Bernie Worrell 1944-2016
I saw Bernie Worrell twice, and both occasions were memorable. The first time was with Talking Heads at Hammersmith Palais in 1980: after starting the set as the basic four-piece with “Psycho Killer”, they added musicians at regular intervals until they’d become (I think) a 10-piece and were whomping out a kind of supercharged avant-funk. The second was at the Knitting Factory in NYC sometime in the mid-’90s, soon after the club had moved to Tribeca, with Third Rail, a band featuring Bill Laswell on bass guitar, James Blood Ulmer on guitar, Worrell and Amina Claudine Myers on keyboards, and — on this night, as I recall — Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums.
Like everyone, however, I’ve listened to Worrell on countless records. And the one that always sticks out is Parliament’s “Chocolate City”, which he co-wrote in 1975 with George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and to which he contributes absolutely superlative gospel-funk piano. It’s among the most powerful records of its era, not just musically — taking that fractured funk pioneered by Sly Stone to a new level — but in its message, both tough and witty, about the potential upside of “white flight” from the cities (specifically Washington DC) to the vanilla suburbs:
“And when they come to march on ya, tell ’em to make sure they got their James Brown pass / And don’t be surprised if Ali is the White House / Reverend Ike, Secretary of the Treasury / Richard Pryor, Minister of Education / Stevie Wonder, Secretary of Fine Arts / And Miss Aretha Franklin, the First Lady…”
And this, of course: “They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, too.”
Listen to it again, and marvel at the sheer creativity involved in piecing the whole thing together. And then listen once more, this time just for the piano, the binding ingredient of the track, digging in against the guitars of Garry Shider, Eddie Hazel and others, and the trumpet and tenor of Randy and Mike Brecker, then dancing free in the last minute and a half. Hard to believe that it’s more than 40 years old.