George Clinton is as eccentric and colorful as people come. For starters, he was born in an outhouse in North Carolina. Although his father sang gospel and great-great grandfather founded Mount Carmel AME Zion Church in North Carolina in 1866, he skipped church whenever he could and even in adulthood avoided it.
Clinton led the funk music vanguard of the late 1970s as a multitalented bandleader of his two groups Parliament and Funkadelic eventually merging the bands into a super band of over 10 musicians known as the P-Funk.
On the P-Funk Earth Tour in the 1970s, he performed on the Mothership, which floated above the stage. “I felt lucky being up on that spaceship. That s— shook like hell. I was high as hell. My boots was nine inches tall. That’s 25 feet up there. I had every reason in the world to fall off,” Clinton recalled.
George Clinton, singer, songwriter, bandleader, and record producer and his Parliament-Funkadelic collective developed an influential and eclectic form of funk music during the 1970s that drew on science fiction, outlandish fashion, psychedelia, and surreal humor.
Clinton is regarded, along with James Brown and Sly Stone, as one of the foremost innovators of funk music.
Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic’s wild imagination and intuitive knack for branding were the driving forces behind the group’s Afrofuturistic aesthetic that defined the era. Members included original Parliament horn players Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, Greg Thomas and Benny Cowan.
Starting out, Clinton wanted his empire to become the next Motown. After all, he was for a time in the 1960s, a staff songwriter, producer, and arranger for Motown. Eventually, he created something different but just as lasting — an impressively influential body of funk, rock, and soul, sampled and covered by many artists.
Despite initial commercial failure, Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic dominated diverse music during the 1970s, with over 40 R&B hit singles (including three number ones) and three platinum albums.
Interestingly, Clinton created Parliament and Funkadelic as separate groups with the same members. The split personality of Parliament and Funkadelic evolved from contractual complications, where Clinton sought to still make and offer music while Funkadelic was battling contractual issues with the label.
More than 170 people have played in Funkadelic and its alter-ego band Parliament, together known as P-Funk.
In the early seventies, Funkadelic members in tune with Detroit rock scene began dressing in diapers, spacesuits, martial-arts uniforms and wizards’ robes. P-Funk’s songs and album sleeves also sketched out an extended, predominantly black cosmos of heroes and villains.
In 1967, the Parliaments released “(I Just Wanna) Testify” on Revilot, one of Detroit’s many independent soul labels. “Testify,” a shaggy approximation of Motown’s composed swing, was the group’s first hit.
In the eighties, as the members of Parliament and Funkadelic were stuck in a limbo of bad contracts and bruised egos, Clinton pursued a solo career. He launched his solo career with the 1982 album Computer Games and would go on to influence 1990s hip-hop and G-funk. He became a free-spirited funk godfather for younger bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Fishbone.
Clinton, who survived a nearly three-decade crack habit, has recently become sober. “I was 70 years old when I started trying to clean it up. You ain’t got that much energy and that much time, and the drugs weren’t working no more. That wasn’t even giving me energy. Matter of fact, it was getting in the way — had been in the way and didn’t know it. Then there’s my wife, and of course she’s going to remind me.”
In the mid-eighties, Clinton then reeling from drug addiction got a lifeline from one of his greatest beneficiaries Prince. In 1997, Prince inducted Clinton alongside 15 other members of Parliament and Funkadelic into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Mothership prop that Parliament toured with throughout the seventies is part of the collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
On his legal fight to get ownership of his music rights back, Clinton notes the history of black music shows the industry finding ways to basically steal from artists.
“There’s a plan. They’ve been mining that music. They’ve made so much money off of us since it started in the ’40s and ’50s that they ain’t trying to let it get away, you know? It’s a business. And even whatever they give you, you’ve still got a lot more coming. But [young artists are] doing a lot better than we did. Now, whether they know what to do about intellectual properties and all that…we’re just learning that.”
In 2019, Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic were given Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards.