Funk-A-Hall-Licks Wooing the World (1991 Bernie Worrell interview from the New Funk Times archive)
I was sad to hear that Bernie Worrell, P.Funk’s „Wizard of Woo“, passed away yesterday at the age of 72. I last saw him in person a long time ago – he, his wife Judie, his band and I were holding hands backstage at New Orleans‘ Tipitina’s club, praying for a good show.
On a personal note: My favorite P.Funk has always been about George Clinton, Bernie, Bootsy Collins and Garry Shider – the hustler and the three musical geniuses. (I am sure George won’t mind – he and I talked about this. ;-) )
Here is a phone interview about his album „Funk of Ages“ I did with him in 1991, for the P.Funk newsletter New Funk Times I used to publish from the late ’80s to early ’90s (continuing the great work of Archie Ivy & Co.).
New Funk Times: I was wondering if you cut any of the basic tracks with the whole band present in the studio, or were there a lot of over-dubs going on?
Bernie Worrell: There’s a lot of over-dubs. You won’t believe the size of the studio I had to record it at! It’s pretty small, but the one good thing about it was… a lot of recording studios in New York don’t have windows, you can’t see out to the street. But this one was in what we call the Tribeca area, and it had two windows. So at least we could see outside.
New Funk Times: Do you have a home studio?
Bernie Worrell: No, I just have a little four-track [recorder] at home. I did basic ideas at home of half of this stuff, and then I finished it in the studio. That’s how we basically worked with P.Funk, we did a lot of the work right there in the studio.
New Funk Times: I was really glad to hear a lot of live drumming on the album.
Bernie Worrell: Yes, a lot of people were surprised at first, and then as they listened to the work tapes, they said: „Are those real drums?“ And my partner [engineer Joe Blaney] and I would say: „Yes – wouldn’t think of anything else!“ I’m not that much machine-oriented, it’s too stiff.
New Funk Times: To me it is funny, though, that even a lot of live drummers now get influenced by the rhythms on drum machine records.
Bernie Worrell: I can see that, I guess they’re trying to keep up with the youth. That’s good if they mix it, keep some of the new with the old. That’s what I’m trying to do because all of the new stuff isn’t exactly on-the-money, in my opinion.
New Funk Times: Talking about computer sounds: What is your attitude to the changing technology?
Bernie Worrell: To me there is a big difference between analog and digital. As you know, analog is much warmer. Digital is too cold to me. So, what I do is use them both together to cut some of the coldness out of the digital sound, mix it with the analog to get a warmer feeling.
New Funk Times: Do you always get the newest gear?
Bernie Worrell: No, because it’s too much! You can’t keep up with all that unless you’re a millionaire. That’s a big business, you know, ‚cause they get the youngsters… see, if you’re young, you’re gonna try to get everything that comes out, that hasn’t even been tested yet. They come out with the first series, and then – before you know it! – there’s the same thing, but the second series. Then, what do you do? I don’t get involved in that, I pick and choose. Usually Jerry Harrison from Talking Heads tells me ‚cause Jerry knows a lot of the stuff that’s out. He’s real picky, but he knows the good stuff.
New Funk Times: I was talking to Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire a while ago and he said that – because of all this emphasis on technology – a lot of young musicians nowadays don’t even learn how to play anymore, they just learn how to program…
Bernie Worrell: That’s what I’ve said in all my interviews out in California.
We’re gonna lose a whole way of learning how to play – they don’t know how to play! All they know is how to push a button. That’s not music. They’re not even gonna know how to make a chord – I agree with Maurice! So that’s the other thing – I’m not into these machines. I’m gonna keep the old ones around until I pass away.
I am classically trained, and I’m always gonna emphasize: Learn the basics first! They should start with their scales, just like I did, for technique. There’s a whole lot more to music than just, you know, funkin‚! [laughs] You have to learn technique, theory, harmony, so therefore you can create different colors, you know what to do, how to do what. A button can’t tell you that!
New Funk Times: When you moved from classical music to funk, was that like a liberation or just an extension of your classical playing?
Bernie Worrell: Just an extension! I never moved from it, ‚cause if you listen you can hear the influence in whatever I play. I thank God that I had the gift of being able to play more than one type of music – ‚cause I have perfect pitch, and I can play almost any type of music. And I do the same thing with my music that I do with analog and digital: I mix music. That’s what I like about Bill Laswell and people like that.
