In early 1971, at Detroit’s United Sound Systems’ studios, a band of musicians, who looked like aliens just out of a mothership, are recording their third album. The leader and ideologist of this motley group has some chords on which he wants his guitarist to improvise a solo, and both have taken LSD and seem to be on another planet. Before starting the guitarist, who answers to the name of Eddie Hazel, asks the ideologist, whose name is George Clinton, how he wants him to play. His answer leaves no room for doubt, "play like you just found out your mother died". For the next ten minutes Hazel delivered one of the most thrilling and eerie solos ever. A solo that goes beyond rational comprehension, a cosmic solo, in which grief is mixed with all the other human emotions. A solo that could have been by Hazel's source of inspiration, Jimi Hendrix himself, and that should have served to guarantee immortality to its author and put his name at the level of the best guitarists of all times...
Edward Earl Hazel was born just two decades earlier, on April 10, 1950 in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in New Jersey where he began playing guitar after receiving one as a gift from his older brother. At the age of 12 he met his friend Billy 'Bass' Nelson with whom he began playing with in the local bars. They didn't seem to be going anywhere but Nelson earned extra money cleaning George Clinton's barbershop. This was the leader of a band that started with doo wop and had evolved into soul, called The Parliaments. They had five singers, in the style of the Temptations, and in 1967 that they scored their first hit with (I Wanna) Testify on a Detroit label. Suddenly Clinton found himself with a top 20 song on the pop charts and plenty of offers to play, but no band.
Clinton signed up Nelson, and Nelson immediately recommended Hazel, and the seed of Funkadelic had been planted. In Philadelphia, while playing with Clinton, Hazel befriended drummer Tiki Fulwood, and Fulwood became the band's drummer. Clinton was still attached to the Motown sound but also liked the nascent psychedelia, so he decided to rename the Parliaments' backing band Funkadelic. When, after legal problems, Clinton lost the right to the name Parliaments, he decided to start recording as Funkadelic, with his band of musicians and the five singers from the Parliaments.
By this time their music had undergone several changes, their move to Detroit had brought them into contact with several rock bands and Clinton had bought Hazel a pair of huge Marshalls which they cranked up to the max; and, in case anything was missing, the guitarist had discovered Hendrix and was studying and absorbing his sound. He ditched his Gretsch for several Stratocasters, including a late '50s Sunburst and three other '70s models, and began to define the band's sound, a sort of Sly & The Family Stone with Jimi Hendrix as lead guitarist. The fact that lysergic drugs were circulating in large quantities among the band also helped give them a more rock and psychedelic sound.
In the late 1960s they recorded their debut, simply called Funkadelic, although it would not see the light of day until February 24, 1970. I'll Bet You, one of the best songs of that debut, is still pure soul funk like the Temptations of Cloud Nine, but what the Temptations didn't have (yet) was Eddie Hazel as lead guitarist; here he is still not as unleashed as in later works but, even so, his fuzz-filled solo is the one that gives the most distinctive touch to the song.
It is a remarkable first work but it is with the next record that the band perfected their sound. The record was called Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow, and, besides being one of the best titles in history and the best possible definition of funk, it is the record on which Hazel is definitively possessed by the ghost of the Wild Blue Angel. I Wanna Know If It's Good for You, is pure funk rock, the kind of song on which the career of the early Red Hot Chili Peppers was built - its solo is insane and aggressive; the punk relative of Hendrix's Voodoo Child. The title track is psychedelic madness that must have involved litres of LSD and on which the new addition to the band, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, is noticed - and much -, while on Friday Night, August 14th Hazel performs an incredible solo with wah and on the extraordinarily funky Funky Dollar Bill adds a rock touch with his guitar, again passed through his beloved wah.
The album was released in July 1970, the same month Osmium appeared, Parliament’s debut, which was basically the same band but with another name and another record label. In the mid 70's Clinton started recording under both names, Funkadelic being the more rock part and Parliament the more funk. Of course, at this time their sound was quite similar, with Hazel full of energy on songs like I Call My Baby Pussycat.
