In this volume of Bach Perspectives, Laura Buch edits essays that reconsider parody, transcription, and adaptation in the sphere of the composer J.S. Bach. In Bach Perspectives, Volume 13: Bach Reworked the contributors delve into works of eighteenth-century composers from Bach himself to C. P. E. Bach and J. C. F. Fischer. But they also cast a wider net, investigating early twentieth century reworkings; most notably in this excerpt from Ellen Exner’s essay: keyboardist Bernie Worrell and Parliament-Funkadelic.
In his 2014 memoir, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?, George Clinton, infamous leader of a constellation of bands referred to collectively as Parliament-Funkadelic—or more commonly, P-Funk—specifi- cally identified the contrapuntal style of J. S. Bach as a particular stimulus behind the composition of the track “Nappy Dugout” from Funkadelic’s 1973 album, Cosmic Slop:
There’s “Nappy Dugout,” a vicious, low-groove that Boogie brought us wedded to a lyrical idea I got from something a girl said to me about pussy.1 Boogie’s track was so funky that I didn’t have to add too many words to it; my job was to make my point and get out of the way. The final step was to let Bernie take his shot at it, add his keyboard parts around the bass. Bernie, like Sly, liked Bach quite a bit, and both of them used his theory of counterpoint, which is about setting melodies up on top of one another to create something larger. Bernie’s understanding was a bit more classical than Sly’s, but both had a way of making different parts that wove in and out of each other. 2
The Boogie whom Clinton refers to is Cordell “Boogie” Mosson, P-Funk’s bass- ist. Sly is Sylvester Stone of the band Sly and the Family Stone, and Bernie is Dr. George Bernard Worrell Jr. (1944–2016), the brilliant keyboardist and music director of Parliament-Funkadelic.
According to Rickey Vincent, prize-winning author of Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One, “P-Funk remains the strongest influence on black music since their popular zenith in 1978.”3 The group is so significant a force that Prince himself inducted it into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. P-Funk’s dominance is plainly evident in how often its tracks are sampled by other musicians: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, De la Soul, and many other rap, R&B, and hip-hop artists have used P-Funk’s music as the basis for their own new compositions. Legal issues aside, sampling is an act of homage to revered artists, and P-Funk ranks among the most sampled bands of all time.4
If Bach is somehow in P-Funk’s musical DNA, as Clinton claims, and P-Funk’s sound has been foundational for a new generation of popular music artists, then Bach’s musical influence informs canonic masterworks not just of the concert hall but also of funk, hip-hop, and rap. Thus, Clinton’s specific reference to Bach’s influence on Worrell, P-Funk’s main musical engine, cannot pass unexamined.5 This group, once described “as a psychedelic rock band with diapers, dashikis and face paint,”6 is hardly the obvious place to look for the influence of the Leipzig Thomaskantor. Engaged listening across the band’s discography makes it clear, though, that there is ample musically intelligent life on board the iconic P-Funk Mothership, and it emanates most powerfully from Worrell’s keyboard section.7 Research into his extensive musical background reveals that there is most definitely Bach in your funk, and a lot more besides. This essay is an exploration of P-Funk’s incalculable (and unpaid)8 musical debt to Worrell, by way of what Clinton called “Bach.” As such, it joins an ever-expanding discussion of how Bach’s music transcends generic and cultural boundaries. Indeed, similar things could be (and have been) said of P-Funk.9
Bernie Worrell’s path to P-Funk was in no way predictable. The “Wizard of Woo,” as he became known, was a classically trained keyboard virtuoso and former child prodigy.10 He was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Plainfield, where (to his mother’s great dismay) he first met George Clinton, who ran the local barbershop.11 Worrell’s extraordinary musical talent was evident and storied early on:
in Clinton’s words, “he was a local Mozart who wrote his first symphony before he was in junior high. He could do anything from Ray Charles to classical music.”12
Worrell’s mother, Cora, a domestic worker and church musician, fostered it in every way that she could, finding her gifted son excellent private teachers and sending him to piano lessons at the Juilliard School in New York before he left for college.
According to Worrell’s successful application to the New England Conservatory of Music in 1962, it had been his dream “to do piano, orchestra, and concert work,” with the hope of gaining “a graduate degree to teach music on a college level.”13 The universe had other plans for him, though, and that youthful goal remained unrealized. He was seven and a half semesters into his classical piano performance degree when he was forced suddenly to drop out of school due to the unexpected death of his father. Almost immediately, Worrell became musical director for the soul singer Maxine Brown for a little over two years before answering Clinton’s call from the Apollo Theater inviting him to join P-Funk. His first album with the group was its second: Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow (1970).14 After leaving Clinton’s bands, Worrell worked with such artists as Keith Richards, the Talking Heads, the Pretenders, and actress Meryl Streep, who said of him, “Kindness comes off that man like stardust.”15 The former concert pianist was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice and is listed there, along with Parliament-Funkadelic, as one of contemporary rap and R&B’s “most sampled musicians ever.”16 In May 2019, he, along with P-Funk, received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award (posthumously).
