During the PRN Alumni Foundation’s recent “Funk N Roll” weekend in Minneapolis, there were more than enough memorable moments, but moderator KaNisa Williams’ all-female panel, dubbed “Her-Story,” provided one of the most poignant.
On stage at the Capri Theater for the “Stories from the Park” alumni shares event was Gayle Chapman, Prince’s first female band member, who nearly 40 years earlier had played keyboards on that very stage during Prince’s solo debut on a cold night in January 1979. Later, Chapman told me that “It was the first concert my mother attended and the first concert where he allowed one of us to play something we had written, and I was that person.”
Chapman played her piece on the keyboard, and it served as a prelude to another song. She confirmed that Dez Dickerson’s new wireless guitar equipment picked up trucker radio frequencies and that Prince had to stop the show to fix that problem.
“Prince learned a lot that day and stuff like that never happened again,” she told me.
Chapman was joined on the panel by Graffiti Bridge star and musician Ingrid Chavez, public relations consultant Karen Lee, bassist Rhonda Smith, and manager Ruth Arzate. Collectively, their experience spanned Prince’s career from 1978 to 2010.
Williams, host of the podcast “Muse 2 the Pharoah,” kicked off the discussion by asking each member when they first heard of Prince. Chapman related blasting For You in her Minneapolis apartment in 1978, when she was an aspiring young musician. She recalled hearing a voice say, “In order for Prince to tour, he’s going to need a band.”
Chapman pursued that message, only to find out that all along, one of the guys she’d been casually playing with was Prince’s cousin, Charles Smith. Smith got her hooked up with an audition, and Chapman showed up at Prince’s rented home at 5125 France Avenue in Edina in a mumu dress and Birkenstocks. Noticing the line-up of provocatively dressed females waiting to audition, she figured she didn’t stand a chance. Although she didn’t like jamming, she gamely jammed with Bobby Z., Andre Anderson and Prince, and then launched into a song of her own creation, forcing the guys to follow her.
Three months went by with no news, and then the phone rang. It was Prince. He invited her to attend rehearsal — in an hour. Chapman said that first rehearsal took place at a tire store located in Seven Corners (a location that would go on to become the inspiration for the setting of Graffiti Bridge), which was owned by Bonnie Raitt’s brother, Steve Raitt. Once Chapman mentioned the “Raitt” name, it struck me: Chapman herself reminded me ever so slightly of Bonnie Raitt, both in her voice, her mannerisms and of course, that long flowing red hair. About her decision to depart in 1980, Chapman choked back tears as she said, “I didn’t realize when I left how much I was leaving behind.”
Later, an audience member asked the panelists to name their favorite Prince song. Chapman said hers was “If I Love U 2Nite,” which Prince wrote and wanted her to sing. If you have any question about Chapman’s talent, this video clip will erase that.
Karen Lee was Prince’s public relations consultant during the time that he changed his name to the Love Symbol. As a former public relations person myself, I was salivating at the prospect of hearing her side of the story. Whatever you might think of Prince’s decision to change his name, there is no denying that it was a debacle in public relations terms, much as the launch of Chevy’s “Nova” car in Latin America was in product launch terms. The ramifications for his career were devastating.
Lee described receiving a phone call from Prince on June 6, 1993, the day before he intended to send out a press release announcing the name change. She made it clear that Prince wasn’t asking for counsel and he sure as hell wouldn’t have taken it had it been offered. He was changing his name to a symbol, and that was that.
“Well, let me get a pen and paper,” Lee told him as she mentally canceled her plans for the evening.
“Do you remember the symbol on my last album?” Prince began.
Lee was prescient enough to tell Prince that journalists wouldn’t know how to refer to him if his name was a symbol that didn’t appear on a keyboard.
“What if they took middle C off the piano keyboard?” she asked him. Left to their own devices, journalists would make up something, she told Prince.
Prince dismissed her warnings, declaring that he would change every keyboard in America (and I guess, by extension, the world). In the end, Lee was proven correct. The LA Times was the first to give him a nickname, and other journalists followed suit. Prince’s public image fell off a cliff as he became the brunt of countless jokes and nicknames, with “Symbolina” from long-time Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist C.J. being only one of many.
