Growing up with Prince: the makings of a superstar

On the floor wrestling: Charles Smith and Prince Rogers Nelson. On the sofa (l-r): Charles’ mother Mary Smith, his sister Denise Smith, and his aunt Mary Lou Hill holding his newborn cousin Tracy Riley-Giles.
Photo courtesy of the Smith Family Archives

Conclusion of a two-part story

In part one of this story, Prince’s cousin Charles Smith recounted their early years growing up together. In this installment, Smith reflects on the origins of Prince’s legendary and iconic musical career.

“I’ll play the guitar”

The subsequent musical collaboration between cousins began somewhat casually. “I’d bring new records over to his house,” recalled Charles Smith: “Hendrix, Santana, Grand Funk Railroad, Cold Blood from Oakland, stuff like that. It blew his mind. I’d see the gleam in his eyes. He was made for this.”

One day Prince just started playing the piano, so Smith, who didn’t have his own drum kit yet, grabbed some kitchen utensils and joined in. “I started playing on this bench that was down at his mother’s house. And, for my bass drum, I would just kick the side of it,” said Smith. 

The two of them got to where they’d play television theme songs such as “Batman,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and “Get Smart.” Before long, they felt like they really had something. 

Smith eventually told Prince, “Now we just need someone to play guitar and bass.” 

“I’ll play the guitar,” said Prince. 

“What?!” replied Smith, “You can’t play guitar!” 

Prince insisted, “I’ll get my dad to buy me a guitar.” Indeed, shortly after this declaration, Prince’s dad gifted his son with his first guitar and he brought it over to his cousin’s house at 927 Sheridan Avenue North. 

“It was a Gibson semi-hollow body, like B.B. King used,” laughed Smith. “The guitar was bigger than he was!” 

Smith shouted, “There’s no way you can play that thing” before grabbing hold of it and fiddling around on it himself. “Gimme my guitar, Charles,” demanded Prince, to which his cousin thought, “Ok, then, here you go,” as he handed it back. 

The very next day, Prince returned to the Smith home having taught himself both the lead line and all the chords to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” 

“I couldn’t believe it,” recalled Smith. “Prince was probably only 12 years old at the time. He’d had the guitar one day, and already he played it perfectly.” Realizing how serious Prince was about the instrument, Smith made sure to expose him to a variety of other guitarists as well. 

Related Story: Growing up with Prince: the legend’s cousin reminisces about their younger years 

“We absorbed it all. He loved Funkadelic… You know, Eddie Hazel, Garry Shider,” recalled Smith. “And he really got into Bobby Womack. Not everyone thinks of Bobby as a guitarist, but he played with the likes of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, Janis Joplin. So, of course, Prince was all over that.”

Smith introduced Prince to some of the legendary “rock dudes” as well—guitarists like Frank Zappa, Robin Trower, Johnny Winters, and even “jazz fusion cats” such as Pat Martino. And, when it came to singing, Prince was starting to discover new influences as well. 

“When Prince was about 12 or so, he really did not like his voice,” noted Smith. “It was just too high then.” Smith started to style his own vocals after Smokey Robinson, something that Prince really liked. 

And, soon enough, Prince started to gravitate toward the artists who sang in higher octaves such as Philly soul groups like The Delfonics, Archie Bell and The Drells, and Blue Magic. “Prince even studied pop stars, people like Neal Sedaka,” revealed Smith. “He was starting to craft his singing voice even before he was a teenager.”       

Grand Central (early 1970s) with Prince on guitar, Charles Smith on drums.
Photo courtesy of the Smith Family Archives

“Someday, that’s gonna be us up there”

One of Smith’s most treasured memories came in July of 1970 when he and Prince slipped into Parade Stadium to see Sly and the Family Stone. “Someone had cut the fence, so Prince and I just slipped in,” said Smith. 

They made their way up front as far as they could and were simply mesmerized. “It was so cool,” declared Smith. “Everyone in the band was a hero of ours. But as I was a drummer, I locked in on Greg Errico, and naturally, Prince was checking out both Sly and his brother Freddie on guitar.” 

And then, out of the blue, Prince turned to his older cousin and said something that Smith still remembers as if he just heard it yesterday: “Someday, that’s gonna be us up there.” Smith is certain of one thing: “Prince believed it.”

As the two cousins continued to rehearse, they would soon revisit the idea of starting their own band. Charles told his younger cousin that they needed a bass player. Prince mentioned that he knew of someone who played the saxophone but not bass. That individual was André Anderson who played the sax in the junior high school band. So now their two-piece became a three-piece band, which was the origins of the band Grand Central.

Andre’s sister Linda played the keys, and Terry Jackson and William Doughty both played percussion. The lineup was complete.

“We used to play all over the place,” said Smith. “Anywhere we could get a gig—The Way, the Y, wherever. And when it came to the Battle of the Bands competitions, we’d clean up!” 

If success started to go to their heads, it definitely didn’t keep Prince from his obsession to become better and better. “We had some real neighborhood legends over North—Jerry Hubbard, Sr., Sonny Thompson. Sonny was like a god to us kids. 

“Prince would hang out and observe these guys, and they might be playing some obscure, intricate chords,” said Smith. “What chord is that y’all just played?” Prince would ask. 

Smith said they’d respond with something like, “You can’t play that chord. Your hands are too small.” Nevertheless, Prince wasn’t deterred. 

“He’d go off somewhere,” reminisced Smith, “and just figure it out. He was like that to the end. Prince would take what others did and make it his own. Make it better. He never stopped practicing, never stopped studying.”  

Photo courtesy of the Smith Family Archives Charles Smith speaking at a memorial for his Cousin Prince (April 2016)

The days of wild

When it came to girls, Smith said he used to tell his cousin, “Don’t let them know you’re interested. Make them chase you.” Of course, as Smith readily admits, it wasn’t long

before Prince attracted the interest of more girls than he likely could have ever imagined.

One of the things that Smith remembers most about those days—in addition to music,

sports, and girls— was just how much fun Prince was to be around. “Prince and I would crack each other up! He always had an enormous sense of humor,” recalled Smith.

“He used to observe and mimic all these different personalities in our neighborhood, whether they were cool, crazy, or whatever.” And this, according to Smith, was the foundation for a lot of the characters and/or pseudonyms he created over the years—Jamie Starr, Bob George, Joey Coco, Peter Bravestrong, Alexander Nevermind, and so on.

Although Smith can’t help but smile every time he mentions his cousin’s name, the tears are always near the surface, ready to flow at little more than a moment’s notice. “It’s so hard to believe it’s been six years without him,” lamented Smith. When they were kids, the two cousins used to lay in the yard at his grandmother’s at night and gaze up at the stars and talk. On one such occasion, Prince said, “I’m gonna be up there one day.” 

“I used to take that to mean he was going to be a star, you know, as in a superstar,” confessed Smith. “But now I think of it differently. I look into the sky at night, and I know he’s up there somewhere guiding me from a distance.”