Forever Funk: An Interview with Lige Curry
George Clinton has been spreading the gospel of funk around the world with Parliament Funkadelic for nearly 50 years, and bassist Lige Curry has been the group’s anchor for nearly four of those decades.
Born in Flint, Michigan and raised in the Cleveland, Ohio area, Curry first caught the attention of the P-Funk crew along with his cousin, guitarist Michael Hampton. The bassist got his foot in the door with administrative work but was ready to fill the low end when the opportunity arose.
We caught up with Curry before a concert at the Tally Ho Theatre in Leesburg, Virginia to get the scoop on his role in the band, the upcoming Parliament album, and what bass line players often get wrong.
You seem to be on top of your YouTube game. I dig the videos you put up of the band from your perspective.
That’s been my new thing. I was a fan of camcorders back in the day in the ’80s but then I stopped in the ’90s and early 2000’s. Recently I said, “You know what? I’m gonna get back into this by figuring out this GoPro thing.” So I decided I wanted to show people my angle because I’m in the back with this band behind George Clinton. A lot of people thank me [for the videos] because they hear another mix. We don’t carry our own sound guy now, so long story short sometimes you won’t hear the bass. You just hear a wash of it due to whatever engineer we have, so that video from the back angle helps a lot of people hear and say, “Oh man, I didn’t know you were doing all of that. Those are some cool sounds you’re getting.”
It’s almost like we can be in your shoes, and that’s a cool thing for young bassists to see.
Yeah, man. Those are the ones I’m thinking about more than ever now. You know, I grew up in a different time. It’s amazing with P-Funk and George. The audience spans from 18 to 80. He just turned 76 himself, so he has old, old, old school people and you have the grandparents telling their grandchildren about him. He also does his thing with his own grandchildren, getting them onstage to sing and play instruments. Whatever they want to get into, he’s opened up his business to his family to come in and learn.
That mixture with the grandchildren is bringing in younger kids. The new Funkadelic album is called First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, but the last Funkadelic album that was cut was my first one, which was The Electric Spankings of War Babies. That was in 1981. Nothing else was cut in that time. Nothing legitimate, anyways. This sound is really from the depths of the South to the Plainfield, New Jersey area. That’s pretty much where the Parliaments started as a singing group. Mr. Clinton’s first record was in 1967. I was only ten years old then.
His longevity and how he presents it keeps him fresh. To me, those are the things I look at that keep this band going. By involving his grandchildren, he’s staying pretty up to date. Then he sprinkles in guys who have been with him almost forty years like myself, Blackbyrd McKnight, our horn section Greg Thomas and Benny Cowan. We’ve been here for a while, but then he’ll also hire someone like [keyboardist] Danny Bedrosian, who is in his 30’s. We have a young guy who is the son of Benny Cowan, the trumpet player. He’s the drummer and his name is Benzel Cowan. It’s like the “Sons oft he Funk.” The late, great Garry Shider’s son Garrett Shider is playing guitar.
I think that George is trying to make sure that after he is gone that a few people keep doing it from his angle. You’ve still got the Bootsy’s out there. He’s part of the camp and will always be part of the camp. George’s group is like home to a lot of people. Many have left and gone on to be successful like Amp Fiddler and [many others]. Dennis Chambers had his first professional gig with P-Funk.
You have people in the band from all over now, but the members seem really fluid. Is that right?
Yeah. Like I said, there’s a few of us that he’s been working with for a while, but now since Shake the Gate there’s been another change of band.
It just depends on whatever the vibe is. Like Mudbone Cooper, he’s doing some things with Dave Stewart over in Europe and now he’s back here playing with George, and he’s working on the new Parliament album called Medicated Frog Dog. It’s gonna be good! In that period around 1980 was when we did Trombipulation, which was the last Parliament album until now. So he’s waited that long. This Parliament record is gonna be crazy. It’s got Fred Wesley, Peewee, all of James’s horn section. It’s just got so many great people on there that he’s bringing back. Parliament was mostly a horn-based, R&B-type group. Funkadelic was more risque: rocky and edgy. Now he’s getting back to the Parliament thing.
[For the sound,] it’s not old Parliament, but it’s not some hip-hop album, either. I think he did very well with mixing the two cultures to bring it together and up to date to where we are now. I’m glad he took that route. A lot of producers would rather stay in their lane and not move too far out for fear of losing fanbase or whatever. George is always on the edge. He reminds me of Miles Davis like that. He’s always trying new stuff and he doesn’t care who says what. If he feels like he wants to go a certain way with it, he’ll go with it. I’m happy to work for a guy like that.
You must be, because you’ve been working with him for almost four decades. How do you keep up with such a large catalog of music?
Over the years I have been playing the music a lot so it does help to be familiar with it, but I do have to run over some of the older stuff. He was doing “Testify” on one tour maybe a year or so ago. He’ll go back that far. That was his first hit and he wanted to do it the original way, like Doo-Wop. I went on YouTube and you can find almost anything. I pulled it up and we got it going. Like I said, he’ll do that every once in a while to see what we know. And a lot of these younger guys study a lot of it and what they don’t know they’ll ask about. We get it going like that, but his catalog is just so vast.
Is there a bass line you see people playing wrong all the time?
