By Devon “Doc” Wendell
Lately I’ve been harkening back to a time in my hazy youth in which rock n’ roll seemed too square and being a jazz musician felt unattainable. I was a frustrated self-taught blues guitar player in his teens in search of something else.
As much as I worshipped the blues, by the time I was 13 the image, true attitude, sound, and feel of greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Son House had all but vanished.
There were still many blues legends with a lot to offer but for the most part blues had morphed almost completely into blues-rock. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the leader of the pack and he had thousands of clones. Vaughan passed away in 1990 but today it’s still the same. Blues clubs and radio stations are still flooded by men and women who all dress like a discount combo of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan on layaway. And they all fall back on the same overindulgent stock blues licks.
I saw the writing on the wall back at the age of 13. Once again the rock establishment was co-opting the blues for a white audience, as had been done in the ‘60s and I didn’t approve or want to go along.
I had always been a geeky wallflower who had sat on the floor at school dances or avoided them altogether. I wasn’t going to ditch the blues or give up trying to play jazz, but I was in search of a more primal sound that could get to the core of all contemporary musical genres and didn’t take it self too seriously. I found what I was looking for in funk.
The very first bassist I played with in high school turned me onto George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. I was already deeply into the funk of Sly And The Family Stone and James Brown so this was the logical next step.
My first reaction was laughter. Hearing Parliament’s “The Mothership Connection” felt like the first time I had ever been truly stoned. Granted I probably was very stoned at the time. It was musically sophisticated with slick, jazz-inspired horn arrangements by Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley (formerly of James Brown’s band), thumping baselines by ex-James brown protégé Bootsy Collins, and classically infused psychedelic keyboard work by Bernie Worrell. The most shocking element was George Clinton or “Dr. Funkenstein” rapping (more than a decade before rap music was around) over the music using street slang and profanity in an over the top, super silly fashion.
There was also the meteoric guitar work of P-Funk guitarists Eddie Hazel, Garry Shider, Mike Hampton, and Dewayne “Blackbyrd” Mcknight which cemented George Clinton’s concept of “organized chaos” and is still a huge influence on my playing today.
I also bought and taught myself electric bass after hearing the albums Ahh The Name Is Bootsy Baby, and Larry Graham’s slapping on Graham Central Station’s “The Jam.”
When it came to listening to funk music – whether it was James Brown, Sly Stone, or P-Funk — I felt I had to sneak off somewhere to do it, like I did with comedy albums by Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx. It wasn’t just the language; it was the attitude which made rock music seem like the squarest music in the galaxy. There was this delightful nastiness mixed with a true freedom to all of it and I started collecting funk records by the stack full. From James Brown, Sly Stone, all incarnations of P-Funk and Bootsy Collins, to The Ohio Players, Con Funk Shun, Brick, and Earth, Wind And Fire, I had to have it all. Suddenly I wasn’t too shy too dance and I was out there at funk concerts and parties shaking my ass and making a fool out of myself but not giving a shit. That’s freedom. That’s funk.
Of course my steady diet of marijuana and psychedelic drugs helped aid this drastic change and allowed me to see all things as being sublimely funky. My guitar playing became funkier and more focused on that “one” beat that is the spiritual core of funk music. James Brown emphasized the “one” and P-Funk took it to new and wonderfully ridiculous heights. The “one” is where all musicians meet up and are in sync with the universe.
Although funk remains as spiritually relevant with young music lovers and musicians today in a way similar to reggae, the music’s greatest pioneers and practitioners have constantly been dismissed as novelty acts by the mainly white controlled music industry and what’s left of it. Times have been hard for Sly Stone and George Clinton over the past few decades.
I’ve never truly understood why. Sly Stone was as talented, inventive, and revolutionary as all four Beatles combined. Sly not only influenced hundreds of funk and rock bands, he also changed the shape of jazz forever. Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters would not exist without Sly. Miles Davis worshiped Sly and his music was forever changed by Sly’s influence.
Why is it that Sly Stone lives in a mobile home today? Why is George Clinton having to fight for the rights to his own music but still sells out concerts all over the world? The white rock bands of the ‘70s did as much drugs (if not more) as any of the funk legends and they’re still able to get record deals. The rock machine can stay behind and support the nostalgia of Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young, or even The Rolling Stones no matter what trouble these artists have gotten into over the years or the dips in their record sales.
I can’t help but think that if these artists were black, they’d know how it feels to be relegated to novelty act status by main stream media and have to fight to keep what they created. Keith Richards can dress and act as crazy as he wants and there aren’t the same consequences as there have been with Sly Stone or George Clinton. It doesn’t make any sense.
With all that said and as overtly un-funky as the music business has always been, there are the fans. Since my introduction to funk back in my teens, I’ve learned that there are no fans like funk fans or “funkateers.” The love is felt all over the world by people of all ages. We ex-“Psychedelic wallflowers” keep the music fresh. Not to mention the millions of hip-hop and rap artists who have sampled funk records since day one and continue to do so.
Tuesday, July 22nd was the 73rd Birthday of George Clinton. I was lucky enough to work with Dr. Funkenstein in the studio over 23 years ago and we spoke many times during the ’90’s at airports or backstage as he and The P-Funk All- Stars toured constantly going “all around the world for the funk.” They’re still out there touring right now. So, today I thank you, Dr. Funkenstein, for freeing my mind and ass collectively and a very funktacular Happy Birthday. Never quit. Keep on funkin’, we need it now more than ever. I also thank all current and past members of P-Funk, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell, Junie Morrison , and Sly And The Family Stone, Larry Graham, James Brown, and the list goes on.
The record industry may be dying out, old, corny, and not able to dance, but thanks to you, Dr. Funkenstein, everything is still on the one.
* * * * * * * *
To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.