A Tribute to Bernie Worrell in Words and Images

Friends remember keyboardist Bernie Worrell
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“I enjoy playing with a variety of people, because I get bored playing one thing. I’ll play one tune five different ways; if you challenge me, I’ll play it ten different ways. That’s where variations and merging styles come in. That’s what I did with Talking Heads. See the diversity? I can’t play just one thing: I got to move.”
—Bernie Worrell, 1985 interview in Keyboard.

There is no doubt that Worrell was a mover, and the list of artists he collaborated with is as musically varied as he was himself—Talking Heads, Fela Kuti, Sly and Robbie, Pharoah Sanders, Gov’t Mule, and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, immediately come to mind, not to mention the vast constellation of stars in the Parliament/Funkadelic universe. And nearly up until he left us on June 24th after battling lung cancer, the Wizard of Woo kept moving, even accepting his honorary Doctor of Music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music in person a month earlier.

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Worrell shared his wisdom with our readers four times in as many decades, appearing on the cover in 2007. And our editors always looked forward to running into him at events such as the NAMM show, where he could often be found talking with fans or working his magic on the keys in the Moog Music booth.

The first person I reached out to when planning this tribute was legendary bassist Bootsy Collins, with whom Worrell has a lifelong friendship. Bootsy’s heartfelt email reply is reprinted here in his inimitable voice. I also spoke with producer and Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison, who was kind enough to share his personal thoughts of Bernie with us.
— Gino Robair

“Bernie was one of the most sublime musicians I’ve ever met. He was also very generous, and always encouraging to other musicians. He wanted to make sure everyone was happy with what they where playing, and he could completely control, with his musicianship, what he was doing and fit his parts around those of the others.

In the Talking heads. we always gave the guest musicians the most interesting parts so they would feel connected to the music. Bernie brought in the highest level of rhythmic and melodic sophistication of anyone I’ve ever played with. He had a gift beyond what is normal. And he had a gentleness of spirit that touched everyone.”
— Jerry Harrison

“A few words about my Partner in Grimmy Funk & tasty bits of sunflower seeds that grow.

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Actually, No words could describe our relationship, but I will give u a few glimpses.

Bernie was to me a very talented & humble person in his heart which made u love him regardless of his musical abilities, but then when u heard the magic of his mind & fingers communicating to you, that is what took us to another level.

He was also a Correctional tutor to me & I his student in a musical landscape.

Where I came from there was no right or wrong way to play anything.

I never went to school for playing bass or guitar, never learned how to read sheet music.

Bernie had classical training & could read frontwards & backwards.

Where Bernie came from there was music theory, do’s & don’t & what notes goes with what.

Where I came from was the James Brown school of ‘just funk it if it got a hole in it.’

Once we hooked up, Bernie would always tell me that a lot of what I did should not work. We were so in tune with each other that there was never an ego problem because we loved each other from the heart.

I would ask Bernie, ‘does this sound good to u? does it feel good to u?’ When he said yeah, I would say ‘u r the only one that could make it work.’

So 98% of the time, Bernie was the real fix-it man.

We both learned that if he would adjust his chords to fit whatever I am doing, or hearing, then it would always be right, not only by sound, but in theory; our very own funked up P-Funk theory.

We could only agree to this fact because we lived it & played by that rule.

Bernie would always make me sound like I was a part of that genius. Most of it was him being able to navigate the balcony of his mind around the black hole of mine to get to another dimension far far away. He also did that with George Clinton on doing vocals.

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Now the question remains, Did he know what he was doing? Did I know what I was doing? I had not a clue, other than I know [that if] this feels good & strange it must be good.

But what Bernie had was the science part of that knowingness of how to segue his 4-D dimensional (Time-Travelers GPS) to guide him in the correct position to land his hands & fingers.

That is how we mixed our minds, bodies, souls & blended them like a blender. When u throw stuff in there u mix it all up & then the people would taste it & say, Not yr average; Not yr Norm, it taste pretty Funked up but we will do u No Harm.

We lived by the ‘Pinnochio Theory’ (Don’t Fake the Funk, or your Nose will Grow)!

Bernie was & still is closer than a blood brother.

He was & is what a musician could use as a role model for openness to the universe.

Funkateers everywhere loved Dr. G. Bernard Worrell.

Bootsy baby!!!”
—Bootsy Collins