Encounters with Prince: Friends, fans and colleagues

Prince at SXSW
Prince performs as Samsung Galaxy presents Prince and A Tribe Called Quest at SXSW 2013 in Austin, Texas.
John Sciulli | Getty Images for Samsung

His Minnesota Sound defined the beats of '80s R&B and pop. He lifted up emerging musicians — Sheila E., Appollonia Kotero, 3rdEyeGirl — and collaborated with legends like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Elton John called him "the greatest performer I have ever seen. Pure genius."

Prince. He was everywhere: Pop icon, style maven, virtuoso, writer, character, and, later in his career, mentor and guide to talented artists just starting their careers.

But for his omnipresence, he was also an enigma — a performer who fiercely guarded his privacy and carefully crafted persona for decades.

And in Minnesota, he was one of our own.

Local Prince stories abound: From his basketball days at Bryant Junior High to his move back to Minnesota after years away, stories of Prince encounters at the drugstore, at venues around town and at the last-minute concerts he's hosted at his Paisley Park studios are everywhere.

And from the first minutes after Prince's death was announced Thursday, the stories poured in.

"He lived and breathed and thought music at such a powerful level"

Scott LeGere, the chair of the Music Business Department at McNally Smith College of Music, worked for Prince at Paisley Park in the early 2000s, managing recordings sessions.

He told this story:

"There was one particular moment that I've usually not talked about, where musicians from the New Power Generation that I had known well outside of Paisley Park, in another environment, were warming up and rehearsing for a recording session that night.

I was just line-checking some instruments. But they goaded me into playing along with them, and as a semi-accomplished piano player, I played a few riffs, and then went to adjust a microphone.

When I came back, Prince was standing right there.

And he sat down and he picked up on that same riff I was playing, and without malice played it a hundred times better than I'll ever play in my life.

And that effort wasn't judgmental, but it was inspiring and it was a challenge. 'Oh, you play? Then play. Here's where you can take it.'

I think that's sort of a motto he lived with. He lived and breathed and thought music at such a powerful level that it was humbling, but also inspiring, to be around him."

Sheila E. and Prince perform onstage in 2007.
Sheila E. and Prince perform onstage during the 2007 NCLR ALMA Awards on June 1, 2007, in Pasadena, Calif.
Vince Bucci | Getty Images

When Prince played prom

All day on MPR News Thursday, listeners, fans and former colleagues and collaborators called in to share stories of their encounters with Prince.

But a woman named Victoria told a story like none other: "I can't remember where we held it, but for our St. Paul Central [High School] '76, they were the band: Grand Central Station."

Victoria was on the school's 1976 prom committee. They were looking for a band.

"We hired Prince when he was Prince and Grand Central Station," she said.

"Prince on guitar, Linda Anderson on keyboards, Andre Cymone Anderson ... on bass ... and they played our prom."

Prince, of course, had a record deal before he graduated high school. Soon after the St. Paul Central prom gig, he released an explicit song called "Soft and Wet." Victoria said she and her friends were awed by it.

"He had those two sexually explicit songs, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, he's saying those things in the record!' And it was wild," she said. "And the clubs around town were all playing those songs, and we were like, 'That's our home boy.'"

A virtuoso and a workhorse

Jimmy Jam is best known for his work producing songs with R&B hitmakers Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Usher, George Michael, Chaka Khan and others.

But before all that, he was a member of the band the Time, which opened for Prince in the early days of the Minneapolis Sound. He remembered Prince as a virtuoso and a workhorse.

"Everything he picked up, he was good at. He was amazing at it.

"He would take the bass from the bass player, teach them how to play the part, hand the bass player back the bass and it would be like as if the the bass player would feel like all of the sudden they never knew to play the bass," Jam said.

"I think his legacy will be across the board: Certainly as a trend-setter, certainly as someone who really pushed boundaries, broke boundaries, did all those things.

"For me, personally, the biggest thing that rubbed off me was his work ethic. He was always the most talented person in the room but he was also the hardest working person in the room. That combination, it's very rare."

Mint Condition: "Can I play a song?"

Over the years, the R&B band Mint Condition opened several times for Prince all over the world. Keyboardist Lawrence Waddell said Prince was beautifully quirky — and spontaneous.

