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
We started getting into ballads. One of the ballads we got into, “Wildflower,” my mom’s favorite song, was by New Birth—me and Prince sang it. I sang “Maybe Your Baby”—Prince always sang Chaka Khan’s part in Rufus.
Our friend and sort-of-manager Pepe Willie had a cousin or uncle who was a member of Little Anthony and the Imperials. I knew who they were because I was into them as a kid. Pepe said, “They are looking for songs.” I wrote a song that became controversial, in retrospect, because it became “Do Me, Baby.” I wrote that for the Little Anthony and the Imperials project. That song came out [on Prince’s Controversy] and I didn’t get credit for it. I had written it for a girlfriend at the time. She still has a copy of my demo.
I never got into all the controversy. I thought of it as we were all inspired by each other in the group, Grand Central. I brought things to the musical table, William, Morris, Terry, Charles, Linda, and Prince did too. I didn’t look at it as being ripped off.
Some of the ballads we used to do—we played “Summer Breeze,” the Isley Brothers version. I like the original version by Seals and Crofts. That reminds me of when Prince and I stayed in the same room. I would want to go to sleep with music and he would want to go to sleep with music. So we would flip a coin. He might want to listen to Seals and Croft, and I might want to listen to Blood, Sweat and Tears or Blue Magic or the Dramatics.
One of the major ballads we played was “People Make the World Go Round” by the Stylistics. We did a bunch of the Stylistics songs. Later, Prince did a remake of “Betcha By Golly Wow.”
I used to say we are going to be the best band. I was always talking stuff about how great our band was and how we are gonna show the Jackson Five how to do it right. I was like a little Muhammad Ali. They would say, “Let me see you do it!” And I would pop off on the bass.
Morris got in the band and we got into funk stuff. Only time Morris would come from behind the drums and actually sing was with this ballad by Major Harris. This is the one song Morris would sing, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait.” Listening to it now just cracks me up. He was so serious about singing this song. He even had all the hand gestures.
Pre–Grand Central Days
I loved the group the Association. My brother Eddie put me on to them as a kid. He would play, “Never My Love.” I loved the song “Windy.” My brother Eddie started to shape my personal love for psychedelic stuff.
This is the stuff that I went back to listen to when I started working on my album The Stone. This is the stuff I grew up listening to, and I got away from it when I got into a band. We had to be democratic in the band. Some of the music reflected the stuff I was into or what Charles was into. William was into KC and the Sunshine Band, and Terry was into Earth Wind and Fire, and had me put a pick in his kalimba. Prince was into Billy Preston. We performed “Outa-Space,” which was one of the songs we did to win our battle of the bands. He was also into Sly and the Family Stone. We were all into Sly. Linda was an introvert. She was into reading books. She liked music. I knew she could play, but she wasn’t buying records and stuff. But she could play. She’s a little eccentric.
I love the guitar on the Association. They reminded me of a good time in my life; every summer we would go to camp. It reminded me of going to camp and just being a kid. Me being into the Association was really pre–Grand Central. When my brother Eddie used to play the Association—really, the guitar is what got me.
I used to talk about the Beatles and the Association with the group. There was one song I loved and I used to try to get the guys to play. They wouldn’t play any of this stuff. Prince and Charles were into Jimi Hendrix. I was trying to get them into psychedelic stuff and into the Beatles and the Association. I used to love Joan Baez—the song “Diamonds and Rust.” I was the weird one in the group. That song is about Bob Dylan. They were really super close. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during those times. Bob hipped Jimi to be really focused on writing. I write everything out first—then I write over it. I write it in notebooks.
Eddie introduced me to Joan Baez and and Joni Mitchell. The lyrics and the guitar on “Diamond and Rust” were incredible. They tell a story and draw you in to a different place. I used to love looking at the labels and the art work on the album. That’s why I liked vinyl records. It was a culture. It was an experience. I don’t know what life would have been like if we didn’t have our stereo. We were poor.
