Interview with Prince’s musical director Morris Hayes

Any rock and pop lover, as well as any human being in their right mind in this poor world, will remember with endless sadness that bastard leap year known as 2016.
In 366 days alone, we lost three music giants such as Prince, David Bowie, George Micheal – not to mention other amazing artists like Leonard Cohen.
As if the distress itself wasn’t enough, the curtain closed on their lives in the most atrociously sarcastic way.

David Bowie died just two days after the release of his last album Blackstar.
Which he’d put out on his 69th birthday.
George Micheal passed away while the rest of the world was playing and singing his perhaps most famous song, Last Christmas.
He died on Christmas Day.

Prince died on April 21st.
It has nothing to do with music, but if there’s one thing I learned in my life, it’s that Rome was founded on April 21st 753 BC.
And even if you know nothing about the city and have never been there, someone must have told you at some point that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
If you think about what Prince achieved in his life, and the incredible amount of groundbreaking and diverse work he produced during his career, you’ll realise that majesty and grandeur belong to music as much as to history.

Morris Hayes and Prince vintage black and white picture

Prince and The New Power Generation back in the days.

Prince published 52 albums and was only 57 when he died.
And he started releasing albums aged 20, not 3.
Dedication and hard work were also the qualities he required from the people that worked with him, so it’s no surprise that his backing band from 1990 to 2013 is touring again.

The New Power Generation reunited in 2015 for Prince’s last studio album Hit n Run Phase Two before his death, and they also organised a European and US tour in 2017, after he died.
Today, they are touring with Celebrating Prince, an epic musical homage featuring the music of Prince.

Just like Queen have been touring the world with Adam Lambert covering Freddie Mercury, the NPG picked America’s Got Talent 2019 semi-finalist MacKenzie as their new lead vocalist.

It was an unmissable opportunity, as well as a big honour, for me to interview keyboardist Morris Hayes, who – in addition to having worked with Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston – was in The New Power Generation for more than 20 years and served as Prince’s musical director for most of that time.

But our interview hasn’t been only about Prince and his music: Morris has strong opinions about Rome (!), gun sales in the United States and songs about cars.
I’ve always loved strong opinions, especially when they are different from mine.
You know, the fact is that I’m in love with my car.
Even though I don’t have any.

Hi Morris, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. The first question is: why did you decide to reunite the New Power Generation?

The whole idea for us as we reunited – when the NPG came together in October 2016 for the Official Prince Tribute Concert – we saw that the crowd came and we sold out very quickly.  And so we did that show with 52 Prince songs and received a lot of comments from fans for the fact that they loved the event but still – even then, they were like “why didn’t you perform every song?” And that’s just incredible how many people said to me that with all the music that we played, we still didn’t hit their favourite songs. This was astounding to me. We have an artist that made so much music, so much he’s done, and the fans would be that engaged that there’s such an appetite for this music. So we should go and play for the people who didn’t get to ever see Prince, for the course of things, so they can see something at this point. And so that’s why we thought it was a good idea to reunite.

Let’s talk about yourself: what was your dream job as a kid?

You know, when I was a kid I used to like – and I still love – to draw, and I like to scribble and draw things. I actually had a scholarship for Arts, and so I thought I’d be an artist – and then I went on to draw and paint and that’s the sort of things I like. I like comics so I wanted to be like a comic book artist – that sort of thing. But then when I got in college, my love quickly shifted to music. I also went to a school for computer programming, but eventually, music covered everything.

What were you doing before you worked with Prince and what would you do now if you didn’t make it as a musician?

Before meeting Prince I was playing with a band, playing at church – there was a very prominent church in Chicago I was playing at – and when I left there in the mid-80s to go to college, they were doing a band and they wanted me to come down in Memphis. So I left Chicago to join this band. And that was a band that Prince heard: when they came to Memphis, they told us that they’d heard a lot of other people playing their songs but that our band played it like damn and that we sounded like the records: that was the beginning of that relationship. And Mark Brown and some of the other people from Prince’s band – you know – they all had the knowledge that the band was pretty great so that’s how we did it.

You said in an interview that Prince believed what he was best at writing songs – what do you think you’re best at?

I’m good at putting things together. Prince had a lot of really amazing keyboard players far better than me in terms of just being able to sit down and play, but what I have always been good at is technology and the orchestration part of putting things together. That’s what I like about what I do; you know, Prince always called me to glue, he would tell me like “I’ve got this over here, I’ve got this over there” – and I was like “what do you want me to do?” And he said he just wanted me to glue, just put things out together” – and that is why he would call me. So I like that, I like the behind the scenes thing that wasn’t always very prominent but I like the fact that I can work behind the scenes ‘cause I didn’t care about all the limelight. It’s mostly just the work itself that was like really cool, so I just liked that part.