New Funk Times: What was the initial reaction of your mother when you started playing funk music?
Bernie Worrell: [in a nagging voice:] „There you go, playing that stuff!“ [laughs] But after a while she didn’t mind, as long as I did my lessons.
New Funk Times: I used the word „liberation“ before because I am sure you got fascinated by the greater freedom of playing funk together with classical music.
Bernie Worrell: Yes… well, liberation for me was being able to get out of the house… when I went away to college and what-not, and could play more of it than when I was at home.
New Funk Times: When you just play at home for fun, without thinking about writing a song, do you have a favorite instrument?
Bernie Worrell: My clavinet…
New Funk Times: …the old one in the basement?
Bernie Worrell: Yes, that one, or… there’s a
couple of settings on the D 50 that I like.
New Funk Times: You had a lot of guests on your album, like Keith Richards, David Byrne and Jerry Harrison. When they came to the studio, did you let them do their thing or did you produce them and tell them what to do?
Bernie Worrell: Both! People of that caliber, you don’t have to tell them; or at least at first. You let them do their thing and get one or two tracks down, see where they’re coming from; and then I tell them where I’m coming from or how close they were to what I was kinda thinking, and then we take it from there and mix both ideas together.
New Funk Times: When we talked in New York on the „Jungle Bass“ set, you mentioned working on Keith Richards‘ and Sly & Robbie’s albums as some of your more memorable sessions. What was special for you about Keith Richards?
Bernie Worrell: Well, because of Keith, because of who he is, and because of how warm a person he is and how down-to- earth he is. We’re pretty close, and I just enjoy seeing him loose and seeing him working on his own project, because he was kinda tired of the Rolling Stones stuff. [On his solo album] he was with his fellas, his brothers, and he was having fun! I guess that’s what I liked about working with Keith.
New Funk Times: It is a great album, I like it better than some of the recent Stones records.
Bernie Worrell: Yes, a lot of people do. I like Keith’s voice better, also – I guess I’m tired of hearing Mick’s voice sometimes.
New Funk Times: Did you work with [drummer] Steve Jordan before?
Bernie Worrell: Oh yes, we have done sessions together and we wrote a little bit together years before. We hang out as much as we can.
New Funk Times: How would you compare his style with Dennis Chambers‘ style?
Bernie Worrell: That’s a rough one! I can tell you this: Dennis Chambers is one of the few drummers that Steve respects, to put it that way. [laughs]
New Funk Times: Does it work the other way around,
Bernie Worrell: Yeah, Dennis has always been as nice, mild-mannered, respectful person; he’s just that way, anyway – he won’t talk about anybody. But he knows Steve [Jordan], just like Steve Ferrone; he likes Steve Ferrone also. That’s another one of my buddies! Steve Jordan and Steve Ferrone, they might have a problem with another… [laughs] It has to be a family, man; we’re all in this together! We have to help each other.
New Funk Times: Talking about family: I think the musicians who appears on most of the tracks of your album – apart from you – is probably Mudbone [Gary Cooper].
Bernie Worrell: Yes, that’s my brother.
New Funk Times: Is he your principal musical partner on the record?
Bernie Worrell: Yes, I would say so – him and Bootsy. We came up with most of the stuff in the studio, the same way we did with Bootsy’s stuff and P.Funk stuff. Mudbone and Garry Shider from P.Funk did a lot of the vocal arrangements – and me – , so we came up with it right there.Sometimes I would send Bone a cassette to Cincinnati, and he’d have some time to work things out – I think we did that with two of the songs, and then other times we came up with it right there.
New Funk Times: Do you have contact even when you don’t work together?
Bernie Worrell: Yes – right now I brought Mudbone to Jack Bruce’s solo album, he’s singing background on that, and from there Jack asked him to come on the road. So he did a tour with me, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. I brought him to the Phoebe Snow album, he did backgrounds on her whole album plus singing duets with her.
New Funk Times: Is it important for you to have familiar faces around when you do session jobs? Bootsy,
for example, always seems to get Maceo.
Bernie Worrell: Oh yeah, but that’s mainly for the vibe; and I guess it’s kind of a back-up. Mostly I try to help and spread work to my friends – I know they’re good and they can get the job done.
