Interview with Prince’s musical director Morris Hayes

Prince by The Prince Estate ©

Prince by The Prince Estate ©

Anyone out there with a passion for music will remember with great sadness the leap year 2016.
In 366 days alone, we lost Prince, David Bowie, George Micheal and Leonard Cohen and – as if it wasn’t enough, the curtain closed on their lives in atrociously sarcastic ways for the most part.

David Bowie died two days after the release of his last album Blackstar which he had put out on his 69th birthday.

George Micheal died on Christmas Day while the entire world was singing out his signature song Last Christmas; three years later, George Micheal’s sister Melanie Panayiotou also died on Christmas Day.

Prince died on April 21, which is the birthday of Rome.
The eternal city was founded on April 21, 753 BC and, as the famous song by Morcheeba says, it wasn’t certainly built in a day; now, 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 see how majesty and grandeur belong to music as much as history.
Prince published 52 albums and was only 57 when he died – and he started releasing music aged 20, not 3.

Hard work and dedication were also qualities Prince required from his peers and colleagues, so it’s no surprise that his backing band from 1990 to 2013 is still around.
The New Power Generation got together in 2015 just before his death for Prince’s last studio album Hit n Run Phase Two, and reunited again in the following years for a US and European Prince tribute tour which offered the opportunity to arrange this interview with the band’s keyboardist and Prince’s musical director of 20 years Morris Hayes.

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Morris, did Prince make history?

Morris Hayes Prince band The New Power Generation keyboard

Morris Hayes – © to the owners

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 too many to name groundbreaking things that Prince was about. Most of all, he was a very sturdy advocate for owning your music and being in control of your work. Also, 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 people to be quiet, so they didn’t make a big thing or announcements about what he was working on or what he was doing with regard to his philanthropy. I think this is the biggest thing people don’t know about him. 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 of his life, and then again, 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 – but just for everybody. He’s just been wonderful in that regard.

Do you have 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. 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 had 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 were so many times when I did that. Also, a thing he would often say is that an audience of ten people deserves the same respect as an audience of ten thousand. 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. And another of the big things was: “Just put your hands down”. One of the things he would say to me was also: “You think too much, put your hands down, let your spirit be your guide”. He 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”. You know, Miles Davis said in one of his great quotes that the right note is the very next to the wrong note 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 for 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 all going to be great as well!

What were you doing before working with Prince?

Before meeting Prince I was playing with a band at church – there was a very prominent church in Chicago I was playing at – and when I left there in the mid-1980s to go to college, they were doing a band and they wanted me to come down to 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 all had the knowledge that the band was pretty great so that’s how we did it. 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 the technology and the orchestration part of putting things together. That’s what I like about what I do; 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 liked 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 because 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.

What was your dream job as a child?

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 thing I like. I like comics so I wanted to be like a comic book artist – that sort of thing. But then when I got to college, my love quickly shifted to music. I also went to a school for computer programming, but eventually, music covered everything.

What should Prince fans expect from New Power Generation reunions and live shows?

We did all this work with Prince for many years, like me 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, even if I don’t think he’ll ever do. 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, some 40 years ago now. The NPG first came together in 2016 for the Official Prince Tribute Concert 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. Prince made so much music that his fans would be that engaged and there’s still 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.

How do you make live shows work without Prince?

One of the things we’re trying to do is to raise a profile because people may not know about our new performer 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. After all, the music is the same: it’s just the concept that gets people used to seeing somebody else – and the key and what I love about MacKenzie is that he is 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’s music that he can. 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 cannot be filled. So it’s like all you can do is do your best and your interpretation and do the songs. Prince has always told me he respected music – and all I’m asking everybody in the band is to respect the music. And I’m just so grateful. To the fans, to the friends, to the people who loved Prince and still come out to support his music. 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 here, so 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.

The New Power Generation by Peter Lodder ©

The New Power Generation by Peter Lodder ©

Unless stated otherwise, pictures were provided from Morris Haye’s private collection © to the owners

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