke to the man, yet I feel a deep sense of kinship even now.
It seems like everyone in music deemed a “genius” by others has a touch of what I like to call the “SOB Factor.” It comes out in both books and movies. The artist’s abilities may be unparalleled, but they come with a personality factor that makes the artist a real son of a bitch on some level. But since there is genius to be appreciated, we ignore that fundamental flaw. Here’s the thing: Bernie seems to be the exception to that rule. Thus far, there is no SOB Factor to be found. This is not to say the man was perfect. He most certainly was NOT. But his human characteristics go far beyond what anyone else in this particular stratosphere seemed to possess. It’s a joy to learn about.
It seems only fitting that a box of memorabilia arrived at my home today, courtesy of the Worrell estate. Inside this treasure trove are professional and family photos, ticket stubs, programs, and other items that will only enhance the story I’ll be writing. My words will not be enough. To truly appreciate Bernie, you must be able to see what I’m talking about from time to time. In another dimension, I would be able to help you hear it as well. That’s something I’ll have to figure out.
While I’ve never treated it otherwise, this project continues to get more “real” with every passing day. There is a great story here waiting to be told. With every passing day, with every archived article or interview I read about him, with every Honors thesis I examine (yes, they exist), with every interview I conduct, the story gets deeper and deeper. I can’t wait to share that story with you.
THE HIGHEST REGARD
Some writing projects are easier than others.
I’ve been writing on various levels for a very long time. More often than not, I have been able to approach my subject with enough enthusiasm to make my writing relatively easy once all the source material is in place. This is usually the direct result of the subject(s) being interesting, or the source material offering up the kind of information that makes writing the facts and the thought processes behind them relatively simple. I can just sit at the keyboard and watch the words flow.
Now and then, there is a subject I find myself less than enthusiastic about. Naturally, this causes the words to flow a bit more slowly, like molasses running uphill in January. Rarely do I find the writing process tortuous. But it happens every now and again.
My first book was nothing but a study in enthusiasm. I loved my subject matter, and even when I had to write something negative, I knew it served a purpose toward the overall narrative. Throughout the course of typing a 606-page manuscript (translated to 450 pages in print), I cannot recall a specific instance where I found myself stuck or searching for the right words. Some subjects were more fun than others, but none of them were approached with a sense of dread. That makes things much easier.
When I took on the Bernie Worrell project, I did so with a high degree of enthusiasm. Here is a musician who’s song has never been properly sung. To be recruited for such a project is an honor for which I will forever be grateful. I have every intention of earning this commission, despite having already been awarded same.
I was enthusiastic about my subject to the point where it never dawned on me that my subject might be difficult to write about. Maybe he wasn’t a good person. Maybe he did horrible things. Maybe nobody really liked him. What would I do then? There’s nothing worse than pushing molasses against a deadline.
Thankfully, I had no need to worry whatsoever.
I’m about hip-deep in articles and interviews conducted by myself and others. There was nothing in the works of other journalists that told me I was in for rough sledding. That was good. What’s even better is the consistent vibe I’m getting from the musicians and others who knew, hung around with, or shared the bandstand and studio with Bernie Worrell. I cannot recall ever writing about a subject being held in such incredibly high regard. It seems quite evident that to know Bernie was to LOVE Bernie, period.
My interview subjects can’t wait to tell me about him! They gush over his abilities as a keyboardist. They praise his influence, telling me how Bernie made them better players. They marvel at his innovations. They regale me with stories. And they laugh through almost all of it. Most importantly, every single interview subject I’ve spoken to simply cannot wait to tell me what an incredible human being Bernie was.
I only wish I could have met him.
Something else I’ve noticed: everyone I talk to wants to ensure Bernie gets his just due on multiple levels. The topic has been brought up by everyone I have interviewed so far. That may not seem like a big deal, but here’s the thing: I never ASKED anyone about it! Yet they found it necessary to bring it up all the same. It will make for a fascinating chapter. As for the subject, well … you’re just gonna have to wait.
