|Photo courtesy of facebook.com/rhonda.smith.378|
It's hard not to be a fangirl of bassist Rhonda Smith, who met Prince in the mid-1990s. Prince welcomed many talented women in his bands over the years, but he kept men on bass (Andre Cymone, Brown Mark, the great Sonny T.) until Smith came along.
She's talented and beautiful, and I uplift her as one of many important women of color who contributed to Prince's legacy--a fact that is often overlooked. She also has a pleasant voice.
I, on the other hand, was suppressing coughs during our interview last year. I was very sick, but you don't miss a call with Rhonda Smith. She was gracious enough to bear with me.
Smith began playing for Prince at a significant time. She was there just before he began his serious study of the Jehovah's Witness faith with Larry Graham, so she saw the changes in Prince.
"He would always spend time with everybody individually or want to have spiritual talks," she said. "It was a big part of who he was becoming at the time."
While most of the band and staff members would attend Kingdom Hall services with Prince, Smith opted out. "It wasn't really something that I was interested in getting involved with at the time," she said. "And he was fine with that."
In addition to playing on Prince's Emancipation album, Smith contributed to the acoustic record The Truth, one of my favorites. To me, "Don't Play Me" has one of the most meaningful lines regarding Prince's spirituality: "The only fame is the light that comes from God and the joy you get to say his name."
I asked Smith her thoughts on Prince's approach to fame in the midst of his religious conversion. We also talked about one of his signature spiritual phrases, "Welcome 2 the Dawn;" Rainbow Children (his Jehovah's Witness concept album); and why he may have still performed "Bambi" despite shelving other risque/controversial songs later in his career. I'm looking forward to sharing more in my book.
Overall, Smith noticed that Prince seemed more at peace after becoming a Jehovah's Witness. "The difference that I saw was the sureness that you see in an individual who feels more centered," she said. "The sureness that he was going in the right direction."
Smith didn't have much insight into Prince's spirituality before he passed; the last time she played with him was in 2009. However, if Prince had his way, she would've played with him after that.
"Prince asked me to go back at least twice, if not three times starting in 2010," she revealed. "But I was always committed to Jeff Beck, who I've been touring with for eight years now."
We can only wonder if Prince would have gone in a different musical direction if Smith had been available. One of my dream lineups would have been Prince, Smith, Kat Dyson on guitar and Sheila E. on drums.
Given Smith's tenure with Prince, it's no surprise his passing was devastating.
"There's a few things in my lifetime that I'll never forget where exactly I was standing, what I was doing," she said. "That's one of them. One of the other ones that I will never forget is when I woke up to 9/11. But this was even worse. This was the worst."
Smith was on the phone with Dyson, and they happened to be discussing Prince when they heard the news.
"What was the worst was all of these magazines and news people finding our personal phone numbers and calling us within minutes of getting the news," she said. "I certainly never did an interview because I didn't want to. I was just too emotional to do it."
Smith also said she received angry messages from fans accusing her of disrespecting Prince by remaining silent.
"Everybody's got a different way of dealing with this," she said. "It's major for fans, but imagine how major it is for people who actually knew him."
As fans, we cherish the memories of discovering Prince, buying his music and seeing him live in concert. Smith will cherish memories of collaborating and conversing with her friend.
"He was a funny man and a very nice cat," she said. "This was a man who read constantly, all kinds of books. ... [People] really don’t understand how intelligent he was."