What’s in a title? The essence of legend.
Think Aretha Franklin: the First Lady of Soul. Or her counterpart, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul. Or Ella Fitzgerald: The First Lady of Song. Or even George Clinton: The Grandfather of Funk . . .
The Grandfather of Funk?
“Yeh, I got one of my grand-daughters goin’ up there with me on stage now,” the legendary 56-year old groovemaster admits with a chuckle during a recent phone interview. “Plus I got three sons in the business now, too. Makes it even more like a family affair now than it ever has been.”
Which is saying a lot, given the knotty musical family tree required to document Clinton’s incestuous funk mob over its forty year history. The current cast of survivors will be making a stop at the Palace Theatre Saturday night under the moniker “P-Funk All Stars”–but Clinton and cohorts have also worked groovy as Parliament, freed their minds as Funkadelic, made the music go bounce as Bootsy’s Rubber Band, explored their feminine sides as the Brides of Funkenstein, blown nasty as the Horny Horns and touched literally thousands of recordings as session-men, producers, singers, songwriters and (most of all) inspirations.
And way, way back in 1955, they even sang soulful doo-wop. That was the year the young George Clinton founded his first singing group, the Parliaments, in an attempt to fill the time between his commitments to the Outlaws (a street gang) and Newark, New Jersey’s Uptown Tonsorial Parlor (the barbershop where he worked). While the Parliaments recorded their first single in 1958, it was not until 1967 that the Motown-clone “(I Just Wanna) Testify” earned Clinton and fellow singers Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas and Ray Davis their first minor chart action.
“Testify” was also the last recording credited to the Parliaments. When a conflict with Revilot Records precluded the ensemble from using that name, Clinton and company adopted the name of their live backing band (Funkadelic) and set out to get their “new” act signed to another label. The ploy worked: Funkadelic earned themselves a contract with Armen Boladian’s Westbound Records shortly before they won back the rights to the Parliaments name. Never ones to pass on a business opportunity, Clinton’s singers dropped their “s” and signed to Holland- Dozier-Holland’s Invictus label as Parliament, beginning a decade long dual existence for the same core group of performers.
“When people used to ask us what the difference was between the groups, we’d always tell them that Funkadelic was the guitar and rock side of the house and Parliament was for the singers and the horns,” recalls Clinton. “But stuff was always crawlin’ over into the other side–and it was really about just makin’ sure we had two paychecks comin’ in the early days.”
Interestingly, the sounds produced during those early days of the Parliament-Funkadelic empire couldn’t have been further from the smooth soul of “Testify”. “Everybody in the group had different stuff that they wanted to do,” Clinton explains. “An’ they all got to play it, ’cause we developed a style that was basic in some ways but really deep in others. I mean, we saw Jimi Hendrix playin’ the blues, just puttin’ a lotta effects on it. We saw James Brown vampin’ and groovin’ and takin’ it to the bridge an’ back. We saw all the Motown stuff that was just as sophisticated as it could possibly get. An’ then there was Traffic and King Crimson an’ groups that played jazz an’ classical things a rock setting. An’ the singers was into, like, gospel while I was into tight vocals an’ parts that I pushed that to the max. [Guitarist] Tawl [Ross], he was into Iggy Pop and all that stuff that turned into punk.
“So I’d just always remember to throw all of that stuff into the mix to confuse people, so they’d say ‘Well, they really must know what they doin” when all we was tryin’ to do was to get all our talent to come out in the middle of all that chaos,” Clinton continues. “An’ when we got chaotic, we really got chaotic, like on [Funkadelic’s 1970 album] Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, man, it’s like lunatic on there! I mean, we did that album in like one and half days, we just jammed it and put all kinda goofy shit in it and mixed it. And that was that!”
While Clinton and crew were certainly keeping their ears open for new sounds in the early ’70s, they were also taking their own advice to “Free Your Mind” to heart. “I think I’m lucky to have survived that time,” Clinton admits. “I don’t remember a lot about it, but I survived. An’ y’know, we were all like the most unlikely people to take acid an’ all that stuff, ’cause we were like from Newark, in the barber shop, an’ we was older an’ we thought we was just too cool for all of that.
“So we figured we’d just take advantage of the good situation the younger ones had with all their free love and no guilt and heavy drugs–but we ended up pretty much like that ourselves!” Clinton laughs before continuing. “An’ it’s a good thing, too, ’cause we was really lame like a motherfucker before then. I mean, we really hated to be corny around all those real young kids back then, so we snuck out of the corny shit and just kinda creeped into the cool shit–an’ they thought we was cool all the while!”
In time, those mind-blowing exercises took their inevitable toll on the ever-growing funk mob: guitarists Eddie Hazel and Glen Goins and drummers Tiki Fulwood and Tyrone Lampkin all ultimately died of lifestyle complications while guitarist Tawl Ross became the Syd Barrett of funk after ingesting a near-lethal cocktail of acid and speed. By the early ’80s, the funk mothership seemed to have finally crashed to the ground under the weight of its own excesses and the growing acrimony among the charter funkateers over rights and royalties.
“Most people think it was over then,” Clinton recalls. “But the ’80s was just the time for us to rest anyway in accordance with the planned obsolescence theory. An’ I know plenty of people put their interpretations on what happened then, but the band was never really at each others’ throats or anything. I mean, we went to court a couple a times with different fellah and it was like we’d meet in the bathroom an’ I’d say to Grady and Fuzzy an’ them ‘Man, y’all up there lying your asses off!’ an’ they was like ‘So give us a joint, man, huh? We know you can afford it.’
“An’ the truth was that didn’t surprise me at all. I mean, I grew up with these guys–so at the end of the trial when the judge say ‘I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no partnership in the ownership of the mothership’, they busted out fuckin’ laughin’! Y’know, so the money I spent on the lawyers, I coulda given that to them an’ been done with it that way.” Clinton spent most of the ’80s expanding his legend via intermittent solo albums and production jobs before finally reassembling the funk mob as the P-Funk All Stars and taking the groove out on the road again to share their three- and four-hour long sets with a new generation of audiences. The All Stars have also finally gotten around to issuing some new recorded product: a collaborative single with the Dazz Band called “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Jam” provided a sneak preview of the forthcoming album Live and Kickin’, which is scheduled for release the week after the Palace show.
This past spring, the extended Parliament-Funkadelic family also gathered in Cleveland for a particularly special gig: their mass induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Y’know, as sweet as that gig was, it was even sweeter for us to be backstage singin’ doo-wop with the Rascals,” Clinton marvels. “That was the shit, ’cause we all grew up in the same projects an’ we was back there goin’ ‘Remember that? Remember that? Remember this?’ I mean, that was probably one of the highlights of my career, ’cause back when we was doin’ our music the first time, we was doin’ it between gang fights! Which was cool, ’cause when we had a show, the fights was called off an’ everybody remembered that.”
So did Clinton ever dream back in those street-fighting, barbershop singing days that he’d still be everybody’s Uncle Jam all these years later? “Oh yeah,” he answers without a pause. “I had planned to stay here before I ever got here!”