Bernie Worrell hears rhythms in birdsong. He even finds melodies in the cacophony of car horns.
Those are just two insights gleaned from his interview with Nona Hendryx during a short film that was screened at All the WOO in the World: An All-Star Celebration of Bernie Worrell. To watch Worrell and Hendryx sit on a couch and explore the creative process is to see kindred spirits speak a common language. Both advanced popular music through their respective work in Parliament-Funkadelic and Labelle, and both pushed musical boundaries even further with their own critically acclaimed solo efforts. There’s a powerful alchemy that ensues whenever their worlds collide, whether in conversation, onstage, or in the studio.
In 1983, Hendryx released Nona (1983), her RCA debut produced by Material (Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn) that featured Worrell and other guest musicians like Valerie Simpson, Sly Dunbar, Nile Rodgers, and Laurie Anderson. Hendryx closed the album with her self-penned “Dummy Up”, a slice of moody new wave/electro-soul. Worrell’s high-pitched keyboard phrasings furnished a thrilling contrast to Hendryx’s robust and commanding vocal. Indeed, his touch put a buzzing exclamation point on the album.
Nona was just one of several projects that bore Worrell’s stamp that year. He worked with fellow P-Funk co-founder George Clinton on You Shouldn’t-Nuf Bit Fish (1983) and joined Talking Heads on the tour that accompanied Speaking In Tongues (1983), which included the band’s December 1983 stand at the Pantages Theater that Jonathan Demme shot for Stop Making Sense (1984).
Three decades later, Clinton, Demme, and Talking Heads alumni David Byrne and Jerry Harrison were just a few of the many icons who appeared at All the WOO in the World, a benefit concert that Hendryx conceived and organized to help cover Worrell’s medical expenses as he battles prostate cancer, stage-four liver cancer, and stage-four lung cancer. A constellation of funk and rock royalty showed why the “Wizard of WOO” is so respected and beloved by his contemporaries and musical progeny alike.
“Bernie changed my life, changed the way I think about music, changed the way I think about living,” Byrne shared with the audience. Everyone from Bootsy Collins to Meryl Streep echoed similar sentiments throughout an unforgettable, five-hour fête of Worrell and his life in music.
DJ Rimarkable and DJ Afrika Bambaataa primed Webster Hall with powerhouse sets before Greg Tate and Black Rock Coalition (BRC) Executive Director Earl Douglas, Jr. introduced the evening. Led by MD Gene Williams, the BRC Orchestra kicked off with “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)”, the opening track from Parliament’s Mothership Connection (1975) that Worrell wrote with Clinton and Collins. Vocalists Ki Ki Hawkins, Debbe Cole, Asa Lovechild, Keith Anthony Fluitt, Martha Redbone, and T.L. Shider emblazoned the song’s infectious chant.
During the first third of the show, the BRC Orchestra expertly navigated what guitarist Ronny Drayton called the “P-Funk matrix”, along with a couple of detours to Talking Heads territory. A dream cast of musicians that included Drayton, Carlos Alomar (guitar), Michael Hampton (aka Kidd Funkadelic) (guitar), André Lassalle (guitar), William “Spaceman” Patterson (guitar), JT Lewis (drums), Melvin Gibbs (bass), Etienne Lytle (keyboards), Leon Gruenbaum (keyboards), Gary Fritz (percussion), Steven Scales (percussion), V Jeffrey Smith (sax), and JS Williams (trumpet) steeped the repertoire in fusions of rock, funk, and blues.
The caliber of musicianship exhibited by the BRC Orchestra was worth the price of admission. Featuring Asa Lovechild on lead, a slow-blazing fire sparked “Burning Down the House”, which Worrell performed with Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense. Bernard Fowler sang the first of four covers from Funkadelic’s Westbound years. His vocal on “Hit It and Quit It” underscored why he’s an asset to the Rolling Stones as well as a fine showman in his own right.
“Baby I Owe You Something Good”, a song that the Parliaments cut as an instrumental prior to Worrell’s 1972 production for U.S. (United Soul) and Funkadelic’s re-recording on Let’s Take It to the Stage (1975), received an astounding makeover by vocalist Sophia Ramos. She didn’t merely sing the song, she possessed it. Words practically erupted in her throat.
The BRC Orchestra returned to Funkadelic’s classic Maggot Brain (1971) album for an incendiary version of “Super Stupid”. P-Funk family member Gary “Mudbone” Cooper tore into the song after leading the audience in a round of “Heaven help Bernie Worrell!” One of P-Funk’s space sisters from Labelle, Sarah Dash revisited an early Funkadelic side, the largely spoken word “Music for My Mother” (1969). Dash embellished the song’s hook (“whoa-hah-hey”) with her characteristically rich and resonant vocal tone.
