Friday, February 28, 2020

"Just Like My Father" - Dad's Thoughts on Prince

I am indebted to my parents for instilling in me a love of black music. I grew up appreciating artists like Prince because of them. They were both born the same year as Prince and grew up with him in a way. It's fun to imagine them experiencing his music in real time.

Prince was beloved by black people in the '70s, and my parents also gravitated toward his music. They appreciated his entire career, but fell away from him at times. They understood that he didn't want to be pigeonholed as a black artist, but still felt something was missing for them during his crossover to the mainstream in the mid-80s.

Besides the early stuff, my Dad loves songs like "Pop Life" and "If I Was Your Girlfriend." While most Prince fans hate Graffiti Bridge, my whole family embraced that movie. I think it's because a lot of it is rooted in blackness, featuring black royalty like Mavis Staples and George Clinton. While the script is lacking, many of the musical performances are incredible.

My dad never saw Prince live, but reconnected with his music before he died. I think I made sure he checked out 3121 (he likes "Te Amo Corazón") and Lotusflow3r (he's a fan of "Colonized Mind"). Lately I've been a bad daughter; I need to buy him all of the posthumous releases, especially the Originals album. He was asking me for more information about Prince's relationship with The Time and Alexander O'Neal, so I need to get him Morris Day's book, too!

So often we are busy just enjoying the music and not taking time to reflect on what it meant to us. To that end, it was wonderful to ask Dad some questions about Prince. Check out his answers below!

What was your first impression of Prince?

I remember both For You (1978) and Prince (1979). ... Usually you see (on the album) where different people write the songs. Well, he wrote everything and did all the instruments. All that was just amazing to me. I really liked that Prince album. I remember "When We're Dancing Close and Slow." I love that song! And of course I like "Sexy Dancer" and "Still Waiting."

You've said you love Dirty Mind (1980), but didn't you think his clothing was too racy at the time?

I did when I saw the album cover, but when I started listening to the music, it didn't bother me (anymore).

Did you like the song, "Head?"

Yeah! I wasn't going to (admit) that to you. ... You really don't pay attention to (his) lyrics because you go to the club and it's got a nice beat and everybody's up jammin' and dancing. But then once you get home and you start really listening to it, you're like, "Oh, that's what he's really talking about."

What do you remember about Controversy (1981)? 

I still remember your mother getting so mad--she won't even remember; she was so mad (about the title track) because it had "The Lord's Prayer" in it. I really didn't pay much attention to it until she said it.

My dad's copy of Controversy on 8-track

Did you like 1999 (1982)? 

Yeah, but not as much as his early stuff. Other audiences started liking him. I remember going to work and other people were saying, "Have you heard that Prince song, 'Little Red Corvette?' That's really nice!" And I'm like, "These people aren't even [really] listening to him." His music kinda changed a little bit, too. I liked his earlier music--it's kinda hard to explain--when it was more "him." ... I still liked him. I still liked his music but his early stuff is what I really love.

What about Purple Rain (1984)? 

I liked the movie more (than the album). ...  People at work were dressing up like him and going (to his concert). I don't know (why I didn't go), probably because I was working. I was working third shift then.

Did you like the movie, Under the Cherry Moon (1986)? 

I hated that movie. I was confused watching the whole thing. It made no sense to me. I still to this day don't understand it. I don't understand it.

You loved Graffiti Bridge (1990), but what did you think of him in the '90s, especially when he changed his name?

That's when he was with the New Power Generation, right? I have a few CDs from the '90s but I didn't keep up with it as much. I don't think it was "him."

I mean, this happened to Elvis, quite a few people. It probably even happened to Michael (Jackson), too. As they got older and as times changed, they fell out of the limelight a little bit. So I thought he was just trying to (get attention) because everybody was talking about how he changed his name, and that put him back out there.

Why did you start paying attention again in the 2000s?

It seemed like he got back to where he was more creative, like he was in the beginning.

Do you mean he seemed more in touch with black culture or his roots?