My ultimate point is this: the subject of Bernie Worrell has opened up a geyser of writing possibilities, any one of which can be approached with a carefree joy and enthusiasm an author can only dream about. I’m writing about a great guy, and it’s going to show.
This is gonna be a lot of fun.
THE BIG BINDER OF BERNIE
It seems crazy when I say it out loud (so to speak), but a great deal of my first book was written off the top of my head.
I suppose it could be seen more like “stream of consciousness” writing: type out the thought without worrying about punctuation or narrative flow; then go back and turn those thoughts into coherent sentences and paragraphs. Since the book was essentially autobiographical, it didn’t take much to get thoughts where I wanted them.
I conducted a couple of dozen interviews for the book, as well. The interviews were recorded, with key points jotted into one of a couple of reporter’s notebooks I bought for the occasion. All things being equal, the process was relatively simple.
The Bernie Worrell story, on the other hand, is different.
My knowledge of Bernie and his musical contributions are, at best, passing. That is to say, I know who Bernie was and some of what he played, but my education is rudimentary. I don’t know enough for stream of consciousness writing. I need a different approach.
All in all, I’ll conduct nearly twice as many interviews this time. I’m scouring the Internet for any and all interviews Bernie conducted before his passing. I’m listening to as much of his music as I can and making notes about what I hear. I’m collecting material from Bernie’s widow Judie, and a few superfans who have offered to help out.
One thing is certain: all this information will NOT fit into a couple of reporter’s notebooks. I have to go next level.
So I bought a printer, which allows me to download any relevant articles or interviews, along with collecting the best “soundbites” from my chats, which I typed up and printed so I don’t have to work my way through my recordings more than once or twice. All of this information is being compiled, three-hole punched, and placed into what I have dubbed The Big Binder of Bernie.
If anything, I get a decent grade for my organizational skills.
But simply placing the items in the binder is not enough. I’ve come up with a table of contents, which makes it MUCH easier to figure just where my narrative is going. I have 13 chapters to write. As I go through my notes, I can assign each one needed to the appropriate chapter. This is a lot more reliable than my memory.
I have more than a few binders on my shelves. I couldn’t find my label maker, so the most logical thing to do was put a picture of Bernie on the binder’s front, making it easy to find. I like this photo of the man. When I look at it, I can hear Bernie saying (very kindly), “It’s time to get to work. And make sure you do right by me.”
I will, Bernie. I promise.
ON RETIREMENT, RUIN, RELOCATION, AND RECOVERY
It’s pretty much a cliche now, but I’m gonna say it anyway:
2020 has been some kind of year.
Nobody saw it coming. And the fact that 2021 is less than a month away does not by any means free us from its grip. We’re mired in 2020. Getting it to let us go will take more than a little effort from more than a few people, many of whom aren’t particularly interested in carrying their share of the load.
Nobody is above the fray. Nobody. I thought I was for the longest, but clearly I was in denial. All I had to do was take a little inventory to realize what a tough year this has been. Consider:
- A pandemic not taken seriously enough at first, leading to the severe (and nearly fatal) illness of a close friend and mentor. (Luckily, he has recovered. It only took him eight-plus months.)
- A retirement that, while ultimately executed, went nowhere near as planned.
- The death of a man at the hands of police, causing social upheaval and cultural revolution on a scale not seen in years. Said revolution brought a level of scrutiny onto my profession that actually had me thanking my personal god that I no longer had to go out and do the job.
- Rioting from said upheaval leading to the senseless death of my first commander (whom I deeply revered), as he was trying to protect a pawn shop while it was being looted.
- People on both sides of the political spectrum revealing their true selves to the point where it was deemed necessary to cut ties with many of them, including a former work partner I considered a brother and a close member of my family.
- The equally senseless death of a 29-year-old man I trained to take my place, shot in the head as he responded to a call to help two people being held hostage in their own home.
- Delivering one of the eulogies for that young man at his funeral, a task I was both honored to do and spiritually crushed by.
- Relocating to a new city, primarily to take advantage of a music scene that no longer exists and will not for some time.
