Dozens and dozens of musicians served time in Prince’s bands over the course of his four-decade-long career, but none performed with him longer than keyboardist Morris Hayes. The Arkansas native began his gradual ascent of the Prince ranks in the late 1980s, working with Revolution offshoot Mazarati, an incarnation of The Time and even Carmen Electra before attaining royalty in 1993. Hayes was in that role for the better part of 20 years, becoming such a close associate that Prince installed him in a house across from Paisley Park.
Nothing in that time was quite like Prince’s dazzling, rain-drenched halftime performance at Super Bowl XLI in Miami ten years ago. Few of the 75,000 people in the arena or the estimated 140 million television viewers are likely to forget that 12-minute set — performed during a rainstorm — which kicked off with “Let’s Go Crazy,” shifted quickly into “Baby I’m a Star,” then took a sharp turn into a quick covers medley: “Proud Mary,” “All Along the Watchtower” and a big surprise, the Foo Fighters’ 2005 hit “Best of You.” The set climaxed with a triumphant, downpour-spattered version of “Purple Rain,” during which a huge white screen was unfurled with Prince’s shadow projected onto it, and — in some people’s opinion — the silhouette of his symbol-shaped guitar resembled a giant phallus, setting off a predictable explosion of righteous right-wing fury that was ultimately eclipsed by the rapturous reviews of the performance. In virtually every poll or article published since then, Prince’s halftime show has been rated the best of all time.
Hayes has performed with many artists over the years — Sheila E, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, Lenny Kravitz, Maceo Parker, Elton John and Kanye West — and his current projects include ongoing work with the NPG and new artists like Cobi, the EDM outfit Lordz Uv, and a forthcoming documentary called World Symphony for Peace in which he travels the world collaborating with local musicians. He’s also working on a book about his career called The Ticket. “I saw Prince and The Time on December 17, 1982 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas — and I’ve had the ticket in my pocket ever since,” he explains.
Hayes shared his memories of that incredible Super Bowl performance with Billboard — below is an edited transcript.
We were playing a long residency in Las Vegas at the time, so we were pretty tightly rehearsed. Prince had already thought about what he wanted to play [for the Super Bowl], and a few months before it, the committee came to his house in Hollywood and we played most of the set — and we completely smoked it. They were like “This is incredible — just four people are making this wall of sound?” [Along with Prince, Hayes, bassist Josh Dunham and drummer Cora Coleman-Dunham, the Super Bowl band ultimately included keyboardist Renato Neto, vocalist Shelby J. and dancers Maya and Nandy McCLean, a.k.a. “The Twinz”.]
On the Friday before the game, we ran through the whole performance, and they filmed it just in case there was an anomaly with the weather or something. They knew a storm was coming and … I don’t even know how they would do this, but if the weather was really bad, through some TV trickery they could superimpose [the filmed rehearsal so it looked like a live performance to the TV audience], and the people who were at the game would see it on the big screen. The production was amazing: They had a Plan B, a Plan C and a Plan D. They had everything figured out, even how we plugged in our equipment so water wouldn’t get into the electrical sockets.
It was raining when it was time to go on — but it wasn’t raining hard enough to stop us. The producer asked if we were okay, and Prince was like, “Can you make it rain harder?”
We knew we had to play some staples like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain,” but during our afterparty shows, we’d get our cover jams on, so we threw some into the set. We loved the Foo Fighters and “Best of You” kind of represents the best, [which was fitting for] the Super Bowl, and of course we loved Jimi Hendrix, and we’d hit “Proud Mary” a few times before.
I don’t know why we played those particular songs — if he had some sort of message — but I do know that we picked a lot of songs [based on] the tempo of the set: One song kind of set up the other, and we wanted to make the ebb and flow really cool. Prince was a master at that — the flow, he wanted to make it like a rollercoaster. A few up points, bring it down, bring it back up and then we’re gonna swoop in and close it out with the loop-de-loop. He wanted to keep you on the edge of your seat.
It was very slippery onstage. I almost fell one time, and the twins almost did too — they were wearing heels — but nobody actually fell. It could have been disastrous: At one point I got a little happy and was feeling it, and my feet almost slipped out from under me. Boy, that would have been not good, because your reflex is to grab your keyboard so you don’t fall, and if you punch a bunch of wrong keys, bro, you’re just done.
Did he plan the silhouette? Well, this is the kind of thing Prince would do: One time we were talking about [Prince’s show-stealing guitar solo at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony], and he told me, “I went easy on ‘em in the rehearsal, but I figured when the show came, I was gonna let ‘em have it!” He did that a lot: “I’m not gonna let ‘em see everything I’ve got.” And I’m sure he said in his mind [puts on a Prince-like voice], “When they put up the silhouette, I’mma have somethin’ for ‘em!” — [laughing] — because he didn’t do that in the rehearsal. And of course, that’s the shot from the show that you always see. [Continues below]
It was just one of those magical things, man. Everything that could have gone wrong didn’t. Prince was kinda bummed about the mix, but it got better as we went along. And even though the equipment got wet, oddly enough, everything worked until the show was over — and then, once we turned [the instruments] off, they wouldn’t turn back on again. They were dead. We autographed them and auctioned them off to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, I think.
I don’t know why we didn’t do a big tour after that — usually people use the Super Bowl to announce tours or drop a record. But Prince is historically… I mean, he wouldn’t consider it a missed opportunity. But I was around for [Prince’s] Batman era and I was like “You gotta tour on Batman, dude! That movie is huge! You could put the bat signal on arenas” and he’d be like “Naaaaaah, Batman shmatman!” He just walked his own way.
It’s really too bad he’s not around: In 2018 the Super Bowl is going to be in Minneapolis. It would have been amazing to see him back in his hometown.
I thought U2 was great at the Super Bowl, Bruno Mars was great, and of course Michael Jackson. But to be always ranked near the top, if not No.1? Dude, it just don’t get any better. “Purple Rain” in the rain? You can’t plan that kind of stuff. And you know, it’s the big dance. When you say, “I played the Super Bowl,” it’s like, what’s left?