Interview: Funk Lifer Junie Morrison

Chairman Mao chats with the Ohio Player about his life in funk.

Though mention of his name may not ring bells with the volume of, say, Mssrs Stone, Collins or Clinton there’s no overstating Walter “Junie” Morrison’s importance to the development of funk. Gifted from an early age as a singer/composer/producer/multi-instrumentalist on the Dayton, Ohio music scene, Morrison’s remarkably versatile skill set made him an invaluable contributor to two storied funk franchises. Fronting the Westbound Records-era Ohio Players of the early ‘70s as lead singer and musical director, the young Junie could be by turns soulfully exuberant (the wholly self-descriptive “Ecstasy”) or playfully out (the proto G-Funk synth jam, “Funky Worm,” featuring his comedic geriatric alter ego, “Granny”), crafting a rough template for the group’s eventual more commercial breakthroughs.

As a self-styled multi-taskmaster for late ‘70s/early ‘80s Parliament-Funkadelic, he co-penned and -produced two of the Mothership’s most enduring and era-defining anthems in “One Nation Under a Groove” and “(Not Just) Knee Deep.” And as an underrated and progressive soloist, his affinity for experimentation found him embracing electronic beats (1984’s Evacuate Your Seats) and hip hop (“Rappin ‘Bout Rappin”) – the latter especially apropos given how extensively, and memorably, his work would come to be digitally sampled by the likes of Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, EPMD, De La Soul, Pete Rock, J Dilla and a plethora of others.

In more recent years Junie has enjoyed the support of an additional simpatico soul in modern funkster Dam-Funk, with whom he’s conspired on still forthcoming material. As Junie details below in a rare Q&A, such cross-generational collaborations actually transcend the particulars of melody and rhythm, for the true spirit of funk lies in its unifying power. The groove our only guide, we shall all be moved.

What was the music scene in Dayton like when you were coming up and why do you think it became such an important place in the development of funk?

Growing up in Dayton was full of wonder. The area had many reminders and indications that something great was at one’s fingertips. For instance, we were constantly reminded of the Wright brothers and would inevitably stroll by their bicycle shop on a daily basis. We believed we could fly!

The funk from our area had a strong connection to gospel music from the beginning.

I can’t ever remember a time when I was not working in music. From my earliest recollections as a very young church pianist onward, I was always heavily involved with music in some capacity or another. In the very early days, the music scene in Dayton was reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album cover for I Want You. You had your churches, schools, radio stations and nightclubs just like most other places. I think one of the most important influences for me though, was the school system. We had very inspirational teachers, like Charles Spencer at Roosevelt High. Teachers like Mr. Spencer had a way of helping us to want to learn and be impeccable with our music studies. The super talented indie artist and producer Bernard Alexander, AKA Skip McDonald, AKA Little Axe, was also in Mr. Spencer’s class, at least a year or two before I came in.

Over time, I managed to become student choir director and orchestra conductor at Roosevelt, thanks to the kind of guidance and motivation we all received from our teachers while going there. Most of the 13 or so bands from Dayton signed to major labels were inspired by the creative opportunities offered by schools like Roosevelt and other fine schools in the city.

Having said that, my own personal feel for the funk had to have grown out of my experiences in church. At around four years old, I remember playing piano for a baby church choir. My feet could barely touch the floor. My only option was to stamp out the funk using the sustain pedal of the piano, just to give myself some ballast. The resulting funk groove was awesome.

That same baby choir, was also comprised of Thomas and William Shelby, future members of Lakeside and Dynasty with Solar Records and eventually, Johnnie and Keith Wilder, who went on to form the mega group Heatwave, signed to Epic Records. In other words, the funk from our area had a strong connection to gospel music from the beginning.

How did you first encounter the Ohio Players?

I first saw Ohio Players when they performed a concert at my high school. At that time, I was always in the process of forming groups of musicians in some form or another – a drum squad here, a band or choir octet there and anything in between. I thought that if a bee had a knee, I was it. That being said, Ohio Players were spectacular and by far the most progressive band I had ever seen and as a result, they made a big impact on my musical awareness of the possibilities.

