Comic panel from Funkadelic's 'Uncle Jam Wants You' album sleeve.

Pedro Bell was an American artist and illustrator, most famous for his lavish illustrations and comics on the album covers and inner sleeves of funk musician George Clinton's legendary band Funkadelic and his solo records. Together with Overton Loyd, Ronald P. Edwards and Diem Jones, Bell contributed to Clinton's P-funk philosophy and wacky public image. And together with these artists and people like Cal Schenkel (Frank Zappa), Hipgnosis (Pink Floyd) and Lemi Ghariokwu (Fela Kuti) Bell was one of the best known album cover artists who gave one specific musician or band a visual identity. Bell also created artwork and concert posters for other funk bands, including a 1991 concert review in comic strip format for Deee-Lite. He also contributed a comic strip to 'Ain't That a Blip?', an early 1990s one-shot photo-copied magazine edited by Seitu Hayden in the Chicago area, which however was never officially released.

Early life
Pedro Bell was born in 1950 in Chicago, into an African-American family. His father was a struggling artist and his mother a pianist. Bell learned drawing from his older brothers and was often sick, spending time reading comics. Among his graphic influences were Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Robert Williams and Cal Schenkel. He enjoyed the books and novels of Hunter S. Thompson, Iceberg Slim and Tom Wolfe. Bell loved both mainstream rock (The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix), funk (Sly & the Family Stone, Funkadelic, Parliament), as well as more experimental sounds (Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra). In 1971 he wrote record reviews in exchange for 12-inch musical singles. He studied at the Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, but was expelled because he participated in a demonstration and donated artwork to The Black Panther Party. More succesful were his art studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago. In his daytime job he worked as a postal worker, security guard and manufacturer of spare parts for cars. Bell also enjoyed toying around with language, which was inspired by the chapters 'Genesis' and 'Revelations' in the Bible. As he once explained on MySpace: "My favorite books growing up were Genesis and Revelations, which somehow inspired me to become obsessed with science fiction. This led me to become fascinated with machinery, and subsequently, automotive technology."

Funkadelic
In 1968 an eccentric musician named George Clinton founded two separate funk bands at two different labels. The first one, Funkadelic, was known for its psychedelic rock sound combined with funky grooves. Most of the songs spoofed clichés in soul and funk. Parliament was more fit for the dance floor, with pure funk, yet combined with very bizarre storylines set in outer space, not unlike Sun Ra. Both bands promoted peace, free love and black consciousness, but with a sense of comedy. Clinton invented a whole universe full of wacky slogans ("Free Your Mind (And Your Ass Will Follow") and equally loony characters. During concerts he and his musicians performed these storylines and personalities by dressing up in wacky wigs and costumes, complete with giant UFOs landing on stage. Amidst all the madness, Clinton and his bands performed breathtaking music, among others by legendary guitarists Bootsy Collins and Eddie Hazel, which sometimes went on for three hours, as if the party was infinite.


Pedro Bell's front cover illustration for Funkadelic's 'Cosmic Slop' album.

Pedro Bell loved their music, which he first heard on the underground radio station Triad in Chicago. In 1972 he wrote fan letters to Funkadelic's label and decorated them with all kinds of detailed drawings, including a hand-designed envelope with a duplicated dollar bill. Clinton liked his style, which - as he wrote in his memoir 'Brothas Be' (2014) - "gave me an idea for how we could move Funkadelic up a notch, how we could take what we were doing musically and onstage and capture some of that anarchic energy in album packages", and phoned him back to ask him to illustrate the cover of Funkadelic's fifth album: 'Cosmic Slop' (1973). Inspired by Schenkel's record covers for Zappa, Bell drew a very eye-catching and elaborate drawing of a huge nude black woman in space, referencing elements from Clinton's songs. Inside the sleeve, near the liner notes, he added tiny cartoons which visualized every track. Some of the images were collage artwork, depicting U.S. president Richard Nixon and Bert from Jim Henson's 'Sesame Street'. Cllinton was amazed: "When he sent us his interpretation, I was blown way. It included pimps and whores, some of which were drawn as aliens with little worms coming out of them. It was nightmarish and funny and beautiful, a perfect fit for the music we were making."

Over the years Bell would illustrate the covers of nearly all Funkadelic albums: 'Standing on the Verge of Getting It On' (1974), 'Let's Take It to the Stage' (1975), 'Tales of Kidd Funkadelic' (1976), 'Hardcore Jollies' (1976), the classic 'One Nation Under A Groove' (1978), 'The Electric Spanking of War Babies' (1981) and 'First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate' (2014). 'Uncle Jam Wants You' (1979) only had a simple photograph on the cover, though Bell did make some illustrations for the inner sleeve. The cover of 'Connections & Disconnections' (1980) was drawn by a different artist: William Rieser. The most controversial cover of Bell's career was 'The Electric Spanking Of War Babies' (1981). Censors objected to the overtly phallic spaceship on the cover, particularly since a naked woman sat inside it. He was paid to censor it and the image was put inside the album gatefold, while the cover itself was toned down. But Bell still hinted on what was hidden inside by writing down: "Oh Look! The cover that they were too scared to print!"


Original cover illustration for 'The Electric Spanking Of War Babies', printed in the album gatefold, surrounded by comic strip style panels.

