Here in the world’s music capital, many of us, whether we knew it or not, lived just one or two degrees separated from The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.
I myself have always made a point to shake any hand that has shaken Prince’s. Prince meant so much to me in fact that I’ve performed his music in one form or another since 2002, most recently singing and playing guitar in Fleur de Tease’s burlesque tribute to the man I considered the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll musician.
All four of Prince’s grandparents were born in Louisiana, and one of his grandfathers sired 11 children. I once taught a music student who claimed to be Prince’s niece. But rather than attempt to climb Prince’s family tree, I chose to gather memories from New Orleans musicians, and others who have worked with, or even just met, His Purple Majesty.
In the ’70s and ’80s, singer Michael O’Hara led legendary New Orleans band, the Sheiks. After moving away for many years, O’Hara recently returned to live in New Orleans. A two-time Grammy and American Music Award nominee, O’Hara wrote for Patti LaBelle, Jody Watley and Bobby Brown, among many others:
“Prince’s manager Jaime was a friend of mine from St Louis. When Prince toured here in New Orleans she wanted me to come see him. But then the night before he actually snuck into Jimmy’s club to see us. Afterwards he told Jaime, ‘Tell him to come to my show and I want to speak with him afterward.’
So I went to the concert and sat with Jaime and afterward she said, ‘Prince wants you to ride in the limo back to the hotel with him.’
Jamie had left with him an 8-track recorder and a tape of his show, and he found the spot he wanted to listen to that said, ‘Down with politicians that want to send us off to war.’ And he kept rewinding it, over and over, to hear that one certain thing: ‘Down with politicians that want to send us off to war.’ To this day I don’t know if he was getting some kind of inspiration… Whatever was in that statement he made at his concert, it meant a lot to him, and he just kept rolling it back and back and back…
And finally I said, ‘Turn that off. Talk to me.’
And he just kind of smiled.
He said, ‘I loved your performance last night.’ And he went on to ask me how I wore my sheik scarves and my makeup and stuff like that.
I said, ‘Do you really wanna know?’ And I said, ‘Wash your face.’ Cause he had on makeup.
And I did his face.
I even took my scarves off and put them on him. I showed him how to angle the scarves, and I warned him, ‘It hurts after a while. Those scarves, you have to tie them tight when you’re very energetic on stage like I am.’
He said, ‘When the scarves are too tight, what do you do?’
I said, ‘I take an aspirin. And then I drink five kamikazes and four shots of Jack Daniel’s.’ And he started laughing.
He was very serious about the songs I wrote. We had so much in common, both being black with all white bands—well, his band was more mixed. We talked about Hendrix and we went through all the black rock ’n’ roll pioneers. We talked about gospel influence. And he really opened up to me. We had a really, really good time just talking about life on the road.
This was about 4:30 in the morning. I was sipping Jack. It hurts my soul to think of how he perished but… he was drinking Diet Coke and a lot of water. He ordered a sausage tray and stuff, and we just talked as human beings. He wasn’t a vegetarian yet. But he was very sparing.
And I told him, ‘I am very proud of you for breaking boundaries—for all people but especially for black people, proving that we can do rock ’n’ roll, that we’re the architects of rock ’n’ roll.’
For him to treat me like an equal, it was a very precious moment of my life. Then his next album he was wearing scarves, and makeup like I showed him how to do! He didn’t tie his as tight as I tie mine. I just thought, You go boy, you take this as far as you can.”
Christian Doyle worked at Border’s bookstore on Veterans in Metairie in 2004 when one day a special customer walked in:
“It wasn’t crowded, just the bookstore on a weeknight. I happened to be working the information desk, which faces right at the entrance. And the entrance opened and Prince walked in with a huge-ass bodyguard. He had kind of like one of those mandarin-style shirt jacket–type tops that’s all fancy, with gold and dragons and shit on it. And they just walked right up to my information desk.
I greeted him ‘Hi welcome to Borders how may I help?’ or something stupid like that. And he was very polite and soft spoken, and he asked where the biology books were. Which I thought was odd but… I offered to show them where it is, but he said he could find it himself.
They wondered off to find the book but I could kind of track Prince’s progress through the store by his bodyguard’s head, which was up above the magazine shelves.
And then a little while later, I was working the register and saw Prince coming down the stairs. He went straight out the front door and let the bodyguard pay for some CDs. I don’t remember which CDs, just that he ended up not buying a biology book at all, just some CDs. Unless he shoplifted the book…”
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews
Trombone Shorty is a world-famous New Orleans brass musician who played with Prince on several occasions:
“I’ve worked with Prince for the last four or five years. The first time he called me—I don’t think he had a phone, so someone else reached out to me—I went in the studio to play on a project he was producing for another artist named Andy Allo. It was just myself, Andy, Prince, an engineer and Maceo Parker in the studio. He showed me the chord changes to the song on piano and, I always heard he could play all the instruments, but getting that chance to see him do it live, that was incredible. If he took up the bass, he was the best bass player on the stage—if he picked up any instrument he was the best one on the stage. A lot of people can nibble at a lot of different instruments, but he could play the whole gig on whatever instrument he chose to play.
