Throwing a little mirth in the businesslike atmosphere seems to unlock something in everyone, and the parts that Prince has so carefully orchestrated start to pop and fire. “Which way is up?” the backing singers chant. “I got a new lease on life.”
Now Prince is dancing with a huge, dimpled grin beneath his tight Afro.
“When the horns get on top of this,” he exults, “Lord have mercy!”
As if on cue, 11 horn players drift into the room and take their place on the riser, the brass adding even more heft and swing to the stew of instruments. Pleased, Prince gives the entire 20-member ensemble a two-hour dinner break before everyone reconvenes later in the night.
He walks out into a hallway and into one of the offices in his cavernous, 70,000-square-foot property in the rolling hills southwest of Minneapolis.
“Remember the scene in (the movie) ‘Amadeus,’ where he’s dying, and he’s hearing the music in his head?” Prince asks. “It becomes impossible to explain. He doesn’t have the vocabulary. Now, I’m short — literally and also when I speak — and it’s easy to get all, ‘Can’t you hear this? Can’t you hear what I’m hearing?’ And so I use humor when I feel my blood pressure going up.”
He also leans on his Bible lessons. A devout Jehovah’s Witness for two decades, Prince says his Bible teacher was none other than soul-music great Larry Graham, the bassist in Sly and the Family Stone.
“He told me, ‘Keep studying. There are things they don’t explain at Bible school, so it’s up to you to keep learning.'”
So too for music.
“I nearly had a nervous breakdown on ‘The Purple Rain’ tour (in 1984) because it was the same every night,” he says. “It’s work to play the same songs the same way for 70 shows. To me, it’s not work to learn lots of different songs so that the experience is fresh to us each night.”
Prince had made albums entirely on his own, playing all the instruments, singing all the vocals, writing and arranging all the songs. But now he savors the relationship he has with musicians such as Blackwell and keyboardist Cassandra O’Neal.
“My favorite instrument?” he says. “It’s the band.”
Though his musicians are highly skilled, he says technical ability is not the primary attribute he looks for when auditioning potential band members.
“They need heart, the willingness to try something different,” he says. “When something’s funky, everyone gravitates toward it. I love to see the joy when they can feel it happening.”