"He comes up to us and he says, 'Can I play on a song?' We're like, 'OK — what?' Of course," Waddell recalled. "No rehearsal or anything, he just comes up on stage and says, 'Tell me when you want to start playing.' And he just kills it."

No matter what instrument Prince would grab — guitar, bass, drums or piano — Prince's energy spilled out, Waddell said.

"I've never met a musician so committed and eager and who loved music," he said.

"We'd do the shows with him and he'd play two or three hours and then immediately after, he'd say 'Let's go play somewhere,' and then he'd play the rest of the night," Waddell said. "He would play all night and with full enthusiasm. The energy is on 100 all the time. ... He's just someone who the music was in him."

The Ultimate Prince Encounter: On the radio

For fan Sophie Uloth, 28, who joined the crowd Thursday outside Paisley Park, the ultimate Prince encounter came when she listened to the radio as a young girl as the new millennium approached.

"As weird as it sounds, probably listening to Prince all night in 1999," she said. "Not even just listening to that particular song, but listening to all Prince songs that night. They just always played his music that night."

Prince at 2007 NCLR ALMA Awards
Prince performs onstage during the 2007 NCLR ALMA Awards in California.
Vince Bucci | Getty Images

Saturday's Paisley Park show: "I've never felt that connected with him."

Mike Rendahl, another fan outside Paisley Park Thursday, considered himself lucky to have seen Prince's performance there last Saturday night.

"It's obvious that Saturday night was his goodbye. It all fits," he said. "It all fits now, it all makes sense, the piano and the microphone. It felt godly, the way he played. I almost felt like I was on the doorstep of heaven."

"I told people, I've never felt that connected with him," Rendahl said Thursday. "It was almost like he was letting his intimate group know, 'Hey, here's what's going on.' He came out and spoke to us. I don't think he would have ever done that with other fans anywhere else. Because, you know, we have a close-knit group of people here."

"The coolest things were where he would come out and play and there would maybe only be 200 of us there. It was the best. People would say, 'I don't think he's going to play tonight, they're only charging 10 bucks.' I'm going, because they're only charging 10 bucks."

Across the room

Lowell Pickett is a co-owner of Minneapolis' Dakota Jazz Club. He last saw Prince Tuesday night, during R&B/jazz musician Lizz Wright's concert at the club. They didn't get to chat.

"The last time I talked to him was a couple of months ago," Pickett said. "I just told him how devastatingly beautiful his cover of a Joni Mitchell song that's on a tribute album to Joni Mitchell and he sings 'A Case of You' on it, and it's just amazingly beautiful.

"When somebody has the level of recognition and level of musical excellence that Prince has and they're in Minneapolis, then people in other parts of the world start listening differently to Minneapolis. And that benefits people. The impact he's had on this community is incalculable."

Traveling with bolts of purple

Heather McElhattan worked as set director for Prince for a decade, from 1986 to 1996.

"The first thing that happens when you work at Paisley Park is you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. You can't make eye contact with him, and you can't talk to him."

Prince talks to you, she said. And he talked to her a lot.

"He wanted everything to be beautiful in its own way. And to him, that mean purple, purple everything. I traveled everywhere with bolts of purple velour, and trunks of pearls, three miles of purple..."

Prince at 2006 BET awards show
Prince performs a tribute to Chaka Khan at the 2006 BET Awards in Los Angeles.
Frazer Harrison | Getty Images

Outside First Avenue, remembering Paisley Park

Also at Paisley Park's Saturday night show was Melody Chestler, 53, who joined the mourners around Prince's star on the wall outside First Avenue in Minneapolis.

To see Prince perform at Paisley "was a dream of mine, and oftentimes I would be like, 'I'm too tired, I can't imagine staying up until 4 in the morning,'" she said.

"But this time, it was like, 'OK, I'm just doing it. When am I going to do it? I'll always be tired, probably' ... It was worth it. It's something you have to do if you live here. And I did it. ... I really witnessed something amazing."

But having seen Prince on Saturday made his death Thursday that much more of a shock.

"Having seen him so relatively vibrant Saturday night, I thought, 'This guy's going to be around forever. He keeps evolving as a musician, he's so prolific and so talented.' I think he was a genius, and he was just lovable for all his quirky ways. ... He looked vibrant, and healthy, and young," Chestler recalled.

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