- 22 Apr 18
As fans commemorate the second anniversary of Prince's passing, the likes of Lianne Le Havas, Janelle Monáe, Ani Di Franco, Simon Le Bon and former New Power Generation drummer John Blackwell reflected on both the man and the myth. Raiding the archives: Stuart Clark.
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
He may have been the archetypal riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but down through the years Hot Press has learned quite a bit about Prince from his friends and musical admirers.
Someone who knew him supremely well was John Blackwell who spent 12 years perched atop the New Power Generation drum-stool.
Getting to play on and tour such classic albums as Diamond And Pearls, Love Symbol and Graffiti Bridge was a childhood dream come true for the South Carolina tubthumper who in 2011 told Celina Murphy: “One day I was practicing and all my friends were out playing. We were eight or nine at the time. As soon as I stopped they ran up to the porch and said, ‘Man, you sound great. One day, you’re going to play for Michael Jackson or Prince! If you had a choice, who would you pick?’ I actually did say Prince! That’s how highly I thought of him.”
Blackwell got his wish in 1999, when the Purple One saw him gigging as part of the Patti LaBelle band.
“I didn’t know he was there,” Blackwell recalled. “The bass-player was like, ‘John, John! Look who’s at the side of the stage!’ Afterwards these two gigantic bodyguards walked towards me. Then they both moved out of the way and there was Prince. At this point I’m pinching myself. This can’t be real. Prince came up to me and said, ‘Wow, you’re unbelievable, I’ll see you soon’. And he just walked away. I was like, ‘Hey, you didn’t take my number, you didn’t take my address; how am I going to see you soon?’
“But he was as good as his word. We did a show in New York and Prince was sitting there looking at me. He came up to me after and was like, ‘How’s the tour going?’ I figured, ‘It’s not every day Prince is standing next to you. I’m going to go ahead and talk to him. All he can do is say ‘no’, so I’m going to ask him if it would be possible for me to jam with him one day at Paisley Park.’ Before I could open my mouth, he goes, ‘I want you to come to Paisley Park when the tour’s over.’”
Asked what it was like taking direction from the man he called ‘The Boss’ Blackwell said: “It really helps that Prince is an excellent drummer. He can play for real. Of course, if you look at all the old records, that’s him playing drums. With a lot of pop stars, the people in the band are just there to play a part. But with Prince, he gives them a chance to shed light on their gift. He lets you do your thing. All of us.”
What did Blackwell learn from his time playing with the undisputed Prince of Funk?
“To respect the music,” he replied, without pausing. “Play the part and play like it’s your first night.”
Lianne Le Havas thought when she was invited round to Paisley Park on a Monday afternoon that she might find Prince kicking back in jeans and a T-shirt but, no, clothes, hair and make-up were all on fleek.
“It’s how you would imagine Prince’s house to look,” she remembered. “There’s a lot of purple, there’s a wall and it’s got a painting of his eyes and the symbol is everywhere. It’s really surreal and it smells all like scented candles and essential oils!
“I was with my label representative called Thomas, it was just us two and neither of us knew what to expect. I saw him coming down the stairs through these glass doors and I was thinking, ‘That is Prince!’ and then I went in and he gave me a big hug... well, a little hug, I’m taller than him when I’m wearing flat shoes! But he turned out to be the loveliest guy. He’s really funny, really charismatic, really cool. We jammed! We played guitar together.”
Simon Le Bon and his Duran Duran bandmates also got a close-up look at Prince and Paisley Park when they recorded their 1995 covers album, Thank You, there. Talking 12 years later to Paul Nolan, he was still somewhat bemused by the experience.
“He can be tricky,” Le Bon confided. “His manner of communicating can be a little bit confusing at times; you’re as likely to have a deep and meaningful conversation with him as you are to get a lollipop waved at you. But to him, it’s probably the same thing. He’s not rude, he just doesn’t really conform to what people generally regard as normal social behaviour. He’s very individualistic and very different to most people. He likes being Prince and he likes doing things Prince’s way.”
Having been a fan of his since she was four, Janelle Monáe was tickled all sorts of colours in 2013 when Prince agreed to appear on her Electric Lady album.
“He was a fan of my Metropolis EP and called me up to say how much he liked it,” she told Ed Power. “He invited me and the band over for a jam session at the house. I own my own record label and Prince thought that was cool. We’ve toured together. I was fortunate enough to open for him at Madison Square Garden. He’s a mentor to me. I was pinching myself in disbelief when he agreed to do the song. He doesn’t go on albums very often. More than that, I got to produce him, which was an even bigger deal.”
It was a case of “play me yours, and I’ll play you mine” in 1999 when Ani DiFranco and Prince collaborated on each other’s To The Teeth and Rave In2 The Joy Fantastic album. No prizes for guessing which is whose.
“I met him last summer when he came to a show I did in Minneapolis,” Niall Stanage was informed. “I had the next day off, so he invited me to his studio in Paisley Park. The way he approached me was so funny. He was like, ‘Can I, er, em, can I play on your new record?’ And I was like, (adopts mock doubtful tone) ‘Oh, let me sit down and think about that . . . OK, I guess so!’ Then he said, ‘Well, that’s my back-handed way of asking if you would play on mine. Maybe we could do a little exchange’. And I was just, ‘Yeah!’
“He’s a really beautiful and very, very musical person,” she continued. “He’s got such capacity to express himself through anything he picks up, and I felt so dwarfed when I was there.”
When Brittany Howard sported a pair of Prince symbol earrings on Saturday Night Live, she didn’t realise it would result in Albama Shakes also getting a “come round and jam” invitation from Mr. Nelson.
“It was exciting – a really, really cool experience,” Brittany Howard told Ed Power. “He’s actually a lovely man. We hung out a little bit afterwards. He’s a little bashful, I suppose. He doesn’t allow cameras. Of course, we have the memories. They are something we will forever treasure.”
