From doo-wop to the P-Funk Mothership, George Clinton has led his funky voyage through the musical universe and beyond.
The journey began in New Jersey in 1955, when Clinton formed his doo-wop group, the Parliaments. During this first Clinton era, he also made weekly trips to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The showmanship he saw there set the stage for the outlandish performances that Clinton’s various musical collectives—Funkadelic, Parliament, the P-Funk All Stars and Parliament-Funkadelic—staged in the decades that followed.
In 1967, years of singing and writing songs paid off with the Parliaments’ only hit, “(I Wanna) Testify.” But the Detroit-based Revilot Records’ business troubles compelled Clinton to leave the label and change the name of his group. Business and legal issues obliged him to record under various names throughout his career. In 1968, for instance, the Parliaments became Funkadelic. Two years later, Funkadelic became Parliament.
Using Motown Records as a model, Clinton assembled a collective of more than 50 musicians. In the 1970s, the group recorded as both Funkadelic and Parliament. Funkadelic worked in a psychedelic rock-band format. Parliament mixed the funk and soul influences of James Brown and Sly Stone with crazy costumes, science fiction and ’60s psychedelia. Later, a spaceship prop dubbed the P-Funk Mothership hovered above the band’s audiences.
The Parliament-Funkadelic collective reached its commercial crest in 1978–79. “Flash Light,” “Aqua Boogie,” “One Nation Under a Groove” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep” reached number one on the rhythm and blues charts. The albums One Nation Under a Groove and Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome sold a million copies each.
In 1980, more music business troubles prompted Clinton to release music as simply George Clinton. His success continued with several R&B hits, including another number one song, “Atomic Dog.”
Like his fellow funk pioneers, New Orleans’ Meters, Clinton gained new recognition in the late 1980s and 1990s when rappers sampled his classic grooves. His other appreciation includes Grammy and Dove awards and honors from BMI, the NAACP Image Awards and Motown Alumni Association. In 1997, Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2012, Clinton received an honorary doctorate of music from the Berklee College of Music. In 2017, Clinton, Bootsy Collins and the Gary “Mudbone” Cooper earned a Soul Train Ashford and Simpson Songwriter’s Award nomination for Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” which samples “I’d Rather Be With You.” And the P-Funk Mothership landed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.
On December 29 and December 30, Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic will play another of their between-Christmas-and-New-Year’s engagements at Tipitina’s. His longtime friend, Melissa Weber, the local funk and old-school R&B DJ known as DJ Soul Sister, opens both nights.
Are you home for a minute from touring?
Yeah, we just got back from the road. On the road for a while. Been all over the place.
You’ve done a lot of international touring this year. Where have you been?
We were just in Bali, Australia, the Philippines.
How many shows did you play this year?
Oh, we did about 200. We pretty much live on the road.
Is funk an international language?
Funk is an international language. Everybody can speak it. It’s an interplanetary language!
I know you are a science-fiction fan from way back.
Yep. The Mothership connection. Star Trek took me out. In the ’50s, when The Day the Earth Stood Still and all that stuff came out, right at about my puberty, like 11 or 12, I was all up into all of that.
And you put your love for sci-fi into Parliament/Funkadelic shows?
Yeah. The Mothership is in the Smithsonian now. Looks good in there. I saw it when they first put it in. So, we took it all the way to another world.
Showmanship, costumes and the Mothership have been big parts of your show. What inspired Parliament-Funkadelic’s showmanship?
We grew up in Jersey, going to the Apollo every week. The people that turned the Apollo out put on a show. The Isley Brothers in the early days, they turned that place out. The Vibrations and other groups, they didn’t have big records, but they put on real good shows, and they were there every year, just like the people who had hit records. So, we all were into putting on a show, turning the place out.
You formed the Parliaments, a doo-wop group, in 1955. You turned 76 this year. That means you’ve been performing for 62 years.
Sounds like Sun Ra. He was doing that doo-wop way back in the day.
You’re not interested in parking the Mothership, so to speak, one day?
Naw. We ain’t trying stop. I love it. That’s what gives me the energy to keep going.
Getting back to your doo-wop origins, who inspired you early on?
Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
During the ’50s and early ’60s, were you listening to Fats Domino and other recording artists from New Orleans?
