André Cymone plays the records that changed his life
The Minneapolis musical pioneer discusses his long history—leaving Prince and starting out on his own—and his own musical influences.
by Ericka Blount Danois
In 2012, writer Ericka Blount Danois searched out André Cymone and secured one of the first interviews from the Minneapolis icon in twenty-seven years. Now she sits back down with the musical pioneer and discusses his long history—leaving Prince and starting out on his own—and his own musical influences.
Making Prince’s First Album
I didn’t tour with Prince that long. I did the first tour—mostly small clubs, then we got the opening slot for the Rick James tour and that changed everything. We took a little time off, during which Prince began recording his follow-up album, Dirty Mind. We began rehearsing the new songs for a Saturday Night Live performance and a small European tour—Amsterdam, London, and France. We had a problem while rehearsing that made me realize it was time for me to move on. By then, I knew he was gonna do big things, so it seemed like a good time to go my own way. I agreed to do those last gigs unfortunately; as what usually happens, money became an issue. I think Prince or his representatives thought I was just doing it for the money. I said, “You’re like a brother. I’m not doing it for the money; I’ll do it for free”—which was just foolish. I had just had a baby—my first daughter. So it was a bad time to be foolish. I was living with my mom, and when I got back in town, my mom had let her and her mom come and stay in the house. I had never lived with a woman before; I was just realizing that I was a dad and I had to be more responsible. She was finding letters, pictures of girls. I gave it a shot, but it didn’t work out. The other problem was I didn’t have any money. I had just come off this big tour and didn’t have a dime. In fact, my car had gotten repossessed. I think the second day I got home, I looked out in the backyard and I saw this tow truck, and they were taking my car. I ran out and chased them. So I started wood-shedding and listening to stuff and figuring out what direction I wanted to go. I started getting into Devo and Kraftwerk.
I was also listening to Joni Mitchell at the time. When my first daughter was born, I wasn’t able to see her as often as I wanted. Me and her mom had some issues, and what got me through that period was Joni Mitchell and music from that album—the Blue album. There was a song on there called “Little Green.” This reminds me of when my daughter was born. My daughter has these chalky green eyes, just beautiful green eyes, and I was starting to wonder. [laughs] She stares at you and almost looks right through you. Her grandfather on her mother’s side has the same green eyes. When she was small I called her Little Green.
I still listen to Joni Mitchell all the time. She is one of those artists where it’s just music that takes you away, and that’s what music for me is really all about, being able to take a journey and not leave your home. My oldest daughter is thirty-two and the twins are six. I went back to the Blue album and songs when I had the twins. The twins were born three months premature, and Joni Mitchell helped me through that.
Joni Mitchell is probably my favorite artist in terms of just hearing what she’s saying. I don’t really know any other, really, any other artist that can tell a story like her. The Hejira album reminds me of that whole time period when we were working on Prince’s first album. And the song “Refuge of the Roads” was one of my favorites. That song reminds me of being in San Francisco. It was the soundtrack to our reality back then. Owen Husney was Prince’s manager at the time. He was a very knowledgeable dude about a lot of stuff. I think he and his wife, Brit, turned us on to Joni and opened my eyes to lots of other amazing artists, their music, and the stories behind them.
On Hejira, there was a song called “Blue Motel Room,” this was all the stuff we were listening to back then. You can kind of hear the inspiration and influence. When you listen to the lyrics, it’s just so descriptive both musically and with the lyrics telling a story.
Personally, I would always come back to Blue. It’s a great album—“A Case of You” is just amazing. We would listen to “River” and just get swept away… I was going through so much crazy stuff, life changing stuff, and listening to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter in San Francisco, and those other albums captured and defined the moment.
Another great album is Ladies of the Canyon—it’s a little folky, but I love it.
Making It After Grand Central
We changed our name with each battle of the bands we entered, thanks to our drummer and de facto leader Charles “Chaz” Smith. Every time they would announce some weird group name as the winner and we thought we had lost the contest, he would pop up and scream, “We won!! I changed our name!” It was crazy… We eventually ended up with Grand Central, a name Prince came up with. I think it was a combination of his school, Central High, and one of our favorite bands, Grand Funk Railroad. We covered a lot of their music back in the day.
Prince and I were thick as thieves, and when he got his record deal, he asked me if I was interested in being in the band. He told me we could do like a Brothers Johnson kind of thing. I thought it was really sweet, but I was like, “Man, they signed you, not us.” But he was like, “You gotta come with me.” I said, “I’m in; whatever you need, I got your back.” It wasn’t long before we were in San Francisco recording his first album.
People talk about the Minneapolis sound and make it this whole big thing, but the reality is, when I think of the groups that came after—Alexander O’ Neal and the Time—it all started with those shows. It was the shows that got people amped. The Rick James tour. People were tripping about my clear pants—girls were going crazy and trying to rip them off. When we did the Roxy, I was wearing those clear pants, and that,s the gig where Prince started wearing underwear and Dez was wearing no shirt at all. We came on after GQ—it was Bobby Z, Matt Fink, and Gale Chapman on keyboards. People had never seen anything like us, and they were freaking out. We looked like a mixed breed of punk rock freaks, and in the beginning, they hated us, but by the fourth song, it went from booing to people going crazy.
During that period, there was a lot of music that inspired me— that’s when I really started getting into David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Blondie, and the Clash.
I had this girlfriend from Iran who turned me on to the Clash. I think she quietly thought she was like Debbie Harry.
I listened to the song “London Calling” a lot. There was like a really cool London movement going on. Adam Ant came out right around that time. I was a big fan of his. Stray Cats came out around that time. David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” was one of my favorite songs. Blondie had an album out called Eat to the Beat. I got into Rick James around that time and “Super Freak.” All of this was happening around the same time. I remember William Doughty, our percussionist, he played me “Mary Jane” and that was my first introduction to Rick James’s whole thing. Then we went on tour with him, and I got into his whole thing on a different level.
I got fanatic about Bob Marley. My brother turned me on to it. First thing I saw or heard was “I Shot the Sherriff.”
After that, I started getting into hip hop—about ’81. A friend of mine, Eddie Martinez, who I met on the Rick James tour, was an amazing guitar player; he was in the Lenny White group. He played on all the Run-DMC stuff. He was like, “You gotta check this out,” so he would be playing this early Run-DMC stuff. I was already hip to the Sugarhill Gang, because Kyle Ray was a DJ in Minneapolis. I got into Whodini, then into Melle Mel and Too Short. I was hooked.
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