When you're talking about funk, you're talking about Bernie Worrell. His keyboard playing in Parliament-Funkadelic was a foundation of the P-Funk sound. He later found himself a member of the Talking Heads, most famously in their concert film Stop Making Sense.
Worrell continues his legacy of funk with The Bernie Worrell Orchestra which will be playing the Funky Biscuit March 1. Their album BWO Is Landing is imprinted with that trademark Worrell sound that makes listeners move body parts they didn't even know they had. While seeking shelter in his New Jersey home from a snowstorm, Worrell spoke to New Times about his illustrious past as a child prodigy, his membership in two bands inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and sucked his teeth when informed that it was 75 degrees and sunny in South Florida.
New Times: Is it true you learned to play piano at three years old? How did that happen?
Berne Worrell: I don't know. By the grace of God, I guess. (laughs) It's a gift. My mother says she's the first one that recognized it. She was my first teacher. She could accompany herself enough to learn hymns. She could teach me scale and once I could play scale perfectly, she knew there was something. It was hard for her to find a teacher that could teach someone that young. She finally found someone, and at four years old, I had passed all the eighth grade students and had my first classical concert at four years old.
That's a full lifetime with the piano. What's kept you fascinated through the years with the keys?
It's not so much fascinated, I've just been doing it for so long. Mother Nature is what fascinates me. I deal with sounds. I hear the animals, I hear a lot of bird calls, the sounds of running water in my compositions. I'm just a conduit. I play what's sent to me. Different synthesizers, the same songs will sound different. Hammond organ, baby grand, take one song, it's going to sound different on each instrument.
You were an integral member of both Parliament-Funkadelic and the Talking Heads, two very different bands. Did the two bands share any similarities?
The Talking Heads wanted to funk. (laughs) I found out after I joined them that David (Byrne) and Chris Frantz used to sneak into P-Funk concerts when they were students at the art school in Providence. I didn't know that, they must have been the only white kids there.
The other similarity is the way they work in the studio and the freedom that I had. When I first got a call from the Talking Heads I didn't know who they were. The Talking who? I'd heard of New Wave but I had to look it up.
How did your new group The Bernie Worrell Orchestra form?
It was formed by Evan Taylor who's the drummer and bandleader. He co-produced the first BWO album which is out on vinyl called Jazz Standards. My manager asked if I was interested in doing that project and I said yes. The whole band is from Madison, New Jersey, except the horn players, so they all went to high school together. Evan formed the band, and I'm the Grandpa who oversees it. We try to be versatile and play a lot of different stuff. That includes improvisation and jamming right on the spot while still having form to it.
What kind of show do you guys put on for the audience?
There will be different genres of music. We like to have fun. There will be audience participation if they want to join in. There will be Talking Heads songs, P-Funk songs, originals, and the beat will be, you know, fun-KEY! They can get ready to go on a trip, a journey, and you'll be able to dance, which is the most important thing.
A documentary film was made about you Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth. What was it like watching it?
Yeah, I heard about it.
You haven't seen it?
No, I have too much other stuff to do. They did it, so maybe one day I'll look it up.
So what are those stuff? What does your typical day look like?
I wake up, take the dogs out, feed the dogs, eat some breakfast, run some errands, and then I go all around the world. I just got back from Brazil scoring music for a film for a young Brazilian director who used for one of the themes a P-Funk song I wrote years ago called Atmosphere, and he wanted more stuff like that, so I was down there two weeks. Tomorrow I play in Providence and then Brooklyn and then Sunday I leave for Spain with Nona Hendryx from LaBelle. I'm keeping busy.
Bernie Worrell Orchestra, 8 p.m., Saturday, March 1, the Funky Biscuit, 303 SE Mizner Blvd
Royal Palm Place, Boca Raton. Visit funkybiscuit.com.