Prince and André Cymone formed the band Grand Central while still in high school
Grand Central was focused—the group would spend half their days in school and the other half skipping school to rehearse in the basement.
by Ericka Blount Danois
In the early 1970s, the Way Community Center, a local recreation center in the heart of Black Minneapolis, hosted battles of the bands as competitive as New York’s 1980s rap battles. Flyte Tyme (whose name was inspired by the Charlie Parker recording “Bird in Flight”) and Grand Central (inspired by Prince’s fascination with Grand Funk Railroad) were two of the most electrifying rival bands.
Considered to be the creation of bassist André Cymone (originally Anderson), Grand Central included André’s younger sister, Linda, on keyboards,Terry Jackson and William Doughty on percussion, and drummer Charles “Chazz” Smith (who played football withTerry Lewis in high school and was Prince’s cousin), later replaced by a left-handed drummer named Morris Day. The final and most notable member was Prince, plucking the guitar—along with any and all other instruments—with abandon. All of the members ranged in age from thirteen to sixteen and were self-taught musicians. Bernadette, André’s mother, a recent divorcée and mother of six children, let them use her basement as their rehearsal space. Prince was also living in the basement after running away from home when he was twelve years old because of disputes with his stepfather.
“You know how there’s one house in the neighborhood that everybody kind of comes to and hangs out? That was my crib,” André said in a 1998 interview where he doesn’t dispel rumors that it was also a space where they frequently entertained girls.
Their rivals, Flyte Time, included Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Jellybean Johnson, Monte Moir, and Cynthia Johnson. Members of both bands lived within a three-block radius of each other. At Central High School, Jim Hamilton, a former piano player in Ray Charles’s band, taught a class about the music business. The same faces appeared in his class—André Anderson, Terry Lewis, William Doughty, and Prince became his mentees. LaVonne Daughtery, Morris Day’s mother, became Grand Central’s manager.
Grand Central was focused—the group would spend half their days in school and the other half skipping school to rehearse in the basement. They played community centers, YMCAs, and hotels in the area. Flyte Time was more R&B-focused, playing covers of legends like Chaka Khan, Al Green, and James Brown, while Grand Central would play covers from groups ranging from Steely Dan to Sly and the Family Stone.
Pepé Willie, a Brooklyn-born musician with a band of his own named 94 East, would be instrumental in Prince and André’s later success. When Pepé first heard Grand Central at a ski party, he asked Daughtery if he could manage the group. He took them to meet Dale Minton, owner of Cookhouse Studios on Nicolett Avenue, armed with a demo of songs like “You Remind Me,” “39th Street Party,” and “Sex Machine,” written by André and Prince.
“He felt they weren’t ready,” Pepé remembers, “because they would play cover songs better than they would play their own songs. They couldn’t show what they could do on their own.”
But they were not without talent. Prince and André stood out from the group.
“Prince would take off his guitar and go over to Linda and play the chords on the keyboard he wanted her to play,” Pepé recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, this guy plays keyboards too?’ Then he would take André’s bass and play like he had been doing it for twenty years, playing the funkiest lines. And then André would pick up whatever he wanted him to play like he had been playing it forever. That’s how talented these guys were. I was like, ‘We got something here.’ ”
André and Prince would have contests about how fast they could write songs.
“I would say, ‘Let’s take five,’ and we’d go to the kitchen to make some chocolate cake,” remembers Pepé. “Prince would stay and wouldn’t eat; he would just continue playing. His work ethic started at a real early age.”
But André’s band was short-lived. They had one last name change to Champagne—when people began comparing them to Graham Central Station—before the group began to disband. Pepé took André under his wing as bassist for 94 East with Colonel Abrams as a vocalist and Bobby Z as a drummer, and they recorded two songs for Polydor—“Fortune Seller” and “10:15”— but, because of problems with the label, their contract was canceled and the songs weren’t completed.
Meanwhile, Prince had his sights set on getting out of Minneapolis, and when he met producer Chris Moon and a young manager named Owen Husney, it was the beginning of the end for Grand Central.
“Chris plays me this demo he had been recording on this eight-track,” Husney recalls. “Incredible. I was like, ‘Who’s the group?’And he was like,‘It’s not a group. It’s one kid, and he’s writing and singing and playing everything. I said, ‘Holy shit! Get him here now!’ ”
In a 1982 interview with Nat Morris on Detroit TV show The Scene, André didn’t mince words when describing Grand Central’s band as his group. “Morris and Prince was in it,” he said matter-of-factly. After the crowd erupted in applause, André smiled and said, “You hear that straight from the horse’s mouth.”
Prince would go on to define the Minneapolis sound, but André Cymone had a less-celebrated impact. In an interview in Billboard magazine, Husney described how Prince and André would stay up all night working on what would eventually become Prince’s 1980 album, Dirty Mind. Eventually, André became frustrated with his lack of recognition for his contributions and, in 1981, began a solo career with futuristic electronics and signed to Columbia Records, releasing Livin’ in the New Wave (1982), Survivin’ in the ’80s (1983), and A.C. (1985).
“They spent millions of hours jamming together in that basement,” says Husney about the group Grand Central. “André had a lot of input into that sound.”
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