Prince Remembered by Childhood Best Friend and Bandmate André Cymone : 'There Was a Lot More to Him Than What People Saw'
The soft-spoken, tentative voice saying hello on the other end of the phone is André Cymone. Prince’s closest childhood friend and first bassist is calling Billboard late Tuesday afternoon (April 26) to talk about his memories of the enigmatic talent.
The call comes after a series of emails with Cymone, whom the magazine reached out to during the days following Prince’s death. Cymone wrote back over the weekend, saying he would love to talk but was “still processing this new reality. It’s truly a tough time right now.” Then with no advance notice, the songwriter/producer graciously called and spent nearly 50 minutes reminiscing.
As diehard Prince fans are well aware, Cymone was the bass guitarist for Prince’s pre-Revolution touring band. A fellow Minneapolis native, Cymone first met Prince -- who eventually moved in with Cymone’s family -- in seventh grade. Immediately bonding over music, the pair quickly began gigging as the band Grand Central (whose members included Prince’s cousin Charles “Chazz” Smith and future Time member Morris Day). Cymone joined Prince’s touring band after the release of the artist’s 1978 Warner Bros. debut album For You.
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Working with Prince up to 1981’s Controversy, Cymone left the band that year reportedly over creative differences with the artist. Offering insight into Prince’s creative mindset while making the pivotal 1980 album Dirty Mind, Cymone otherwise shied away from a deeper discussion about his and Prince’s professional career together. Recalling Grand Central’s aborted first brush with fame -- Isaac Hayes was to mentor the group -- Cymone says in a frank tone, “After that, Prince got his record deal and that became what that became.”
Cymone launched his own solo career in 1982 with Livin’ in the New Wave. Two more albums followed, 1983’s Survivin’ in the 80s and 1985’s AC -- the latter of which featured the Prince-penned single “The Dance Electric,” a top 10 R&B hit. Since then, Cymone has written and produced songs for other artists, including his former wife Jody Watley. Nearly 30 years would elapse before Cymone released a new album, 2014’s The Stone.
Laughter begins to punctuate the conversation as a once-reticent Cymone warmly recalls the special bond he had with Prince. “What I remember most is his personality,” he says. “There was just a lot more to him than what people saw.”
We first met in 7th grade. Part of the reason why I haven’t gotten into this stuff is because I would never presume to talk about somebody else’s reality. But obviously under these circumstances I know he’s got tons and tons of fans and people who really love him. They would probably appreciate hearing from somebody who knew him from my perspective.
My mom was able to move our family to a different neighborhood because we definitely came from the other side of the tracks. So I had to go to a new school and didn’t know anybody at all. They did roll [call], gave me the classroom and then told me to stand against the wall. I look at the whole wall of guys I don’t know and have to go stand next to somebody. I look and see this kid who kind of reminds me a little bit of myself. So I thought, "Let me stand next to him." So I did.
“Hey, how you doing? My name is Andre.” “My name’s Prince.” We start talking. I was a pretty aggressive kid, so I was like, “What do you do, what are you into?” He says, “I play music.” “Wow, so do I.” He asks, “What do you play?” I say, “I play horns, guitar and bass.” He says, “I play piano and guitar.” We hit it off. He seemed to be really passionate and I was very passionate. I started talking about how I’m going to be this. And he’s yeah, me too. Next thing you know we became best friends.
Prince said, "Listen, do you want to go jam? My dad has equipment and we can go jam." So we went over to his dad’s house and sure enough his dad had this beautiful piano and guitar. He had this Gibson that he kept in pristine condition. He let Prince play it but he would only let him play it at his [the dad’s] house. But anyway, we jammed. And he was phenomenal then. He played The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the Peanuts theme song.
