KEXP Documentaries: George Clinton Masterminds Parliament and Funkadelic

KEXP Documentaries bring you a musical subject in the time it takes to play just one song. This week it’s an episode on funk mastermind George Clinton and one band with two names: “Parliament” and “Funkadelic.”

In 1956, George Clinton formed a doo-wop group in the back of a barbershop in Plainfield, New Jersey.  He named this band The Parliaments.  He loved R&B, and the harmonizing sound of the 1950s, but in the 60s his band started listening more to Jimi Hendrix than to Ray Charles.  He threw out the suits the band performed in and exchanged them for torn jeans.  The Parliaments hit the R&B charts in 1967 with their first official single, “(I Wanna) Testify.”

George Clinton masterminded the creation of a second band who could work outside the sound of The Parliaments. He took the backing band from The Parliaments and created a second band called Funkadelic. Taking inspiration from other funk acts like Sly and The Family Stone and psychedelic rock groups Cream and the Rolling Stones, Clinton added rock stylings to the music and crazy, colorful costumes to the stage show. Funkadelic would focus more on long jams, rock sounds and the showcasing of players who were usually in the background.

In 1970, Funkadelic put out their first two albums, Funkadelic and Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow. The bands’s stage costumes ranged from Native American to wizards, from spacesuits to diapers. The world had never seen ANYTHING like the Parliament-Funkadelic crews, and the bands collectively started to be known as P-Funk.

In 1971, Funkadelic put out their masterpiece album, Maggot Brain.  Their lead guitarist Eddie Hazel would make his fame with the guitar solo on the title track. He’s still known as one of the best guitarists of all time. George Clinton had a talent for bringing out the best in every artist.  The story goes that he asked Eddie to improvise over a groove the rest of the band had written, and to think of the saddest thing possible. Eddie Hazel wrote the song’s melody on the spot while he envisoned that his mother had passed away. (In this live video clip of the song, the guitar solo starts at 1:30.)

In 1972, Eddie Hazel and bassist Billy Nelson left the bands. And George Clinton somehow recruited some of the best players from the James Brown band including Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. In this week’s KEXP Documentary, we ask Fred Wesley how that could have possibly happened. Fred says the players were attracted by the freedom George Clinton offered and also the concept. P-Funk’s stage show was based on the premise that the players were all aliens from another planet, sent to save Earthlings from their “funklessness.”

P-Funk was at the peak of their popularity in the 1970s with the players from the James Brown band and Parliament hits like “Aquaboogie” and “Flashlight”.  P-Funk and George Clinton still perform and record today, but in the 70s they were really cutting edge. Their 1976 show boasted a huge budget (the biggest ever for an African-American band at the time) and a performance that started with a huge spaceship coming down from the rafters, with the funk saviors inside.

KEXP Documentaries are created by Michele Myers. Assistant Producers are John Felthous and Mary Janisch. Lesson Plans are created by Tiffany Grobelski and Michele Myers. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. If you would like to follow along more closely in the creation of these radio stories, we post historical music facts, research materials, songs and videos on ourFacebook page and on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. Michael Beck
    Posted December 25, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Michele, thank you for this! My family and I have weekly P-Funk dance parties to Mothership Connection. :)

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