George Clinton, Happy Birthday! Here's to You and Nine Other Showstoppers With a Flair for Funk and Fashion
George Clinton, born July 22, 1941, is many things: a singer, songwriter, producer and musical visionary. The one thing he's not is predictable.
At 71, he's as outrageous as ever, a vision of pure theatrical eccentricity, garbed in outlandish costumes, multicolored dreadlocks, oversized sunglasses, and the occasional elaborate headdress. With his twin bands Parliament and Funkadelic, Clinton brings color and personality to funk and R&B. A 1997 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, he can also claim a prodigious solo career allowing him to work alongside artists of every musical stripe and persuasion.
Initially infatuated by doo-wop, the singing group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers in particular, Clinton began his professional career as a songwriter for Motown. Once he formed Parliament, his success was solidified with "(I Wanna) Testify." Their dynamic franchise blossomed and grew, becoming known also as Funkadelic and P Funk, depending on the context of their performances. The groups took their music to new and yet-unimagined extremes, adding elaborate performance values, an unrelenting groove, and extravagant arrangements that keep listeners scratching their heads, rubbing their eyes, and cleaning out their ears in amazement.
Clinton began making music under his own aegis in the '80s, although he kept a band handle with the P Funk All-Stars. Along with the hit R&B singles "Atomic Dog," "Nubian Nut," "Last Dance," "Do Fries Go With That Shake?," and "Loopzilla," he scored a string of successful albums -- You Shouldn't-Nuf Bit Fish, Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends, R&B Skeletons in the Closet, and the live set Mothership Connection (Live From the Summit, Houston, Texas). The Red Hot Chili Peppers also got in on his act. Huge fans, they asked him to produce their album Freaky Styley in 1985.
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Although his popularity waned in the late '80s, Clinton managed to remain busy. Prince signed him to his Paisley Park label for his 1989 album, The Cinderella Theory, and its 1993 follow-up, Hey Man, Smell My Finger. He continues to make solo albums and ventures out on peripheral projects -- producing the British band Primal Scream, contributing a cover of "Mind Games" to the John Lennon tribute album Working Class Hero -- and has collaborated with such like-minded artists as Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, and Outkast. He's also earned the distinction of being one of the most sampled artists of all time.
Clinton is part of a long-lasting trajectory of performers whose roots in R&B have significantly shifted over time and created an indelible imprint of their own. Here are a few other fashion and funk innovators who blasted that mothership out into the crazy cosmos.
9. James Brown
The Godfather of Soul created the prototype not only for Clinton but for nearly every soul singer who followed. Brown's flamboyant style, mesmerizing stage presence, and flashy big-band arrangements had a profound influence on the oversized sounds that fueled Parliament and Funkadelic's over-the-top ingenuity.
8. Jimi Hendrix
The ultimate guitar god, Hendrix's flash and frenzy are still the stuff of legend more than 40 years after his untimely passing. His dynamic mesh of rock, blues, and R&B took the past into the present and created a sound that's never been replicated either then or now.
7. Sly and the Family Stone
The first band to successfully mesh rock and R&B for a mostly white audience, Sly Stone's musical savvy, songwriting skills, and perpetually quirky personality helped sow the seeds for Clinton's ingenious approach.
6. Jackson 5
Like Sly and company, Jackson 5 formulated a strong following among white youth while still retaining their black working-class ties. Their flashy costumes, sophisticated stage show, and self-contained instrumental arsenal provided an ideal segue way for the flash and focus shored up by Clinton and crew.
5. William Earl "Bootsy" Collins
A Clinton protégé, Collins began his career in support of James Brown and gained a reputation as one of America's prime funk players. Both a singer and ace bass player, he helped anchor Parliament Funkadelic and was honored along with Clinton and the other members of the band with an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
4. Grace Jones
Jamaican-born and dance-club-bred, Jones is an ideal example of how music and image can merge into one unforgettable impression. Embracing electronic music, Jones adopted an androgynous look complete with square-cut hair, bizarre makeup, and a weird and wacky wardrobe. The bride of Funkenstein? Perhaps.
The Artist Formerly Known as... combines the flash and showmanship of Clinton and the savvy style of Jimi Hendrix in casting him as a cool charismatic rock god. The Purple One's various backup bands have also conveyed a musical makeup that owes its debt to Parliament Funkadelic.
2. Sun Ra
A jazz musician whose cosmic flights of fantasy set him apart from his contemporaries, Sun Ra took eccentricity to another level entirely. With his flashy sci-fi sensibility, futuristic sounds, and loopy getups, he baffled even his die-hard devotees.
1. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Early Clinton admirers, the Chili Peppers derived their searing brand of funk and punk from Clinton and his contemporaries. While their cock-sock look was strictly their own, the outlandish effect was also the equal of Clinton's cocksure approach.
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