Friday, March 22, 2019

"Where'd You Get Those Glasses?" - Interview with Wally Safford

...With a little help from Jerome Benton

Photo courtesy of Wally Safford, pictured with Prince. 

"'17 Days' was about me."

"And 'Gett Off' was about me."

"'Pussy Control' was about me."

Those were some of the revelations that occurred during my interview with Prince's dancer, bodyguard and friend, Wally Safford, who called me with Jerome Benton on the line. Safford and Benton, former member of The Time and The Family, ran down a list of songs that Prince wrote about them.

They, of course, were joking.

"We are comedians," Safford said. "This is what Prince thrived on. He was a practical joker."

Well, there was one song that referenced Safford. The story of "Wally" has become legendary among the fan community. According to engineer Susan Rogers, Prince recorded the song in 1986 and had it erased. He recorded a new version, which recently surfaced on YouTube.

"That was a conversation between me and Prince," Safford said of the content of the song.

In most other cases, when it comes to subjects of Prince's songs, only the late superstar knows for sure.

"Everybody can come up with some creative connection to any one of Prince's songs," said Benton, whom I have also interviewed separately. "How many women have claimed to be 'Little Red Corvette?'"

"That was about me," Safford said, laughing.

Since Prince passed away, there has been an increasing amount of scholarship and other coverage of his life and career, as well as a re-examining of old narratives. Many people, myself included, are advocating for more diverse voices in this work. And as I spoke with Benton and Safford, I became excited by the value that they can add to the discussion, if they choose to do so.

"You let everybody else tell their story [and they say], 'All Wally is, is a bodyguard,'" Benton said. "There's more to him."

Much like bodyguard Harlan Austin, Safford became one of Prince's close friends. Having previously provided security for musical acts such as Earth, Wind & Fire, Safford met Prince in 1979 and worked with him through 1987.

Safford noted that there was a tight-knit group of people, including dancer and security guard Greg Brooks, who hung with Prince. "We were considered the Purple Gang," he said.

Both Benton and Safford were around to witness Prince and his father, John L. Nelson (Safford called him "Pops"), create on the piano, and join in musical discussions.

"With Pops, we talked about music a lot," Safford said. "Mainly jazz. His favorite artist was Charlie Parker. I would go to Tower Records to get him some cassettes and ... we would sit and listen."

There's so little knowledge about the extent of John L. Nelson's impact on Prince's music. It's great to know that there are people around who could help fill in those gaps.

Photo courtesy of Wally Safford, pictured with photographer Steve Parke at 2018 Celebration at Paisley Park

But my study is on Prince's spirituality. Safford said Prince was "always spiritual," and both he and Benton kindly shared their perspectives on his journey (there will be more in my book, of course).

While Prince has written so many straightforwardly religious songs ("God," "The Cross," "Anna Stesia," etc.), others also made a profound impact. Safford pointed to Prince's spiritual connection to "Purple Rain." In fact, both he and Prince's former press agent Robyn Riggs had similar observations about that.

"He would come off the stage and he would be in an emotional state," Safford said. "Prince was special. He was sent here by God for a special reason."

"His journey was pretty amazing," Benton added. "He started out onstage with the Rolling Stones, and wasn't accepted by that culture of people. ... At the end, he was onstage with the [purported] greatest guitar players of all time, which were all white [at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction], and they had to sit back and watch him destroy."

Safford left Prince's employ when Prince made personnel changes to his band.

"I wasn't angry or bitter with Prince because, as a kid off of Rosa Parks Boulevard, right down the street where the 1967 Detroit riots started, I was winning," Safford said. "I went around the world six times with this guy. ... The pleasure was all mine."

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