Bernie Worrell, a classically trained pianist who fathered a funky new musical language on the synthesizer, laying down hip-shaking, toe-tapping bass lines and melodies for George Clinton’s group Parliament-Funkadelic and the new-wave band Talking Heads, died June 24 at his home in Everson, Wash. He was 72.
Mr. Worrell was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs and liver, said his wife, Judie Worrell.
With Clinton and bassist Bootsy Collins, Mr. Worrell was one of the principal songwriters, producers and arrangers of the genre-bending collective known as P-Funk. The group’s sprawling roster of musicians played funk, rock and psychedelic soul under the monikers Parliament and Funkadelic, creating such classic albums as Funkadelic’s guitar-heavy “Maggot Brain” (1971) and Parliament’s “Mothership Connection” (1975), a concept album about black aliens who have “returned to claim the pyramids.”
It was Mr. Worrell who provided “oozing, organic textures in the P-Funk groove machine,” New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote in 2000, adding: “He can take credit for the slow-bubbling synthesizer bass lines that are still ubiquitous in hip-hop and rhythm-and-blues.”
Mr. Worrell and 15 other P-Funkers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
The group was helmed by Clinton, a former hair-straightener who met Mr. Worrell while working at a barbershop in Plainfield, N.J., and fronting a doo-wop band called the Parliaments. The ambitious singer vowed he would hire Mr. Worrell when he had the money to pay him — and did so a decade later, bringing him on for Funkadelic’s psychedelic second album, “Free Your Mind . . . And Your Ass Will Follow” (1970). The record was recorded in one day while the band was tripping on acid, Clinton later said.
Mr. Worrell, although not entirely strait-laced himself, brought a dose of discipline and organization to the group as its musical director.
“A lot of the songs would be jams, and I’d structure them into verses or choruses or whatever,” he told the Times in 1991. “I was the classical guy mixing with the funk that was already there.”
His classical roots were apparent in songs such as “Atmosphere,” the final track of Funkadelic’s 1975 album “Let’s Take It to the Stage,” which featured Clinton soliloquizing about male and female genitalia while Mr. Worrell played a long, Bach-inspired organ solo.
Mr. Worrell was also an experimentalist who didn’t hesitate to mix musical styles and tinker with new technology. Inspired by the prog-rock keyboardist Keith Emerson of the English band Emerson Lake & Palmer, he was one of the first to explore the possibilities of a suitcase-size synthesizer called the Minimoog.
Created in 1970 partly by engineer and synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog, the portable Minimoog brought electronic blips, bloops, crackles and scrapes to a mass audience. Mr. Worrell connected three of the instruments — the Minimoog could play only one note at a time — to create the spacey bass line for Parliament’s chart-topping 1978 single “Flash Light,” which he co-wrote with Clinton and Collins.
That same year, he recorded his first solo album, “All the Woo in the World,” singing and playing the keys with help from Clinton and other P-Funk regulars.
He split from the group two years later after a rift with Clinton over money and credit, and he was recruited to join the Talking Heads. Guitarist David Byrne and other band members were fans of Parliament-Funkadelic — their song “Burning Down the House” was inspired by a common audience chant at P-Funk performances — and they wanted to add a bit of texture and groove to their detached brand of art rock.
Mr. Worrell played on the band’s critically acclaimed studio album “Speaking in Tongues” (1983) and was featured in their concert film “Stop Making Sense” (1984), directed by Jonathan Demme, and its accompanying soundtrack.
He later brought his synth-heavy funk to such wide-ranging artists as the Pretenders, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, Yoko Ono, the reggae duo Sly and Robbie, and jazz-rock drummer Ginger Baker. For a few months in the early 1990s, he accompanied keyboardist Paul Shaffer on David Letterman’s “Late Show” on CBS. (He was replaced when the network wanted a horn section.)
Mr. Worrell’s varied repertoire of keyed instruments included the electric organ, harpsichord, melodica and clavinet, but his style seemed always to contain a bit of that inexplicable style he helped refine: funk.
“Funk is an attitude,” he once told the Times. “Funk is a feeling. It’s rhythmic, it’s movement, it’s tone color. Everybody thinks they know what it is, but I like to leave it ambiguous.”
George Bernard Worrell Jr. was born in Long Branch, N.J., on April 19, 1944. His mother, an amateur pianist who sang in the church choir, introduced him at 3 to musical scales on the piano. He gave his first concert a year later and was traveling to Washington to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra by age 10.
Around that time, Mr. Worrell’s family moved to Plainfield, where the young pianist became entranced by pop and rock music after watching Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Playing with local R&B and soul acts at night, he studied at the Juilliard School in Manhattan and then the New England Conservatory in Boston. He dropped out of the conservatory shortly before graduation, when his father died.
Mr. Worrell toured with singer Maxine Brown and Boston-area band Chubby and the Turnpikes, which later had disco hits under the name Tavares, before joining up with Clinton in the late 1960s.
Other than his wife, Judie Jones Worrell, a complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Tensions with Clinton continued in the 1990s, when P-Funk songs began to be heavily sampled by hip-hop artists and Clinton received the bulk of the band’s royalties.
“I’m still owed money from a lot of sampling,” Mr. Worrell told the St. Petersburg Times in 2002.
He released a steady stream of solo albums until his death, including the well-received “Funk of Ages” (1990), which featured former collaborators Collins, Richards and Byrne, and “Blacktronic Science” (1993), which mixed jazz and chamber music with hip-hop and rap.
“I work by sound and feel,” Mr. Worrell once told Keyboard magazine, explaining his composition technique. “And you must feel it first, baby.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the city where Mr. Worrell met musician George Clinton as Plainview, N.J. It was Plainfield, N.J. The story has been revised.
Read more Washington Post obituaries