That's part of it but I don't want to say that's all of it. I just think he was back to where he was being more creative. It seemed like he went into a little lull there where he was just making music (to be making music).

What did you think of his performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on the day he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

I remember he (soloed) right in front of Tom Petty. I think he was messing with him, too!

Do you think he's underrated as a guitar player?

I hate to say it, but most black artists fall into that. Just because they're black (people think) the only thing they can do is R&B or hip-hop. And he's not the only one. You like Parliament-Funkadelic; if you go to any of their concerts or listen to their music, they can play anything. That's another reason why I like (Prince) so much because he can play anything. ... It was just natural.

How did you respond to his death?

That really hurt me. At first I didn't think it was true. He was always performing and I never really heard about him being ill so it was kind of a shock to me. It took me a while to really believe it until I started hearing it from you and some other people. That really hurt me. I think he had so much more to do and to pass on. I keep hearing about all these albums and stuff he had in the vault, so I'd love to hear some of that.

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Friday, February 21, 2020

"Save Me, Jesus" - Graham Central Station's Spiritual Messages

On April 17, the world will be reintroduced to Prince's 2001 album, The Rainbow Children. The release is just one of the Prince Estate's new reissues from the early aughts.

Many Prince fans know The Rainbow Children as the artist's "Jehovah's Witness album." He recorded it in the midst of his conversion to the faith. (He was officially baptized in 2003.) His spiritual mentor at the time was legendary bassist Larry Graham, who played with Sly and the Family Stone before forming his own funk band, Graham Central Station (GCS). Graham also contributed some bass work to The Rainbow Children.

But what were Graham's "Jehovah's Witness albums?" During our interview, he named two Graham Central Station records: Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt It (1975) and Mirror (1976). He was baptized in 1975.

Given that Graham Central Station was one of Prince's favorite bands, Prince likely owned both on vinyl. And throughout his career, he performed "The Jam" (from Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt It) regularly.

It's not known how Prince felt about the spiritual messages on the GCS albums as a teenager, but he'd eventually preach some of the same ideas as an adult.

Read more about GCS's references to scripture--from the Jehovah's Witnesses' New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures--below.

Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt It

"For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised up incorruptible, and we will be changed." - 1 Corinthians 15:52

That verse describes the "Last Judgment" by Jesus Christ during the end of the world. Both the living and newly resurrected dead will be judged, and the righteous will live forever in paradise. The concept is depicted on the cover of Graham Central Station's Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt It. Jesus, angels and what appears to be a demon are in the sky, while the members of GCS are on Earth, which is in the midst of turmoil.

Larry Graham, however, is smiling. The Jehovah's Witness faith paints "Judgment Day" in a positive light, describing it as "a time of hope and restoration."

Below you can see the similarities between the image and the 1435 painting of the "Last Judgment" by Stefan Lochner.

By © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, CC BY-SA 4.0

On the back cover, the band members are shown in all white clothing, peering out a window at an orange sky. Perhaps they are angels looking down at the destruction on Earth. One musician is sounding a trumpet. The 1 Corinthians Bible verse is also included on the cover.

Prince similarly referenced the end of the world and the return of Christ in songs like "1999," "Let's Go Crazy," "Darling Nikki," "7" and "Get on the Boat."

In the liner notes, Graham thanks Jehovah, as Prince would later do on his albums. Graham also lists himself as a writer, producer and arranger--a practice Prince would also employ. It must be noted that the GCS album came out on Warner Bros. just three years before Prince made his debut on the record label.

Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt It even includes a song, "It Ain't Nothing But a Warner Bros. Party," which shouts out fellow artists--including the Doobie Brothers and Tower of Power--and label executives like President Mo Ostin, who had a long working relationship with Prince. The song is reminiscent in spirit of Prince's "We Can Work It Out," which he wrote as a tribute to Warner Bros. after signing with the label himself. On the song, Prince coincidentally--or intentionally--sings, "Ain't no doubt about it, we can work it out." And at the end, he lowers his voice, Graham-style, to say, "Making music naturally, me and WB."

