50 Years Ago, George Clinton Planted a Flag for Funk

Musicologists will tell you that you can trace the roots of funk to New Orleans, where that city’s potent and constantly bubbling stew of music brought together rhythm and blues, soul, jazz, and Afro-Cuban influences into something distinct. While a number of musicians can and should be credited for elevating funk as a style, few people have waved the banner like George Clinton. In 1970 alone, his two related bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, released three albums that built upon the foundation laid by earlier artists. Osmium, Parliament’s debut album, dropped 50 years ago this week, and they and Funkadelic have been tearing the roof off ever since.

Fellow funk pioneers Sly and The Family Stone. (Uploaded to YouTube by Sly & The Family Stone)

No less an authority than James Brown himself credited Little Richard’s ’50s era band with injecting funk into rock music. As players from Richard’s group began to back Brown in the Fabulous Flames, the funk sound crept into Brown’s music. Exemplified by syncopated guitar riffs and basslines, an emphasis on the first beat of each measure (“the one”), and frequent deployment of horns, the funk style shaped by Brown and his band emerged on 1960s tracks like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and 1970’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.” At the same time, acts like Sly and the Family Stone (“Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” the Isley Brothers (“It’s Your Thing”), and the Meters (“Cissy Strut”) were defining areas of the sound, and groups like the Temptations began to integrate it into their music on tracks like “I Can’t Get Next to You.” While the Motown house band called the Funk Brothers played on countless hits for that label, they didn’t actually use a “funk” sound until later, and by the time that definable funk got onto the Motown records, many were being laid down by other studio musicians in L.A.

George Clinton in 2009
Funk pioneer George Clinton in 2009.(carroteater / Shutterstock.com)

George Clinton had become a staff writer for Motown in the 1960s after forming a vocal group called the Parliaments. The group had a big hit on the Revilot Records label in 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify,” and Clinton made a name for himself writing and producing for a number of other groups and labels. Unfortunately, Revilot went bankrupt and Clinton lost control of the name the Parliaments. The group reinvented itself as Funkadelic, putting the five singers of the vocal group, including Clinton, together with five other musicians backing them up. This combo positioned themselves more in a rock vein, blending elements of funk with psychedelic rock in the mode of the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. They put out their self-titled debut album on Westbound; a number of the personnel went uncredited due to a variety of label and contractual issues.

By 1970, Clinton had the brainstorm: The group could perform different music under a different name. Dropping the original the and the plural to become Parliament, Clinton and his nine partners signed with Invictus Records. Their debut album, Osmium, hit store son July 7, 1970. Also in July, as Funkadelic, the group released Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow, totaling three distinct albums released by the combo under two names in one calendar year. That album featured some backing vocals by Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent just before they began backing Tony Orlando as Dawn.

Parliament-Funkadelic performing at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. (Uploaded to YouTube by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame)

Of the three records, Free Your Mind … was the most successful. Funkadelic began releasing more albums, like 1971’s Maggot Brain, that have grown in reputation, but that were not big chart movers. However, Maggot Brain was the final album of the original combo; after that record, more rotating musicians and a larger cast would form the canvas of both groups. Clinton and company didn’t put out the second Parliament album until 1974, but Up for the Down Stroke, which featured bassist Bootsy Collins, resulted in their first single on the charts (the title track) and established more of the familiar P-Funk feel. Parliament also developed a reputation for vibrant stage shows with elaborate costuming and theatrics. The following year, Parliament put out two landmark albums, Chocolate City and Mothership Connection. Connection gave the band their first gold record and possibly their best known song, “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker),” which went to No. 15 on the Hot 100 and sold a million copies by 1976.

1993’s “Bop Gun” by Ice Cube features George Clinton and Bootsy Collins along with numerous P-Funk references and samples. (Uploaded to YouTube by Ice Cube/Cubevision)

Since then, Clinton, Parliament, and Funkadelic have carved out a niche as a major influence on the acts that came after them, whether touring and recording separately or as Parliament-Funkadelic or the P-Funk All-Stars.P-Funk is a word that immediately conjures notions of unshakeable grooves and pure showmanship. Clinton has released singles like “Atomic Dog” and produced for bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Over time, the P-Funk collective has become one of the most influential sampled groups in hip-hop, with artists like Tupac, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and Outkast working directly with Clinton and sampling his material. In the 1990s, P-Funk reached a new legion of fans by touring with the Beastie Boys and appearing on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. They also made a lengthy appearance in the cult comedy P.C.U.

George Clinton & The P-Funk All-Stars do an NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert. (NPR Music)

Although Clinton announced his 2019 retirement from touring in 2018, he anticipates that some version of Parliament-Funkadelic will continue to tour. He told Billboard at the time, “Truth be told, it’s never really been about me. It’s always been about the music and the band. That’s the real P-Funk legacy. They’ll still be funkin’ long after I stop.”

And with the funk still going strong after 50 years, who could tell Dr. Funkenstein that he’s wrong?

Featured image: Jason Benz Bennee / Shutterstock.com