When I first got to Jersey, ‘Blueberry Hill’ and all those records, that was when I first knew what hit records were. Later I saw Fats Domino in Las Vegas with his piano swimming pool.
How about other New Orleans artists?
Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns. ‘Ha, ha, ha, ha. Hey, eh, oh! Gooba, gooba, goo-ba’ [‘Don’t You Just Know It’]. Ernie K-Doe. ‘Land of 1,000 Dances’ [Chris Kenner]. Allen Toussaint—oh, my God, yeah. He did the Labelle stuff.
Did funk music exist in the 1950s and early ’60s, but hadn’t been labeled “funk” yet?
You had Ray Charles, ‘What’d I Say,’ and stuff like. Ray Charles and James Brown. They weren’t calling them funk then, but that’s exactly what they were.
People say Huey Smith is an example of early funk.
Oh, hell yeah. Most all the piano players out of New Orleans had a boogie-woogie, funk type of thing. I like Joe Tex, too.
In the early 1960s, you and the Parliaments worked with Jimmy Miller. He later produced recordings by the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, Gary Wright, Spooky Tooth, the Rolling Stones and many others.
Jimmy Miller used to sing with us. He would write with myself. He left our group in ’61, when we were working together in New York. We used to rehearse doo-wop. We wrote songs like Burt Bacharach. When he left us, he took some of the funkiest stuff over to London. He did ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ and ‘I’m a Man’ with Spencer Davis. He made funky records with Spooky Tooth and the Rolling Stones.
In the later 1960s, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention became important influences for you.
That was that electronic, psychedelic, funk-blues rock ‘n’ roll. Jimi was funky as all hell. Straight funky, but he’d do it with the electronics. Same thing with the Who and Led Zeppelin. But Jimi sounds like Elmore James or Lightnin’ Hopkins playing real loud.
You’ve been playing Tipitina’s in New Orleans annually between Christmas and New Year’s. It started because you had some dates in late December you wanted to fill. And you personally called Tipitina’s and asked for a date?
I always do. Because it’s a place that will let us play all night long. We can play ’til daybreak. So, when we need some place to play in December, we call them up.
There will be four straight days of funk at Tipitina’s in December. Dr. John plays December 27 and 28. You and Parliament-Funkadelic play December 29 and 30.
Oh, it’s going to be fun then.
You played Tipitina’s often in 1990s.
It would be so packed they’d open the doors and the people be outside on the street, buying drinks outside.
Tipitina’s is identified with such New Orleans acts as Professor Longhair and the Neville Brothers. And the Meters, your fellow funk pioneers, played there, too, before they broke up.
The Meters and ourselves were like the only bands doing that real basic funk music in the ’60s. Even Motown bands were slicked up. But we were doing street music for the dance halls and the clubs.
After you play Tipitina’s during the holidays, you’ll return to New Orleans for a March 4 show at the Joy Theater. That gig is part of your second annual Mardi Gras Madness tour.
We’re taking the Mardi Gras Madness around the country again. Everybody likes to jam and party and put their costumes on.
I’ve heard from many songwriters and musicians that the music business is cutthroat. Dr. John, for instance, calls the music business a racket.
Oh, it is. It’s straight gangster. But you get another chance at the apple. You can get your copyrights back and all of that.
Have your music business dealings taken a turn for the better recently?
I’m just starting to get the ownership of the music back now. I’ve worked for years for it. I just got ‘Atomic Dog’ back. Just got ‘One Nation Under a Groove’ and ‘Knee Deep’ back. So, I’m doing real good. But I had to go through hell. I mean, I spent millions of dollars fighting for it. But I finally got it back and all of the licenses are coming to me now. So, it’s going to be good for my heirs. That’s what I was fighting for, mostly. My grandkids, my kids.
You have a new single with rapper Scarface coming out soon.
It’s called ‘I’m Go’ Make You Sick,’ with Scarface and Parliament.
You’ve got a new album planned for 2018?
We’re pretty much finished with the album. The whole thing is about Medicaid, insurance, Obamacare. It’s about the real Medicaid fraud, which is the big pharmaceutical companies.
In your shows, do you do all the standards?
Oh, yeah. It makes our show longer because we do a lot of the new stuff, too.
But from one night to the next, your shows are never the same?
No. We couldn’t do the same show if we tried.
Friday and Saturday, December 29 and 30