Another member of the celebrity Prince fan club is Jill Scott who cooed in 2011 to Celina Murphy: “What a charming man, just a lot of fun. I’ve danced with him ‘till four in the morning a few times and he floats, the man just floats. His body understands music in a way that’s just amazing to see.”
Along with making 35 records of his own, Prince the Svengali also launched the careers of Vanity 6, Wendy & Lisa, Sheila E and Morris Day & The Time and transformed Sheena Easton from a reality TV has-been into an almost female version of himself with ‘Sugar Walls’ – a tune that was second only to ‘Darling Nikki’ in the PMRC’s Filthy Fifteen chart.
He also tried but failed to make a star out of former Playboy model Carmen Electra who met him in 1991 when she’s just moved to Los Angeles.
“I’d been there a week, when I went to this club called Spice, where I was approached by a woman who said that she had this all-girl band that Prince was producing, and I had the look they were after,” she told Tara Brady in 2001. “We ended up going to Prince’s house in LA. He was really nice, but kind of quiet. Basically, I auditioned right there in front of him at 2am. He played piano and I sang ‘Do Re Mi’ from The Sound Of Music. I was once in The Sound Of Music musical, so I knew the song. And then I danced.
“Now, the whole time he’s sitting there, watching me with no expression on his face. So there I am, dancing my butt off, doing the Booty Shake and everything – and he still has no expression, so I’m thinking, ‘He reckons I suck. I’ve got to take some more classes.’ I go home and don’t hear a thing for two months.
“So I got in touch with Prince’s bodyguard because I’d recorded some demos on my own that I wasn’t really happy with, and I thought it would be great if Prince would help me out. I finally got a phone call ages later, at around 4am, and it was him. He said, ‘I wrote you a song – if you like it, you can sing it.’ It was called ‘Carmen On Top’ and I loved it. The catch was that I had to go to Minneapolis to record it. So I ended up living there for two and a half years.”
Prince and Electra’s relationship was close, but never consummated.
“I had this mad crush on him, and every time we danced I’d fantasise about him and what it would be like to be with him,” she said ruefully. “We’d go out on dates; we’d go out to the club or to a movie, out to dinner or a concert, but he was recording and I was recording. We were so busy and never had time to start a proper relationship. I was very attracted to him – I think he’s a musical genius and a really beautiful man.”
Gavin Friday’s infatuation with Prince started in the mid-’80s following the break up of the Virgin Prunes who shared his penchant for guyliner and high heels.
“For ten years, he had this incredible throne,” he proffers. “There was this roll of about six or seven albums that were just phenomenal, phenomenal, phenomenal records, one after the other. Very few artists do that.
“I’ve seen Prince numerous times in the RDS and The Point, but the two times I was most blown away by him were the after-shows. He used to do these spontaneous jams – or pop gigs essentially – after the main show. I remember a time he played The Academy (then known as HQ) after a show at The Point. The gig in The Point was woeful! He played no songs that anyone knew and then went to The Academy and played every fucking hit under the sun! Seeing him in that intimate space was mind-blowing.
“I met him, very briefly. The gig he did at The POD, Bono actually sang a duet with him: it was quite an intense song from Sign O’ The Times called ‘The Cross’. This was in the heyday of The Kitchen and the whole dance movement, and Prince wanted to hang out in The Kitchen before going to the POD. So we hung out there and really, it was a little strange. Because he is strange! He had a lot of bodyguards, a lot of chicks around him, and he basically doesn’t look at or talk to people. He was doing his own thing, and I think – if memory serves! – Bono was given about five minutes. That’s his persona. He was dressed up though. It was frightening. Stilettos, skin-tight jeans, the whole lot… That’s Prince. He is a star. And that’s what I loved about him that night.
“Bono adored him, musically,” Gavin continued. “U2 were huge at the time, but Bono hadn’t become what he is now. And Prince was at his peak here. This man wasn’t just huge: he was hip, he was cool, he was everything. Did Bono mind getting five minutes? No, he just laughed! He said, ‘He needs to get out a bit more, have a drink!’”
Also at that HQ gig was Republic Of Loose singer Mick Pyro who reacted thusly: “It was fucking unbelievable, mind-blowing. He played a lot of guitar stuff that he wouldn’t normally do in his gigs. He’s a once in a lifetime genius. When you think about it, he’s such a comprehensive artist. He plays every instrument incredibly well. He’s the best guitarist alive; he’s an incredible dancer; his singing is second to none; his command of the visual aspect of his music is beyond conception; even to look at his videos from the ’80s, he always brought the changes, rather than being affected by the time he was in. In every aspect – songwriting, production, range, his aesthetic choices – we’re very lucky to be alive at a time when a musician like that is still playing gigs.”
Questlove had just had an encounter of the close kind with Prince and Stevie Wonder when he swung by the Hot Press Chatroom @ Electric Picnic in August 2008.
“I’d always made a rule to never, ever befriend your heroes because they can disappoint you,” he excitedly told Stuart Clark. “However, he’s a bit of a cool dude. Probably the best night of my life was being in his house with him on bass and Stevie Wonder on keyboards. It was like an all-star jam at his house for two hours. We did Stevie’s whole catalogue – that was the greatest thing ever.”
Georg Hólm of Sigur Rós was still trying to process the news when Paul Nolan interviewed him the day after Prince’s death.
“It’s a shock,” he sighed. “We were definitely fans. I remember when I was 13 years old going to one of his shows in Copenhagen. He was sitting on top of purple pianos and the whole deal. What a performance! My favourite record was Purple Rain, which I had on vinyl back in the day. It’s a masterpiece.
“This is the worst year for losing legends…”