A year later the masterpiece of this first period appeared, Maggot Brain by Funkadelic. It was on this album where the song I was talking about at the beginning of this article emerged, which was the zenith of Hazel's career, a song that Clinton edited, removing almost the rest of the musicians, except the arpeggiated guitar of Tawl Ross, and adding all kinds of effects to Hazel's guitar, such as phasers and flangers. Maggot Brain goes far beyond the title track, with great songs like Can You Get To That, a marvel of acoustic rock, with a doo-wop touch and gospel reminiscences, Hit It and Quit It, a perfect vehicle for Worrell, with a great riff by Hazel, who plays the lead vocalist and shows that funk rock was invented long before Flea and Anthony Kiedis appeared, or Super Stupid, a song from which you can visualize the entire career of Lenny Kravitz, with another amazing solo by a Hazel, who sounds like the real heir of Hendrix, and this song sounds like the mix that the legendary guitarist was looking for between rock and funk on his last album. The imprint of Hendrix is perhaps more understandable if we take into account that the author of Electric Lady died shortly before the recording of this album began.
The problem was that Hazel, Nelson and the rest of the band, minus Worrell, believed that Clinton was not sharing out the profits fairly – and they decided to leave at the band’s best moment. Clinton replaced them with several of James Brown's band members, including the pivotal Bootsy Collins. Hazel entered a phase of dangerous drug use and ended up in prison for a year after assaulting a stewardess on a flight under the influence of angel dust. Even so, on Funkadelic's 1972 album, America Eats Its Young, he can be heard on the wonderful Miss Lucifer's Love, a psychedelic piece with a lot of fuzz and a lot of love for the Beatles.
1974 saw his momentary return to Funkadelic with Standing on the Verge of Getting It On, an album on which he appears in the credits as co-writer of all the songs on it. It may be the album on which he sounds best with gems like Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts, the unknown relative of Maggot Brain, a song on which Hazel shows us again his soul through the notes of his guitar, or the demolishing Red Hot Mama, another funk rock blast. After this his appearances with the band would be sporadic, both in the studio and live, although there would still be juicy stuff like the splendid Good To Your Earhole or Comin' Round the Mountain, songs on which you can see where Jimi Hendrix was heading when he died.
In any case, Hazel did not stay still, in the mid 70's he began to collaborate with the Temptations, the group that had inspired the Parliaments, and even wrote one of their last hit singles for them, the funky Shakey Ground, on which he also plays guitar, while his friend Billy Nelson does the same with the bass. In 1977, with the help of several members of Funkadelic/Parliament, he recorded his only solo album, Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs, which featured covers of California Dreamin' and the Beatles' I Want You (She's So Heavy). At that time, as can be seen in the cover photo, Hazel played a Les Paul Black Beauty and used Music Man HD 120 combos as amps.
Despite not playing on the collective's most famous and best-selling albums, Parliament's Mothership Connection and Funkadelic's One Nation Under A Groove, his long shadow as the guy who defined the sound of the latter was enormous. All the guitarists that passed through the line-up such as Garry Shider, Ron Bykowski, Dewayne McKnight or the exceptional Michael Hampton had to face the key test of having to play Maggot Brain live, despite the enormous quality of each and every one of them, none of them surpassed the original.
Health problems meant that Hazel gradually withdrew from the stage. Although he continued to collaborate sporadically with Clinton on several of his projects and his name was unjustly falling into oblivion.
In the last year of his life he returned to his mother's house after spending some time without home nor money. Once back where it all started, in New Jersey, the offers came along, a possible reunion of the original Funkadelic and an even more significant one, a possible power trio with Billy Cox and Buddy Miles, with Hazel taking Hendrix's role in the Band of Gypsys, something he was entitled to as the spiritual heir of the Seattle guitarist; the man who let us hear what Hendrix would have sounded like if he had continued to delve into his black roots.
But none of that materialized and when he died, on December 23, 1992, at the age of just 42, his name was just a memory, despite having been the inspiration for guitarists of the stature of Prince, John Frusciante, Hillel Slovak, Buckethead, Vernon Reid, Mike McCready and J Mascis.
Eddie Hazel was, in short, a visionary, who deserves much more recognition than he got. He was a guitarist who could bring the house down at his wildest, making it clear that a funk band can play rock, and of stirring your heart in the most intimate moments; reaching the deepest part of your soul. Something that his own mother, Grace Cook, confirmed when Maggot Brain played at her son's funeral and she was able to put a sound to what was happening to her… when your soul breaks and what you love the most ceases to exist.