Sidenote: Here’s the piece from Shauna Snow of the LA Times on June 9, 1993, two days after Prince’s announcement of the name change:
“His Royal Symbol: Prince celebrated his 35th birthday on Monday by announcing that he’s changed his name to (symbol). The unpronounceable symbol, a combination of male and female indicators, also served as the title of the Minneapolis pop star’s most recent album. The name change, along with word that he is splitting from his band, the New Power Generation, comes on the heels of his declaration that he was “retiring” from the recording studio, though vaults full of unreleased songs are expected to provide material for future albums.”
Bassist Rhonda Smith is so cool and funky that it felt like she beamed down to the Capri Theater from some other plane of existence. Smith reinforced the by-now-loud-and-clear message that the one thing you did not tell Prince was, “No.”
“You would grin and bear it and find a way to get it done,” she said, and her voice trailed off as she recalled, “the one time I tried to have a personal life and go out to dinner …” In those pre-cell phone days, she missed playing an impromptu party at Paisley Park. The next day, she was issued a pager.
Smith laid out the rigors of working at Paisley Park: There was no eating lunch. There was certainly no sleeping. Smith would finish a full day of rehearsing and then would launch into choreography rehearsals.
For those of us with office jobs, Smith translated it this way: “It was like you finished a heavy report at 4:55 p.m. and breathed a huge sigh of relief, and then your boss walks by and puts another huge stack of paper on your desk and says, `I want that by tomorrow.'”
As earthy and funky as Smith was, Ingrid Chavez was ethereal, gentle and sensitive — and admittedly, a little hard to grasp. Williams had a challenging time getting concrete answers from Chavez, who was the only woman on the panel who’d had a romantic relationship with Prince, so there was also that unspoken layer of complication.
Chavez said she spent what sounded like a surreal-sounding winter with Prince, holed up in Paisley Park and sending poetry back and forth to each other in written notes. Prince’s side of the poetry exchange would become Lovesexy.
“Lovesexy is our conversations,” she said.
(Chavez’s new album is beautiful, by the way. You can buy it here: https://ingridchavez.bandcamp.com/merch).
When asked when she first became aware of Prince, Ruth Arzate, Prince’s right-hand woman from 2003-2010, deadpanned, “He was on our prayer list at church.”
Arzate had cut her teeth working for Allison Shearmur, the late Hollywood producer, and she credited her time with tough-minded Shearmur as the preparation she needed to become Prince’s assistant, a gig that was meant to be temporary but which lasted seven years. When Arzate joined the Prince camp, he was down to a skeleton crew. Arzate was required to morph into a manager, publicist, stylist, event planner, business manager, creative consultant, and gatekeeper. Arzate came off as an open-hearted person who had gone through some hard times because of Prince. She is certainly not the first to allude to the fact that he could be a “son of a gun.”
What Arzate was asked to manage on a daily basis was flabbergasting. She said that Prince would end his day at 7 a.m., and the emails and calls would start coming in at 9 a.m., which left Arzate with two hours of personal time a day. When Prince would get up at noon, he would come by and ask what was happening, and Arzate had better know. And even though she might have an agenda for the day, Prince reveled in throwing a wrench into things.
“We’re flying to London today,” he would say, out of the blue, and Arzate was expected to make it happen.
“You can’t say `no,'” she recalled, adding, “He would steamroll you if you weren’t a grounded person.”
Prince was not a perfect person, something that was made clear by these straight-talking female panelists. But despite the challenges, Lee put it best: “You had to respect the God-given talent.”
“I saw his heart once,” Lee offered near the end of the discussion.
She then told a story of being on tour in Sweden, and Prince was getting ready to do his sound check. Lee was walking out the back of the venue when she came upon two young women, each carrying a couple dozen little pink tea roses. Attached to each tea rose was a tiny little piece of paper with a message on it from the members of his Swedish fan club.
“Security was shooing them off, but I said, `Wait a minute, what is this you have?’” Lee recalled. “The girls showed me and I was blown away. I told them, `Stay right here,’ and I went back in and took the flowers. I showed them to Prince and told him that the girls were outside.”
He said, “Bring them in.”
“Prince put two chairs in front of the stage and he did his whole sound check for those two girls,” Lee recalled. “I thought of them on the day he passed.”