How do you think Prince changed history?

Well, first of all, he was always very different and he was all about just working his way – you know, he wasn’t afraid of the industry, of people or the music executives. Prince always spoke his mind, he always did what he wanted to do and I think what he brought to the table was the whole thing: it was all about the music and all about independence for artists. There are many – you know – too many to name groundbreaking things that Prince was about. Most of all, he was a very sturdy advocate for owing your music and being in control of your work.

You once said that the biggest lesson Prince gave you was it’s not a mistake until you stop – is there any other interesting things he told you and that you want to share?

Of course. One of the big things was “just put your hands down”. One of the things he would say to me was just “you think too much, put your hands down” and it was like “let your spirit be your guide” – in other words. ‘Cause sometimes you know you’ve been thinking about things, but he just never worried about stuff, even when he made a mistake, he could repeat it and make it like it wasn’t a mistake. It’s like he could repeat a mistake and then be just like “oh, I tried to do that”; Miles Davis said in one of his great quotes that the right note is the very next to the wrong that you played, and it’s just like if you step out to the next one and that’s right. When I’ve been mentioned in interviews by Prince that he was nervous, that he could get nervous before TV shows and things like that, the truth is that he wasn’t nervous for him – he was nervous for me and everybody else! He wasn’t nervous for himself because he knew he was going to be great, he just wanted to make sure we were going to be great as well!

Have you got a favourite memory from your time with Prince?

Yeah, I’ve got many, but what I liked the most and the thing I miss the most is Prince’s laugh. I mean, we would have some very fun days just to hear him laugh, it was like medicine in itself because he laughed hard and he laughed loudly whenever he thought something was funny. He would just have this hardy laugh like HA HA HA. So whenever I could do anything funny enough to make him laugh like this, I would just think of stuff from day-to-day that I could do to get him to laugh. And whenever I would, this was going to be very rewarding in that way. There are so many times when I did that!

Was there, in your opinion, an important side of Prince’s character that was overlooked by the media and the fans?

I think one of the things that a lot of people didn’t know is how much he gave and how much he did for others. Prince would ask they would be quiet, so they didn’t make a big thing or announcements about what he was working on or what he was doing with regards to his philanthropy. I think that the biggest thing that people don’t know – I mean, everybody knows that he’s done great music, they know he was a great fashionista, everybody knows he was an advocate for just a lot of good things – but I think another thing people don’t know is just how much he gave to people and that he took care of people. That was a very big part and he always sought to keep it quiet. But I am glad that now people are starting to understand how much he did for – not just me, and he did a lot for me, and for everybody. He’s just been wonderful in that regard.

Coming back to you, what do you think it’s the biggest difference between American and British music?

You know, there’s just a different perspective I guess, it’s all about what you deal with in life, and it’s a very different life in the UK and other places than it is in America. There’s a lot of things that we deal with here, like utter violence and a lot of situations that happen politically, and I think artists feel a call to address those issues. And you may not have those kinds of issues, or maybe it’s prominent. You know, nobody in the world has the gun issue that we have in the United States – it’s crazy and it’s one of the things people need to bring attention to. Because it’s insanity, how crazy this stuff is, and it doesn’t happen in any other parts of the world. So this is why I think it’s important to talk about that.

I am Italian and we couldn’t figure out having guns sold everywhere the way you do in America.

Yeah, it’s crazy! I cannot figure out to let that here either! This is one of the tough things with which people deal: dealers are the real issue, and music has always been a great platform to deal with ills or social ills and things that happen to people. You’ve always seen the revolution being televised, it’s definitely been going on for years: civil right movements, equal rights movements and I think music is a great catcher for that feel. If you’re not experienced in that, maybe it will be difficult to try and make an issue about something that you’re not experienced in – and so people that are happy make music about their cars, being at the beach and stuff like that. I think that means that there wasn’t a turmoil and you just sing about what was around you. You tend to write and sing about things that affect you and affect your environment.

So do you believe guns should be banned in the US?

My thing is: it would seem to me that if nobody had guns, then nobody would be getting shot at all the time.

Fair enough.

I just happen to think that if nobody had guns except for the military people than there wouldn’t be these massive killings. It can’t possibly stop if you can just go and get guns from everywhere: how do you plan to stop these things? You can’t. If you do have access to these things and you can get from anywhere – that affects other people’ lives even if they don’t have a gun: all this is making me a potential victim from somebody who does (have a gun).

When I was in San Francisco I realised that you sell guns at the supermarket. That completely shocked me.

Yeah, that’s crazy.

I took pictures of guns sold at supermarkets for my friends as they wouldn’t believe this, in Europe. It’s a great shame. You’re a great country.