We got to know each other. As I was sitting there, it was a really strange thing. He was telling me a little about his dad, who had a lot of pictures on the piano. I looked at a picture of a combo that he had and I asked Prince about one of the guys in the picture. He told me to ask his father as he’d be home soon. When his dad came home, he’s looking at me like who is he and what is he doing here? Prince introduced us. His dad had a really booming deep voice. So I asked him who is that, pointing to the guy playing bass in the picture. He looked at the guy in the picture, looked at me and just busted out laughing. I was like, "What?" "You’re Fred Anderson’s son." I said yeah. Then he said, "Oh my God"; he must have said that six times. Prince and I are looking at each other like, why is he saying that? He said, "You guys used to hang out when you were kids. Me and your dad played in a band together. Your dad was like this phenomenal bass player" and blah blah blah blah . He goes into this whole thing. "I’m like, what, really?"
It turns out they were in a band together and we had no idea. So it was very ironic that I just happened to pick Prince to stand next to. That’s how we met.
We started the band together right around the same time. Maybe within the week or month, we said we should put a band together. It eventually became Grand Central; we had a few names going on there before.
Obviously, I don’t want to get into me if this is about Prince. But if I’m speaking from my perspective … Some of the things I did as the kid I was at the time that wound up having something to do with him coming to live with my family. But I’ll give you a little bit of what that was about.
I was a very wild kid. I was from the projects. I was a hustler. Everything was about trying to do stuff. I was always talking about we gotta do this, do that, we gotta make some money. He was more laid back. When we put the band together, I was still hustling. I’d be stealing cars, bikes … I was into a lot of crazy stuff. We had moved into a really nice sort of upper middle-class neighborhood and parents didn’t want their kids hanging around me because I was a little rough around the edges. I think the final straw for his mom was when I pulled up in a brand new Cadillac trying to get Prince to come out and go for a joyride. She forbid Prince to hang out. So every time I’d try to come by and ask can Prince come out and jam, she’d say no. She made him do all kinds of other stuff, anything other than to play with me. I think what happened is eventually he ran away.
He came to our house and asked, "Can I stay here?" I said I’ll have to talk to my mom. I asked her and she was like, "Yeah, but I have to call his mom and let her know that he’s here." So she called his mom to let her know and they worked it out. So his mom said, "He can stay there if he wants to." So a day turned into a week, week turned into a month, month turned into a year and a year turned into about five or six years, something like that.
We were playing cover songs and originals. We did everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to War and Mandrill, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Preston, you name it. We were just doing a lot of covers. Another local band, Flyte Tyme, was a phenomenal band. They had been playing and we were just starting out. But Flyte Tyme at that time was Terry Lewis, not Jimmy Jam because he was in another band called Cohesion. Flyte Tyme was Terry, David Island, Jellybean was the drummer and one of the horn players was Kid. I remember one of our first battle of the bands: they weren’t going to let us play because we really didn’t have the kind of equipment for the venue. We only had this teeny amp: It was just the three of us: me, Prince and his cousin Charles. Charles’ drums didn’t have drum heads on both sides. We were kind of rag-tag.
But I went to the leader of one of the other bands that had fabulous equipment and I said [adopting a high voice]: "Please, can we play on your equipment? We’re not really that good. We’re just little guys." So they felt bad for us and said, "Oh, go ahead." And we went on and won. I think we played a Hendrix song and a Santana song. It might have been “Fire.” I know we played “Out of Space” because Prince played the organ. I think we played three songs: the Hendrix song, an original then “Out of Space.” And when we won, they let us play another song or two; I think we wound up playing … [he starts singing the lyrics to the Four Tops’ “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got”]. I know our drummer [Charles] was into stuff like that. When you’re in a band, you kind of have to let everybody pick a song to do and that song was a little out of character for where we were at. At the time, because he was the oldest, he was kind of the leader of the band which was interesting. We’d come up with different names for the band and when we’d win, we’d think we’d lost. They’d say the winner is … Phoenix. And we’d be like, "Oh, man." Charles would be like, "We won." And Charles would say, "Oh yeah, I changed the name." That’s the kind of stuff that would happen.
That battle of the bands I’m talking about, one of the prizes that was a big deal for us was studio time at one of the local recording studios. That was the first time we actually went in the studio and wound up recording some demo songs. We recorded “Love Unlimited,” that Barry White song. I think we recorded the Carole King song “It’s Too Late.” Then an original song by Prince and one by me.