Two years later, he called me to play a private thing with him in L.A. And sometimes he would show up at our shows. He came to one of our shows a couple years ago in Central Park, just showed up on the side of the stage to watch for 30 or 40 minutes and then he was gone, just like that.
Then playing with him at a sold-out Superdome was incredible. It was incredible that, when he got the gig, his people reached out to me to make sure I would be in town. And I got to play with him for probably the biggest crowd I’ve played in front of, and inside the Superdome, being featured like that… I still have that shirt that I wore and, before I ran off the stage, I actually grabbed the set list that had all his hits, and beside ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’ it says ‘featuring Trombone Shorty.’ I framed it.
He didn’t treat me like a mentor, but I could tell he respected what I did, as I had been respecting his music as a fan I was a kid. He was just very excited to have different musicians come in, so that he could be inspired also. Like, whenever Maceo came and played, Prince was always making these faces of excitement. And for him to invite me to be part of those moments like that was an incredible historic moment for myself.
I remember people were scared to talk to him. But me being from New Orleans I talked to him regular. I sat down on the couch with him when we were rehearsing for Essence Festival. He was watching the band, sitting in the audience, and would call songs out, and I was just sittin’ next to him, and we talked. He told me had a big appreciation for New Orleans music. In talking to him I could tell he was a very intelligent musician and a very intelligent person. And some people be lookin’ like you’re actually talking to Prince?! But I never got the feeling that he didn’t want to talk. He was always inviting, especially if I had any questions.
One of my favorite moments was we were rehearsing for Essence at Mardi Gras World, and we played a song and he got his guitar, and he and I went back and forth—guitar then trombone, then guitar then trombone, then guitar—and at a certain point we just smiled at each other because it was that intense. He was pushing me, and I was trying to push him but he’s one of the greatest, so… Just to be able to have that guitar and trombone trade-off with Prince was a dream come true to me.”
Andrew “Goat” Gilchrist
Andrew “Goat” Gilchrist first met Prince when his ex-wife, singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco, recorded a song with The Artist at Paisley Park (more on that later). There, Goat also met James Brown’s former sax player, Maceo Parker, who has often worked with Prince, and who hired Goat as his personal soundman. Though they exchanged very few words, Prince was a looming presence throughout Goat’s dozen years on the road with Maceo:
There have been a half-dozen times when people were convinced he was going to show up at one of our shows, like somewhere in France, or wherever. Security guys would come first to the venue. Maybe someone brought an extra guitar amp. And then he never actually showed up.
But we were at Hard Rock Vegas once and someone said he might show up and play, so I set up another mic. Then I just forgot about it—until in the middle of the show, I’m in this little fenced-in sound booth in the front of the house, with like one other production person—a really small area. I’m doing my thing and I sense people come in behind me. I kind of look over my shoulder to see who it might be, and of course it’s one short little guy in a black trench coat with two striking, young women in heels on either side of him, plus a guy with an earpiece in his ear.
And I was like, Oh shit.
Of course I try to be cool and go back to my thing, but I’m painfully aware that this guy is kind of standing behind. I feel like I can feel his breath on my neck. And as Maceo goes into the next song I feel him tap me on the shoulder.
And he’s like, ‘You know, I kind of think that his vocal could be a little louder.’
And I was like, ‘Yeah! You’re right! It could be!’ And I bring up the vocal, and he kind of steps back. And that was the entirety of the interaction. And he left before the house lights could come on.
But my friend Morris [Hayes] who played keyboards with Prince for a long time, he was [playing with Maceo] and knew Prince was out there. And after the show he was like, ‘Oh, man, how did that go?’
And I said, ‘Oh, it was cool. Fine.’
He was like ‘What?’
‘Yeah, he just tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I could turn the vocal up.’
And he was like, ‘What?! Dude!’ And he proceeded to tell me all these stories about how Prince would show up and push the front of the house guy out of the way and be like, I’m here now and I am going to mix the show. So it was beautiful when Morris said, ‘Wow, he didn’t push you out of the way, it meant he actually approved of your mix and didn’t want to mess with you and was giving you the thumbs up.’”
Arden Radosevic worked in concert production for Bill Graham Presents and then Live Nation. Before quitting the music industry and moving to New Orleans, he helped Prince sneak unseen onto the stage:
“In 2002 I worked one of Prince’s concerts, and during the sound check, I was asked to clear the whole arena. Then when I came back, I stood and watched him teach his band a new arrangement of ‘Raspberry Beret’ that transitioned into some other song. He walked around and played every musician’s instrument, one by one, and showed them their part. And he was so kind to his people. I got to watch that whole thing for almost an hour.