I think it’s crazy, too. And I think people hold on to the ancient times – we are talking about what things were like in the colonial days. This is not how it is now and I think things have to change over time, I mean they’re used not to be women’s’ vote, and women can vote now. They also let black people vote, and we are not talking about hundreds of years ago, we are talking about fifty years ago. I mean, this is recent history – it’s just that things change because times change – and the fact that people want to live as if we were in these Western days where people could walk around and shot one other because of disputes and issues, this is crazy to me. And this is from a so-called civilised country. This is my opinion.

Yours is a very inspiring opinion. In my opinion.

There are many people who feel like “hey, it’s my right to have a gun” and all of this, and I think it’s ok, but I’m just saying that if nobody had one, so how that would be? You don’t have this problem in other places – that’s all I’m saying, we are not like other places and you have to ask yourself why is this here? This doesn’t happen in other places.

Have you ever lived outside of the US so you can compare more countries?

I have been all over the world and I travel a lot of course, and I think the longer stays that I’ve been outside of the United States were when I lived in China for six months and in England for like three months. This was when we were working on the O2 shows in 2007 and we had an apartment into the O2 in London. That’s about the longest stays abroad, but I spent years touring outside of the United States and have been in a lot of places so many times, I know my way around in other countries. But many people in the United States don’t travel: at least 50% of people in this country don’t have a passport, it’s just crazy. It used to be much smaller than that a few years again – it used to be only 30% of people in the US with a passport just a few years ago so that in itself is a problem: in America, people don’t travel, so they think “this is the world” and they’re not connected to the outside, when in reality it’s all connected, we’re all connected.

How would you improve this situation in America?

I think education is the best possible solution for anything, because if you don’t know, you don’t know, and all you get is soundbites and people are telling you stuff. I think kids don’t see colours, I think you’re not racist when you come into this world, I think it’s a learned behaviour, and I think as you travel and as you see other things, that changes. When I’ve been to China I’d heard all of these things about China and I was kind of worried, I was like, oh man, they must be kind of crazy. But then Chinese people are some of the coolest people I dealt with: it’s all about people. Governments do what governments do, and of course, the Chinese government can be a  very much overlooking government.

(Well, I wouldn’t even call it a government...) Yeah.

But this is as a government, and I don’t deal with the government, I deal with people. And so I found the people to be very kind and just like anybody else, and I loved my time in China. I thought it was cool, and I thought Shanghai was a beautiful city, and a lot of the people that I met were beautiful people, so to me, it’s all that came down to – I’m a musician, I’m an ambassador, I come to talk about music and to do music. I’m there to be an ambassador for music and for the American term of musician that brings something creative to stage and then collaborates with other creatives in different places and different countries.

Wow. Is there another country in the world that could inspire the United States to improve education?

I think there are a lot of great places around the world that I’ve been to, I love Australia, we enjoyed our time there, and of course, there’s a lot of European cities that we love. We love of course England and the United Kingdom and a personal favourite of mine is when we went to Holland and some of the Scandinavian countries, we loved there. The funny thing is that when I was there I was like “wow, this looks like Minnesota”, and I was told that yes, most of the people of Minnesota are of German of Norwegian descent – that, you know, all of these folks here had settled in Minnesota because it’s the thing that reminded them most about home! It’s like 57% of the people in Minnesota are of Scandinavian or German descent – so I was like OK, that makes sense! It was cool, there’s a lot of wonderful places around that I enjoyed and that Prince enjoyed. Prince loved France, we all love Paris – there’s a lot of wonderful things and places. And you know, Italy is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

I know but thank you.

When I was in Italy, I went from the North of Italy down to Sicily – we get to Sicily and it was like one of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen on this planet. At some point, I saw some smoke coming up and I was like: where is this smoke coming from?! And they were like, it’s the volcano! And I was like oh… yeah, really?! And they were like, don’t worry, it’s been like that for ages, it’s fine!

Ha ha ha.

Ha ha, yes, it’s a beautiful country, I’ve been also all across the mountains in Northern Italy!

Have you ever been to my city, Rome?

Oh, absolutely. I made sure when we went to Rome along with Prince in 2010 or 2011, that I made a point to stop the driver to make me let me out at the Coliseum so I could walk on the ancient bricks. The Coliseum is one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of things, and one of my favourite movies is The Gladiator, and one of the things I was interested about in the movie is how they recreated what it was like back then: they got it from an old picture of what it is like now and they kind of went backwards in time and it’s just incredible. When I was travelling around, as the driver was driving around the Coliseum, I was like “stop the car!” I want to get out and I want to take a picture and I made my stop and I got out and I wanted to stand on the bricks, and it was one of those amazing moments I just loved so much. It was just like breathtaking.

Hope you enjoyed your ice-cream as well.

Oh, I did. I remember being in Milan and it was so hot, it was unbelievably hot.

Yeah, it can reach more than 40°C in Summer.

