PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC: One Nation Under a Groove

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The History

The “Afronaut” cartoon character in his ‘50s look: pressed and straightened pompadour hair, his arms crossed across his chest.

Inside George's barbershop, the Parliaments wasn't just cooking up bad hairdos, but some bad ass harmony to boot!

Spanning half a century, the history of Parliament Funkadelic is as varied in its musical stylings as in the rotating cast of musicians that have graced Parliament, Funkadelic and the collective P-Funk stage. From their early days as a literal barbershop quintet to the rise and fall—and rise again—of the famed Mothership, P-Funk’s five decades and counting also reflect larger changes in fashion, funk and more.


The Early Days: The Fifties and Sixties

It all began in Newark, New Jersey in the mid-1950s, when George Clinton formed a doo-wop group, with three school chums, called the Parliaments. Later, in Plainfield, New Jersey, Ray Davis, Calvin Simon, Fuzzy Haskins and Grady Thomas replaced the original members and tightened up their harmonies in the barbershop where George did hair. By the 1960s, they had recorded a few pop and R&B songs including the R&B hit, “(I Wanna) Testify,” which reached the charts in 1967. But by the late 1960s, doo-wop had all but lost its cool.

A black and white publicity photo of the Parliaments, five men with pompadours wearing matching suits and ties.

Clinton and his band mates decided to eschew doo-wop for the new sounds of the era: funk, psychedelia and rock. When they could no longer use the name the Parliaments, due to legal issues, the back-up band for their live shows was pushed to the forefront, the Parliaments became their back-up singers and this new formulation was given the name Funkadelic. When the 1970s arrived, these former barbershop crooners had reemerged as the collective that would later become P-Funk, heavily influenced by the rock, R&B and psychedelic fusion of such artists as Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix.

Defining the Funk: The Early Seventies

Early Funkadelic albums leaned towards rock, heavy guitars and psychedelic funk, as opposed to Parliament’s predilection towards Motown-influenced jazzy, gospel-based harmonies and horns. Clinton, who looked up to Sly Stone as a fellow black musician playing traditionally white rock, describes Funkadelic as a mixture of “what we knew from Motown and what we’d seen with Sly, and everybody else… We were able to take that and make a real classy jazz funk and then be as silly as we were.”

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The Parliaments’ first performance at the Apollo Theater in 1967 was a flop.
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Funkadelic shows during the early 1970s were also full of the unexpected: four-hour-long jam extravaganzas at ear-shattering volumes, with George Clinton possibly sans clothing. The early P-Funk line-up included Clinton as lead singer—joined on vocals by nearly everyone else in the band—Billy Nelson on bass, Ray Davis on vocals, Tawl Ross on guitar and Tiki Fulwood on the drums. Also central to the band were legendary guitarist Eddie Hazel, whose psychedelic guitar work was the centerpiece for the Funkadelic classic “Maggot Brain,” and classically trained musician and producer Bernie Worrell on keyboards, whose arrangements contributed greatly to the band’s unique sound.

In 1972, Hazel and Nelson left the band due to financial disputes, which would continue to be a main source of contention for P-Funk throughout the rest of its career. Hazel would later re-join the band to record several rock and R&B albums with Funkadelic. With the departure of Hazel and Nelson, two brothers joined Funkadelic: William and Phelps Collins, otherwise known as Bootsy and Catfish. Catfish, an influential rhythm guitarist, and Bootsy, a bass player, were fresh from a stint with the James Brown Band where they were instrumental on a host of hits such as “Super Bad”, “Sex Machine” and “Soul Power.” Bootsy became a crucial P-Funk member and brought with him not only his bass stylings but also his attitude, honed from his stint with the Godfather of Soul. “We’re the tightest band, the tightest, funkiest mothers you ever want to meet,” he says in ONE NATION UNDER A GROOVE. “To be funky is one thing, but to be tight and funky, that’s what we learned from James.”

Other new P-Funk members of the early 1970s included guitarist/singer Garry Shider, bassist Cordell “Boogie” Mosson and drummer Ty Lampkin.

