Four-year-old boys normally are obsessed with cars, trucks and mucking around in the dirt, and have the attention span of a gnat.
At that age, Bernie Worrell was anything but normal. He was just beginning his long, storied music career. Fifty-four years later, it’s still going strong.
“My mother was really the one who found the gift I had,” Worrell said recently. “She taught me my first scale at three and a half years old. I used to go to the piano every day and play it perfectly, so from that she got the notion that there was something there. Then it was just a matter of finding someone to teach me professionally. That was hard to find because no one ever taught someone that young back in those days.
“She finally found this lady who wound up being my godmother. At 4 years old, I had my first paid concert. I played 40 classical pieces out of John Thompson’s beginner’s primer; I passed all my teacher’s eighth-grade students at the age of 4. I wrote my first piano concerto at age 8, and I played three piano concertos with part of the Washington Symphony Orchestra and Plainfield Symphony (N.J.) when I was 10.”
The New Jersey native then studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and Julliard School of Music. Oh, and then he was a co-founder of the supergroup Parliament-Funkadelic; he co-wrote, co-produced and played keyboards on some of the band’s most indelible songs, including “Flash Light,” and was inducted with the group into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
How’s that for a career?
“I’m not sure what keeps me going after all these years; maybe it’s the bills that keep me going,” Worrell said, with a laugh. “I haven’t received all the money that I’ve worked for; it’s the same old music-industry story of being owed. Besides that, I don’t know anything else that I could do, because all my life has been music. Plus I enjoy it; I like traveling and doing different types of music and different genres.”
Worrell stays plenty busy. He tours with his group, the WOO Warriors, and regularly performs with his former band mate, Bootsy Collins, and ex-Cream singer-bassist Jack Bruce. He has done session work with a wide range of artists, from Herb Alpert to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
One of his favorite career memories came in late April when he joined Groove Collective as a special guest for concerts in Moscow.
“I didn’t know funk was so big over there,” he said. “My picture was on a banner stretching across eight lanes of the main street in Moscow. People were coming up and asking for my autograph and taking pictures with me and asking me to bring my group and tell George Clinton and Bootsy to come along. A guy who owns a record store brought 30 CDs of my old solo stuff and vinyl of old Funkadelic and stuff I did with Jack Bruce. It was uncanny.”
More recently, Worrell can be seen and heard performing in Nike’s new retro basketball commercial, complete with afro and monster boots.
“Bootsy and me did the music for that,” he said. “It was a big production, with Snoop Dogg and Bootsy. You can hardly see me; there’s too many people in it – there was at least 200 extras.”
A second Nike commercial is on the way, as well as a solo album, more studio work and touring with Bruce and a DVD looking back at Worrell’s career.
And, of course, in between are his shows with the WOO Warriors.
“Fans can expect an earful of WOO, consisting of some old Funkadelic standards, some songs off my solo CDs and some impromptu stuff,” Worrell said. “I might go into King Crimson or whatever comes to my head during the interludes between songs in the set. I play a little bit of jazz, and there are some cartoon antics. It’s just an enjoyable, funky, WOO-fully groovy night.”
ON THE WEB: bernieworrell.com.
BWF (before we forget): The Bernie Worrell album discography – “All the Woo in the World” (Arista, 1978); “B.W. Jam (Rock the House)” (Rhino, 1990); “Funk of Ages” (Gramavision, 1991); “Pieces of Woo: The Other Side” (CMP, 1993); “Blacktronic Science” (Rhino, 1993); “Free Agent: A Space Odyssey” (Black Arc, 1997); “Da Bomb” (Vanguard, 1999); “True DAT” live LP (Purple WOO Productions, 2002).
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