Prince fans, get ready to party like it’s 1999 with New Power Generation. Prince’s backing band, who toured, wrote and recorded with the iconic multi-Grammy award winning artist, has reunited and is performing at the O2, writes Laura Burgoine…
NPG’s longest running member, keyboardist Morris Hayes , who was also Prince’s musical director for years, talks to the Weekender about the legend, the music, and the five personas of Prince.
This gig is inspired by the 2016 tribute concert to Prince held, just after his death at age 57, in the grounds of the singer’s private estate Paisley Park, in Minnesota.
“The fans seem as excited as we are, and we’re happy about that,” Morris told the Weekender. “We were there in London last year for an outdoor festival and this is the first time going back with NPG. We’ll have some of the staple hits that we do but we try to spread a bit of other things in there. I put a lot of care into the set list; I don’t try to make it too crazy but I switch it up a bit.”
The original tribute concert ran for over five hours, and still fans wanted more. “Prince had just passed away and this was a testament to how deep Prince’s musical powerhouse is,” Morris said. “He has so much music that people gravitate to; the hardest part of my job is to figure out which songs to include.”
Playing onstage without their leader is “emotional.” “Doing that tribute really turned on a switch for me, seeing people reacting and how powerful the music is, and knowing Prince’s legacy is going to be preserved,” Morris said. “He is an amazing artist. That music is going to be here forever. We play Purple Rain and we remember those different moments with him. Sometimes it’s cool, and sometimes it really hits you, especially with the emotion of the crowd.”
“When we played Purple Rain in rehearsal before the last trip we went on, we were really solemn and some people were crying.”
Morris got his big break in 1990 when Jerome Benton asked him to play keyboards with the Time. He was hired to replace Jimmy Jam and in ’91 he toured Asia with the Time and, at the end of the tour, Morris and a good friend formed a band called G Sharp and the Edge. They were the backing band for Prince’s new nightclub Glam Slam; Prince recognized their immense talent and hired the entire band to play with Carmen Electra on his Diamonds & Pearls tour in 1992. After the tour, Prince asked Morris to officially join the NPG as another keyboard player alongside Tommy Barbarella.
Morris left the NPG for a few years to tour with renowned saxophonist Maceo Park and returned in 2005, performing with Prince during his memorable 2007 Super Bowl halftime performance in Miami. Morris remained in the NPG until late 2012. During this run, he took over the famously demanding role of Prince’s musical director. “I figured out there were five different Princes and when I knew which one I was dealing with, it was fine,” Morris said. “Number one was the first Prince I came to see when I saw Purple Rain, two is the one I saw when I got asked to be in the band and we started rehearsing and I realised: this guy is intense. Three was we could play basketball and joke about each other’s Moms and play pranks on each other. Four was the sad Prince; he was not happy. And five was the one where I said to myself ‘this is the guy who would give you the shirt off his back.’ A dear man. If somebody in the band had someone pass away, he’d get hold of them and say “I’ll pay for it”.”
“I learned to see which one showed up on any given day. I’m a joker too. Sometimes I’d be joking and he’d be in a different mode and you’d get your neck cut off. When he would speak, I’d know which Prince it was, and then I’d do my thing,” Morris continued. “Maybe that’s why I stayed so long. He had great keyboardists; I wasn’t the best of them.”
The musician describes working with Prince as “constant boot camp.” “He was always in teach mode. He always said “I’m hard and tough because I want you all to be great.” That was a big thing,” Morris said.
So, was it talent or hard work that made Prince a legend?
“It was a combination. Definitely he had a gift from God, where he was just hit with a lightning bolt but it was also him working on it on a daily basis. He never shut down. He never did nothing, he never rested,” Morris said. “I remember one time I went to speak to him, it was pretty intense, and I suggested he take a week off. He came back after that week and called me on the intercom to come to his office and I was like “oh, I’m in big trouble, man” but he just said “I appreciated you coming in and talking to me last week. It’s the first week I’ve not picked up my guitar or written a song. I chilled out, vegged out and collected my thoughts.” He did not have an off switch.”
Prince was well known for his perfectionism and high level of professionalism. He came from the school of: the show must go on. “He broke his toe once and he still went on and performed this show, even though he was in writhing pain. Then he jumped off the piano and hit that foot but he was a trooper; he kept going.”
There was no such thing as a typical day working for Prince. “That could be any number of things, us watching television; we watched a lot of sports, MMA fighting. He loved to laugh. I looked for comedy in everything. We would die laughing. Some days we’d be in the studio, some days just watching a movie. He looked at us like family. His bands were like his family.”
Morris has now moved back to his hometown in Arkansas and travels to Minnesota whenever the band rehearses. “I left home at 19, I lived in LA. Now I’m back in Arkansas looking after my folks; they’re getting up in their years and my Mum suffers from dementia,” he said. “Most people don’t know me. I’m fairly introverted, a homebody. Being in the band was my whole life for 20 years, I went out all the time, now it’s cool to be here. It’s a much quieter life.”
New Power Generation is playing at London Indigo O2 Arena on Thursday 2 August at 8pm (doors open at 7pm). Admission: £36.76. www.theo2.co.uk