Worrell’s virtuosic instrumental commentary, encyclopedic command of musical styles, contagious bass lines, and the extraterrestrial soundscape he pioneered with his Moog synthesizers not only created P-Funk’s signature sound but functioned as the glue holding the multifarious ensemble together. The infusion of classical idioms into P-Funk’s eclectic blend, although seldom described, was among Worrell’s essential contributions. His accumulated musical experience and enormous professional success eventually made him the recipient of that once-desired professor’s degree, an honorary doctorate, from his alma mater, the New England Conservatory (NEC). Sadly, the gesture came just weeks before his death due to cancer in June 2016. Rigorous formal training and innate musical curiosity meant that Worrell was inti- mately familiar with the canonical works of the Western art tradition and the principles of formal composition. He brought his deep knowledge and extraordinary skills to Parliament-Funkadelic, a group of bands whose style range is so eclectic that it spawned its own adjective: P-Funk.
P-Funk is often described as a mixture of pop, rock, Motown, rhythm and blues, funk, and soul, but a focus on Worrell’s contributions demonstrates that J. S. Bach and other traditionally European concert hall idioms belong in that list as well. 17The singular union of these many styles into one is what creates the P-Funk and makes it like no other. Worrell rendered the audacious multiplicity coherent.
Clinton’s initially arresting claim that the music of “Nappy Dugout” was somehow inspired by Bachian compositional techniques suddenly becomes utterly plausible in light of Worrell’s background. The musical style of “Nappy Dugout” nevertheless remains an obstacle to corroborating Clinton’s recollection. The song does indeed feature the “vicious low groove” and sparse vocals he described in his autobiography, but the compositional logic is only contrapuntal in the most generous of senses. In fact, the song is explicit in every way except Bachian.18 The musical texture of the song is not generated by counterpoint. Instead, it is an example of polyphony: the track is composed of multiple, independent, layered musical lines. Thus, it certainly does contain “melodies up on top of one another,” as Clinton claimed, but there is no calculated, note-against-note counterpoint in the manner descriptive of Bach’s art.
If the technical details do not bear out Clinton’s assertion that Bachian counterpoint informed “Nappy Dugout,” we can still be reasonably sure that Worrell, a conserva- tory-trained concert pianist, encountered Bach’s music.19 We can therefore impugn the details of Clinton’s recollection in this case while continuing the search for the claim’s basis: there is some truth behind it even if the facts got muddled in the retell- ing. There are, in fact, multiple songs within P-Funk’s discography that betray sig- nificant “classical” influences—even specifically baroque ones. For example,
“O Lord, Why Lord/Prayer,” an early track by a subsection of P-Funk known as Parliament,20 features Worrell on harpsichord. He improvises over Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D to accompany lyrics that are a passionate meditation on the scourge of racism.21
Canon is a particularly poignant compositional choice for underpinning these lyrics because its chief characteristic is perpetual, relentless return despite appearances of forward progress. In addition, few pieces of music could be more suggestive of cultural privilege and European tradition than Pachelbel’s Canon, so the conflict of topics contained in this song—the desperate frustration of a senselessly oppressed people paired with a musical style traditionally associated with the oppressors—is profoundly, devastatingly moving. Because the track is a cover, Worrell was not responsible for the original concept, but he was responsible for Parliament’s arrangement of it22 as well as
the informed decision to use harpsichord, a keyboard instrument appropriate to the baroque era but seldom encountered in funk. Worrell’s choices here clearly reveal not only historical knowledge but also a multifaceted progressive vision expressed through his musical ecumenicism.
Multiple, separate, identifiable musical styles emerge from Worrell’s keyboard com- mentary on arguably every P-Funk track. They were certainly informed by the reper- tory he studied at the conservatory but also beyond. In one of the band’s signature songs, “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” Worrell references at least three different styles in extremely close proximity: funk, “classical,” and blues.23 The greatest kalei- doscopic mixture of musics occurs toward the end of the track (approximately seven minutes in), where Worrell participates in the funk groove, adds fistfuls of virtuosic chords right out of the concert hall repertory, and then switches to a blues piano texture, all within the space of less than a minute. What triggered his musical imagination to go in these directions is probably unknowable. Whatever the explanation, Worrell’s characteristic mixture works and represents in microcosm the eclectic blend that is specifically P-Funk. Even Broadway musicals make their appearance. For example,
Worrell injects a direct, though brief, quotation from Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” into “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” (2:43–2:44).24 Worrell answers the vocalists’ refrain, “there’s a whole lotta rhythm going round,” purely instrumentally with Gershwin’s melodic tag to the words, “Who could ask for anything more?”
The topical connection between foreground and background is, in this case, obvious.
The creative impulse behind Worrell’s concert-hall stylings in “Aquaboogie” are much more difficult to pin down.25 His additions in this case owe everything to the classical tradition.26 The liquid subject of “Aquaboogie” might explain the journey of Worrell’s improvisatory imagination. After all, there is piano repertory associated with underwater topics (such as Ravel’s Ondine or Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral). Perhaps it was works like these that inspired his decision to add to the already busy texture big,