Former New Power Generation keyboardist relishes lessons learned from Prince

“I’m a Prince fan to the bone,” O’Neal said in a recent MSR interview. She performed a couple weeks ago at Paisley Park’s “Celebration 2018.” “We’re enjoying ourselves. It’s like a family reunion,” she noted of the nearly dozen musicians who participated in live music, panel discussions, rare concert screenings and special presentations that honored the life, legacy and influence of Prince.

O’Neal joined the New Power Generation in 2009 after being a member in the all-female band COED (Chronicles of Every Diva), and three years as Macy Gray’s musical director (2004-07). She also worked with Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z on the “Heart of the City Tour” in 2008.

Cassandra O’Neal
Cassandra O’Neal Charles Hallman/MSR News

Throughout her 25-year career, Cassandra O’Neal has collaborated with some of music’s top names, including her seven-year run as part of the late Prince’s New Power Generation band.

Sheila E. first introduced O’Neal to Prince in 2005 while she was playing in her band, O’Neal recalled. “Her band backed him up” at an awards show, she noted, “that was my first meeting of him.”

Prince later asked for a CD sample of her work, and invited O’Neal and her fellow female band members to join him. But due to O’Neal’s late mother’s health issues, she declined.

“It was my mother’s 70th birthday… She had been in and out of the hospital and I needed to be with her,” she explained.  But Prince later asked a second time, O’Neal said. “You didn’t audition for him. In popular Prince-fashion, when he asked if you are available, he doesn’t give you a date,” she pointed out. “I got the gig in October [2009]” and joined Prince on tour in France as musical director and keyboardist.

“He had that sound. When you are playing his music, you became a clone,” O’Neal said of Prince.

On working with the late legendary musician, O’Neal said, “It was like being at band camp every day. There was a new lesson, a new [work] ethic every day. A new way of thinking every day for seven years.”

Others who also worked with Prince advised her: “Play the music. Don’t make it your own. Do what he asks you to do at all times. Don’t ask any questions. Just do it.”

O’Neal, who started playing piano by ear at age three, learned classical piano, played in the church, and played for high school choruses and ensembles. As an adult, she moved to Los Angles and toured with gospel singer Daryl Coley in 1994 and then became a staff musician at the West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

As with other musicians who started out in the church, O’Neal also was criticized when she moved to secular music. “There was pushback on so many levels. Church folk don’t understand [because being] in the church is all they know,” she pointed out. “The decision was strictly between me and God. It had nothing to do with anyone else.”

“I’m a preacher’s daughter. [But] all [the diverse music] I know I wanted to play and some people didn’t quite get that.

“I knew at a young age I was going to play [professionally],” O’Neal said, adding that she had her parents’ blessing and encouragement. “My parents both came from diverse musical backgrounds: my father love Dinah Washington and the standards. My mother was a gospel person and in the choir. My siblings are older than me and listened to the sounds of the time.  When I got older to turn the dial on the radio, I listened to rock music and pop stuff.”

Her mother later told her that God was preparing her a music career that would take her to Hollywood. She played keyboards on the Dreamgirls and The 6th Man soundtracks, to the small screen.  She also performed on various television shows such as the NAACP Image Awards, The Today Show and The Tonight Show, among others. Additionally, over the years she shared the stage and studio with the likes of Chante Moore, Babyface, LeAnn Rimes and Kurt Carr & the Kurt Carr Singers among others.

Cassandra O’Neal
Cassandra O’Neal on the keys Courtesy of the artist

“Kurt made me cry” she recalled of gospel artist, arranger and composer Carr. She said he pushed her to do her very best to ensure that her passion fully comes out in her music. “He really fine-tuned me… If it’s simple, make it simple. If it’s complex, make it complex. Give the music what it deserves. Love the music and it will love you back. I was able to take that teaching and apply it to every genre.”

Finally, O’Neal, who also gives private music lessons to piano and vocal students, expects to graduate with a degree in jazz vocal performance from the New School of Jazz in New York City in June. At press time, she had also planned on being a featured performer at the “Nothing Compares 2 Prince” tribute concert in Australia on April 27 and 29.

“We’re doing old songs,” along with Prince music not often heard, mixed in with new work from her and other artists on the bill, she concluded. “It will allow us to relive that Prince experience.”