There are a couple, like “Tear the Roof Off” and “Cosmic Slop”, just to name a few. I don’t want to get too deep. Sometimes people don’t understand that when you’re listening back to these albums from the ’70s, a lot of bass players don’t know how to listen for position. When you listen hard enough you can hear what position the bass player is playing in. That takes a little while to get used to.
The reason I’m saying that is to give you an example with “Cosmic Slop”. When I first heard it as a teenager I played it on the neck. When I got in the band, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson – rest his soul – he taught me a lot. He was one of my teachers when I got in the band because he had started playing rhythm guitar. He said, “Lige, I played open strings for that bass line on the record.” It’s in the key of F#. When you play an F# you can play the A on the 5th fret. I was doing that, which is wrong. What he did was very simple and was so much more effective. He played the F# and played the open A, which rings. It’s such an amazing thing to find that one note on the bass guitar can change the whole mood of a chord or a section or a vibe, depending on how long you hold it. One bass note is so powerful and so many people don’t realize it. It’s where the bass player puts that note. You have choices, but that note can make everything move differently.
A lot of the young ones don’t realize that open strings are so important to bass players. I had a little upright training when I came up. I went to Central State University in Ohio from ’76 to ’77, then I quit. From there I went to Milwaukee and I studied with guys over there. We formed a band there but it wasn’t really doing well. Then I went to see P-Funk, who was playing Chicago. My cousin Michael Hampton and I went to see them and I ended up not going back to Milwaukee. They ended up taking me out on the road. I did a lot of staff and management stuff because I minored in business. So I was doing a lot of road managing and running records around and assisting people in the beginning. Skeet had gotten in the band in ’77, so he was there when I got in, but then he left in ’79 or ’80. When they met Michael Hampton in ’74, they met me as well so they remembered that I played bass as well. I hadn’t stopped playing and in fact had been getting even better, but I still wasn’t playing [in the band] yet. When Skeet left, they auditioned a couple people from the camp. I ended up getting the job and I’m very blessed. Eddie Hazel and Bernie Worrell stood over me and auditioned me a bit. That was one of the most nervous days of my life.
It sounds like you weren’t expecting that at all.
No, I wasn’t. I was working on the staff and I didn’t expect Skeet to leave. When he left he went back to school. I didn’t even know he left at first. I was working at the office in Hollywood on Hollywood and Vine. That’s where we had P-Funk headquarters. I was in the office one day and Garry Shider walked in there because there were some gigs coming up. We had the Gloryhallastoopid tour because they had just released that record. He walked into the office and said, “You know you gonna play bass now!” [laughs] He told me Skeet left and they were going to give me the shot. As time went on, Skeet came back for the Atomic Dog tour and we shared duties for a while, then he left again. Then he came back. In between that time we acquired Billy “Bass” Nelson for a minute, too. But I was always here. Plus I always had another talent: singing. Mr. Clinton always loved my singing. That was great because when we did recording sessions I could stay and make more money by doing vocal sessions as well. When Skeet was doing a bulk of the playing, I would step up and do a lot of the singing. Lately my bass duties have become more important.
For people who have never seen you live, it’s a kind of crazy experience with the way people come on and off the stage throughout the whole set. Is that just how it happens or do you plan it out?
That started a long time ago. When the Mothership Connection tour started, it became like a play. Throughout the set you have set changes, costume changes, or different props depending on the songs. So we would change throughout the whole set. By the time we were doing Aqua Boogie, it was all set changes and costuming. Now it’s not so many costumes but it’s still the same amount of people – about 18-20 of us. We flow on and off because not everyone sings or plays on everything. He used to carry two or three drummers, a couple bass players, four or five guitarists… Now we’ve broken it down a little bit. He’s not carrying as many people but he still has to have that big sound around him. That’s what Mr. Clinton knows and that’s part of his success to have that kind of sound. So that’s why you have people running on and off all night. They’re assigned certain songs to sing on and certain songs not to sing on. It’s like a big play. A funk opera [laughs].
I think about [The Who’s] Tommy, and how they did crazy scenes and sets. All of the bands in the ’70s were like that. Glam rock, glam funk, everything was glam and big stage productions. The Mothership back then was like a 2-million dollar thing. For the ’70s, that was huge. They had the same people design that Mothership set that designed KISS’s set. George and KISS were under the same label: Casablanca. Neil Bogart was running that label.
The Mothership is in the National Museum of African American History and Culture now, right?
Yes, the Mothership is in the Smithsonian. It’s history that will never go away. People will see that long after we’re gone. We all understand that this is way bigger than us. This will last forever. That’s the second Mothership, because the first Mothership was HUGE. It covered the whole stage. Those were the heydays.
There’s probably not the budget to drag that thing around nowadays.
No, not really. But I think he wants to do something else with the concept, but whatever he does with that, he wants to do a continuation. He doesn’t want to do the same thing again. He’s still trying to figure out what he’s going to do with that. I said, “Really, man? You’re 75.” He’ll say, “We got to keep it going. We’ve got to keep it fresh.” He’s always got a saying he tells me: We’re just getting started. He loves his audience, man. Tonight he’s going to play three hours, at least.
George always says, “What’s a successful career? It’s a working career.”