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- Posted on Jul 11th 2008 5:00PM by James Sullivan
Born in Brooklyn but raised in Plainfield, N.J. -- where his mother, sadly, thought she could keep her son from the ravages of big-city temptation – the young Hazel taught himself to play guitar alongside a school-age buddy, Billy "Bass" Nelson. Within a few years. a fellow local musician named George Clinton came calling for both potential protégés, convincing Eddie's mother that her 17-year-old belonged on the road with Clinton's band the Parliaments, where the youngster could show off his jaw-dropping guitar skills.
On tour in Philadelphia, Hazel befriended a drummer named Tiki Fulwood, who was soon hired to join the guitarist and Nelson as the core of Funkadelic, Clinton's backing band. With the name the Parliaments in dispute (the bandleader later changed it to Parliament), Funkadelic emerged as the freewheeling Clinton's main project. Hazel's prodigious psychedelic playing helped vault the group from a classic R&B style to the fantastic, mind-altering sound introduced on Funkadelic's 1970 debut and its sequel, 'Free Your Mind ... And Your Ass Will Follow.'
In 1971, Hazel took the lead on the 10-minute title showcase from the group's third album, 'Maggot Brain.' A masterpiece of interpretive electric guitar, it has been called one of the all-time great guitar songs by Rolling Stone. Legend has it that Clinton used a method-acting trick to coax the agonized performance out of his guitarist, instructing him to play as if his mama had just died.
In fact, Hazel was sometimes credited under his mother's name, Grace Cook. By the mid-1970s, however, his heavy drug use and arguments with the boss had curtailed his work with the group, and he lost his spot to another 17-year-old phenom, Michael Hampton. For a time, Hazel recorded with the Temptations, notably playing on the session that would become their 1975 hit 'Shakey Ground.' However, in 1974 he was sentenced to prison after being convicted of assaulting a flight attendant.
Almost two decades before his actual death, it was already the beginning of the end. Throughout the 1980s, up to the moment his heart stopped in December 1992, Hazel was like a funky ghost, lost to the music world except in the profusion of hip-hop tracks that sampled his P-Funk playing.
After his release from prison, Hazel had been invited back for one last hurrah with Clinton, a 1977 album released under his own name called 'Games, Dames and Guitar Thangs,' on which he covered the Beatles' 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)' and the Mamas and the Papas' 'California Dreamin'.' Quickly deleted from the Warner Bros. catalog, the record became so rare it inspired a 1994 episode of 'Homicide,' in which a shooting took place after a copy of the album was destroyed. Even in death, he could still squeeze sparks from his crazy, tragic, underappreciated legend.