New Funk Times: What were the Bootsy shows like that you did [in 1990]?
Bernie Worrell: All sold out! And it was really something: The people are really hungry, they’re hungry for the funk! And it’s the first time that we all played together in about seven years. What was meaningful to us was the fact that there was interracial audiences all the way, and age groups from 17s to 40s, and all types of people: Eurasians, blacks, Caucasians, Orientals, spike-heads. Everybody mixed, and no trouble! That really shows you something.
New Funk Times: That seems to be a new development, because the P.Funk shows of the late ’70s were basically a black thing, right?
Bernie Worrell: Yes, that’s because the radio didn’t play it on the white stations, they didn’t program us there – which is racial.
New Funk Times: Did you do a lot of rehearsing prior to the gigs?
Bernie Worrell: Bootsy
and the core of the band rehearsed in Cincinnati. I was busy, so he sent me a rehearsal tape. I listened to the tape and it’s mostly the old stuff, so it was like a refresher course! [laughs] Then I just met ‚em in New York, and we hit it! We played Washington/D.C. on Halloween Night, and it was packed. They’re just hungry, they want us back on the scene.
New Funk Times: One of my favorite songs on your album is „Ain’t She Sweet“. How did you come up with that?
Bernie Worrell: Bootsy brought the 24-track master already done to the studio. My partner and I took some things out and re-did some vocals, and then I over-dubbed my keyboard parts. Then I put Herbie [Hancock] on, Herbie over-dubbed, and basically that was it.
We changed the structure by adding the bridge. That’s one spot where I used sampled upright bass patch for that country sound, Mudbone and I sang in a country texture, and one of my friends – Jimmy Ripp – played banjo in that section, a real banjo. I think it could be used in a movie or a commercial.
New Funk Times: „Ain’t She Nutrasweet„…
Bernie Worrell: Yeah, very good!
New Funk Times: On which occasions did you work with Herbie Hancock before?
Bernie Worrell: Only way back in the ’70s. I think we did a couple of shows together, Herbie Hancock and Parliament/Funkadelic. And then other times with Bill Laswell, but Herbie was usually in and gone and then I’d come in. So, on some of Bill Laswell’s projects we happen to be on the same album.
New Funk Times: To talk about another one of your new songs, I have to ask you a question which is referring to an old Funkadelic title: Bernie, what’s a „Funk-A-Hall-Lick“?
Bernie Worrell: Oh… you know, like the Hall of Fame. Bootsy and I came up with the idea of a Hall of Licks, like our famous licks from our older material and to put it all together in one song. So that’s how that came about.
New Funk Times: Another interesting song is „Volunteered Slavery / Bern’s Blues / Outer Spaceways„. What intrigued you about „Volunteered Slavery“ [written by Rahsaan Roland Kirk] ?
Bernie Worrell: The basic rawness of it; the deep-rooted bluesy African feel that I got from it. It’s like an African chant… – I had forgotten about that song, it was Bill Laswell’s idea, „Volunteered Slavery“ and „Outer Spaceways“ [by Sun Ra]. It’s a very important song, both of them are in the jazz idiom, so we thought it’s a good thing to do.
New Funk Times: Which associations did you have when you heard the line about „volunteered slavery“ for the firstc time?
Bernie Worrell: Plantations, slavery, and what our people were going through – and still are going through, right to the slave masters and the slaves, chain gangs, stuff like that…
New Funk Times: Is it important for you that your music contains messages in the lyrics, too?
Bernie Worrell: Yes, very much so, because I’m in the eye of the public and my job is to teach people positive ideas and try to bring more peace and love in this world because it’s getting worse. [Some] things are getting better, but I think the getting worse outweighs the better.
New Funk Times: In this context it is particularly nice that the Bootsy shows you were talking about were so much integrated.
Bernie Worrell: That’s what I was trying to say – it shows that it can be done, people can live and work together.
New Funk Times: With your new album, do you feel more comfortable as a solo performer than you did in the ’70s when you did your first solo record?