The P-Funk portion of the proceedings paused as Jerry Harrison accompanied the BRC Orchestra on three numbers that concluded the show’s first segment. Worrell had contributed to Harrison’s first two solo albums The Red and the Black (1981) and Casual Gods (1988) amidst his stage and studio work with Talking Heads. Harrison dipped into Casual Gods for the crowd-pleasing “Rev It Up” and rewound several decades back to his tenure in the Modern Lovers on “She Cracked”. He deftly melded the latter with the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat”, noting how it had influenced “She Cracked”. Harrison closed his mini-set with “Life During Wartime” from Talking Heads’ Fear of Music (1979), bringing Webster Hall to a fever pitch with the tune’s signature refrain, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.”
Following Worrell’s filmed Q&A with Hendryx, David Byrne offered some remarks about Worrell’s influence, plus the state of health care in the US. “I’d really like to think that in the not-too-distant future in the United States we will have what is called universal medical coverage,” he said. “It exists in Europe. You get sick, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you just walk in and you will get taken care of. No bills, nothing to sign, no forms.” (Here’s a link to download the David Byrne track via Music Glue. Proceeds go to Bernie.)
For the occasion, Byrne remixed “How Does the Brain Wave?”, a song he co-wrote with Worrell, Don Huston, and Don Newark for Baby Elephant’s Turn My Teeth Up! (2007). Proceeds from download sales via Music Glue will benefit the Bernie Worrell Fund through Sweet Relief, an organization that provides financial assistance to musicians who need medical aid. In tandem with the benefit, CharityBuzz also auctioned off five limited edition 12″ dub plates of “How Does the Brain Wave?” plus Byrne’s original sketch for the single’s artwork (“Bernie Woo Woo Worrell”).
The spirit of musical adventure that defines much of Worrell’s work manifested in Screaming Headless Torsos. Lead vocalist Freedom Bremner rapped, sang, and funked out with equal abandon on “Vinnie” before guitarist and group founder David Fiuczynski explained his own history in Worrell’s band. “It was a privilege to be a Woo Warrior,” he said. “When (Bernie) played, he turned everyone into a spectator. I forgot I was at a gig!” The band continued with “The Wizard of Woo”, which Fiuczynski wrote in tribute to Worrell, who also played keyboards on the accompanying Code Red (2014) album. Though highlights abounded during All the WOO in the World, Screaming Headless Torsos were among the groups whose appearance exuded a captivating dynamism from start to finish.
Introducing the next act, Bremner affectionately recalled five sources of musical education he received from television: Soul Train, American Bandstand, The Midnight Special, Saturday Night Live, and the Late Show with David Letterman. Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band, as they were originally known during Letterman’s Late Night stint on NBC, gave a crash course in jazz, funk, and soul. In fact, Worrell had initially played with the band when they became the CBS Orchestra following Letterman’s move from NBC to CBS in 1993.
“Here’s what I learned from Bernie Worrell,” Shaffer said, as he laid down a vigorous keyboard solo during a cover of Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging”. Bassist Will Lee dedicated Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” to Worrell, calling him “one of the greatest musicians to come out of this planet”, while Felicia Collins let her guitar do the talking on a fervent rendition of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat”. Guitarist Sid McGinnis kept the vibe intact through each of his bandmates’ solo outings while V Jeffrey Smith and Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun added extra layers of musical brilliance to the mix.
A wave of applause soaked Living Colour as Corey Glover, Vernon Reid, and Doug Wimbish joined Calhoun onstage for yet another bracing sequence. “Love! That’s what we got for Bernie Worrell,” Glover exclaimed. Nona Hendryx and Jerry Harrison stepped in for a blistering cover of “Memories Can’t Wait” from Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, which Living Colour recorded on Vivid (1988). Reid noted the significance of playing the song with Harrison. “It’s a particular honor for us because back in the day when we used to play CBGB I was obsessed with Talking Heads. I was listening to this record called Fear of Music. I got in my mind to mangle a really good song … so this is that.”
Far from mangling “Memories Can’t Wait”, Living Colour only enhanced the song’s ferocity. For a moment, the band cooled the groove while Glover and Hendryx improvised a scintillating vocal exchange that gradually brought the song to a climax. Glover exhibited the versatility of his scale-defying range by cleverly capping Living Colour’s own “Love Rears Its Ugly Head” with a line from the jazz standard “Moody’s Mood”. In their own way, the group tore the roof off during “Cult of Personality” as Felicia Collins joined the band for a solo and Glover dove into the audience.
Between songs, Reid also emphasized how integral P-Funk was to his own musical development. “The first record I bought with my own money was (Funkadelic’s) Cosmic Slop (1973),” he said. “The first concert I went to was P-Funk at Madison Square Garden.”
While many of Worrell’s compatriots in P-Funk were in attendance, so were a few of his bandmates from Ricki and the Flash (2015), including the group’s lead singer, Meryl Streep. “I was in a band with Bernie Worrell,” said Streep. “It was a fake band but it was filled with real musicians. These great musicians had a really hard gig. They had to pretend to be a grade B dive bar band and they had to pretend that I deserved to stand on the same stage with them. Bernie was so kind and so generous to me. Kindness comes off that man like stardust.”
Streep then introduced “the fabulous Rick Springfield”, who backed her in Ricki and the Flash alongside Worrell, Joe Vitale, and the late Rick Rosas. With guitar in hand, Springfield plumbed his catalog of hits for “I’ve Done Everything For You”, “Love Somebody”, and “Jessie’s Girl”. Decades since he first topped the pop charts, Springfield is still endowed with an undeniable charisma that commands attention.
