Today would have been guitarist Eddie Hazel‘s 69th birthday, had he not succumbed to liver failure in December of 1992. As a member of George Clinton‘s P-Funk crew, Hazel was responsible for some of funk’s most memorable guitar riffs’, including his masterpiece, the title track to the 1971 Funkadelic release Maggot Brain. Sporting a fly wide-brimmed hat, a unitard, and stylish cape, Hazel fit right in with the multi-colored mayhem that packed the stage whenever Parliament-Funkadelic played a show. For the young Hazel, those early days working with George Clinton and company were pure magic, a round-the-clock party out of any musician’s wildest fantasies. But if his mother, Grace Cook, had had her way none of that would have ever happened.
Though her son Eddie was born in the Bronx borough of New York, his mother didn’t want her son growing up in the crime-infested NYC of the late sixties and moved her family to Plainfield, New Jersey. Young Hazel filled his days with endless hours of guitar practice, forming his own group in his early teens with his friend Billy “Bass” Nelson. When Hazel’s bass-playing partner in crime joined George Clinton’s touring version of The Parliaments, Clinton and Nelson spent days trying to convince Grace to let Eddie go with them before she finally relented. While the name “Funkadelic” originally was used for The Parliaments backing band, legal issues resulted in the name and players being spun off into a separate entity.
Over the next few years, Eddie Hazel developed his signature style of distorted guitar fireworks and slinky smooth rhythms on such funk masterpieces as the band’s self-titled debut Funkadelic and follow-ups Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow and Maggot Brain, all released within the span of two years. It was during this tumultuous, highly creative period that Hazel recorded what Rolling Stone named one of the hundred greatest guitar songs of all time, “Maggot Brain”.
As is the case with many of P-Funk’s best songs, the origins of “Maggot Brain” are slightly hazy. The story goes that George Clinton, high on LSD at the time, told Hazel to play as if he had been told his mother had died, only to learn she, in fact, still lived. The raw emotion his fretwork laid out over the track’s ten-plus minute run time took listeners on a musical journey that seemed to stop time itself.
Sadly, Maggot Brain proved to be a turning point in Hazel’s tenure with the band. He officially quit the band over financial disputes later that same year, though his friendships with the band members continued. Hazel began working with The Temptations, though he still contributed to later P-Funk efforts, even co-writing a majority of Funkadelic’s 1974 album Standing on the Verge of Getting It On and serving as the lead guitarist and arranger for Parliament’s Up For The Down Stroke, released the same year. His contributions to Standing on the Verge of Getting In On were credited to his beloved mother, whom he named as the inspiration for all his successes.
Though she had done all she could to keep her son flying the straight and narrow path, he was arrested later that same year and convicted of drug possession and assaulting a flight attendant and an air marshall. Upon his release, he found he had been replaced in the Parliament-Funkadelic collective and was relegated to fills and only the rarest of leads and solos. He recorded a solo album, Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs, with so many of the P-Funk All-Stars on hand that critics have been known to count the recording among the collective’s official releases. He continued to record with his former bandmates and other sporadically until his passing in 1992.
What better way to honor the life and death of Eddie Hazel than enjoying the iconic merging of his two great passions–playing his guitar and his love for his mother, through the “Maggot Brain”. Do yourself a favor and clear your schedule, sit back and let his soulful outpouring of emotion wash over you…you’ll be glad you did. Check out Eddie Hazel’s guitar wizardry below:
Funkadelic – Maggot Brain
[Originally published 4/10/17]