Neither Graham nor Prince shied away from mentioning both Jesus and Satan in their music, though Graham was more direct.

"Satan's out to get you/Jesus died to save you," Graham sings on "Water." Jesus is also referenced on "Luckiest People."

While Prince mentioned "the Devil" and Jesus on songs like "Eye No" and "Anna Stesia," he would often talk about these Biblical figures in code (e.g. "De-elevator" on "Let's Go Crazy" or the protagonist of "I Would Die 4 U").

"[Larry's] taught me so much about respecting one another, musicians listening to one another, and just the sound of his bass  -- it's undeniable." - Prince, 1999


"God is love." - 1 John 4:8

That scripture is one of the cornerstones of Prince's musical output (see "Anna Stesia"). It also showed up in the liner notes of GCS's 1976 album, Mirror. Graham wrote a dedication to his father, Larry Graham, Sr., who died that same year. Praying that his father "is a part of the resurrection," he also references Revelation 21:4: "And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore."

Prince arguably alludes to the same scripture in both "Elephants and Flowers" and "7."

Mirror album, 1976

Graham Sr. is also pictured in the liner notes. He was a jazz musician, just like Prince's father, John L. Nelson. Both Prince and Larry Graham's mothers were also musicians.

Larry Graham Sr. on guitar and John L. Nelson at the piano

Larry Graham also thanks his wife, Tina, citing Genesis 2:23: "Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh."

Prince would reference the same scripture in his song, "And God Created Woman."

The cover art for Mirror is a single sheet of reflective foil, seemingly encouraging the listener to examine his or her soul. The album is even more spiritual than Ain't No 'Bout-A-Doubt It. The second track, "Love (Covers a Multitude of Sin)," is taken directly from 1 Peter 4:8: "Above all things, have intense love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins."

Prince would later employ "Love 4 One Another" as a mantra, website and charity.

"I've worked with other musicians that were great, but they didn't allow me to really have the freedom that I needed to be able to give them all that I could give them. With baby brother [Prince], he allows me the freedom to give all that I can give, and as a result, what we're doing now, when you hear it, you can see that it's coming from the heart, which is why we're touching hearts." - Larry Graham, 1999

GCS included more spiritual messages on "Mirror," "Forever" (dedicated to Graham Sr.) and "Save Me," which is a funk and gospel masterpiece, with incredible vocal, horn and string arrangements, as well as extraordinary bass-thumping by Graham. The musical shift at 2:35, featuring a synthesizer solo, is an amazing moment of understated funk. The song is, undoubtedly, the religious center of the album.

"You should open [the Bible] up to Matthew 24," the band members sing. "And take a look for yourself just what you're living for."

That chapter in the book of Matthew describes the end of the world. Verse 21 states, "For then there will be great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again." Prince would later sing about avoiding "the tribulation" on his song, "Get on the Boat."


Religion aside, these two GCS albums are dope musically, especially Mirror. The funk and musicianship are undeniable. And even Prince's most religious projects, like The Rainbow Children, are still strong musically.

Though Prince and Larry Graham referenced the same Biblical ideas, Prince was often more covert. Unlike his mentor, he rarely called out explicit chapters and verses in his lyrics. Most of the time, you had to dig to find the references. Other times, Prince would take Biblical text and alter individual words, phrases or points of view to fit his narrative. Because he grew up in the church, he'd internalized scripture. One wonders if he was channeling when he was writing, or if he sometimes sat down with the Bible and a pen and paper.

I wish I could ask him.

Finally, thanks to Larry for the music and for inspiring Prince and numerous other musicians. We have to give these icons their flowers now.

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Friday, February 14, 2020

"Pink Cashmere" - Song of the Month

Each month I will share some brief, personal thoughts on one of my favorite Prince songs.

