Monday, March 28, 2016

Webster Hall Gets the WOO: Nona Hendryx on Honoring Bernie Worrell


As recently discussed on this website, the great Bernie Worrell is working hard to explore new sonic journeys while battling a variety of serious health issues including prostate cancer and Stage IV lung cancer. Now, a number of the Wizard of WOO's peers and closest musical collaborators are coming together to celebrate his extraordinary contributions to music and raise money to help cover his mounting medical expenses.

On April 4 at Webster Hall in NYC, the Black Rock Coalition, Sweet Relief and R&B/Soul legend Nona Hendryx present “All the WOO in the World,” a “benefit/funkraiser” that is set to feature one of the most extraordinary casts of musicians ever assembled in one place for one evening. Artists scheduled to perform as of this writing include Worrell's former P-Funk bandmates George Clinton, Maceo Parker and Boosty Collins as well as Living Colour, producer/bassist (and longtime Worrell cohort) Bill Laswell, Bernard Fowler (Rolling Stones/Tackhead), Rick Springfield, Melvin Gibbs (Rollins Band), Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), actress Meryl Streep (who starred with Worrell in last year's Ricki and the Flash) and many more. (Seattle-based benefit shows for Worrell are slated for April 9 at the Sea Monster Lounge and April 19 at the Nectar Lounge, respectively. A benefit show is also being held in Bellingham, WA on April 16 at the Wild Buffalo.)

At the time of our call in mid-March, Hendryx was bouncing from meeting to meeting, working with artists and other show organizers in ensuring that the April 4 event measures up to the greatness of the man it aims to honor.

“It started out to be something that was fairly small and turned into something quite large,” she said.

Hendryx's friendship with the Wizard of WOO dates back to the '70s, when he was changing music history with P-Funk and she was a member of the legendary Labelle (“Lady Marmalade”). Not only did the two acts have the same lawyer, but they also shared the talents of costume designer Larry LeGaspi (also know for his work with KISS). Hendryx and Worrell have worked together off and on ever since, appearing on each other's stages and albums and performing together as part of Talking Heads' legendary 1980-1981 touring lineup.

“Performing with Bernie has always just been magical and a pleasure for me,” she says. “We kind of come from the same place in terms of how music flows from us and being able to be improvisational on stage but always serving the music. I love how Bernie's willing to explore sound; that's one of the greatest things I've learned or shared with him.”

The evening's stellar lineup and auction items were helped along in large part by Bootsy Collins, who rallied his friends in the industry to get involved.

“One of the things that really helped was Bootsy just put the call out, and we got a great response from him going, 'Bernie needs your help,'” Hendryx notes. 

At the time of this writing, items that will be up for auction at “All the WOO in the World” include a signed bass from Flea, a signed guitar from Carlos Santana, a signed tour poster of The Rolling Stones courtesy of Worrell collaborator Keith Richards and a signed drum head from Dennis Chambers (P-Funk All-Stars). Moog has also donated a new Moog Voyager (which Worrell is expected to play that evening) for the auction, while an attendee will also have a chance to walk away with the melodica that Worrell is holding in the show poster above.

“There are other people who would like to be there and are sending things to help; others are buying tickets even though they can't be there,” Hendryx says. “What we're hoping is that this love and appreciation will maybe kill some of the cancer cells.”

According to its official website, the Black Rock Coalition “was created in the fall of 1985 in New York City with the purpose of creating an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure and acceptance of Black alternative music. The BRC seeks to foster cooperation among musicians and like organizations through networking and shared resources. The BRC opposes those racist and reactionary forces within the American music industry which undermine and purloin our musical legacy and deny Black artists the expressive freedom and economic rewards that our Caucasian counterparts enjoy as a matter of course.” Worrell currently serves on the BRC Board of Directors.
Sweet Relief was founded in 1993 by Victoria Williams, a promising musician who backed out of a high-profile tour with Neil Young when he began experiencing symptoms of what was later revealed to be multiple sclerosis. According to its website, the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund “provides financial assistance to all types of career musicians who are struggling to make ends meet while facing illness, disability or age-related problems.” 

“It came out of an unfortunate situation, but [Victoria's] difficulties and illness spawned something that can help musicians over time,” Hendryx says. “Their focus is being there to help and support musicians when they're in need. That is such a needed organization; I was just so grateful that there was one that did exist.

“They're a not-for-profit, with the exception of a small amount of money that goes to another organization [Music4Sight] that helps musicians with poor eyesight," she adds. “As rock 'n' rollers age, their eyesight becomes a problem, and some deal with blindness and issues like that.”

Hendryx says that in addition to hosting a donation page for Worrell on their website, Sweet Relief will run on online auction for items that don't sell at the show.

While “All the WOO in the World” promises to be a fun-filled evening, it is undeniably frustrating that something like this even has to take place. A musician might be on a slew of hit songs, but he or she rarely gets the same 401(k), health care package and other perks that are given to those who work at the record company. But surely there's money to be made from a hit song, right? Well, consider that a song or album selling in the four digits can get on the Billboard charts these days, and the fact that a side/backing player or singer on the track very likely doesn't get a slice of even that small of a pie. Let's add a mortgage, rent, kids and general living expenses to the mix. That's a lot for a healthy person to handle, let alone a 71-year-old man with cancer like Worrell.

“The artists are given a contract that can be terminated the next day,” Hendryx observes. “It's usually not on the artists' side; it's more towards the company's side. The costs ultimate come out of the artist for the music that they make and the products that are sold...Our business doesn't run like a businesses that cares about the people who create what it is that feeds the business. Nobody's changed that in all of these years.”

If anyone deserves respect and riches, it's Worrell. Go through the top Rap songs of the late '80s through mid-'90s. Do you like those grooves? You should, as they're most likely samples of Worrell's magic.

“Hop-Hop owes a huge debt to Bernie Worrell,” Hendryx states. “If you listen to 'Straight Outta Compton,' that's all P-Funk music.”

With “All the WOO in the World” and the other show slated to occur, Bernie Worrell's fans and fellow players will be given a unique opportunity to show appreciation and thanks for the man while is able to see, hear, feel and know the love that so many have for him. Just as he was on those classic P-Funk records, Bernie Worrell remains one of the music's most innovative and identifiable creators.

As Hendryx says, “You know Aretha's voice, you know Gladys Knight's voice, you know Patti LaBelle's voice, you know Tina's voice and you know Bernie's sound.”


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