Just like Schenkel, Bell was essentially an amateur who just drew for the fun of it. The main difference was that Schenkel still received very direct guidelines from Zappa about the overall look and necessary elements on each cover, which he was then allowed to fill in as he pleased. Bell, on the other hand, was given carte blanche. He even influenced Clinton's music by suggesting more UFO-themed stories. He portrayed the members of Funkadelic as "The Invasion Force", who fought in faraway galaxies alongside mutants, extraterrestrials and "Afro-nauts" to combat prudes, squares and disco music. He also came up with the lyrics behind the song 'The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein'. While Afrofuturism in music was a concept introduced by free jazz legend Sun Ra and space themes in rock had been popularized by David Bowie, Bell still took it to another level. George Clinton once described his style as: "a combination of Ralph Bakshi and Samuel R. Delany and Superfly and Fat Albert and Krazy Kat and Flash Gordon, all mixed together in Pedro's brain with some kind of blender that hadn’t been invented yet."

Bell often referred to his drawings as "scartoons", because just like a scar "they left a mark." Many of his works were signed with "Sir Lleb", his name spelled backwards. He also wrote the liner notes of many of the albums, throwing in puns, weird words and names like "Funkapus" and "Thumpasaurus". Some of these liner notes satirized religious sermons and political statements. He called his new language "Zeep Talk", the so-called "language of the future." Bell was also responsible for the concert posters, playbills, press kits and other merchandising. Pedro Bell wasn't the only artist to work for Clinton: Overton Loyd, Ronald P. Edwards and Diem Jones all did their share. Bell and Loyd are often confused with each other and it's not hard to see why. Both were the most productive illustrators George Clinton ever worked with, helpint out with designing album covers, concert posters and other associated merchandising. The main difference is that Bell had a more amateuristic style, while Loyd was more professionally skilled. Also, Bell was mostly preoccupied with artwork for Funkadelic, while Loyd was the main illustrator behind Parliament's records.


Artwork for the front and interior sleeve of Funkadelic's 'One Nation Under The Groove' album.

George Clinton solo
In the 1980s Clinton disbanded Parliament and Funkadelic and embarked on a solo career. Bell kept on board as his official album cover illustrator and illustrated records like Clinton's 'Computer Games' (1982), 'You Shouldn't-nuf Bit Fish' (1983), 'Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends' (1985), 'R&B Skeletons In The Closet' (1986), 'Dope Dogs' (1994), 'TAPOAFOM (The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership)' (1995), 'Greatest Funkin' Hits' (1996) and 'How Late Do You Have 2 B B4 U R Absent?' (2005) by P-Funk.

Animation
In 1988 Bell made an animated short, starring one of his characters Larry Lazer. It was broadcast on MTV.

Ain't That A Blip?
Bell had met Chicago-based advertising artist and underground cartoonist Seitu Hayden in the mid 1980s. The two men worked together on the designs of a couple of record sleeves, and Bell also contributed a story to 'Ain't That A Blip?', an early 1990s one-shot comics zine edited by Hayden as a proposed "Black MAD Magazine". At the last moment, the investor however backed out and the book was never officially printed or distributed.

Other artists
Bell furthermore lent his talent to 'Federation of the Tackheads' (1985) by Jimmy G. & The Tackhead, while his clay figures were featured in 'Lifestyles of the Roach and Famous' (1988) by INCorporated Thang Band. In the 1990s he designed covers for 'Bassman Of The Acropolis' (1992) by Maggotron, 'Funkronomicon' (1995) by Axiom Funk and 'United State Of Mind' (1998) by Enemy Squad. In 1991 Bell created a concert review of Deee-Lite's performance at Chicago Riviera Theater, drawn in comic strip form under the pen name "Capt. Draw". Bell also performed in his own band, Tripzilla. 

Final years and death
In November 1995 Pedro Bell wanted to purchase a pair of glasses, but acute hypertension damaged his kidneys and eyesight. He was quickly sent to intensive care, but his health slowly but surely went downhill. By August 1996 he was legally blind. The artist required kidney dialysis three times a day and had a swollen ankle from a wound which wouldn't heal for a week. In 2009 Bell was almost evicted from his apartment, but won his case thanks to a court technicality. Through financial aid by fans and a benefit concert by Bernie Worrell held on 2 January 2010, he managed to crawl back from the gutter. In his final years he produced artwork for the fanzine Zeep, alongside his assistants Seitu Hayden, Stozo and Tym Stevens. On 28 August 2019 it was announced that Pedro Bell had passed away. Bootsy Collins tweeted: "We lost the Master Mind behind the Graphics & Artwork of Funkadelic (...) Thxs for yr service, our brother."

Legacy and influence
Pedro Bell, Overton Loyd, Ronald P. Ewards and Diem Jones provided George Clinton's music with a cartoonish visuality in a time when music videos were still rare and most advertising had to be done through tours, radio airplay and record sleeves. Their funky album covers were precursors of the cartoony album covers by some hiphop artists in the next decades. Bell's work was an influence on cartoonist Tim Fielder: "Pedro showed that album art really could be colorful with a deep subversive streak. The hieroglyphic writings with small cartoons in the corner within the explosive visual whole redefined that linear notes absolutely didn’t have to be linear." Bell furthermore influenced artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall, Turtel Onli and Nina Chanel Abney. Other celebrity fans are novelists Gary Phillips, Darius James, Greg Tate, Sheree Renée Thomas and John Jennings.


Tribute illustration to Pedro Bell, drawn by Tym Stevens. Note Frank Zappa in the left corner and Jimi Hendrix in a purple circle in the center of the image.

Series and books by Pedro Bell in stock in the Lambiek Webshop:

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