There were a number of purple tributes around town last Wednesday, June 7, on what would have been Prince Rogers Nelson’s 65th birthday. These included “The Dance Electric” party at First Avenue, “Forever in My Life” at the Parkway Theater, and a gathering at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Center where scholars and journalists discussed “the past, present and future of Prince studies.”
Just a stone’s throw from Paisley Park, Charles Smith hosted an evening with Prince fans to celebrate the life and legacy of his cousin.
Save for Smith’s vigil, perhaps no event was more poignant or fitting than “Tales from the Northside: Stories of the Minneapolis Sound,” at the historic Capri Theater, the very same venue that famously hosted Prince’s first-ever professional concert 44 years ago.
The capacity crowd flocked to the Capri to hear oral histories from more than a dozen individuals integral to the musical movement that emerged over North, roughly a half-century ago, including a few that were around from the very beginning.
In addition to honoring Prince and the other amazing talents that helped pioneer what history has come to know as the Minneapolis Sound, “Tales from the Northside” is a benefit to establish a Minneapolis Sound Museum.
The museum is the vision of Jellybean Johnson, original member of Flyte Tyme, and more than 40 years later the only drummer to ever keep the beat for the funkiest band to come out of the North Star state, The Time.
“The Minneapolis Sound is Prince,” Johnson recently told KMSP-TV’s Bisi Onile-Ere, adding that Detroit is known for Motown, Memphis for Stax and Sun Records, and so forth.
“We want our spot here [on the Northside]. So, when you come to town, you can still go to Paisley, but you can also come to our spot and see all the history with Prince, and the rest of us—those that helped him to become the force that he was.”
Prior to the evening’s festivities, guests were treated to a selection of Prince and Prince-adjacent tracks from Eric “DJ Nevermind” Rogers; learned about SoundAround Tours, a new app founded by Kristen Zschomler and Sarah Lee that allows you to experience the geography of the Minneapolis Sound and Prince’s unique relationship to his hometown.
Attendees also browsed and bid on silent auction items donated by the likes of concert photographer Tommy Smith, III, Prince archivist Rich Benson, mosaicist Cathy Young, and Twin Cities muralist Peyton Scott Russell.
But what the people came to hear were the stories, those first-person accounts around the origins of the Minneapolis Sound before it was discovered by the rest of the world.
Moderated by a Northside legend in his own right, filmmaker and longtime Prince collaborator Craig Rice, “Tales from the Northside” featured two all-star panels, the first of which included Jellybean Johnson himself, Pepé Willie, Spike Moss, Sue Ann Carwell, Owen Husney, and Walter “Q Bear” Banks.
Highlights from this first grouping of local veterans included Willie’s charming tale about how a chance meeting in New York City with Prince’s cousin Shauntel Manderville led him to Minneapolis where he would mentor a teenage Prince Rogers Nelson, as well as future icons André Cymone and Morris Day, among others.
Johnson explained how his mother, realizing that the gangs in their West Side Chicago neighborhood were already looking to recruit her not-yet 12-year-old son, moved him and his two younger brothers to North Minneapolis. This is where he’d soon find a musical family that, with Prince at its nexus, ultimately changed the world of funk, soul, and rock and roll forever.
Husney, Prince’s first manager, spoke of the importance, even today, of how a community like North Minneapolis must support its young artists just as Moss and others did in the early 1970s at The Way.
Moss had the crowd in stitches as he recounted how it took him more than a year to get a barely teenaged and painfully shy Prince, whom he’d made the lead guitarist in The Way’s top band, to turn and face the crowd when he played.
Moss added a powerful testimonial and a bit of Northside pride when noting that for far too long, many that have attempted to record the history of the Minneapolis Sound ignored the neighborhood that nurtured Prince and his contemporaries.
“When Prince became famous, they never came to talk to us,” Moss asserted, adding that while he may belong to the world, “Prince is our boy.”
Rivalries and ’80s fashion
The second panel welcomed back Johnson and Carwell, along with original Prince band member Matt Fink, stylist Vaughn Terry, drummer Bobby Vandell, and Flyte Tyme Studios legends Popeye Greer, Lisa Keith, and Keith’s husband Spencer Bernard.
One of the best moments the second time around involved Johnson’s comical and resounding confirmation that yes, there was a competition between The Revolution and The Time. While that may not have been a revelation to everyone, Carwell’s declaration that she was the one who discovered the legendary Jesse Johnson down in the Quad Cities and convinced him to move to Minneapolis certainly was.
The crowd also showed a keen interest in Terry, who as one-half of the renowned fashion duo Louis and Vaughn was largely responsible for creating Prince’s iconic style in the mid-1980s. Still, he credits André Cymone’s sister Sylvia, a skilled clothier herself, with “laying the foundation” during the early years.
The night was capped by a lively four-song set from an all-star band featuring Carwell, Fink, Vandell, Kathleen Johnson, Ricky Kinchen, Christopher Troy, and of course Jellybean Johnson. The performance included the Jellybean Johnson-penned and produced Janet Jackson classic “Black Cat” and ended with his brilliant guitar solo during Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
To learn more about the Minneapolis Sound Museum and how you can support its mission, visit www.minneapolissoundmuseum.org.