In the projects, we would hide bikes. We had all kinds of adventures. I would hide bikes in the creek. Then I would go back in a week or two and get it and sell it. I was maybe ten. That was my hustle. My life was full of adventure and fun and I’m lucky I’m still here. Those were my hustles until I really got into music.
Grand Central had gone from doing Archie Bell and the Drells to doing Sly and the Family Stone, songs like “Everybody Is a Star,” which talked about the fact that we are all here for a reason. There’s a song on this album Fresh called “Skin I’m In” by Sly and the Family Stone—it is the funkiest song, our band, Grand Central used to play this.
It was a summer jam. We had these summer jobs—me and Prince—working at a school. My mom would hook us up with these summer jobs. We were the entertainment for the kids for lunch period, so they had an hour with us. It was amazing, it was crazy. Whenever I hear this song, it reminds me of this job. Outside of those jobs, I never had a job job, outside of music.
The album that came out after that was called Small Talk. Sly had gotten married and all that stuff. The main song was called “Loose Booty.” I used to love that song. Yet another song Grand Central used to play regularly.
Charles eventually left the band, but he was a very important part of Grand Central’s early development. Charles and Prince were really big Hendrix fans, and I was not a big Hendrix fan at all. I said stuff like, “His guitar is never in tune” [and] “He played chang chang music.” Charles couldn’t believe what I was saying. He would play “Red House,” and Prince would play some tunes. They would play all this weird stuff. Then Charles said, “You know what? I know what I can play you.” And he pulled out this album, Axis: Bold as Love, and he played a song called “Spanish Castle Magic.” It totally blew me away. Then he played me this: “Little Wing.” Then he played “Castles Made of Sand.” Then I was like, okay, I get it.
I hadn’t heard these songs. Charles made me put headphones on. He said if you listen to it, it floats around in your head. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was poor; I didn’t have headphones. He put these headphones on, and it just opened up a new world to me, because the guitars were going from one side to the other side. One side was this backwards guitar and the voice would come over here. It was like a new world. In stereo. Then that’s when I really started getting into serious music. Around that time, I discovered Marvin Gaye. He was talking about a lot of sexual stuff on I Want You. I loved it; that was my favorite album. “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again” and “Since I Had You,” I loved those songs.
When we were fourteen or fifteen, we were pretty popular with the ladies. We had basement quarter parties. My mom was a referee. Sometimes, we would set up in the basement and play for the parties. Even though I love Purple Rain and it was a great movie, the reality of Grand Central’s evolution was much deeper, because there were so many elements wrapped around the gigs we used to have to do like the battle of the bands.
When we didn’t have equipment, I had to use some of my old-school tactics. Sometimes we borrowed equipment from people and after the gig they would be standing by the side of the stage with a baseball bat. We would have to figure out how we would get off stage without getting our heads busted. I used to know knucklehead guys in the neighborhood, because they came from the projects and they were proud to see me not doing the thug thing. They were right there with me. I would tell them, “There may be some stuff that goes down at the end of the show, so I need you close.” Right after the gig, sometimes we would have to run. I would be like, “Prince, you know that amp you got that’s his amp and he wants it back, see him with the baseball bat.” Prince was straight-laced. He didn’t understand that kind of thing, but he had to learn. At the end of the day, it was just a lot of fun. Growing up in that era and being able to play music in bands was just really a blessing.
Right around there is where I met Morris Day. I went from Lincoln to North High School, and that’s where I got exposed to some older kids. Morris was older than I was. He was my older sister’s age. He was already going to North. He would always come to the side of the stage and say, “Hey, man, I really like your band. I play the drums, I would love to play with you guys.” And we would say, “We already got a drummer.” And he would say, “Yeah, but I’m better than your drummer.” I would always just kind of laugh. We had a lot of people that would come up and try to get in the band. We were really young. There weren’t a lot of bands doing what we were doing—there was Flyte Time—which ended up being the Time—and Cohesion, which Jimmy Jam was in. A few other bands—South, Brainstorm. So Morris wanted in.