Then on September 9, 2004—I remember because it was my 40th birthday—I am off work, and my boss gave me tickets to see my favorite artist, Prince. It was his ‘in the round’ tour, where the stage is in the middle of the stadium. But when I went to the production office to get the tickets, they said, ‘We do have one job for you…’
There was no way to get to the stage without going through the crowd. So Prince had to hide in a wardrobe box and be wheeled out. I was told, ‘You’re gonna see Prince before he goes in the box. You have to wheel him to the stage.’
So I was standing backstage with the box, and I saw him walking up, and I was shaking. He said ‘Arden, hello. Happy birthday, friend. And he shook my hand.’ Then he got in the box—he’s so tiny.
And as I closed the case he winked at me. Then I pushed him out to the center of the show.”
Singer, songwriter and transplanted New Orleanian—Ani DiFranco recorded two songs with Prince.
“In the late ’90s, Prince had been bringing me up in the media because it was the year he was trying to get off Warner Brothers, and writing ‘slave’ on his cheek just I am coming into the public eye with Righteous Babe, becoming Indy Girl USA. So he started saying shit like ‘I wanna be on Righteous Babe.’ And I was like ‘Wow, you just call me up babe!’ So we sort of conversed through the media first.
Then at the height of my infamy, I’m playing at a ballpark in Minneapolis. A white limo pulls up backstage. And everyone’s like ‘Ani! Ani! Come quick!’ And I go up to the tinted window, and it rolls down and there he is like, lounging on white shag. The most vivid purple creature I’ve ever seen: eyelashes for days, lookin’ up at me. I was done, from moment one.
Before we parted company he said, ‘You want to come and play on my new record tomorrow?’ Cause I had the day off. I was like ‘Sure, if you play on mine.’ Being totally unfiltered is often the best thing in this world, and in that occasion it served me well because he said, ‘Sure.’
The next day was Fourth of July, and we show up at Paisley Park, and his studio guy at the time says, ‘Hang on a minute we’re working.’ I remember there was a skylight, and the symbol was embossed really big on the floor. I can’t remember if there was a cage with doves…
Finally this lady calls us into the studio. Prince has just tracked guitar, piano and vocals on this killer ballad, all solo. And he’s like, ‘Yeah can you play on this song? It’s in G?’
I am shitting. There’s just shit running down my leg. First of all, I am not a trained guitarist, so I don’t know G from Q, from a hole in the wall. I just sort of make shit up.
And suddenly I am behind the glass—because Paisley Park is this old-school studio—and Prince is at the board. Now I was totally on the spot, and he relished that. I think that was one of his things: He loved to see what people would do when they were in a corner.
So I knew I had precious few moments to figure out what G was. And he presses play and the song rolls for like a few second before he stops it, and he goes, ‘Where were ya?’
And then he starts laughing. He’s just fuckin’ with me.
My recollection of the session was… it took about the length of the song. I played a little, hanging on for dear life. I was thinking, Just don’t cry, don’t run. Play a couple of notes on the guitar. He rewound the bridge once, and then we were done. Five minutes later I was like, ‘What the fuck just happened?’
Afterwards, since it was the Fourth of July, we went up on the roof and watched the Minneapolis fireworks. Then I saw him pick up the phone and call a couple of his boys in for a jam—they’re kinda on call—and suddenly I am on his sound stage with Larry Graham on bass, Maceo Parker with his horn. I was like, How did I get here?
I’d brought a tenor guitar, a four string, thinking maybe that’s what the jam session needed. He was rehearsing some of his shit that was going to be on the upcoming tour and he was trying to feel his way through it to see what he wanted to do. He was also just having fun and showing off, jumping from instrument to instrument and running up this riser and sitting at the drums. It was amazing how, everything that he picked up, keyboard, the guitar, the drums, he didn’t just play proficiently, he spoke through it.
It was really a great privilege for me to be there and jam. Prince gave me the nod, which makes you feel extra big.
He later sang on a tune of mine called ‘Providence.’ We recorded his remotely. I gave him no guidelines. I was at least smart enough to just say: ‘Go for it.’ But in retrospect I can’t believe how low he is in the mix! What the fuck was I thinking?! I shoulda cranked the shit outta what he did, ’cause it was terrific. I have always wanted to go back and re-record that song, keep what he did and bring my performance up to meet it. More lessons learned too late!
My main feeling even when I was in his home was that… He just brought out the maternal side in me; I just so wanted to hug him, because I always had this feeling like this man deserves unconditional love… There was something about him that was so vulnerable, so fragile. You could feel how tender his heart really was. It’s so sad, his passing is so sad, and so fucking random and wrong. The best thing I am getting out of it is this outpouring of love we’re all feeling, like holy shit; you can really feel how much people care for him.”