Bernie Worrell: Yes, very much so, much more comfortable and confident, a lot more at ease. The first one, for me, was rushed and a lot of pressure because we were doing several projects at a time – Horny Horns, my stuff, Parlet, Funkadelic. We were in the studio around the clock, and it was too much of a rush. But since playing Washington and Norfolk/Virginia these last couple of days, the audience would chant „Woo! Woo!“ [referring to B.W.’s 1978 album ALL THE WOO IN THE WORLD and the single „Woo Together“], so evidently a lot of people liked the first one. I can’t argue with them, I always tell them: „Thank you, but I didn’t like it!“ I only liked a couple of things on it.
New Funk Times: Was ALL THE WOO IN THE WORLD cut like a regular P.Funk album, patchwork-style?
Bernie Worrell: Yes, yup! [laughs] I had a little more organization on this current album, but I’m just still surprised people like the first one. I get a lot of, „how come they
didn’t print any more?“ There was a lot of political stuff going on then, too, in the record business. George Clinton and the record company president at the time had arguments, things like that were in the way.
New Funk Times: What does the solo career feel like apart from the music, do you like doing all the things connected with it, interviews and photo sessions and stuff like that?
Bernie Worrell: I guess I’m kinda used to it. It feels funny, like, „Oh oh, here we go again!“ When I’m really tired I don’t feel like it, but once I wake up I’m ready. I’m a trooper, I’ve done it before – ten years worth, more than that even! So that becomes second nature.
New Funk Times: Has your attitude toward your own singing changed over the years?
Bernie Worrell: As you know, I’m not really bashful about singing, but Mudbone helped me a lot with that and Nona Hendryx, plus a lot my friends said: „You better get off your ass and jam!“ I have a voice – I have a nice voice! – but I was just not used to putting it out that way, I was used to doing it through my fingers. Now I’m getting more confident, I’m doing better!
New Funk Times: Do you have any favorite songs on your album?
Bernie Worrell: „Ain’t She Sweet“ is one of my favorites, „Real Life Dreams“ and „Straight Ahead“. I like all of them – I like „Sing“ also, the little stuff that David [Byrne] is doing. David wrote the lyrics to that and he is singing some background parts with me and Mudbone. We had a lot of fun!
New Funk Times: Working with the Talking Heads seems to be one of your most consistent cooperations.
Bernie Worrell: Yes, we’re very close. Jerry and I are very, very close, I see him more than I do David because David is very busy.
New Funk Times: What awoke your interest in the Talking Heads in the first place?
Bernie Worrell: When they first called me and asked me if I would join them, I didn’t even know who they were. So I went and observed one of their rehearsals and listened to some tapes in the studio and saw that they work the same kinda way that P.Funk does. And I liked the vibes and the music, and I knew what David wanted – to put that black element in there, that funk element. I saw that it could work, and we took it to the top!
New Funk Times: One more name: Fuzzy Haskins. You worked on his album, too.
Bernie Worrell: Oh yeah… Fuzzy is, how we say, „back in the church“. He just did a gospel album, I’m wondering what happened to that, too, ‚cause I haven’t heard anything. I think it’s gonna be on Westbound. That album was very interesting because they’re using the updated sounds – as you know, gospel music is going through a change, to not be too haughty now.
New Funk Times: Who else was playing on it?
Bernie Worrell: Garry Shider, and the rest people were musicians who play in the band at church. It was the first time that some of them had ever done any studio work, we had to kinda train and coach them. They got great kick out of working with me, and Fuzzy felt more comfortable also.
New Funk Times: Which music are your kids into?
Bernie Worrell: Rap!!! – My son just turned 16 a day before Halloween, he’s into the rap thing, but he also likes the old blues. His favorite song on my record is the „B.W. Jam“.
New Funk Times: If you had to cut an album just for yourself with an unlimited budget, without worrying which market it is going to be for, just for your own satisfaction – could you imagine what it would be like?
Bernie Worrell: Man… – It would probably a full orchestra at times, playing a lot of classical stuff, and then I would segue into Latin America, and then I’d segue from that into Africa through different combinations of authentic musical instruments of that particular country, then I’d segue back to a classical theme for the orchestra, then I’d go on the funk – I’d just make the rounds of each people’s music and mix it altogether, a full orchestra and different combinations of quintets or quartets, synthesizer, acoustic. I hope that a lot of record company presidents read this, because they got the money! – I hear my granddaughter is up, she’s come to visit, she is three years old, I gotta go upstairs to see her…
I started a collaborative playlist on Spotify: