Start making sense

Booking P-Funk maestro Bernie Worrell one night and ’80s synth-pop darlings the Tom Tom Club for the next qualifies as an inspired decision, however calculated it may have been.

The Tom Toms, the Talking Heads’ most relevant spin-off, have shared many a musical stage — as well as several recording booths — with the brains behind Parliament’s funk freight train.

After all, it was arguably Bernie Worrell’s adventurous presence on the Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues (Sire, 1980) and in the 1984 concert-umentary Stop Making Sense that put the groove into the band’s jagged art rock, giving them their first taste of pop stardom.

It would seem, then, that the upcoming weekend of back-to-back shows by first Worrell and then the Tom Tom Club at downtown’s Stella Blue has the potential for an all-star jam session of epic proportions. Yet, strangely enough, the performers themselves weren’t even aware of their fortuitous path-crossing until I told them of it.

Pitching a perfect game

Bernie Worrell was a child prodigy. He started piano at 3 and wrote his first concerto at the wizened age of 8. Growing up in a strict household that extolled the virtues of classical composers like Bach and Mozart over modern tune-smiths of the Chuck Berry and Lennon/McCartney variety, Worrell was constantly being disciplined for his forays into the pop world.

“Being born with perfect pitch, I could hear a song once on the radio and be able to immediately mimic the sounds,” Worrell explains. “My mom would come in and yell, ‘Boy, get off that piano!'”

Studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Worrell was able to spread out in a bevy of musical directions, playing R&B in little dives, exploring the avant-garde jazz worlds and even accompanying men’s choirs on occasion. But despite his branching off into other, more commercial styles, Worrell’s classical-music education plays a pronounced role in his composition and performance even today.

“My classical-music knowledge helps me enhance the funk,” he explains. “For example, I was raised Catholic, so I mix in some Gregorian chant into my tunes.”

Not long after his schooling, Worrell caught the attention of George Clinton, who’d recently reformed the vocal group the Parliaments into Funkadelic. Soon Worrell was not only a member of the Parliament/Funkadelic collective, but became the band’s musical director and chief arranger (though most of the credit went to Clinton).

And with Bernie on board, Parliament/Funkadelic became the most popular and influential funk band in the world.

The Talking Who?

In 1980, Worrell got a call from a keyboard player named Jerry Harrison.

“He wanted me to come by and play with his group,” Worrell recalls. “But when he told me the name of the band, I was like, the Talking Who?‘”

Worrell had never heard the Talking Heads, but agreed to come down and listen. He immediately took to their experimental sound, and thus began a long, fruitful collaboration.

Worrell’s presence had an immediate effect.

“Having a lot of new players around, particularly Bernie, injected a new energy into the band,” insists Talking Heads/Tom Tom Club bassist Tina Weymouth. In fact, she holds Worrell responsible for keeping the Heads together longer by adding fresh ideas and a sense of groove to their sound.

He would go on to record three albums with the Talking Heads (two live and one studio), leaving a significant enough mark on the band to be asked to perform at their induction last year to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His imprint even lingers in the band’s various offshoots — most notably the Tom Tom Club.

With the Tom Toms, drummer Chris Frantz wanted to try something different than what he’d been doing with the Talking Heads. His philosophy for the new band was simple: “We wanted to make music that was good for dancing and sex.”

Because the two other members were then off doing their own solo projects, he and Weymouth, his wife, decided to go out on their own as well. What they lacked was the confidence to actually do it.

Weymouth credits Bernie Worrell for providing that needed inspiration.

“Bernie gave me confidence at a time when I was constantly being told I was just the chick in the group,” she asserts.

With a motley host of supporting musicians, Weymouth and Frantz flew down to the Bahamas and recorded their debut album, The Tom Tom Club (Warner Bros.), in 1981. Two singles released from it had a major impact still reverberate through today’s pop music: “Genius of Love” and “Wordy Rappinghood” have been sampled by dozens of hip-hop artists, including Tupac Shakur, Busta Rhymes, Black Eyed Peas, Grand Master Flash, Redman, Nas and the X-ecutioners.

The Tom Tom Club helped bridge the white New Wave culture with the burgeoning hip-hop scene; their sound was decidedly more commercial and rooted in R&B than that of their “other” band.

In fact, Frantz believes that strains of the Tom Tom Club can be divined in the voices of many of today’s R&B stars. “You can hear our influence in the sound of the vocals — that soft, caressing singing style heard from Beyonce [Knowles], Ashanti, even No Doubt,” he says. “I really think the Tom Tom Club has had just as much of an impact on pop music as the Talking Heads.”

Frantz and Weymouth kept the Tom Tom Club going as a side project till the Talking Heads officially broke up in 1994, when it became their full-time gig. They’ve been able to stay musically relevant through all the shifts in taste and popular appeal, mining the sounds of the Caribbean and Africa and fusing them with a contemporary urban feel.

“From the beginning, [the group] was built as a club, not a solo act,” explains Weymouth. “We want to always be bringing in new blood.” (For instance, turntablist Kid Ginseng just signed on).

The Tom Tom Club’s latest CD, Live @ The Clubhouse (iMusic, 2002), was recorded in the band’s home studio, and also features African percussionist Abdou Mboup and members of jam/funk powerhouse Deep Banana Blackout.

“Uncle Bernie”

If the Tom Tom Club has remained a vibrant musical force, their friend and cohort Bernie Worrell has kept even more active.

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