The Wonderful Wizard of WOO

Bernie Worrell Orchestra brings funky magic to Gem City

 By Tim Anderl

 
Photo: Funk legend Bernie Worrell brings the Bernie Worrell Orchestra to the Venue on Third on Dec. 28; photo: Brian Diescher

Once upon a time, in this kingdom, two great and powerful wizards shared a meal. One wizard turned to the other during the feast and thanked him for creating powerful tools with which the other had delighted and transformed the kingdom. Pondering his remarks, the other wizard responded, “No, THANK YOU!”

This is a remarkable tale, not of fiction, but truth. And the two wizards … Bernie Worrell – of Parliament/Funkadelic and Talking Heads – and Dr. Robert Moog.

Worrell designed Parliament/Funkadelic’s spaced-out keyboard sound – an intergalactic, synth-drenched whomp that remains unmistakable and unmatched. Providing the fuel behind P-Funk classics like “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)” and “Flash Light,” Worrell created the ingenious bass line on a Minimoog. Worrell’s work with P-Funk earned him the nickname “The Wizard of WOO (World of Originality)” – and a place, along with the original Parliament/Funkadelic, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Worrell was also later instrumental with the Talking Heads, appearing on the landmark album Speaking in Tongues and in the Jonathan Demme concert film “Stop Making Sense.”

These days, his troupe Bernie Worrell Orchestra carries the WOO torch, playing new, original music that mines “late-1960s/early 1970s psychedelic rock and R&B … the foundation of funk.” BWO is set to blast off during a forthcoming stop in Dayton and DCP caught up with Worrell to chat about all things WOO. This is what he shared.

Do you believe that part of your success has been you were born with a gift, or do you believe that it is equal parts gifts and work ethic?

I was given a gift and achieved some things because of my work ethic. Some people don’t have to do anything. They just get it. Others have a different work ethic. I don’t control that and really don’t care about it. I just know I was given a gift and wanted to share it. -Bernie Worrell

Did you attend the induction ceremony for Parliament/Funkadelic in 1997?

Yes, we were presented by Prince. -BW

You went back for the Talking Heads induction in 2002…

I was invited and I was there. David Byrne gave about a three-minute speech about me at the induction. I think they had to invite me in order to do “Burning Down The House.” (laughter)  You know what I mean? -BW

How did it feel to go from an academic background to playing with Parliament/Funkadelic? Was it nerve-wracking to become a full-time performer?

At an early age while being trained classically, I saw how some things were treated and thought, “Oh no, no, no.” Especially after I went to college and saw the Boston Symphony, and being in school and seeing all the shenanigans, I thought, “Let me turn this around.” I’ll play anything. Music is music. You don’t have to put anything on a pedestal. Put it on a pedestal, and I’ll tear it down. -BW

Has anyone tried to tell you to tone it down or tried to put you in your place?

I don’t think they can do that (laughter). Ain’t nobody ever tried. With my teacher in college, I’d go for my lessons and after a half hour, my teacher, who was Czechoslovakian, would say, “Play some of that jazz.” (laughter) I can play anything. I would also play around in the dormitory. Some would be classical, but I’d mix it. That’s teaching, in and of itself – recognizing the common ground between different types of music. -BW

Did you realize at the time you were pushing keyboard to the forefront as a lead instrument in pop and funk music?

No. (laughter) I didn’t think about it then, and I don’t think about it now. I just played, man. I play what is sent, whether live, recording or writing, I play what I feel, what is sent. I don’t think about making a hit. I don’t think so… -BW

Given the role of musicians from Dayton, Ohio in the legacy of funk, I imagine this is a place you are familiar with. Have you had the opportunity to rub elbows with anyone from Slave, Heatwave or The Ohio Players?

Yes, many times. We all toured together. Those are my brothers and my kindred spirits. So, yes. (laughter) We are all in the same family. Different factions, different avenues, same street (laughter). Some took left turns, some right turns, but we all ended up in people’s hearts and minds. Have you heard BWO’s new CD? -BW

Yes, a number of times. That came out earlier this year. What made now a good time to move on with that group?

That was a thing that just sort of came about. Evan Taylor, the drummer, came to management three years ago and asked if I’d be interested in doing a funkatized jazz standards album. I thought about it and finally said “yes.” The first album came out, and then Evan came back and asked to see if I’d be interested in doing something live. I hemmed and hawed, and finally said “yes.” And BWO was born. I’m thankful to be teaching again on the stage and am really thankful for this opportunity. I teach by playing, like I said. It has been beneficial on both sides; the old teach the new, and the old learn from the young. -BW

Do you get the same charge playing for smaller audiences?

I like it better. Coliseums and all that, that’s cool. But, no man, I want to be closer to the people. You can feel that energy. It is intimate. I love playing outdoors more than anything. Out with nature, where the music goes into wherever it is going. I like festivals the best. -BW

You won’t get that much nature in Dayton in December…

I was shoveling snow today. I’m in Jersey. My back is hurting now (laughter). -BW

Bernie Worrell Orchestra performs at The Venue on Third, 905 E. Third St., on Saturday, Dec. 28, at 10 pm. Also on the bill is Magic Jackson. Tickets are $10 in advance, and $15 the day of the show. Admission is 21 & up. Doors at 8 p.m. For more information, please visit bernieworrellorchestra.com.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Anderl at TimAnderl@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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