It was the winter of 1981 when I first saw singer-songwriter André Cymone sliding across the Saturday Night Live stage. This was years before his solo albums—which include the wonderfulness of this month’s The Stone—going way back to the pre-purple days when Cymone was part of his Minneapolis boyhood friend Prince’s touring band.
Four months prior, Prince had transformed himself from an “I Wanna Be Your Lover” disco-soul wailer to a sexually charged rock ’n’ roll wild man with his groundbreaking third album, Dirty Mind. Performing “Partyup,” the album’s killer closing track, Prince, André and guitarist Dez Dickerson ripped through the set with furious abandon. Even when Prince dropped an “F” bomb, no one seemed to care. Black rock was in the house, and everybody was going crazy.
Dressed in a flowing overcoat, Cymone was bare-chested as he played a zebra print bass with a matching strap. Onstage the frantic performance was precise, but behind the scenes, the band situation was less than perfect. “I had already quit the group by then,” Cymone recalls 33 years later. “Me and Prince were the best of friends, I had respect for him, but I didn’t want to be just some bass player. I was going to do my own thing.”
Cymone and Prince had been buddies since high school. Playing together in a band called Grand Central, the two were inseparable as teenagers. When life got too much at home for the budding musical genius, Prince Rogers Nelson came to live with his buddy’s already big family, where André’s mom Bernadette Anderson raised him as one of her own sons.
The oft-told tale has become a major part of the Prince mythology, as various writers have taken their own spin (from orgies to simply intense practicing) on what went on in that basement where he dwelled. Viewing Mrs. Anderson as a surrogate mom, it’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for her love, guidance and encouragement, there would be no Minneapolis Sound, and neither of those men would be where they are today.
Allowing the boys’ Grand Central crew (which included Morris Day on drums) to practice their music in the basement, Bernadette briefly worked as the group’s manager, though the bookings were often less fabulous. “She would have us playing at her friends’ barbeques,” Cymone recalls. “She’d tell us just play for 45 minutes to an hour, otherwise people would get tired of us.”
Playing sets that consisted of Ohio Players and Kool & the Gang, they also performed in local pimp bar called The Legion. “I could do splits, drop the mic, all of that. I was so fearless and cocky during that time, I used to tell people I wanted to battle Michael Jackson.”
When Prince proved to be the breakout artist on their small scene, His Royal Badness came back and scooped up his homeboy André to go out on the road with him. From 1978 to 1981, he and Cymone played throughout the country.
“Our first shows were supposed to be opening for Kool & the Gang, but we messed up their instruments by accident and got thrown off,” he says. “So instead, we opened for Rick James. His audience screamed so many rude things at us. But I was wearing clear pants and Prince was in his underwear, so I guess it was expected.” By the time Saturday Night Live was booked, Cymone had already decided that the party was over. “The only reason I appeared with Prince that night was because my mother asked me to,” he says.
André Cymone has been into music since he was a kid playing James Brown joints and messing around with his daddy’s bass. (He broke it.) A few years later, his mom and dad divorced. Moving from the projects to a more middle-class neighborhood, he says, “I was from the other side of the tracks. Prince was one of my first friends at school, and when he discovered I was into music, he said, ‘Let’s jam.’ We liked to play the theme from Man from U.N.C.L.E. and stuff like that.”
A decade later, when André moved out of the looming shadow of his little pal, things weren’t always easy for him as an artist. Though he released three good solo projects—including the infectious ’80s synth-pop singles “Kelly’s Eyes” and “The Dance Electric”—he was still being pegged as a Prince clone. It didn’t help matters that the Prince penned and co-produced “Dance Electric” was Cymone’s biggest hit.
The last time I saw Cymone was in 1985, when he headlined a show at former New York City club The Ritz. His third album, AC, was just released and “The Dance Electric” was a monster hit. After stepping off stage and getting into his own groove, Cymone began producing for various artists—most notably The Girls and their underrated Girl Talk (reissued last year), and now-ex-wife, Jody Watley. In ’87, their collaborations on her self-titled solo album produced “Looking for a New Love,” “Still a Thrill” and “Real Love,” songs that were funky dance anthems and catchy pop tunes.
“I got into producing because the label executives at Columbia Records wanted me to change the sound or step away from my own records,” André says. “I refused to change, they refused to drop me, so I was just in limbo as an artist. When I produced a record for Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, I realized I could make a nice chunk of money that I didn’t have to pay back.
“Then after I did Jody’s records, lots of female singers began approaching me. Artists like Pebbles and Vanessa Williams wanted to work with me,” he continues. “But I felt I would be giving away Jody’s sound. I didn’t want to mess up Jody’s thing.” Having met producers L.A. Reid and Babyface, he says, “I used to pass work on to those guys, because I liked what they were doing.”
But after Cymone and Watley worked on her third studio album, Affairs of the Heart, he bounced from behind the boards. “I was just tired of the drama,” he says of his retreat.
On November 7, 2003, at the age of 71, his mother Bernadette passed away, but her legacy as part of Black pop history had long been solidified. “She appreciated what we were trying to do and she bought me my first bass,” he says. “Without a doubt, she was our biggest fan. She gave me that confidence early on, and she brought that spirit to everything she did. When my mother was dying, she told me, ‘Just follow your heart.’ It sounds so simple, but later those words transformed my life.”
Last year, André followed his heart into the Coney Island studio in Glendale, California where he recorded The Stone with Brooklyn-born co-producer Joel Soyffer and a kick-ass band. Dedicating his first solo project in 29 years to his mother’s memory, André created a superb collection of songs many miles away from the heavy synth-sound he co-founded in the ’80s.
“Back then I was into Krafwerk and wanted to be like a black Devo,” he says, laughing. “With this album, I’m picking up where I left off when I was a kid.” Announcing his intentions clearly on the guitar-heavy soul brother opening track, “Rock and Roll,” he later pays homage to the symphonic sound of John Barry’s influential James Bond music on the powerful “Let Your Sun Shine.”
Stripping down his former electronic extravagance and returning to the essence of pop and rock that guided his formative years, Cymone pays tribute to his muses without losing focus on his own musical mission. “The [Rolling] Stones, Stevie Wonder, [Jimi] Hendrix, [Led] Zeppelin. When I drive my kids to school, they love listening to the Beatles, and I start connecting with the sounds and textures in my brain. I keep discovering new things,” he says.
Infusing those recollections and discoveries into his work, The Stone is arguably the most consistent and thrilling album of André Cymone’s long career. Somewhere above, Bernadette is smiling.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.