Somebody was going to get their ass handed to them on a plate that day and I was determined that it wasn’t going to be mine.

Strangely enough, it was only through chance that I attended that concert in the first place. Since it was a school requirement for us to attend theatrical plays from time to time, I remember telling a friend that I was in no way interested in seeing some “lame” theatrical play and would definitely not attend the event. However, to make a short story long, when the concert was over, I was still sat there a day or two later, in a state of shock. Eventually, the janitor came by and said, “You alright, son?” I was like... “Knuba-tereg bag throwf!

A couple years after first seeing Ohio Players, I had agreed to play piano for some school friends of mine at a local battle of the bands television broadcast. To my surprise, Ohio Players were booked to play the same show. I was shocked to realize that I would have to rock a grand piano, in a battle, against the group that had impressed me the most – guitars, amps, horns, drums and all. Somebody was going to get their ass handed to them on a plate that day and I was determined that it wasn’t going to be mine. Ha!

Most fans of the Westbound Records-era Ohio Players probably know of you as the band’s lead singer during your tenure, but you had other responsibilities that went well beyond that.

My original duty was as a piano player and eventually, musical director, arranger-producer. Vocals were a part of the mix, as well. Ohio Players were comprised of a rhythm section with two horn players. They had never worked with a keyboard player before I joined, so this was a groundbreaking event. Strangely enough though, I began by playing trumpet with the band until I could afford one of those “new fangled” electric pianos. I also went on to play guitar and bass on many of the recordings including “Ecstasy” and “Funky Worm.” As producer, I was also responsible for supervising all final mixing and mastering sessions of the material.

Ohio Players - Pain

There’s a quality to classics like “Pain” and “Ecstasy” that’s so incredibly loose and feels really improvisational, especially vocally.

How right you are. “Pain” was indeed an improvisational work. We were on our way to a gig in Memphis when suddenly, the bus pulled over and it was announced that we were going to test out a studio we had heard about. I was very young then and “sleepy” at the time, but it fell to me, as the band’s musical director, to instantly come up with a song idea for us to record.

My idea was simple. Since I had the good fortune to be in a band with awesome musicians like Sugarfoot (Leroy Bonner), Marshall Jones, Satch (Clarence Satchell), Pee Wee (Ralph Middlebrooks) and band leader, Greg Webster, it was very easy to “think the musical changes” of the song to them in real-time. All I had to do was immediately create a hook and call on each of the individuals to solo from time to time. The track was done in one take, vocals and all. No problem. Done deal.

“Ecstasy” was another one of my tracks. We were still able to maintain the loose groove we had with “Pain.” The difference in feel was because I added a bit of my gospel roots to the vibe on this one.

The band became in some ways just as renowned for its album covers featuring model, Pat Evans, as the music. How did you guys settle on the bondage imagery that accompanied these LPs?

I think the idea of “Pain” as it was conceived by me in that particular instant, was taken a bit out of context by others with different life experiences. To me, it had to do with a love affair gone wrong, something that most teenaged people can attest to from time to time. My limited experience was translated by New York photographer Joel Brodsky into something a young man from the early ‘70s Midwest would never have imagined. Pat’s incredible presence was carried forth through the remaining Westbound/Ohio Players offerings and to some extent, to their Mercury albums, as well.

How did the character of “Granny” come into being?

Early in my career with Ohio Players, we played a lot of nightclubs and had a closer interaction with the audience. As a result, we would do skits to bring ourselves even closer to the people in that setting. One of these so-called “skits” involved the character I created of a young boy with a very “dirty mouth.” That “boy” character was using what later became the “Granny” voice on “Funky Worm.” From young to old in an instant!

Funky Worm

What kind of synth was used on “Funky Worm”?

