First of a two-part story
Yup! I think they [MPS teachers on strike] should get a better vacation too… And, I think they should get more money too cuz they work extra hours for us and all that stuff. —Prince, 1970
When WCCO-TV production manager Matthew Liddy recently, and rather fortuitously, unearthed film of a young Prince Rogers Nelson responding to a reporter’s question about the 1970 Minneapolis Public Schools teachers’ strike, the response was immediate and immense.
To have discovered this archival video of Prince, who at the age of 11 had already perfected his famous “side-eye” glare, was as significant as it was astonishing. Who could ever imagine uncovering a gem such as this more than five decades later?
It was certainly news to Quent Neufeld, the local newsman who interviewed Prince that day in April 1970. Now retired and living in suburban Portland, Oregon, the amazed Neufeld said he had no idea that he’d ever even been in the presence of Prince, much less spoken to him.
Friends and associates, musical collaborators, and Prince scholars have all weighed in on the video, not only remarking on its historic magnitude, but the emotions of excitement and sadness it has stirred inside of them.
Related Story: Growing up with Prince: the makings of a superstar
“Look at Prince,” Camille Lewis exclaimed after her brother forwarded a still shot from the WCCO footage. “He looks the same,” she thought to herself before a fierce wave of sadness washed over her, remembering that it’s been nearly six years now since his tragic passing.
Lewis worked with Prince—as well as with other Minneapolis Sound legends André Anderson, Morris Day, and her own cousin William “Hollywood” Doughty—as part of Neighborhood Youth Corps one summer in North Minneapolis.
“It was the Ruth Hawkins Day Care at North Commons Park,” remembered Lewis. “Andre’s mom Bernadette ran the program, and our group worked mostly with toddlers and preschoolers.”
Playing the dozens was a daily activity for the young teens, but Lewis noted that they never talked about their mothers, just each other. “One day I told Morris I was going to go ‘dot-to-dot’ on his face with a pen,” she chuckled when thinking of the notoriously freckled-face Day.
Prince took his fair share of ribbing back then, often teased that he wasn’t much bigger than kids younger than him. Still, Lewis recalled, Prince could dish out the dozens with the best of them, and moreover, something told her even then that “someday he would be a superstar.”
‘Me and Cuz’
Around the time the now-famous video was captured, there is likely no one still alive, except Prince’s sister Tyka, who knew him better or spent more time with him than his cousin Charles Smith, also known as Chazz. Prince credited Smith, two years his senior, with teaching him about three things growing up: “music, basketball, and girls.”
The first thing that came to Smith as he heard the voice of his 11-year-old cousin was how smart he was, even then.
“Prince always valued education and he was sincere in his support of the teachers and their demands,” Smith said. “After all, his mom worked for MPS. And, he always sided with the underdog. But he was happy that he got to miss those days from school— it gave him more time to practice music.”
“We dug Angela Davis. And, even though they were gone by then, we knew all about Malcolm, Martin, and Medgar. Oh, and Prince was really into James Baldwin, too.”
In spite of Prince’s seemingly shy nature as a youngster, he also maintained an unwavering confidence. The two cousins, who lived only a couple blocks from one another, Prince on 8th Avenue North and Smith on Sheridan, often walked home together from the park, school, a friend’s home or the Hospitality House, where Smith and Prince would play ping pong and pool together.
“We might be talking or arguing about something and Prince would just blurt out, ‘Whatever I say is right! I’m always right.'” Smith would respond, “No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am,” Prince would say.
This back-and-forth would continue all the way home. Smith would stop on his block watching and waiting for Prince to yell out one more “Yes, I am” as he opened his own front door. And, without fail, when Smith walked into his house, the phone would ring.
It was Prince, just to say once more, “Charles, you know I’m right!”
The Little Intellectual…The Radical…The Baller
“I used to call him The Great Gazoo after the character from ‘The Flintstones’,” Smith recalled. But Smith insists it was because Prince “was so damn smart.” As a pre-teen, Prince was already deep into history and “hip” to everything going on in the world. “He knew all about the [Black] Panthers. About Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, and so on,” Smith observed, “We dug Angela Davis. And, even though they were gone by then, we knew all about Malcolm, Martin and Medgar. Oh, and Prince was really into James Baldwin, too.”
Prince’s intelligence, combined with his curiosity, ambition, and uncanny ability to absorb and utilize knowledge, would serve him well in nearly every aspect of his life.
Smith, being the older of the two, started competing in organized sports as soon as he was eligible, everything from baseball to football to track and field.
“Prince would come to all my games, to my track meets, and he knew right away what success looked like,” Smith recounted. “That side-eye everybody always talks about—he could melt ice with that look.”
The notion that his younger cousin looked up to him and expected him to do well helped Smith go on to win the NFL’s local Punt, Pass & Kick competition seven years in a row. “Prince made me a better athlete because I absolutely hated to disappoint him,” Smith recalled.
While Prince enjoyed all sports, basketball was undoubtedly his other muse as a kid, and his fabled skills on the playground were learned by observing some of the legends of the day.
Although there wasn’t a lot of professional basketball on television in the early 1970s, the older Smith helped to acquaint Prince with the likes of NBA icons Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Pete Maravich, not to mention the reigning stars of the ABA in those days, including Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving and George Gervin.
“Prince paid real close attention to all those cats,” Smith said. “He noted the style and the grace that they played with…made it part of his own game, at least as much as he could given his stature.”
And, on the occasions where Smith and his cousin showed up at a neighborhood court to challenge another pair to a game of two on two, more often than not, their opponents couldn’t hide their amusement—that is until Prince ran them off the court.
Smith couldn’t help but still smile about it to this day. “He was just so good. So quick, so elusive. Nobody could check Prince on the playground. Nobody!”
Next week: Charles Smith reflects on the start of Prince’s musical career.
Tony Kiene’s experience in the Twin Cities nonprofit and entertainment industries includes work with Minneapolis Urban League, Penumbra Theatre, Hallie Q. Brown, and Pepé Music.
He welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.