As leader of the legendary Parliament-Funkadelic, singer-songwriter-producer George Clinton stood alongside James Brown as one of the architects of funk, as well as hip-hop, funk-rock and various other permutations of rock and soul music. Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk, as it was known to millions of devotees, began as the Parliaments, a doo-wop group founded by Clinton in the back of a barbershop. The act eventually became a soul band called Parliament, which found only modest success until Clinton struck on the idea of merging R&B with the heavier sounds of rock groups like Cream. The result was two groups, Parliament and Funkadelic, which alternated names to avoid various legal issues. The groups eventually came together as Parliament-Funkadelic, a collective that delivered eccentric but undeniably funky tunes that hinged on Clinton's offbeat vision of an extraterrestrial world united by a groove. Legal battles undid the P-Funk empire in the early '80s, and Clinton would enjoy brief success as a solo act with the delirious "Atomic Dog." But hip-hop would provide his true second coming through a generation of rappers, from Dr. Dre to Snoop Dogg, and rockers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who drew inspiration from his legacy for their own music. A genuine music visionary, George Clinton brought class, race and ethnicity together in a single nation under his undeniable groove.
Born July 22, 1941 in Kannapolis, NC, George Clinton was the oldest of nine children by his mother, Julia Keaton. The family relocated to New Jersey, where a teenaged Clinton co-managed a barbershop called the Uptown Tonsorial Parlor in Plainfield. After hours, Clinton led a five-part vocal harmony group called the Parliaments, which drew its name from the cigarette brand and its inspiration from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. The group moved from street corners to the back room of the barbershop before waxing its first single, "Poor Willie" for APT Records in 1959. Between 1960 and 1966, the Parliaments would record singles for a wide variety of labels, none of which found any success, while Clinton toiled as a songwriter-producer for some of Motown's lesser-known acts. In 1967, the group finally struck pay dirt with "(I Wanna) Testify," a smoldering soul number for the Revilot label. Clinton was the only actual member of the Parliaments present on the recording, as the other four members were unable to travel to Detroit for the session. "Testify" reached No. 3 on the R&B charts and No. 20 on the pop charts in the summer of 1967, spurring Clinton to quickly assemble a band to back his vocalists on tour.
The group, which was anchored by guitarist-bassist Billy Bass Nelson - one of Clinton's employees at the Uptown Tonsorial Parlor - drummer Tiki Fulwood and a phenomenally talented guitarist named Eddie Hazel, would later serve as the backbone of Clinton's sprawling Parliament-Funkadelic. Revilot went bankrupt in 1968, embroiling Clinton in a protracted legal battle to claim the rights to the Parliaments' name. He soon redubbed the group "Funkadelic," which offered a dramatic shift away from the Motown-inspired soul of their early work. The emergence of acts like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sly and the Family Stone, both of which blended rock and psychedelia with R&B and blues, prompted Clinton to push Funkadelic in a similar direction, as did a tour with the proto-metal band Vanilla Fudge, which shared its massive wall of amplifiers with Funkadelic. The result was heavy, guitar-driven rock with an undeniable rhythm, as evidenced by their self-titled debut album for Westbound Records in 1969. Driven by Hazel's blistering guitar and the jazz-influenced keyboards of newcomer Bernie Worrell, Funkadelic announced a new direction in African-American music that united white and black listeners under one cosmic groove.
Clinton regained the rights to the Parliament moniker in 1970, and signed the group to Invictus Records, a label owned by Motown songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland. That Parliament was simply Funkadelic under a different name mattered not to listeners; what was important was that Clinton was building a musical empire, one that would wield a huge influence over R&B for decades to come. Keeping the myriad of players happy within the growing Parliament-Funkadelic universe, however, would challenge Clinton for almost two decades. Of the two musical entities, Funkadelic proved to be the more successful and critically acclaimed group, thanks to such landmark albums as Free Your Mind. and Your Ass Will Follow (1970) and Maggot Brain (1971), which featured an epic guitar solo by Hazel on the title track. As a result, Clinton would shutter Parliament for much of the early 1970s, though he soon found that Funkadelic had its own set of issues to address.
A number of the band's key players, including Hazel and Nelson, left the group over financial issues, while guitarist Tawl Ross suffered a physical breakdown due to the band's prodigious drug intake. They were replaced by an all-star lineup culled largely from James Brown's legendary '70s-era band, the JBs, including bassist William "Bootsy" Collins, his brother Phelps "Catfish" Collins, and the mighty horn section led by Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, as well as singer-guitarist Garry Shider. The addition of these funk titans helped to change the musical direction of Funkadelic, which moved from an experimental funk-rock act to a more polished, mainstream funk group. The new Funkadelic would issue two of the band's greatest albums - the politically charged America Eats its Young (1972) and Standing On the Verge of Getting it On (1974), which would spur Clinton to revive Parliament that same year.