I would travel all over the world looking for tech to use on our tracks. As time would have it, I found an Arp Soloist in a shop somewhere in NYC. Immediately, it sung to me and I heard an Arabian style riff that had “worm” written all over it. I bought this synth and went into the studio with it. During the session, I remember everyone staring through the control room glass with puzzled looks on their faces, that was, until I recorded the Granny voice to cement the track together. It was lots of fun and the rest is history.

Why did you leave the Ohio Players?

Actually, I never “left” Ohio Players. Most people don’t know that Ohio Players and I continued to work on projects together – most of which were never presented to the public. Some of them had great potential though. Certain members of Ohio Players also performed on my Columbia [Records] projects.

Junie Morrison - Freeze

You addressed a lot of provocative subject matter on your Westbound solo projects, from cocaine (“Freeze”) to groupies (the Suzie Super Groupie LP) to abortion (“World of Woe”). What was your mindset in tackling these topics?

Some topics are to be treated seriously and once you’ve done that, other topics are there to pick you up after you’ve cried into your beer. These topics may have been shocking at the time but compared to what you see on “the internets” today... Back in the day, for instance, you had Studio 54 rocking the “good times” and I doubt if the people who rocked the house had cream soda in their shot glasses and pushed decongestant spray up their noses. What else was I to talk about for social commentary? It came kind of naturally as a recourse of the times.

On the other side of it, you’ve also long injected playfulness and humor into your music – songs like “Cookies” and the album cover to Bread Alone. Why do you think a sense of playfulness and funk are so intertwined?

At that time, there was a broader palette to paint from in reference to the public’s perception and personally I don’t like the idea of merely focusing on stress and strife. I know that the world has plenty of it to go around, but that is not the only thing the world has to offer. To me though, funk is an excellent platform for moving or removing the ills that may be present in our lives. The Bread Alone album cover was not so much humorous as it was a feast for the birds in NYC after the photo session was over. “Waste not, want not.”

What prompted your move to join Parliament-Funkadelic?

I don’t know if “join” is the right way to describe it. I think “starting to work with them” would be more accurate. I would often meet the members of P-Funk on tours we would all be a part of, so the idea of working with them was not that far-fetched. Whenever I would run into Bootsy Collins during a recording session in Detroit, he would always say... “Yabba dabba doosie Junie Baba!!! You should come and do some tracks with P-Funk!” There was also Mallia Franklin, whom I had known since early Ohio Players days, who thought it would be a good idea. Garry Shider and I had also become good friends and would meet from time to time. However, I’d have to say Garry was most responsible for my initial involvement in working with the group.

Being a multi-instrumentalist, did you record a lot of stuff individually and overdub parts, or were sessions generally done live with a group?

Aside from anything that I wrote and recorded for them myself, usually, I would work as a “specialist” on specific problems they might have with a track or song in general. Many of my tracks were used as I recorded them, however, occasionally I would pass through a session and add a part to a track that I liked. Very seldom was the group, as a whole, involved in a track at the same time. There were just too many musicians and vocalists to constantly be in the same place at the same time.

One Nation Under A Groove

Can you take us through the process of making “One Nation Under a Groove” – both the song and album?

The “track” for “One Nation Under a Groove” was in fact the first project I co-wrote and arranged for P-Funk. However, as I recall, George [Clinton] was not present at the inception of the track. Thankfully, Garry Shider was there and very supportive during the process. Garry helped to ease the tension between myself and the members that I did not yet know personally, which made my arrangement easier for the band to handle. Bootsy Collins added his drums at a later date.

Bernie Worrell was not present at the track’s inception either. Bernie was waiting on his awesome Moog Modular to arrive, which took a bit longer than expected. However, once Bernie and Bootsy added their vibes to the track, “One Nation Under a Groove” became unstoppable. The awesome vocal aspects of the track were also added some time later, as well. So in spite of what you may have heard to the contrary, this is the way it really happened.