Parliament Meets Funkadelic: The Mid-Seventies

The mid-1970s marked a turning point for P-Funk. In 1974 when George Clinton left Funkadelic’s label Westbound for Warner Brothers Records and simultaneously resurrected the Parliaments. Dropping the “s”, he signed Parliament to Casablanca Records, the up-and-coming label that featured KISS, Donna Summer and the Village People. Going back to their R&B roots, Clinton beefed up their sound adding such legends as former James Brown band members, trumpeter Maceo Parker and trombonist/arranger Fred Wesley. Other new band members included singer and guitarist Glen Goins, drummer Jerome Brailey and guitarist Michael Hampton. Parliament's Chocolate City (1975) established P-Funk as a force in the music community, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in mere days. A paean to African American pride, Chocolate City also exemplified the band’s musical reflection of the era’s changing racial politics. As musician Cholly Bassoline explains, the album “put the R&B community on notice that here was a group to be reckoned with. And it was different, it was different than any other type of music that was being made at the time.”

The cover of the Chocolate City album, featuring the “official seal” of the City: iconic brown drawings of the White House, Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.

In 1975, the Parliament single “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker” reached number five on the charts and Parliament’s album Mothership Connection became the group’s first of many gold records. The band was poised to become a musical empire with a stage show that was literally out of this world.

The Mothership Lands: The Late Seventies

P-Funk concerts were lavish occasions. They brought the glam rock phenomenon of David Bowie and KISS to black music, raising the bar for their contemporaries like Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and the Gang. From 1975 through 1977, the Mothership Tour featured a giant spaceship that landed onstage with Clinton inside, who would then emerge dressed in an outrageous costume. Later, the Motor Booty Affair featured a host of amphibious characters who could “dance underwater and not get wet.” The collective nature of the band came through in concert, with often nearly 30 people performing on stage at once with extravagant props and outlandish costumes. Several spin-off groups were formed, such as Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein, Parlet and the Horny Horns. P-Funk even extended their work into the realm of film, with never-released features showcasing an actual Mothership “landing” in New York City’s Times Square.

A large silver, low-tech spaceship with colorful lights makes a dramatic landing on a dark stage.

The P-Funk albums reflected this lavishness, with such concept albums as Tales of Kidd Funkadelic, Mothership Connection and Clones of Dr. Funkenstein establishing a unique cosmology of sorts, with song characters acting out a battle between “good”—funk—and “evil”—unFunk, and defining salvation as reaching the utopian nation of Funkadelica. For P-Funk fans, especially for those who felt disenfranchised in mainstream America, the band offered an outlet to achieve freedom, liberation and power on their own terms.

By the late 1970s, the band’s popularity was at a peak. Parliament scored number one hits with their singles “Flash Light” and “Aqua Boogie,” while Funkadelic reached number one with “One Nation Under A Groove” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep.”

The Break-Up Years: The Eighties

By the early 1980s, financial problems had caused P-Funk to cut back on extravagant props and touring. Many band members had also quit, frustrated with band politics and money issues. After the remaining original Parliaments heard that Clinton was now the sole owner of the Parliament name and that they were his employees, most of them quit the band. As Bob DeDeckere, a former P-Funk road manager, explains, “There was a lot of substance abuse…” According to Tom Vickers, P-Funk’s publicist, “The vibe had shifted… the political climate was different and all of a sudden, instead of P-Funk becoming the source of joy, it became kind of unraveled. The original Parliaments got very fed up with being pushed to the side.”

Trombipulation, the last Parliament album, was released in 1980 and The Electric Spanking of War Babies, the final Funkadelic album, in 1981. Although the P-Funk collective had split, Clinton began a fruitful solo career, cleaning up his act, releasing a number one single, “Atomic Dog,” and starting to tour again. Long-time P-Funk fan Prince helped Clinton pay off his debts and soon after, the newly formed P-Funk All Stars had hit the road.

The Funk is Back: P-Funk Today

A close-up of a man in dark glasses with stars on them and surrounded by a mass of pink fluffy hair raises his index finger in front of the camera.
Bootsy

While funk and psychedelic rock took a back seat to the pop and heavy metal acts of the 1980s and early 1990s, the rise of hip-hop once again put P-Funk in the spotlight, sampling P-Funk classics in their own songs. Hip-hop MC Shock-G quips, “P-Funk is a school, it’s a college. A lot of musicians have come through it.”

Soon P-Funk had replaced James Brown as the most sampled artist. Former P-Funk members such as Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell have also kept busy with their own thriving solo careers. In 1997, Parliament Funkadelic was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

While their original fan base of African American baby boomers is still funking, the P-Funk audience has expanded beyond cultural and generational barriers to become a true melting pot. The P-Funk All Stars’ album How Late Do You Have 2 B B 4 U R Absent? was released in fall 2005, accompanied by a national tour celebrating George Clinton’s 50 years in music.

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