Bernie Worrell: The Most Influential Keyboardist You've Probably Never Heard Of

Jun 25, 2016
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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Composer and keyboardist Bernie Worrell died Friday at the age of 72 following a battle with late-stage lung cancer. Worrell was a classically trained musician who bridged musical styles playing with everyone from Keith Richards, the house band of David Letterman's "Late Show" to the O'Jays and Mos Def. NPR's Eric Deggans has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARLIAMENT SONG, "FLASHLIGHT")

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Bernie Worrell might have been the most influential keyboardist you never heard of. His playing fueled a number of big hits. You hear his muscular synthesizer baselines on Parliament, Funkadelic hits like "Flashlight."

(SOUNDBITE OF PARLIAMENT SONG, "FLASHLIGHT")

DEGGANS: His quirky keyboard work spiced Talking Heads tunes like "Girlfriend Is Better."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRLFRIEND IS BETTER")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) She's coming up, going right through my heart. She's going to give me...

DEGGANS: And his lush organ sounds backed Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders on the ballot "I Remember You."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE PRETENDERS SONG, "I REMEMBER YOU")

DEGGANS: George Bernard Worrell, Jr. was born in New Jersey in 1944. A musical prodigy, he began playing piano at age 3 and had written his first concerto by age 8. He also studied at the Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory of Music.

Worrell told NPR in 1991 that such a genre-bending creativity came from knowing the fundamentals of music well enough to break them. That's a lesson he feared young musicians weren't learning.

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BERNIE WORRELL: The art of creating is not just pushing a button. We're going to lose the art of creating and composing because they won't even know how to make a chord.

DEGGANS: His own life would change when he snuck out of his strict household to hang out with local barber George Clinton and his band the Parliaments.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AQUA BOOGIE")

PARLIAMENT: (Singing) Can't catch the rhythm of the stroke.

DEGGANS: By 1970, Morrell was with the group full-time, and they were rewriting the rules of funk. His funky, atmospheric textures from newly invented keyboards like the Minimoog synthesizer melded with the band's psychedelic sounds to create a new style.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARLIAMENT SONG, "AQUA BOOGIE")

DEGGANS: After Parliament, Worrell joined Talking Heads for their landmark record "Speaking In Tongues" appearing in their concert film "Stop Making Sense." His later work tended towards more experimental flavors, including an appearance with members of the rock band "Living Colour" on rapper Mos Def's 2004 album "The New Danger."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOS DEF SONG, "FREAKY BLACK GREETINGS")

DEGGANS: Worrell was never as well-known as bandmates like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, who once called him the Jimi Hendrix of keyboards. In January, Worrell announced he had cancer.

To help cover his medical bills, several of his friends and former bandmates held a benefit concert in New York in April, including musician David Byrne, actress Meryl Streep and "Tonight Show" bandleader Questlove. It was the kind of musical cross-pollination that defined Worrell's career, a fitting tribute to a pioneer whose talent couldn't be bound by any one style or category of music. Bernie Worrell was 72 years old. I'm Eric Deggans.

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SUAREZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Ray Suarez. Follow us on Twitter @npratc. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNEE DEEP")

FUNKADELIC: (Singing) She always makes me dance... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.