In a year of some major losses in the entertainment industry, none quite hit the same way that the passing of Prince did in 2016. The Purple One lost a then-private battle with opioid addiction in late April at only 57 years of age. What followed was a long period of mourning across the worlds of pop, rock, soul, funk… all the galaxies that Prince’s music traversed. Tributes flowed in for the year to come – including, of course, from those that played alongside him live.
One such musician is Morris Hayes, who was enlisted in Prince’s backing band The New Power Generation in the early 90’s. Hayes would go on to be one of the longest-serving people to ever play with Prince, spanning the better part of two decades as his keyboardist. Upon his passing, Hayes paid tribute to his former leader the only way he knew how: Through the power of music. Reuniting the NPG in late 2016, Hayes took the role of bandleader and assembled the troops to perform all of the classic songs that came to define both his and their lives.
With the band in full swing, Hayes and co. are keeping the Purple spirit alive to this very day. The NPG will arrive in Australia at the end of the month to perform at Bluesfest, as well as some key headlining dates.
Music Feeds spoke with Hayes – who was last in Australia with Prince on his Welcome 2 Australia tour in 2012 – about his personal musical history, as well as Prince’s off-stage persona and the curating of a perfect NPG show.
Music Feeds: Your history with the New Power Generation is pretty well documented at this stage, so let’s begin with a precursor to all of that. Where did your initial interest in music and playing instruments come about?
Morris Hayes: I consider myself a bit of a late bloomer as far as music was concerned. We had a piano in the house when I was growing up, but I was more interested in sports – I was playing basketball, playing football. My younger brother was more of a musician than I was. It wasn’t until about the late 70s when I started paying a bit more attention, and music was more of my kinda thing. I started college in 1981, and there was a real shift for me. I had an art scholarship, so I’d be walking to class every day. Each day, I’d go past these rooms full of musicians playing – and every day, my walk to class would get slower and slower. I’d always be stopping to check these guys out, watching them play.
Eventually, I formed a college band – I think that spark, that desire to play music myself, had really taken over. I was into this really wide palette of music. Because I’d grown up out in the middle of nowhere, the only radio stations I could pick up were the FM rock & roll stations. That meant I grew up with stuff like the Eagles, Steely Dan, Supertramp – that kind of stuff. Later, I’d discover artists that had crossed over – Stevie Wonder, for instance. Earth, Wind and Fire. I think I was drawn to stuff that sounded really big – I think it captured my imagination.
MF: Where does Prince’s music enter your life? Are you still in college?
MH: This was actually before, man – I remember seeing him really early on. This was in the late 70’s, and I was watching American Bandstand. He was on there! This was like ’78, ’79. Dick Clark was hosting. I remember watching him, sitting at home watching TV. My mum was watching, too – she was like, “Ooh! Who’s that devil?” [laughs] I actually got to tell him that story one time. We were on the road somewhere, just talking. I think he might have said someone or something was ‘the Devil,’ y’know… it clicked in the back of my head. I was like, “You gotta watch who you call a devil, man! My mum said that about you when you were on Bandstand!” My mum eventually found out he was quite the opposite. [laughs]
It was a weird interview he did with Dick, man. I found out later that he used to get real nervous when he was on TV like that. Dick was asking him these questions, and he was gesturing really strangely and actin’ all weird. He was shy in that kind of environment; he’d withdraw and be aloof. When he wasn’t playing music, he was really something different.
MF: Where did his music start taking off for you?
MH: Controversy. I was in college when that record came out, back in ’81. That’s when things really took a turn – we were all losing our minds over that record. That’s when we knew, man – we all just looked at each other, my friends and I, and it was just like, “this kid is hot.”
MF: A few years later, you have a chance encounter with Mark Brown, who’s playing bass with Prince in the Revolution. Not long after that, you’re playing with Morris Day and the Time and eventually end up in the New Power Generation. What do you remember about going out on the road with Prince for the first time?
MH: The first tour I did was in ’92 as the support act. I was playing in the band for Carmen Electra. What was crazy about that was I’d bought a camera, right? I figured that this was the only opportunity I’d get to do something massive like this – after this tour, I’d never get to do anything like it ever again. I wanted to take the money that I’d saved and buy a high-end Sony camera so that I could capture everything and at least have memories of what I thought would be my first and last tour. Obviously, Prince had other plans.
After the tour with Carmen finished up, he asked me to be a part of NPG. It was such a strange situation – I was in euphoria, but I was also terrified. The way I saw it, reality was about to come down on me and crush me – I was going to get in a room with all of these amazing musicians that Prince had assembled, and they were all going to realise that I sucked. “You’ll be the shame of Minnesota,” I was sayin’ to myself. “You’ll have to go into hiding.” We got to rehearsing, and it was hard. Prince was a beast in rehearsal – a total perfectionist. There was a lot that I had to learn in order to keep up.
MF: You would go on to play with Prince and the NPG on and off for the better part of 20 years. In that time, you obviously would have spent a lot of time with him directly – you’re one of the longest-serving musicians to ever work with him. Of course, you’d have a pretty clear idea about his public perception and the discourse surrounding his personality. What is an aspect of Prince as a person that you feel is not widely regarded – something people might not know about him?
MH: The biggest one is what I call “Prince No. 5.” Prince was an extraordinarily giving type of person. A lot of people don’t realise how much he gave for people. They knew about the money, they knew about the girls, they knew about the music… all that stuff. One side they didn’t see, though, was how giving he was. He had his reasons, of course – he wanted to go about that side of things pretty quietly. He was so gracious about it, though – he was so supportive of his family, and all his band members. If we ever toured some place where one of us had grown up, he’d donate $100,000 to the school they went to. He’d never go public about it; never wanted to make a big deal about it. He cared so much about people – and for the longest time, it was off the record.