Again comprised of the same lineup as Funkadelic, the new Parliament began its own successful tenure at Casablanca Records with a string of concept records loosely connected by a complex, comic-book-cum-science-fiction mythology revolving around interplanetary funkateers, led by Clinton's StarChild, and their battle against the villainous, groove-resistant Sir Nose D'iVoidoffunk. Songs like "Up for the Down Stroke," "Mothership Connection" and the No. 1 R&B singles "Flash Light" and "Aqua Boogie" espoused a theme of unity and joy through music that surpassed the basic beat of dance music to become anthems for African-American listeners. Funkadelic also remained remarkable prolific during this period, scoring its own back-to-back R&B No. 1 anthems with the title track to One Nation Under a Groove (1978) and an edited version of the 15-minute "(Not Just) Knee Deep." In addition to Parliament and Funkadelic, Clinton oversaw a stable of subsidiary acts, including the Brides of Funkenstein, Parlet and Bootsy's Rubber Band, all of which gave his supporting players a chance to shine on their own. The entire Clinton music franchise, dubbed Parliament-Funkadelic, or P-Funk, would support their endeavors through elaborate live shows that featured its leader descending onto the stage in a lunar module and up to 20 musicians on stage at one time, all dressed in outrageous, space age costumes.
By the end of the 1970s, Clinton's funk armada had grown too unwieldy to be properly managed. The collapse of Casablanca Records, along with a host of legal issues that came with overseeing such a vast array of acts under multiple names, began to eat away at the foundation of Parliament-Funkadelic. Core members, most notably the original members of the Parliaments, began to desert Clinton, citing financial mismanagement, and launch their own P-Funk-inspired groups. Changing tastes in R&B also contributed to the bands' downfall, most notably the rise of electronic music and a new genre from the urban environment called hip-hop. Ironically, samples from the massive Parliament-Funkadelic catalog would serve as the backbone of countless hip-hop performers who built their beats around samples of Clinton's music without crediting him or paying for their use.
In the face of so much disarray, Clinton dissolved Parliament and Funkadelic before signing to Capitol Records as both a solo artist and as the leader of the P-Funk All-Stars, a rotating collective of former members still loyal to the StarChild, in 1982. He enjoyed success almost immediately with his solo debut, Computer Games (1982), which included the relentlessly danceable No. 1 single "Atomic Dog." However, subsequent releases failed to match its level of success, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1985. He resurfaced occasionally throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, producing the Red Hot Chili Peppers' third album, Freaky Styley (1985), and signing with Prince's Paisley Park label to release The Cinderella Theory (1989), which failed to revive his flagging career.
However, a generation of young music fans who had grown up on P-Funk began recording their own songs, and turned to Clinton's work as both a template and a touchstone. Hip-hop acts like Digital Underground and De La Soul built their sound around the mid-1970s Parliament groove, while West Coast rappers like NWA, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Tupac helped to create an entire sub-genre of rap called "G Funk" that turned on Clinton's grooves. When the Chili Peppers finally broke into the mainstream in the early '90s, they widely espoused their affection for Clinton, which in turn, introduced him to other funk-rock acts like Faith No More and Primus. Unlike many funk forebears, Clinton embraced the wholesale sampling of his work by new musicians, releasing a collection of pre-made samples called Sample Some of Disc - Sample Some of D.A.T. to facilitate the appetite for all things P-Funk.
Now fully reenergized by a second wave of popularity, Clinton recorded his final album for Paisley Park, 1993's Hey Man. Smell My Finger before singing with Sony 550. His first release for the new label, T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. (The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership) (1996), saw him reunite with former P-Funk soldiers Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell and Maceo Parker. A subsequent reunion tour, complete with an onstage landing of the Mothership, launched a touring entity called The P-Funk All-Stars, which featured a rotating roster of former and new Clinton acolytes that toured relentlessly around the world for the better part of the next two decades. He also became a guest of distinction on numerous albums by artists ranging from Tupac and Redman to the Wu Tang Clan and Outkast. In 1997, Clinton and 15 members of Parliament-Funkadelic were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2005, Clinton finally reclaimed ownership of four Funkadelic albums long held hostage by copyright issues, including One Nation Under a Groove. That same year, he formed his own record label, The C Kunspyruhzy, which released How Late Do U Have 2BB4UR Absent, a double album of new studio material which featured contributions by Prince and members of the P-Funk All-Stars. By 2008, he had signed with Shanachie Records to release George Clinton and His Gangsters of Love, an album of covers featuring guest turns by the Chili Peppers, Carlos Santana and Sly Stone. In 2009, he was honored with the Urban Icon Award from BMI.
By Paul Gaita