The Best Bass Line: A Tribute to Bernie Worrell

Photo By Manfred Werner / Tsui (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I played air bass in high school. Not in the air guitar championship sense (yes, that’s a thing), but when all of my friends were playing air guitar or air drums, I was playing air bass. I don’t remember when exactly I started, but it would have been somewhere between 6th and 9th grade. I couldn’t tell you why I chose bass. Something about bass lines in songs immediately grabbed me and it was what I wanted to imitate in the safety of my bedroom walls.

Parliament Funk EssentialsThere were three songs in particular that I used to loop ad nauseam and never quite lose interest in “playing.” One of these songs was the classic funk song “Flash Light” by Parliament. I don’t remember exactly when I first heard it, but I know that I was first introduced to Parliament, and P-Funk in general, at summer camp between 9th and 10th grade (Thanks, Matt!). I returned home and started collecting. My first CD was a greatest hits collection with “Flash Light” opening the album. I was hooked. Somehow the 5-minute jam (or the 10-minute mix from another compilation) wasn’t enough. Parliament had become one of my favorite bands with an unquestionable favorite tune.

I was either a junior or senior year in high school when I bought my first bass guitar. I had an after school job was able to save up some cash. I was going to concerts as often as possible and was wondering if I could ever be more than just a super fan. I went with bass for a few reasons. I didn’t know anyone else who played bass so I figured that would increase my odds of getting into a band faster. There were also only four strings and you only played one at a time. At the time, it seemed like I could just get started faster. More importantly, I had been playing air bass for so long, it just seemed natural to play the real thing. (There were two other songs that played a large role in all of this but they each have their own story.) I got the used instrument, a tiny practice amp, and a VHS to learn from. 15 years later, I could not imagine my life not performing music.

Now, Parliament’s renowned bassist was William “Bootsy” Collins, a master bassist and stage performer who cut his teeth in James Brown’s band. He’s a hero to me and that first Parliament CD was a big part of that. I spent many of my first years playing bass trying to learn his lines. However, it wasn’t until sometime later that I learned that he didn’t actually play on that legendary recording of “Flash Light.” That studio performance and writing credit belongs to pianist Bernie Worrell. The bass line I had treasured for so many years wasn’t actually played on a bass guitar! This didn’t change my attitude toward the song, but it was important that I redirect some of my admiration. It also helped explain why I wasn’t exactly able to mimic some of the note bends on that particular recording. You need a pitch wheel for that.

Today, Bernie Worrell passed away at the age of 72 of lung cancer. I somehow missed the benefit shows in April thrown in his honor. He had been touring regularly with his own band, passing through Boston fairly recently. I never got off my butt to go see him play and now I’ve lost that chance entirely. Celebrity deaths rarely affect me in any personal way. While I can appreciate and respect public mourning and loss, I can’t honestly say I feel anything. When I first song the news about Mr. Worrell on Twitter, I felt a tug; a twitch. The world had lost the person who had written one of the specific songs that really drove me to pick up an instrument. I’ve spent so many years with that one song—and Parliament songs in general—and they’ve yet to lose their luster. Every time I jam along with “Flash Light,” I learn a new bass fill or a nuance in a particular measure. The music is timeless. The songs continue to surprise me as both a fan and musician.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about Mr. Worrell. I’ve learned a lot about the history of Parliament, Funkadelic, George Clinton, and Bootsy Collins, but I’ve not spent much time diving into the backgrounds of the many contributing musicians that made the band so special. However, I know that I owed him a thank you and handshake at the very least. I could have had that chance given the intimate venues the Bernie Worrell Orchestra was playing. Therein lies what saddens me; I missed the opportunity to say “thank you.”

So tonight, I will play that most favorite of bass lines and make sure I don’t miss future opportunities to thank the folks who have made the music that has added so much to my life.

Not familiar with the song? You might be familiar with one of the 150+ songs that sampled it.

In the video below, bassist Bootsy Collins speaks about Bernie the innovator.

Bernie is one that would become whatever sound he touches… If he hits a sound like a trumpet, he becomes a trumpet player. If he hits a string sound, he becomes a string section.

And in his own words…

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