Jonathan Demme, who’d enlisted Worrell for Ricki and the Flash, reflected on the experience of directing Stop Making Sense. “Movies can’t compete with live music but we tried our best,” he said. “I think it’s still as hot as ever.” The director screened highlights from the movie plus a full length clip of “Making Flippy Floppy” that underscored why Worrell’s role in Talking Heads was particularly vital at that time.
A decade after Stop Making Sense won “Best Documentary” at the National Society of Film Critics Awards, Worrell was among 16 Parliament-Funkadelic members inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1997). Nearly 20 years later, Worrell’s own accomplishments were recognized by Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, who signed a Proclamation in honor of Worrell’s contributions to music. Making his first appearance of the evening, Worrell accepted the Proclamation from Gwen Moten, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Cultural Development, and Tourism. “God bless everybody here,” he said. “It’s about us. I’m just a channel who was given a gift, like all of us were given gifts.” Jersey-based singer-songwriter Marc Ribler commemorated the occasion by performing an original piece dedicated to Worrell entitled “Hail to the King of Funk”.
As the show progressed towards the final act, musicians from every compass point of Worrell’s history showed their love for the “King of Keys” (to quote David Fiuczynski). Replete with shrieks and gasps, Fred Schneider of the B-52’s performed a sprightly version of “Monster”, a track from his solo debut Fred Schneider & the Shake Society (1984) that he produced with Worrell. Shifting from Schneider’s New York cool, legendary Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli served up steaming portions of New Orleans funk. Accompanied by Bill “The Buddha” Dickens (bass), Adrian Harpham (drums), and Mark Rechler (organ) on “Come Back Jack”, Nocentelli led one of the tightest units of the night. Questlove and Jon Batiste doubled on drums and keys, respectively, and amplified the musical might during a smoldering rendition of the Meters’ “Fire on the Bayou”.
While the flames from “Fire” cooled to embers, Nona Hendryx prepared the “space cadets” in the audience for “an amazing moment that’s about to happen”. Indeed, Worrell played his first piece of the evening by revisiting music he cut with Bootsy Collins, Buckethead, and Brain in Bill Laswell’s supergroup Praxis. At Webster Hall, Buckethead helped Worrell take the audience to a sprawling sonic plane on “The Interworld and the New Innocence”, which they recorded on the first Praxis album, Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis) (1992). Nocentelli, Dickens, Harpham, and percussionist Gary Fritz rounded out the personnel as Buckethead shredded away into the stratosphere.
Ever since All the WOO in the World had been announced, fans anticipated the experience of seeing George Clinton and Bootsy Collins join Worrell on the same stage. Hendryx led the fanfare with a call-and-response, “If you want the funk, you got to say: Boot-say!” Crowned in a purple top hat and matching bejeweled coat, Collins strode onstage and offered heartfelt thanks to Hendryx. “She made all of this happen,” he said. “She put all of this together.” Collins’ remarks also touched on his friendship with Worrell. “We go all the way back to 1972,” he added. “Sometimes you just know when you get with the right chemistry. I was raw, off the street, and he had this other educated thing. It made us work so well together. The thing I like about Bernie the most is he likes for others to shine. It’s hard for most people to have that kind of gift.”
Collins then gave Worrell a brand new melodica, the same instrument he used on “I’d Rather Be With You” from Stretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band (1976). Without missing a beat, Worrell played the song’s opening melody, cueing the band to gradually add their parts. “We’re going to complete the triangle,” Collins said, as Hendryx ushered Clinton out from the wings. With V Jeffrey Smith wailing on sax, Dr. Funkenstein himself warmly embraced Worrell and Collins before stepping center stage. Collins sat behind the drum kit, doubling Harpham, while Ronny Drayton and Michael Hampton tripled Nocentelli on guitar. Both Bill Dickens and Melvin Gibbs held down the bass line.
Webster Hall nearly split in two when Worrell triggered the introduction to P-Funk’s “Flash Light”. Only a few hours earlier, he’d taped a performance of the song with Clinton and Collins on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Remarkably, the actual broadcast of Colbert’s show overlapped with what was happening onstage in real time. “Spaceman” Patterson, Gene Williams, and JS Williams filled out the growing number of musicians who jammed with the group as Clinton chanted “Shit! Goddamn! Get off your ass and jam!”
After a brief interpolation of “Up for the Down Stroke”, vocalist Falu Shah joined Worrell for a mesmerizing duet channeled from an entirely different musical universe. Clinton bookended the show with another classic from Mothership Connection — “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)”. Carlos Alomar, André Lassalle, Etienne Lytle, and Leon Gruenbaum returned for the grand finale as more than a dozen musicians powered the song’s rallying cry, “We want the funk!”
Funk is exactly what All the WOO in the World delivered, not to mention an inspiring display of camaraderie among artists and musicians who showed up and showed out for a friend in need. For one night, funk was the best medicine of all.