Oh my God, it was hot! This was still in the 1990s and was still before the Euro currency was adopted by the Eurozone and I didn’t know how many thousands of Liras I needed to buy some ice-cream!

Seriously?! You’re bringing me back to my school days! Yes, there was a massive currency deprecation with Liras, and when we eventually switched to Euros, you needed about 2.000 Liras to buy one Euro.

Yes ha ha, and I was like “how many thousands of Liras will cost this?” Yes, it was a lot of fun but my ice-cream melted almost immediately and we had to drink it as it couldn’t be eaten! So I had to drink my ice-cream, but it was great, it was absolutely the best! Italy is like France.

No. We are nicer than the French.

I mean that you guys are known for so many other best: it’s the finest clothes, the greatest cars, it’s like Italy does everything well, and the food is amazing. And it’s funny though, but it’s true: the first time I had pasta and spaghetti and things like these it was completely different. Italy ruined me because when I had it there I was like: this is what it’s really supposed to be like! And when you go back and taste what it is, it’s like oh my God, this is bad, this is really bad. So I kind of suggest people that go to Italy not to eat the food if you want to go back home and eat it again: you won’t be able to eat this food again after you go to Italy!

What did Prince say about it all?

Prince loved Italy as well, he loved to take us to the best hotels and restaurants – he loved to take us out to spend just enormous amounts of money in food; he’d always take us to the best places. That was one of the perks of the job: you get to eat in these amazing places and just the best food in the world. But the thing about Italy is that not only is it the best and expensive places are great: even the smallest places are good and that’s what I really loved about. You don’t have to go to the high-end places, you can still get something that was like unbelievably great.

What about fans? Are we really the craziest ones? Did Prince get stalked a lot?

I have a secret to tell you: everybody thinks they’re the craziest fans, that’s what everybody says. Everybody would say that “we’re the biggest fans! we’re the craziest fans” – and we would be like OK, but we want to see who’s the craziest ones! Some of my dearest friends are still in Italy, whenever I go there a lot of my Prince friends come and meet me when I’m there, and I think it’s always wonderful.

Anything else you want to say about… everything? You’re very interesting to speak to.

One I just want to add is that I’m so grateful. To the fans, the friends, to the people who love Prince that still come out to support his music. You know, we did all this work with Prince for many years, like myself for close 20 years and I’m just always happy when people come to hear his music, we’re preserving his legacy. I want to make sure Prince never dies, I don’t think he’ll ever do – that’s funny, I just got a post on my Facebook that says Prince never dies. For me, it is a great thing to be able to go and play this music that is all I’ve known since I was an adult – I started working with Prince when I was like 20 and I’m almost 60 now.

You look like 35.

You know, I didn’t abuse drugs, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink – and happiness is one of the key things. I am pretty much happy, I think everybody has challenges in life, but for the most part, I’m a happy kid and I’m grateful and glad that I’m able to maintain some degree of usefulness. And I’m just happy that people love and respect Prince and his music – that’s what we do, we love and respect Prince and his music. And we have just answered a market demand and if there’s a way that we can play his music and people come out that’d be great, and we’re happy to do it.

Would you like to tell me more about this New Power Generation show?

One of the things we’re trying to do is to raise a profile, because people don’t know about MacKenzie and how great he is as a singer; MacKenzie is slowly becoming known to people. I am sure a lot of people think “what can it be without Prince? How good can it be?” until they see the show.

It’s a bit like what Queen are doing with Adam Lambert that covers Freddie Mercury, and they are touring as Queen + Adam Lambert.

Yeah.

I think it’s a great concept since you guys were Prince’s musicians, and the music is the same.

Yes, the music is the same: it’s just the concept that gets people used to see somebody else – and the key and what I love about MacKenzie is that he’s not trying to be Prince. He is not trying to look like him, not trying to act like him, but of course, he’s doing the best interpretation of Prince music that he can do. That’s what it’s all about, it’s the music and it’s not about our personalities involved, and that’s what I asked him, that he’d be himself: no Prince personator, no Prince whatever can be Prince, that’s all cannot be filled. So it’s like all you can do is do your best and your interpretation and do the songs. He has always told me he respected music – and all I’m asking everybody in the band is to respect the music.

Prince used to say that an audience of ten people deserves the same respect as an audience of thousands

Yes, it’s right, he told me this when I got a few bad notes. He said: ten or ten thousand – that’s the same show: you give everything you have every show you do, I don’t care if there’s just one person. The key is to always do your best – that’s what it’s all about: always do your best.

Have you got anything else to say?

Yes: just give the New Power Generation a chance if you’re nearby… and if you’re not nearby, talk to your promoter if you want us to come to Italy! And all over the rest of the world!

Morris Hayes Prince band The New Power Generation keyboard

© Morris Hayes

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