Parliament-Funkadelic Keyboardist Bernie Worrell Dies
Bernie Worrell, the keyboard player whose work helped lay the foundation for Parliament-Funkadelic and a pioneering solo career — and graced albums by a long list of distinguished artists — has passed away today (June 24) at the age of 72.
News of Worrell's passing comes courtesy of a post on his Facebook page, and arrives after a battle with lung, liver, and prostate cancer. His late-stage diagnosis was publicly revealed in early 2016, after his wife Judie told fans they were working to find alternate methods of treatment while trying to raise funds for what was planned as his final solo album, Retrospectives.
The crowdfunding campaign for Retrospectives exceeded its goal, and Worrell continued to perform as he fought the disease, but treatment was ultimately unsuccessful. Judie issued another update on June 16, warning fans that the end was near.
"I was just told that Bernie is now headed 'home,'" she wrote. "If you are in the WA area and want to visit him to say your goodbyes, PM me. PLEASE do not call me. Bernie can no longer talk on phone nor can he text."
Born on April 19, 1944 and raised in Plainfield, N.J., Worrell was a child prodigy who wrote his first concerto in grade school and went on to study at Juilliard and the New England Conservatory of Music. After cutting his musical teeth with early bands (including one in which he played alongside future Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer), he rose to prominence as a member of the George Clinton-led collective known as Parliament-Funkadelic.
While P-Funk brought Worrell to the world's attention, it was just the start of a long and diverse musical journey that grew to include a number of solo recordings — some of which included guest appearances by many of the household names on whose albums he'd performed as a guest musician. Worrell's illustrious session career shifted into high gear through his work with the Talking Heads, who enlisted him as part of the expanded ensemble they utilized for 1983's classic Speaking in Tongues LP and Stop Making Sense live project.
Worrell's distinctive playing enlivened Talking Heads hits like "Burning Down the House" and "Naive Melody (This Is the Place)," but much of his catalog consists of work that was a good deal less commercial. His wide-ranging gifts and eclectic approach made him a natural fit for projects alongside such diverse names as Ginger Baker, Fred Schneider, and Mos Def, as well as a huge asset for gigs with similarly free-spirited performers like Warren Haynes, Bill Laswell, and Les Claypool.
Whether playing live or recording in the studio, Worrell brought a fearlessly inventive voice to the keyboards — and although his solo career became more of a labor of love as the decades wore on, he never seemed to lose his appetite for the music, or his urge to explore new vistas. "The first thing off the top of my head, that’s what it will be," he said of his musical approach in a 2014 interview with Glide. "I play what is sent to me. I’m a vessel. The gift comes from God and I’m a vessel and the music comes through me."
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