As far as the One Nation Under a Groove album is concerned, P-Funk had many tracks at the time that were in “music only” form so it was easy for me to act as a writer. These tracks were blank slates and needed lyrical/vocal ideas to make them work. The tracks were given to me and I listened to them and matched those tracks to members of the group – e.g. Ray Davis and Ron Ford with “Into You” and Garry Shider with “Cholly.” I also liked the work that Michael Hampton did on “Who Says A Funk Band” and decided that it needed something different for the vocals, this track was a good fit for one of my alter egos, so I performed the lead vocals on “Funk Band” and “Groovallegiance.”

Everyone was buzzing at that time. It was really amazing to see all of the highly professional musicians and vocalists in P-Funk working together. There was a great deal of movement and creativity around because many other projects (iterations) were being developed at the same time. Without this movement, borne by the tremendous talents involved, we would be telling a different story now.

(Not Just) Knee Deep

What are your memories of making “(Not Just) Knee Deep” – especially that signature keyboard riff? George Clinton has said that it was originally written in a different time signature.

Simply put, the trick on “Knee Deep” was to physically take George’s 3/4 lyrical idea and mesh it into my 4/4 funk anthem. As far as the arrangement is concerned, I always create a catalog of music, some with lyrics and others with music only. The track for “(Not Just) Knee Deep” was one of the musical events in my catalog. It was at least a few years old before I used it for what was to become “(Not Just) Knee Deep.”

My side of the production involved setting the framework for the rest of the musicians to fit into. A lot of my work for the group was done at a remote studio in north Detroit where generally I would set up a track with drum machine, any keyboards, bass and guitars. I created “Knee Deep” using a drum machine, Fender Rhodes, Steinway Grand, Mini-Moog for the lead and bass lines and a Gibson L6S for my jazzy guitar solo. Bootsy added his drums at a later date. Michael Hampton added his monumental guitar solo to the “Knee Deep” mix some time later, as well. Although Bernie Worrell is a phenomenal musician, contrary to popular belief, he did not perform on “(Not Just) Knee Deep.”

I also worked with a team of vocalists to set the bedrock of backing vocals for the tracks. This would mostly be with Lynn Mabry and Dawn Silva. For “Knee Deep” the main background vocal foundation was done with Lynn, Shirley Haden and Cheryl James.

Those who were entrusted to ensure the proper credits were posted were either misinformed, misunderstood or completely unprofessional in failing to do so.

You aren’t actually credited on “Knee Deep,” however. Why?

Yeah, missing credits. Let me start by saying that although George is a great ideas man, a master showman and a super genius at upstaging, it is blatantly obvious that he is not an arranger, nor does he play any instruments on the projects we’ve spoken of so far. What George does and does well, is only part of the equation.

To be honest with you, without the enormous creative power of the members of P-Funk (most unsung and many who are no longer around to speak for themselves) George would, at times, have been hard pressed to write himself out of a paper bag. This would go a long way toward explaining the random nature or lyrical style of most of the tracks produced by George. Unfortunately, many of the members who provided that input were never credited for it. Having said all of that, it was obvious that George had a certain feel for the groove and for recognizing the talent in others, so once those massive talents were put together, the sky was the limit. That much, you can’t take away from him.

Seriously though, I am surprised that people aren’t more conversant about the incredibly talented original members of Parliament and Funkadelic who were integral throughout the P-Funk phenomenon and contributed untold amounts of material to the P-Funk legacy as a whole.

Those who were entrusted to ensure the proper credits were posted were either misinformed, misunderstood or completely unprofessional in failing to do so. Who is to say for sure. At any rate, once I saw that the records had already been pressed and distributed with errors, there was no way to say, “Hey! Call back all those records that were pressed and put the right credits on them, yo!”


How did you deal with the changes in recording technology through the ‘80s? On “Techno Freqs” you warned against the dehumanizing effect of making music with machines.

For me, creating in the ‘80s was more or less the same, since I had used synthetic instruments during the “Funky Worm” days in the ‘70s on. Plus, both of my Columbia albums were synth-based projects, as well. However, I did keep my analog chops in the mix by playing live drums, bass and guitar on those projects.

