Was acclaimed keyboardist Bernie Worrell merely a mercenary for George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic – or was he a key creator entitled to a royalty stake?
The matter can finally be resolved in front of a judge. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Detroit, Worrell’s estate argues the late musician was never properly compensated for his performances and collaborative work on hundreds of P-Funk and Clinton tracks, including such hits as “One Nation Under a Groove”, “Flash Light” and “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)”.
The defendants include Clinton and his company Southfield Thang Inc., as well as Warner Brothers Records and Universal Music, which have deals with Thang to release Parliament-Funkadelic recordings.
The suit could formally settle the role played by Worrell — and other P-Funk musicians — in the band’s pioneering work, which blended funk, rock and R&B into a free-spirited musical brew. The rhythmic music, recorded in Detroit, became one of the most sampled bodies of work when hip-hop flourished in the 80s.
A Clinton representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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Litigation has been a long and thorny side story in the Clinton and P-Funk saga, including court battles involving copyrights, record labels, publishers, and even defamation. But Tuesday’s filing is the first to delve into the role of Parliament and the Funkadelic musicians: Were they contributors in their own right, or were they just doing work for hire under Clinton’s orchestration?
The estate’s attorney said that unless there is an explicit agreement to the contrary — and Clinton denied such a contract — then Worrell should be considered a co-creator with a copyright in the recordings on which he played and co-wrote.
“Trying to predict what Clinton might say is a wild ride, but I don’t think there’s any dispute about that,” Dickinson Wright attorney Daniel Quick told Troy. “Worrell was a highly recognized musician and contributor.”
Tuesday’s filing includes a “partial” list of about 350 leads of which Worrell, according to the estate, was an integral part.
He alleges Clinton engaged in an “ongoing pattern of deception” with Worrell and other Parliamentarian-Funkadelic musicians.
“He would make oral promises to the band members or manipulate them into waiving their rights in order to receive payment,” the lawsuit states.
Worrell was 72 when he died at his Washington state home in June 2016 following a battle with cancer. His widow, Judie Worrell, initiated the lawsuit.
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The complaint alleges that Clinton, through Thang Inc., pocketed all royalties and advances from Parliament and Funkadelic rather than sharing them with “the other musicians, artists and producers who collaborated with him to write, create and record the music”.
Clinton, the bands founder and leader, insisted that his P-Funk musicians were sidemen, similar to members of a big band orchestra.
At issue in Worrell’s case is a 1976 contract he said he was offered by Thang outlining a royalty arrangement for his record work. Worrell signed the deal, and Tuesday’s filing says he was led to believe Clinton also signed.
In a 2019 deposition, Clinton said he didn’t actually sign the 1976 document.
The Worrell Estate originally sued Clinton in New York in 2019. The New York Supreme Court dismissed the case last year, citing the state’s ‘dead man’s law’ which limits testimony involving a plaintiff died. Because Clinton said he had not signed a deal with Worrell, the court ruled there was no contract to rule on.
Detroit’s new lawsuit says Clinton’s 2019 refusal of a signed deal was “a greed-driven attempt to get away without sharing any royalties or income from the (works) that Clinton and Mr. Worrell created whole”.
The estate argues that if Clinton’s claim is correct—there was no binding contract setting out Worrell’s terms—then the keyboardist was in fact entitled to co-ownership of Parliament’s and Funkadelic’s works.
In Tuesday’s filing, Worrell’s estate says Detroit is a suitable location for the case, as P-Funk’s music from the 1970s was created in the city, recorded at studios including United Sound, Tera Shirma and Artie Fields.
Clinton was living in Brooklyn in the Irish Hills area of Michigan at the time.
Worrell’s estate is asking for a statement that the late keyboardist was a co-creator of the recordings in question, along with a tally of record sales and potential royalties. Damages would be determined at trial.
Born in New Jersey, Worrell, who studied piano at the Juilliard School in New York and was an early adopter of the Moog synth, played with Parliament and Funkadelic from the early 70s to the early 80s. He remained active throughout his cancer diagnosis in 2016, playing with the Talking Heads, Gov’t Mule, Mos Def and others.
Tuesday’s filing cites a 2021 essay by a music scholar who wrote that “the alien soundscape (Worrell) launched with its Moog synthesizers not only created P-Funk’s signature sound, but performed as the cement that holds the many-faceted whole together”.
Quick said the Worrell case could pave the way for other Parliament and Funkadelic musicians to pursue their own interests in the catalog.
“I only represent Mr. Worrell’s estate, but I would be shocked if this doesn’t open the door for other musicians to come forward and pursue some of their claims,” the attorney said.
Contact Detroit Free Press Music Writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.