By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Bernie Worrell knew that listeners outside the United States had long treated classic American music more honorably than had those within it. Likewise, he'd heard plenty of stories about veteran jazz, country, or rockabilly artists who'd either moved to foreign locales or made most of their money overseas. But as the preeminent funk keyboardist of all time, thanks to his association with George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic combine and P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins, he never thought something similar would happen to him. He was wrong.
"In Europe and Asia, we're like kings," Worrell says. "Things over there are so much better than they are here."
That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Worrell has been touring of late with his own band, the Woo Warriors, and he generally draws well in the U.S. Large stateside crowds also gather whenever he's accompanying Collins' New Rubber Band ("featuring Bernie Worrell," he points out). But this onetime sideman for the band heard regularly on David Letterman's Late Show is without a record deal in his homeland. His latest solo CD, Free Agent: A Spaced Odyssey, was issued by a Japanese imprint, Polystar, and can be attained here only at import stores, at Worrell's concerts, or on the Internet at his Web site, http://bernieworrell.com. He's in much the same boat with regard to the upcoming studio debut of the Woo Warriors, which he expects to have completed sometime this fall. And he's not happy about it.
"I feel that there's a conspiracy," he says. "It's planned this way to silence us, because we're older. Older black folk, like me and Bootsy and [P-Funk trombonist] Fred Wesley, we know a lot, and the record business can't control us like they can control the younger generation of any race or color. They're like, 'We don't want them'--unless it's like it was with Tina Turner. She got no help from the States, so she went to Europe and hit it--and then all of a sudden, it's like, 'Oh, Tina, Tina, you're so great.' That's the kind of bullshit I have to deal with."
And then there's the matter of sampling. Since the dawn of the hip-hop era, P-Funk has arguably been sampled more frequently than any other single collective. For several years during the early '90s, in fact, artists such as Ice Cube and Dr. Dre drew so heavily on the timelessly trippy funk of the Clinton-Collins-Worrell axis, they practically seemed like auxiliary members of the band. Unfortunately, the creators of the sounds that formed the basis of these contemporary cuts seldom profited from their popularity.
Things are somewhat better today: Lawyers at most nationally distributed companies understand that if they don't clear samples in advance, they'll wind up in court. Yet Worrell has never received the big payday he says he deserves. He hopes that will change soon: "I have a new person who's handling publishing and administration and a new lawyer who's getting ready to kick some ass," he says. Nonetheless, he has complex feelings about the issue of sampling as a whole.
"I met the keyboardist from Digital Underground at one of my shows a couple weeks ago," he notes. "He bowed to me and said, 'It's an honor.' And I teased him a little bit and said, 'Where's my money?' Then I said, 'I'm joking. I know it's not you; it's the record companies.' But there's been some serious struggling over this.
"I don't mind if they use it, but it depends on how they use it. If they use it as an art form and intertwine it, intermingle it with the real stuff, then that's one thing. And if they like a riff, and if it helps them to create their lyrics or the drum beats to go with it and they do it in a creative way, that's good--as long as it's not those negative lyrics about killing and accosting women. But on the other hand, if all they know how to do is push a button, and they don't even know the rudiments of music, then we're losing, and they're losing too."
Worrell is a strong advocate of music education, in part because he refined his astounding keyboard skills at tony institutions such as Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. But his talents were so vast they likely would have blossomed whether he'd attended school or not.
He was born in Long Branch, along the New Jersey shore. "They call it Springsteen country, but it's not all his," he says. "Count Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, not far from there." There was no shortage of music around the house, thanks to his mother, who sang at an assortment of local churches: "She had a very beautiful soprano voice, and she could play piano well enough to accompany herself very slowly." But it was still a shock to the family when Bernie clambered onto the piano stool and began hammering out melodies at age three. The following year he gave his first concert, performing a slew of classical pieces to a dumbfounded audience at a local high school. "I don't mean to brag, but they called me a genius," he says.