I think me and Charles had a falling out. We weren’t really getting along. It’s really ironic that Morris [Day] happened to sort of come in. Morris would always come to me and say, "Man, I’m a drummer and want to play in your band. I can play." I’m like, "Dude, we have a drummer." We’d do a gig and I’d see Morris on the side. "Man, can I play in your band?" Finally, after moving up from junior high to senior high and Morris, being a little older than me, was going to that school. I’m walking down the hallway and hear “André, you gotta hear me play the drums. I’m really good.” So we go into the band room and he started playing. The drum set didn’t have a carpet under it so when he started playing, the drums are sliding. So he’s trying to play and keep the drums from falling. Eventually the drums fell off the riser and rolled down. I left and he calls me, saying, "You’ve got to come to my house and hear me play." So I went over to his house and he put on Tower Of Power’s “What is Hip” and played it lick for lick. Completely blew me away. He was left-handed and I’d never heard anybody play like that ever. I’m like, "Oh shit, you’re in."
He brought his drums over. I told Prince, "You’ve got to hear this guy." Charles was still a good friend. But I just felt we could take our whole thing to another level. Morris came, Prince heard him and we all jammed. Morris also had a white Fender Telecaster bass that sort came with the situation [laughs]. Anyway, that’s how Morris came to the band. This would have to be maybe 1973 or 1974, right around there.
Prince and I were very dedicated, both very passionate. That was one of things right away that drew me to him. He had the same passion. He wanted it as bad as I wanted it. I knew other musicians but no one ever really took it all that serious. I was deadly serious. Anybody who would listen to me, I’d tell them I’m going to be a star one day. Michael Jackson, I wanted to challenge him and the Jackson 5 to a duel. I was very aggressive; it’s hard for me to put in any other way. I was very cocky and confident. I practiced all the time. I wasn’t the bass player, I was the saxophone player. But my father was a bass player and he had an upright that I played all the time. So I knew how to play the bass. But we originally had another guy in the band playing bass. He quit because of one of my shenanigans. That’s how I wound up stepping in and playing bass. I used to have to borrow a bass … it was interesting. Eventually my mom got me a bass and I practiced and that helped things out.
There was a sixth sense between the two us, absolutely. When you find somebody else who has the same passion, drive and competence, especially at that age because you’re going through all kinds of stuff like girls -- this is what we both were meant to do. It’s something that doesn’t happen, I don’t think, very often where you find two people come together who are really passionate about what they do at a time when they’re both growing and learning while still trying to find a way to make that a reality. I played a lot. He played a lot. When he moved in, we’d sit in the kitchen and just play. We spent literally hours and hours doing that. It really is no accident when I think about how things eventually evolved. When you practice and play as much as we did and are as dedicated, you reap the rewards that can bring you.
We literally saw each other every day for maybe 4-5 years straight before all the fame. When you have that kind of a closeness, you kind of know what the other person is thinking without even having to speak. And when you start talking about music, it’s the same thing. There are gigs and pictures where I’m playing the bottom end of the bass and he’s playing the finger board; that doesn’t really work unless you’re really on the same page.
Our first brush with fame was kind of a false start. Morris’ mom was beautiful, a gorgeous woman who reminded me of Pam Grier. I was completely and utterly in love. She could say, "We’re doing a gig on the moon" and I’d be early, which was rare for me. But she somehow knew people like Redd Foxx and Isaac Hayes. She got in touch with Hayes and said she was managing this group with her son and would he be interested in getting involved. I think she must have sent him one of our demos. He said yes and was going to help us become superstars. She told me that and I quit school, telling everyone we’re going to have tutors and all that kind of stuff. Prince was smart. He kept going to school.
So all this stuff was supposed to happen [through Isaac Hayes] and then somebody showed me a copy of Jet magazine with a story that about Isaac Hayes filing for bankruptcy. I thought, "OK, guess I have to go back to school." That was the first brush I can recall. After that, Prince got his record deal and that became what that became.