MF: Talk us through the first time the NPG got back together after Prince passed. What stands out in your mind as the band moved forward to continue on his legacy?
MH: Honestly… it was really cool, man. It really felt like a high-school reunion or something like that. Some of these guys, I hadn’t seen for like 15 years! We’re going back to like ’94, ’95 here. It was crazy. A lot of people were there – I got as many people back as I possibly could. Having everyone there really made it feel like a family. To be in this band was to be comrades, y’know? We hung together; we did everything together. We were ready to get to work – which is just as well, because as always there was a lot of it. [laughs]
MF: Especially considering you were taking on the production roles as well as being bandleader this time around.
MH: That’s right. I’d never done anything like it before, man. It was a lot of stress for me – I was in the driver’s seat after 20 years of riding. It was a lot to bite off – it was probably ill-advised to throw me in there, man. [laughs] Somehow, we’ve managed to make it work. I think I was able to move forward with confidence because I knew that the band were going to be able to hold it down. I didn’t question their abilities for a second. As long as I let them do what they do, they weren’t gonna let me down.
MF: How did you navigate being in that new position? A role like that obviously means you’re hearing the music in a new perspective. Were you working on a trial and error basis, or did you have to comprehend all of the arrangements before you moved forward?
MH: There’s a few things that come to mind here. Number one is one of my greatest mentors – Terry Lewis, the songwriter who worked with Jimmy Jam. I really owe it to Terry for being such an inspiration to me. He’d call me up when I was having a rough day. He’d always be there with encouraging words for me. Even when it came to the admin sort of stuff, Terry and Jimmy Jam were there to guide me through it. Not only were they great songwriters, they were both great businessmen. That was a really big help to me.
I’m the first to admit that when it was starting out, I was dropping the ball a lot. Prince always used to say to me that time is a trick, and I learned that the hard way – I was missing a lot of connections. Honest to God, I was praying before we went out on stage for that first show [a Prince tribute show in October 2016]. I didn’t know which way it was gonna go, man. It could have been a complete disaster. Everyone stepped up. All the guests that came on board were perfect. Stevie Wonder got up and killed it for me. Chaka [Khan] got up and killed it for me. Tori Kelly killed it.
It was so crazy, man… I hadn’t slept for like three days. At one point towards the end of the show, some of the guys were looking over at me and they thought I was deep in thought, real pensive. I had actually fallen asleep! [laughs] When I woke up, I didn’t make any sudden movements. I just slowly opened my eyes, and looked around to see if anyone was watching me. They were all thinking, “This guy is really feelin’ the music, bro!” [laughs] It all worked out. It was like a movie, man… by the time we got to ‘Purple Rain’, I looked over at Stevie. Stevie was crying his eyes out, man. It was this incredible feeling, I’ll never forget that.
MF: The NPG has been touring pretty consistently since then, and you’ll be making your way down to Australia for Bluesfest very soon. What sort of set should people be expecting? One can imagine that both the biggest pro and the biggest con of putting together an NPG show is that you more or less have Prince’s entire catalogue at your disposal.
MH: You’ve hit on the question of the year, my man. [laughs] How do you put a show together like this? It’s easily the hardest part of what I do. Here’s the thing, man: I’m a keyboard player. When people ask me about keyboards, I can tell them more or less everything that they need to know. I know about all the gear, all the parts, all the effects, all the sounds… how everything works, right? Let’s say a keyboard set-up with all the bells and whistles is about $4000. Now let’s say that someone wants me to make them a keyboard set-up with as much as I can fit in for $1000. That’s a real challenge.
That’s the same way I approach putting together a set with the band. If we’ve been asked to do a festival, then we’ve typically got one hour. That’s a lot of stuff to cram in there. It’s gotta be the essentials. If it’s our own show, we’re looking at two hours. That’s where I can stretch it out – I can work in some more obsurities, maybe some NPG deep-cuts. Once I know how much time we have, I’m able to move forward and work things out from there. It’s all about finding the ebb and the flow. You gotta take people on a ride.
You’ve also got to find a way all the different levels of fans. Yeah, everybody loves ‘Purple Rain’. Everybody loves ‘Kiss’. There’ll be people there, though, that might really love a song or a record that never got performed all that much. I was that fan, man!
MF: Even when you joined the band?
MH: Especially then! I used to ask Prince all the time about the shit we’d never do. “Hey man, how come we never play ‘The Cab Driver’?” He’d say something like, “Oh, it never really translated live for us.” I’d be like, “Yeah, it did! I used to see you guys play it – it was awesome!” [laughs] He’d always stick to his story. It’s just what he was like, man. I think that my role now is to find the cool songs like that – the kind of songs that even he would not wanna play and override me on. [laughs]
MF: What was Prince like with setlists?
MH: He used to throw entire setlists out the window when we were on tour – he’d wanna do different stuff every single night. I’d be there like, “But we just practised those songs for like two weeks straight!” Didn’t matter. He was notorious, man. You’d try to keep up, but it would just be too exhausting. That’s just the way things would go – it was all just on how he felt on a particular whim. If the moment calls for it, I’ll reflect that spirit right back. For the most part, though, I just want to get the mix right and do right by the fans. Songs everybody loves, some stuff people haven’t heard in awhile and maybe even one or two songs they’d have.