“Techno-Freqs,” however, was created on the cusp of the tech movement. Sure, drum machines existed at that time but a sampler with three seconds of memory was costing thousands of dollars. For “Techno-Freqs,” I used a shit-load of those things. MIDI was also still in its infancy at that time so most of the tracks were still played by hand.

Obviously, tech had some early teething problems, for instance, once you turned off a sampler, the sampled material was lost forever. Even my super expensive Synclavier computerized keyboard was so new that it had no MIDI connections at all, so using it with a sequencer was out of the question. To be truthful though, being one of the early advocates of tech was a rough nut to crack but totally worth it.

As far as my statement about the effects of tech being dehumanizing, we could have considered it less of a warning, more of a speculative prophecy, perhaps. It was easy for me to envision and to be a part of the movement toward a music-technology mix. So far, you’ve needed humans to make tech. How long that will be the case, is up for grabs.

Going to a concert these days is more about selfies and filming stage performances on smartphones than it is about the “groove.”

I think the challenges faced with the use of synthetics today have forced many into a “one-groove-fits-all-no-particular-music-skills-required format.” Not that this is a bad thing, mind you, because it also provides more scope to individuals who do have a more formalized music background or experience. I mean, if you think about it, going to a concert these days is more about selfies and filming stage performances on smartphones than it is about the “groove.” It seems as though no one is actively “listening” to the music that tech makes; in the way that it could be said that no one is “dancing” to the music that tech makes. On “Techno Freqs,” I wrote of the trance being simulated even before there was “trance-music.” I know that it seems like I’m speaking in absolutes, but I am only attempting to further a point.

What do you make of the modern funk movement these days, with the music of folks like Dam-Funk and others?

It is good to see the funk movement continuing. In fact, I believe that Dam-Funk is one of those at the forefront of this modern funk movement. Aside from reminding me of myself in a lot of ways, he embodies the true spirit of funk and is a very dedicated musician and true funk ambassador. I have actually contributed a bit of vibe to Dam-Funk’s new album and also performed an hour-long electronic set from my BoyInSea project at one of his events. I had a great time playing my electronic music live, for a new generation of funk fans and the response was excellent.

When I’ve spoken to Dam-Funk, he’s praised the full 15-minute version of “(Not Just) Knee Deep” as a recording in which you can hear the whole story of an era – how it’s both so celebratory and somber at different points. Was that at all your intent when making it?

As far as the dichotomy of sensations that one might experience from hearing the track is concerned, it would have to be put down to the vibe of the music formerly called soul, which is always going to tell that underlying story. The listener only has to be intuitive enough to channel it from the vibes they hear and I believe that that is what happened.

If anything, the somber aspects that Dam-Funk may be referencing could be attributed to the fact that most of the so-called funk you’re hearing these days has been copied, diluted or “smudged,” as young Azealia Banks puts it, by so many non-funky artists that it has practically become a lost art form. One could lament the fact that funk is no longer evolving in the way that one knows that it can.

Personally I’ve never been into the idea of a one-size-fits-all aspect of funk.

Personally though, I’ve never been into the idea of a one-size-fits-all aspect of funk. People have a way of creating their own idea of what funk is. However, funk has always been progressive, whether it was being expressed by Elvis’ channeling of Chuck Berry, The Beatles with Billy Preston, (who never seems to be noted as being associated with the group, by the way) or even Jerry Lee Lewis and his passion for Little Richard’s artistry. Funk has always been very popular with recording artists of all types.

Dam-Funk may be feeling that in most cases, the genre has evolved into something that is a shadow of its former self. I know that that is what I feel. If one were to listen to modern methods, say for instance on Soundcloud’s most recommended list, one could hear that some aspects of the funk still exist. However, what is missing is the content represented inside the funk’s overall concept. What I mean to say is that the essence of the funk has always had a tendency to speak of bringing people together. Now however, most tracks that include some facet of the roots of the funk communicate an anti-social idea, which of course, is contrary to the core of what the funk has always been about.

By Jeff “Chairman” Mao on April 7, 2015

On a different note