Me and Charles bought Prince his first real guitar. His dad gave him a big giant Gibson, but he would only let him play it when he was at his dad’s house. We found this store on 38th and 4th. We bought it for like $20. I remember he played it, and we played in the battle of the bands. We won $75 and we won studio time at Cook House Studios, and that was the first time we ever went into a recording studio. We recorded Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” on the reel-to-reel for a demo. Prince was singing. We did a Love Unlimited song. Then we did a song of Prince’s called “Whenever,” an instrumental, and then we did a song of mine called, “You Remind Me of Me.” Charles was our leader and he had the $75. We were gonna buy some equipment, but we weren’t ever able to see the money. He was coming to rehearsal with new gear, posters, and albums. We eventually got into a fight over it. I was gonna hit him with my bass, and we were wrestling. This was right around the time that Morris was coming and asking me to join the band, and I was like, “You know what, let me hear you play.”
One reason I stepped out of the musical front line with my record company, Columbia Records, is that they weren’t promoting my record like I thought they would. I started producing Evelyn Champagne King. I started working with Adam Ant. I did television theme songs—Suddenly Susan. I did songs for films, Days of Thunder with Tina Turner, Beverly Hills 90210. I had a song by Pebbles that was going to be on the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack. They wanted me to do her album. They wanted me to do the same thing I did for Jody Watley for her. I thought it should be specific. I don’t think every suit should fit everybody, and I think that’s partly what’s wrong the music business now. They get the same producer because they want the same sound. And what happens is everything sounds the same, and it doesn’t do much for the art of music. So I refused to do it. I had just met L.A. [Reid] and Babyface in a club. They were doing stuff for the Deele, and they played me their stuff and it was hittin’. Cathy Nelson had introduced me to Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer—with Beverly Hills Cop. They didn’t have their title song yet. I said I’ll have something for you by tomorrow and they looked at me like, Yeah, right. The next day I came through with a song called, “Better Way.” They just flipped out. They said this is exactly what we’re talking about. That was the theme song for Beverly Hills Cop II. The first person I really wanted was James Ingram, but he was huge at the time, so I had them reach out to Michael McDonald to sing, but he wanted to rewrite it, so I took a chance and called James. I was surprised when he agreed. He was like, “Yeah, are you kidding?!”
Jerry and Don flew me out to Daytona Beach to meet all the people involved in Days of Thunder—Rod Temperton, Diane Warren. We came back and I wrote “Break Through the Barrier” for Tina Turner.
I had finally got off Columbia and signed with MCA. But I was doing a lot of producing, then all this film stuff.
The albums that were inspiring me as a producer were albums by Burt Bacharach—I am a big, giant Burt Bacharach and Phil Spector fan, and John Barry—who did all the James Bond themes. I was always into movie themes and soundtracks even as a kid.
My kids would always want to hear the Beatles. They would be like, “Play the Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love.’ ” And I would play it and then play “Eight Days a Week.” They made me play that every day for like a year. My twin girls were four and my son was five.
I didn’t want my kids to be a part of that rock-and-roll reality. I wanted to be there for them. I thought, when they get grown, I will get back into it, but I didn’t know I would have another set of kids. Now they perform. My youngest son is eight. He has performed at the House of Blues twice. The girls play keys and guitar and they have played at the Avalon.
I went to school for screenwriting and taught at UCLA for a while. I decided music had gone in so many different directions. Music is a powerful part of society, and it had become marginalized. I thought, somebody needs to step out and bring music back to what music is all about. That’s when I did the “America” song for the Barack Obama campaign, and then I did the song for Trayvon Martin.
Once I got back into it, I was trying to figure out how the Beatles got those sounds. That’s when I got back into the Association again and started listening to Chuck Berry again. I was playing a lot more guitar. I went back and got into Chuck Berry, playing “Johnny B. Goode.” I learned the songs and lyrics and played them, and my kids would ask me to play them. I did theme songs. I wrote theme songs for different cartoon characters for them.
I started playing and singing all the time. I always wanted to be a voice. One of the gifts I have is in writing songs and telling stories. Some of the stuff I play you is what these artists did; they told stories. If I can live up to the title of “artist,” I think I’ll be alright. I’m back, and I’m here to stay.
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