"Music is healing," Prince said in his memoir, The Beautiful Ones. Who wouldn't agree? I even think Prince's guitar solos are healing, and the one on "Pink Cashmere" always makes me feel better. I used to make playlists for my mother, and I put this song on one of them because, although she was a Prince fan, it was new to her. She told me, "I can tell it's a Prince song by the guitar solo." Besides the healing properties, I think this is one of his best ballads, from the orchestration to the lyrics to the vocal arrangements and ad libs. This is the kind of slow jam I prefer (sorry to "Do Me, Baby"). The best thing about discovering Prince is that, once you get past all the major hits, which are amazing enough, you find the lesser-known gems, and you can't believe this guy is even better than you thought! At least that's what happened to me. I was floored when I first heard this track, and played it repeatedly. It brings back memories of my first year or so of college, when I was still exploring his discography.

Which Prince guitar solos are healing to you?

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Friday, February 7, 2020

“Dr. Everything’ll Be All Right” – Blog Checkup

In the past, I used to do more “process”-oriented blog posts about my book. For example, I’d talk about requesting interviews, organizing my research or securing publishers. I thought I’d try to get back to doing some of that, but I really hope to be done with the book soon.

Personally, I’m struggling with some obstacles in my everyday life. It’s difficult to write when you are in a low place emotionally and/or overwhelmed with life decisions. There are moments when I think about quitting. I know other writers can relate. Sometimes you just want to run away.

With that said, I think it’s important to ask yourself a few questions: 1) Why are you doing what you’re doing? 2) Is it worthwhile? 3) Are you working smart and not too hard?

Here goes…

1) Why am I blogging?

Since 2010, my goal has been to build an audience that would eventually buy my book. Ten years later, that is still the goal, but it has expanded. I think this blog has helped position me as a Prince scholar, especially regarding religious studies/spirituality. Additionally, I’ve been able to provide news and expand aspects of Prince’s history/legacy at times, especially given some interviews I’ve been able to get that aren’t related to my book.

2) Is it worthwhile?

Yes. This blog allows me to keep track of my audience. I’m happy with my views, but I can be much better about analyzing my stats. Back in 2010, Blogger was still poppin’, but now I realize the site’s analytics are lacking. I’m setting a goal to install Google Analytics so I can see how I’m doing in greater detail year over year.

The best thing that I’ve done so far is start a newsletter via Mailchimp for my blog. Each month, I send out an email with my recent blog posts and bonus content. In 2019, I set a goal to acquire 500 subscribers, and by the end of the year I had 566! Running giveaways through ShortStack has been helpful, albeit expensive. This year, I hope to increase my subscribers to 1,000 (you can help me out by subscribing here). Toward that end, I set another goal to run Facebook ads.

3) Am I working smart and not too hard?

One thing I admire about my earlier approach to blogging is that I worked more on my book than my blog. Last year, that was not the case. Though my blog posts have gotten better (and prettier), I spend too much time on them. That is a personality flaw; I can’t do anything halfway. I will spend hours or days on a blog until it is perfect.

My goal is to work smarter so that I’m creating strong content in less time. I think I can achieve that by designating just one day (maybe Thursday evening) to blogging. I’ll have to work up to limiting my hours on that day. I also think I can make my blog posts shorter and have some recurring posts. For example, I used to do a photo-based series that helped cut down my workload.

Beginning next week, I’m going to start a “Song of the Month” series that will be a short, personal post about one of my favorite Prince songs.

4) Bonus: What other types of content can my audience expect?

I’m still sitting on new interviews with Mike Scott, Rashida Robinson, Jesse Hayes and Dave Hampton. I would like to get around to transcribing, following up with those folks and creating snapshots of those discussions. I also have a list of new people I’d like to interview this year.

I’m thinking about doing a series about my family and Prince. Maybe I can pull that off beginning Feb. 28. Also, I’d like to hire more guest writers to contribute to the blog.

Additionally, I’m going to a couple Prince conferences this year, so I will cover those events like I have in the past.

Is there anything else you’d like to see on the blog?