After Prince: The ( New) New Power Generation
For Morris Hayes, who’d been the keyboard player and band leader in Prince’s New Power Generation backing band between 1992 and 2012, his old boss’s passing brought an overwhelming deluge of conflicting emotions. Prompted by a friend to turn on his TV that terrible night in April 2016, he was horrified to see “the helicopter view of Paisley Park, and they’re talking about a body inside,” he says. “I was boo-hooing big-time.” The Los Angeles-based keyboardist frankly admits, however, that he’d “always worn the title of ‘band leader’ very loosely”, and as grief set in, memories flooded back of how relentless a task-master Prince always was, how even flight time on his private Lear jet would be filled making up DJ playlists on a laptop for that night’s after-show. “He liked our input,” Hayes recalls, “but he put everything together, and he implemented it, and he was a hard dude, man. I’d go in to his place in LA] to work some days, and, seeing his car in the garage, my stomach would turn over – like, ‘Oh Jesus, he’s here!’ Some days would be utter hell, because he was a perfectionist, and if you didn’t really have your A-game that day, he was going to ride you like a prize pony and totally run you into the ground.” After two decades of surviving the perpetual cull of players who departed Prince’s band, Hayes “finally considered myself gone in 2012”. So, he was somewhat taken aback to be chosen to organise Prince’s memorial concert in Minneapolis that October, based around a reunited NPG line-up. He began to understand just how much energy his erstwhile employer burnt up orchestrating his elaborate stage show. He inwardly freaked when Stevie Wonder, who flew in to assume vocal duties, alongside Chaka Khan, Tori Kelly and Jessie J, first arrived at the microphone for rehearsals. “Stevie put his hand on my arm, and weeping he said, ‘Morris, what do you want me to do?’ I’m looking at this dude, and I’m like, ‘Man, this is Stevie frickin’ Wonder!’ I said, ‘You’re Stevie Wonder, you can do whatever you want to do!’” The chaotic performance eventually ran to 56 songs and some five hours, in front of 18,000 purple-clad devotees, and somewhere near the end, Hayes, who hadn’t slept for three days, actually nodded off at his keyboards. In the hours and days ahead, there would be a renewed outpouring of grief on social media, but also elation at the show’s emotional deliverance. “We got inundated with messages on Facebook,” says Hayes, “so after a while, it was like, ‘Look, y’all, clearly there’s folks that wanna experience this again, and folks everywhere that didn’t get to, so let’s go out and do this.’”
They’ve been touring ever since, configured around core early-’ 90s alumni Tony Mosley (guitar), Kirk Johnson (drums), Sonny T (bass), Tommy Barbarella (keys) and dancers Tony M and Damon D. Filling the gap stage-front was, obviously, not straightforward. Says Hayes: “It was not about looking for a singer that would try to emulate or imitate Prince. You can’t do it, so I’m not going to even try.” So, the NPG have two singers: one, Kip Blackshire, previously sang on more gospel-oriented material on Prince tours circa 1999-2002; the other, Mackenzie, is a
relative newcomer in his late- 20s, who’d been recording in LA with one of Prince’s former bassists, and whose youthful vigour now reputedly carries the show. “I was never able to see Prince perform in person,” he reveals from the NPG’s tourbus, on the way to a gig in Milwaukee, “but I’ve probably watched a good 20,000 hours of video footage. [ Being younger] probably takes a bit of pressure off, and allows me to interject myself easier. Because, you can’t ‘become’ him. You can only be yourself.” While Prince was alive, it was often remarked – not always admiringly – how he’d race through medleys full of hits, almost teasing audiences with his impish talent. “People were frustrated,” chuckles Morris Hayes, “because they wanted to hear those songs so bad.” NPG today don’t feel obliged to follow such dictates to the letter, preferring, he says, “to make an actual experience out of each song”. These include NPG-era gems such as Diamonds And Pearls, Gett Off and Cream, as well as ’ 80s classics such as Kiss, Sign ‘O’ The Times, 1999 and, of course, a certain regally-hued anthem. Hayes says that his crew are still far from immune to grief, only two days ago all breaking down together after running through Purple Rain in rehearsals. There are also happier moments, remembering Prince’s fun-loving side – how he’d make prank calls to their hotel rooms in the mid-’ 90s, but they couldn’t say, “Hey, is this Prince?” because they weren’t allowed to call him that any more. Amid Prince’s ongoing posthumous popularity, his ’ 80s band, The Revolution, have also hit the road, as has his childhood friend and protégé, Morris Day. Unabashed by the competition, Hayes is bullish, already planning to record their own material, “where we as a band can put forward what we learnt from Prince, in our own way.” One imagines, however, that live shows won’t deviate too far from their late guvnor’s script.
“We got inundated with messages on Facebook. It was like, ‘Look, y’all, clearly there’s folks that wanna experience this again, so let’s go out and do this.’” Morris Hayes, Prince band leader
The New Power Generation (below left) in 1994, featuring Morris Hayes (second left) and Prince (centre); (right) the NPG in 2018, with new frontman Mackenzie (centre).
(Top) Morris Hayes with NPG; (above) NPG onstage, Byron Bay, Australia, 2018.