- A metric ton of trauma not anticipated and relentlessly denied, even as I sunk into a mental place that made productivity all but impossible.
What does any of this have to do with Bernie Worrell, you ask?
I accepted the commission from the Worrell Estate bound and determined to plow through all the outside interference and keep my eyes on the prize. If I was gonna be stuck at home with everyone else, then it should be easy to make things happen and get everything finished in the time allotted.
Except it hasn’t worked out quite that way. The process has been a brick wall I ran into headfirst.
Still, there is hope.
I’ve talked to people. I’ve made new friends and solidified other relationships. I’ve settled in to my new home. The need to be productive continues to gain strength and momentum. The writing bug has bitten me hard. Finally. I’m typing like crazy again.
The Big Binder of Bernie has been reorganized. Notes are being transcribed and reviewed. More chats are being scheduled. The train is back on track, as it were, and I’m moving forward again.
The Holidays are upon us, but that doesn’t matter all that much in my office. The wheels are turning, and neither Santa nor the Baby New Year can stop them. The light at the end of the tunnel no longer looks like an oncoming freight train.
We’re gonna be OK.
Outside, things haven’t completely righted themselves by longshot. But there is hope on multiple levels. Understanding, leadership, medication … they’re all beginning to surface. It will take awhile before things seem “normal” again. And things will still look a helluva lot different.
But inside, things are realigning to the point where I can move forward. And that’s saying something.
KEEF AND MOS
While I’m at work on The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell, I thought it would be fun to share some of Bernie’s keyboard, composition, and production contributions from throughout his career, particularly outside of Parliament-Funkadelic. Bernie’s influence spread far wider than he is given credit for.
In 1988, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards released his first solo album, Talk is Cheap. The album is decidedly funkier than what he was doing with the Stones, thanks to the nature of the compositions written by Richards and drummer Steve Jordan. Another key element was the musicians Richards saw fit accompany him. Among them was Bernie Worrell.
Bernie’s contributions weren’t always heard up front in the mix. But they were always part of the groove holding the sound together. Such was the case in the album’s opener, “Big Enough.”
When Bernie did step to the front, he gave the song exactly what it needed. No more, no less. “Make No Mistake” could have easily come from the Memphis-based Stax Records in the early 1970’s. Bernie’s organ and clavinet were the main reason why. It’s a prime example of what Bernie called “Making it fit,” which is all he ever wanted his keyboards to do.
Bernie’s sound could fit any context. so it should hardly be a surprise that he was part of Black Jack Johnson, fronted by legendary MC Mos Def, for the 2004 album The New Danger.
The rest of the band consisted of guitarist Gary Miller, bassist Doug Wimbish, and drummer Will Calhoun. The band combined hip-hop, rock, and soul to create a groovy mix Bernie knew just how to augment.
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
By the end of the 70’s Bernie Worrell had no choice but to leave Parliament-Funkadelic (for reasons that will become obvious in the book). While he wasn’t overly eager to start his own band, plenty of bands were eager to have his talents.
Talking Heads was looking to move from its art rock roots into something more groove-oriented and funky. They brought on a slew of talent, like bassist Busta Jones, percussionist Steve Scales, and Bernie. The change was immediate, taking Talking Heads to the next level.
Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” concert video is the stuff of legend. And during one of the Talking Heads classic tunes, we get a good look at what Bernie brought to the table.
Bernie is most commonly associated with the funk/dance grooves of the 1970’s. But his range went far beyond that. The original Funkadelic was more of a psychedelic rock band before they went toward the rhythms of funk and R&B. In the 90’s, Bernie took it a step further, with a little help from his friends.
Produced by Bill Laswell, Bernie joined Bootsy Collins (bass), Buckethead (guitar), Brain (drums), and AF Next Man Flip (turntables and samples) to for Praxis. They mixed speed metal with funk and other elements to create a musical stew like no other at the time.
Bernie had plenty of room to stretch within the confines of this band. And he did, frequently.
If you missed this band the first time around, you owe it to yourself to seek them out.