(Kris Needs; 352 pages; OMNIBUS PRESS; 2014)
This comprehensive history of George Clinton’s life and career is the ultimate peak inside the ups, downs and around the corners of shady dealings, larger than life mayhem and the unconquerable spirit of the Funk. Written by P-Fan turned P-Friend, Kris Needs, the book covers George’s early life in 1940s North Carolina through the 1997 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with an epilogue that briefly updates things through January 2014. Along the way, we get a glimpse of the driven musical genius of Doctor Funkenstein and the raft of musicians (and, occasionally, their families) who have been a part – no matter how ancillary – of the Parliament-Funkadelic circus. Needs began covering the band(s) for his own Zigzag magazine, reviewing the albums alongside the rock and punk music then holding sway in the United Kingdom (particularly London), eventually interviewing everyone from Clinton himself to Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey and William “Bootsy” Collins to legendary guitarists Eddie Hazel and Garry Shider and future Talking Heads keyboard player Bernie Worrell. While it is abundantly clear that Needs is as huge a fan as you’re ever going to come across, he basically lets the hours and hours of interviews with the various involved parties drive the narrative. In other words, he doesn’t sugarcoat much of anything, making GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE a definitive read on the subject.
A young George relocated to Newark, New Jersey with his family, where he met the proto-girl-group, the Shirelles; He likewise became enamored with the acapella street corner performers and a new musical style called doo-wop. It was also in Newark that he began frequenting the cultural epicenter of the black community, the neighborhood barber shop, where he would hone the skills that have served to make him one of the most successful businessmen of his time and, of course, a musical icon. Hanging out at the barber shop, George learned to cut and style hair and run a business. He also began singing and harmonizing with other like-minded shop patrons; from there, George and his friends formed the nucleus of the P-Funk empire, the Parliaments. Needs goes into great detail as he examines the intricacies of 1950s black culture, the phenomena of doo-wop and the histories of several acts that had a great influence on the development of the young boy who would become, not just “George Clinton,” but GEORGE CLINTON. The author also introduces and details the lives of each individual member of the Parliaments, following their trajectories toward becoming part of, first, Funkadelic and, then, Parliament.
The group, through the barber shop, found Billy Nelson, incendiary guitarist Eddie Hazel and others, all recruited to the cause. That cause, at first, was to become rich and famous and to get as many girls as possible; eventually, with George managing affairs, the cause became “make George rich and famous so he can get as many girls as possible” but… none of the others seemed to care at that point. The book follows the original group through a growing period, a bitter disappointment and an eventual “meteoric” rise to the top of the R and B and rock heaps. Along the way, the group adds and subtracts members as some become disillusioned with George’s business dealings. Again, Needs examines the lives of the numerous vocalists and musicians who passed through the group, giving each their moment to shine (a good number of them posthumously).
Surroundings, historical and musical events are detailed, as well, giving the reader perspective on George and the group’s actions at any given time. The move to Detroit, discovery of a psychedelic counter-culture (which was partially responsible for the group’s eschewing the matching jackets for a… uh… funkier mode of attire or – in George’s case, lack thereof) and eventual descent into drug addiction is handled matter-of-factly, as is George’s rather disreputable dealings with record labels (in an attempt to amass a stable of performers akin to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records) and the conniving double-talk that allowed him to keep all royalties and most tour profits from his fellow band members, co-writers and co-producers of the P-Funk stable. I was well aware of Clinton’s great musical acumen, but had never really considered that he could be a dictatorial genius, a la Frank Zappa (whom he admired), Don Van Vliet or Miles Davis; I always pictured him more of a free spirit, Sun Ra type of leader. One thing is certain: He knew what he wanted and knew exactly was needed to draw it out of the talented people with which he surrounded himself.
As the ’70s became the ’80s, both Parliament and Funkadelic were huge successes, as were individual members: Bootsy had become a “solo” star with his Rubber Band, the Brides of Funkenstein were dance floor monsters (so to speak) and several other former or current members of the crew were releasing albums to critical (if not public) acclaim. George had been playing major label spin the bottle for some time: Funkadelic and Bootsy were both on Warner Brothers, Parliament ended up on PolyGram after Casablanca chief, Neil Bogart, sold the label. He went one step too far when he tried to convince Capitol Records to sign him as a solo artist. From that debacle came a raft of legal problems, some of which George is still working to extricate himself from. All of these dealings and subsequent fall-out are handled like everything else in the book: Straight-forward, with very little sugarcoating.
As the story moves forward, into the hip hop era (late ’70s and after), George’s light begins to shine a little bit brighter once more, as rappers begin to sample the music of P-Funk. George Clinton, who had fallen from grace as an entrepreneur was still a well-respected producer and artist. It’s hard not to like a guy like George and, after more than five decades in the business, root for his success. It’s hard not to feel a touch of remorse for those musicians and friends that George left by the wayside on his march toward becoming the dominant force in Funk Music. Some of them have been left bitter by their experiences with Clinton and some, quite simply, not here anymore. Kris Needs makes sure that each and every person who ever entered the Mothership’s galactic sphere are remembered and, where he could, he offers updates on them all.
As much as GEORGE CLINTON AND THE COSMIC ODYSSEY OF THE P-FUNK EMPIRE is a biography, it also stands as a cautionary tale of how not to succeed in the music business. It has some bumps and editorial rough spots, but the book is thoroughly enjoyable. As an added bonus, there are 24 pages of black and white and color photos (some rare) of every stage of George’s life and the group’s career. The book is available at Amazon (in hardcover and Kindle versions), Barnes and Noble (in paperback and Nook versions) and the publisher’s web-site, www.omnibuspress.com.