The last time we played together was at this place called The Sayers Club. He had reached out and said, "Listen, I’m playing at The Sayers Club, love for you to come down." So I went there and he asked if I wanted to come up and do "The Dance Electric." I was like, "I haven’t played that song in a long time; I don’t know the words." He’s like, "Don’t worry, I have a teleprompter." Ok, fair enough, so I did that.
Then it might have been a few months after that. He was doing a show in Anaheim, Calif. He asked me if I wanted to come; that he was doing a gig with 3rdEyeGirl and wanted me to check them out. He called me the night of the gig. I was in a meeting with my manager and my wife, who is also my manager, and we were having a meeting about finishing my album at the time. I said, "Guys, you want to go to a Prince show?" My manager I think said he’d never been to a Prince show. I said you might want to check it out as he’s pretty phenomenal.
So we go to the show. Maya Rudolph and all kinds of people were there. I’m given a cool spot to hang out in. Prince was always super cool when I came to his shows. For one show, he even gave me my own dressing room even though I wasn’t playing. He heard I was coming and put my name on one of the dressing rooms. For this particular show, he has a guy come and take me to his dressing room. We sat there and talked for a while. He asked me how things were going; I told him about my kids and all that stuff. I told him maybe he should come out to L.A. and live there for a while. He’s like, "No way." We chitchat for a while and he asked me where I wanted to sit -- either by the sound booth or on a couch by the stage. So the show gets ready to start and a guy escorts me, my manager and wife to the couch. And it turns out the couch is literally on the stage; I’m like 2-3 feet away from the guitar player. I remember my wife saying, "I can see the crowd. And if I can see the crowd, the crowd can probably see me" [laughs].
Sitting there was unbelievable. The show was just beyond-belief fantastic. Then as Prince would do, because he knew I would leave early as I usually don’t like to hang around too long, he had a guy come get me and take me to the other side of the stage. Prince is like, "Come on the stage." I think he was doing “Housequake” and playing the piano. I go out on stage thinking he’s going to give me a guitar, bass or something. Instead I go onstage and I’m just standing next to him while he’s playing. He’s talking me, telling me about the next chord he’s going to hit. Like, "Check out this one." I’m standing out here looking like Lurch, wondering why am I here. He’s just got me standing there next to him mostly because he didn’t want me to leave. It was the last song.
Right after that, he says, "I want you to meet my band." So I wind up meeting the band. He tells everybody, "Hey, this is my first bass player." I’m like, "Yeah and this is my first guitar player" [laughs]. Anyway, that was the last time I saw him perform. It wasn’t that long ago. Maybe not last year but maybe the year before? I think that’s the last time I actually saw him. We had a great time. We drank a bottle of Cristal and he introduced me to all the people around. We hung out for awhile.
The last time we corresponded was when I heard about the plane [which had an emergency landing because of Prince getting ill mid-flight on April 15]. I reached out to get a hold of him. I called a bunch of different people. I called his sister and she said she’d try to give him the message. I called Bobby Z and he said he’d try to get him the message. Finally, Bobby got a hold of him and he sent a text to me. Bobby pasted it and sent it to me. Prince said, "I’m OK. When I get to L.A., we’ll hook up."
That was it. And I guess maybe five days later he was gone.
His legacy? I think his music is his immortality. That sums it up. It’s hard to say; he did so much. He recorded so much music. What I remember most is just his personality. There was just a lot more to him than what people saw. I’ve heard people say it; everybody who really knew him knows he was a funny dude. Very funny. He had a very interesting sense of humor. As kids we had a lot of fun. To be able to do what we loved and be able to actually be successful at it, especially at the age we were at, it was like a dream come true I’m sure for him and definitely for me.
We always threatened to get together and do some stuff. The last time I saw Prince, he said, "Man, we’ve got to get together. We’ve got do something, we gotta play, we gotta jam." The one regret I have is that I never really took him up on that.
-- As told to Gail Mitchell