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Icons of Rock: Eddie Hazel

on July 09, 2011, 10:00am
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iconsofrock 260x260 Icons of Rock: Eddie HazelBorn Edward Earl Hazel in April 1950 in the borough of Brooklyn, Eddie Hazel grew up in the small central New Jersey town of Plainfield. While his mother maintained her job as a silk presser and commuted into the city, at 12 years old, Hazel began to teach himself to play a guitar his brother had given to him as a Christmas gift. In addition to guitar, Hazel developed his vocal skills singing in a local church choir.

During this time, he met another musically inclined child, Billy “Bass” Nelson. Their connection was immediate and the two began to teach each other to play guitar and sing. As time went on, the two eventually fell in with young drummer, Harvey McGee and the trio began playing their local circuit jamming to early Motown era style hits.

In mid 1967 opportunity came knocking only Hazel wasn’t home (literally and figuratively). Another Plainfield based band, doo wop outfit the Parliaments, was having success with their record “(I Wanna) Testify” and sought to promote the single with a tour. Needing a backing band, Parliament frontman George Clinton sought out Billy Nelson, hiring him as bass player. Immediately Nelson recommended hiring Hazel on guitar. Unfortunately, Hazel was working with producer George Blackwell in Newark at the time and was unable to be reached, postponing his addition to the lineup that would become Funkadelic.

eddie hazel Icons of Rock: Eddie HazelIn September of ’67 Hazel joined up with Nelson and Clinton after the two returned from a short summer tour.  Convincing Hazel’s mother, Grace Cook, to allow her 17 year old son to join up with the wild antics associated with Clinton’s group was no easy task. After much begging and pleading, Clinton and Nelson were able to procure the approval of Hazel’s mother. There is a sad irony however. Cook moved her family to Plainfield to escape the influence of drugs and crime. Moving to Plainfield eventually led her son to meet and join a band that would eventually introduce him to substances responsible for both his biggest successes and most dismal failures.

While playing a gig at the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia with the Parliaments during the fall of ’67, Hazel struck up a conversation with the venue house drummer Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood. As both Nelson and Hazel were disappointed with their current drummer, McGee, the two managed to convince band leader Clinton to replace their inadequate drummer with Fulwood.  With the rhythm section of Billy Nelson, Eddie Hazel, and Tiki Fulwood the backbone to Funkadelic was laid in place.

funkadelic Icons of Rock: Eddie HazelFunkadelic came to be as a means to an end. After Clinton and the Parliaments hit the charts they found themselves in conflict with their label. As a result, Clinton refused to record any new material for them. Rather than wait for a settlement, he simply chose to take his band – the Parliament vocalists and the rhythm section of Nelson, Hazel, Fulwood which now included organist Mickey Atkins and rhythm guitarist Lucius “Tawl” Ross – and record under a new name, Funkadelic. The band lineup only listed the members of the Parliament back up band as members and carefully avoided any mention of the former Parliaments’ lineup. This group (with Bernie Worrell replacing Atkins) would record one album under the Parliament name, Osmium, before Clinton put the project on hiatus and focused on Funkadelic, which at the time had begun seeing some success.

Funkadelic’s first three albums – Funkadelic (1970), Free Your Mind…And Your Ass Will Follow (1970), and Maggot Brain (1971) — puts Hazel’s unique style of guitar work on full display. Over the course of these three albums Hazel’s style, blending the sweet pop soul of Motown with the psychedelic fusion of Hendrix, was instrumental in evolving the doo wop sound of the Parliaments into the soul infused hard rock that became Funkadelic. Using Osmium as his platform, Hazel focused his fuzzy stoned out approach for Funkadelic delivering monster performances often with extreme subtlety on tracks like “Mommy, What’s a Funkadelic?”, “I Bet You”, and “I Got a Thing, You Got a Thing, Everybody’s Got a Thing”. With songwriting credits on two other tracks, including “Music for My Mother”, Hazel’s handiwork is all over the debut.

On Funkadelic’s follow-up, Hazel once again is up front (though probably slightly left of Worrell) writing half of the album’s six tracks, including the epic title track. However, it is his work on “I Wanna Know If It’s Good To You?” and all its twisted psychedelia that is the album’s highpoint. It also represents a focal point on a musical trip that would culminate with 1971’s Maggot Brain.

Described by music critic Greg Tate as Funkadelic’s A Love Supreme, Maggot Brain was the final album with Hazel as a full time member of Funkadelic. The 10 plus minute epic title track also represents Hazel’s greatest artistic accomplishment and would go on to become his legacy. The story behind the recording of the track has gone on to become almost as legendary as the performance. During the album’s creation, while preparing to record “Maggot Brain”, Clinton approached Hazel, who was tripping heavily on LSD. Seeking to find a way to channel an extremely sad emotional angle from his guitar player, Clinton told Hazel to play his guitar as “if yo’ momma just died.” The result is one of the most emotive performances ever recorded. Captured in a single take, there’s some sparse usage of Nelson and Fulwood to balance the song, however all other instruments were mixed out of the final product, as Clinton felt that Hazel delivered everything so affectively.

By the time of Maggot Brain’s release, drugs had already begun to erode the band’s foundation. With Ross the first to be kicked out due to his unreliability associated with heavy LSD usage, Clinton soon became frustrated with Nelson and Hazel. In late ’71, both Hazel and Nelson quit Funkadelic claiming financial disputes with Clinton. The financial issues more than likely arose from Clinton suspending the musicians’ pay for fear they would spend the money on drugs. As a result of the in-fighting, Hazel’s role on the 1972 follow-up America Eats Its Young is minimal and sparse at best.

During their exile from and before his return to Funkadelic in 1974, both Hazel and Nelson began working with the Temptations. During his short stint with the Temps, Hazel contributed the song “Zoom” from the 1973 album 1990 and he co-wrote the title track to their 1975 album A Song For You. With his songwriting back on point and his life seemingly back on track, Hazel rejoined Funkadelic in 1974.

album standing on the verge of getting it on Icons of Rock: Eddie HazelFunkadelic’s release Standing on the Verge of Getting It On stands as the triumphant return of Hazel to the Mothership. Contributing writing credits on all the album’s material, to avoid any possible contractual issues with the publishing rights, Hazel had half the songs credited to his mother, Grace Cook. Why Hazel did this may have had something to do with his arrest for assaulting an airline stewardess and an air marshal. He was also arrested for drug possession and as a result spent some time in jail. During Hazel’s incarceration, Clinton replaced the Funkadelic guitarist with Michael Hampton. As if pouring salt in the wound, Hazel’s replacement had been discovered by Clinton at a party when he heard Hampton play a note for note cover of Hazel’s masterpiece “Maggot Brain”. Hampton, who at 17 was the same age as Hazel when he first joined Clinton, would go on to be known as “Kidd Funkadelic”.

With his release from jail and return to Funkadelic, Hazel saw his contribution to the band begin to take second stage to replacement guitarists Michael Hampton and Garry Shider. On the 1975 release Let’s Take It To the Stage, Hazel is only credited (as G. Cook) on the first two tracks, with all other guitar work assumedly handled by Hampton and Shider. The same was true on 1976’s Hardcore Jollies, Funkadelic’s first major label release. For an album that was dedicated “to the guitar players of the world”, it is sad that one of the greatest was given partial writing credit under a pseudonym for the album opener “Comin’ Round the Mountain” and his blistering performance goes totally uncredited.

ehgdf Icons of Rock: Eddie HazelThe following year saw Hazel being given the opportunity by Clinton to record a solo album. Featuring songwriting contributions from Clinton and Bootsy Collins as well as performances by Worrell, Fulwood, Nelson, the Brides of Funkenstein and even his Funkadelic replacements Hampton and Shider, Hazel’s solo debut Games, Dames and Guitar Thangs is practically a Funkadelic album in all but name. With two sublime covers, the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, and a rendition of Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band’s “Physical Love”, the remainder of the album is balanced with Hazel’s original tunes. Though the album pales in comparison to the content of earlier Funkadelic albums, Games, Dames and Guitar Thangs is hidden gem in the world of funk if for Hazel’s playing alone. The album almost immediately went out of print after its initial release, increasing both its financial value and mythological status among funk collectors. Its subsequent reissue in 2004 by Rhino records includes a second disc of four tracks comprising the rare Hazel EP, Jams From the Heart, including an unpolished, yet remarkable performance on “Lampoc Boogie” that dares to want to be the heir to “Maggot Brain”.

After the release of his solo debut, Hazel remained content to contribute sporadically with Clinton. However, his influence and contribution began to wane almost to the point of non-involvement. A live performance captured in 1983 on the album Live at the Beverly Theatre features Hazel being upstaged by both Hampton and newer guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyd” McKnight during his performance of “Maggot Brain”. Suffering a dearth of personal and health problems associated with his lifestyle, Hazel retreated from the stage. Eventually he developed internal bleeding due to chronic stomach problems brought on from years of alcohol and drug abuse. On December 23, 1992, Eddie Hazel passed away as a result of liver failure. At his funeral, “Maggot Brain” was played.

Listen: “California Dreamin'”

After Hazel’s death, two posthumous collections were released, 1994’s Jams From the Heart and 2000’s Rest In P, which features material recorded between 1975 and 1977 as well as including the Jams From the Heart EP. Jams From the Heart is available as its original EP (if you can find it) or on the Rhino reissue of Games, Dames and Guitar Thangs, however, Rest In P has never been made available outside of Japan.

Hazel’s death was a tragedy to the music world, however, not nearly as tragic as his decline. Peaking with Maggot Brain in 1971, Hazel’s life and playing were horrifically dominated by substance abuse problems, effectively killing a potentially amazing and creative career. Following his death, Hazel still managed to make appearances on albums, such as Bill Laswell’s Axiom Funk project Funkcronomicon and in Bootsy Collins’ single “Good Night Eddie”, off his Blasters of the Universe album. Regardless, Hazel’s legacy will always be his monumental, mind blowing, face melting solo performance in “Maggot Brain”.

Did you learn something? Of course you did. Len Comaratta teaches music history regularly on his weekly podcast, Audiography. Tune in and subscribe via iTunes!

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