By Sam Bleazard
Images: Peter Lodder
There must be some interference on the line between London and Minneapolis, as the first time I try to get through to Morris Hayes we get cut off barely as the conversation begins. The interview is then delayed by an hour as a queue of journalists line up to speak to him. Hardly surprising as he is a man that lasted longer than most, several years longer in fact, in Prince’s many band configurations. He’s also proof that interest in Prince’s music endures. To listen to Morris ‘Mr’ Hayes speak, is to hear the story of someone who witnessed the wonder, the genius, the frustration and the amazement, as he got to hang out, play and record with one of the greatest performers of all time. As the keyboard player in The New Power Generation he went on to be one of his longest serving musicians – no mean feat given the boss’s reputation for restlessness. As Morris tells me later, Prince was clear at all times what was expected of him: “Morris if you want to stay here I don’t really accept no and impossible.”
Born in 1962 in the small town of Jefferson, Morris Kevin Hayes is an Arkansas native, who, as a musician, producer, and band leader has worked, and performed, with a virtual who’s who of popular music: Prince, George Clinton, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Sheila E., Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, Kanye West, Babyface, Carlos Santana, Kenny Loggins, Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, Will.i.am, Mary J. Blige, Maroon 5, Ani DiFranco, Questlove, Kool Moe Dee, Sheryl Crow, Gwen Stefani, Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse, Bono, The Edge, and Macy Gray.
Inspired by the religious music he heard in church as a child, he joined a rhythm and blues band at the University of Arkansas as their keyboard player, and when he graduated, played in churches and with various bands, moving to Chicago, Memphis and then on to Texas. He cofounded a group called the Bizness, which former Prince and the Revolution bass player Mark Brown heard, before Brown asked the group to come to Minneapolis and record a demo. Hayes recorded the demo and then joined Brown’s band, Mazarati, but when they disbanded in 1991 Hayes remained in Minneapolis. It was at this point that Prince asked Hayes to join his band, the New Power Generation, which began a relationship which would last for twenty years on and off, kicking off with seminal recordings such as Diamonds and Pearls and encapsulating critically acclaimed live tours worldwide.
“We are the New Power Generation, we want to change the world…” these were the words Prince and his band sang in the early 90s as he began to formulate his thoughts on a new sound.
We kick off by asking ‘Mr Hayes’ what motivated him to tour under the New Power Generation name?
It’s because of Prince’s legacy – no question about that. From the feedback we got following the initial show in St Paul’s (the twin city of Prince’s native Minneapolis) – the concert was almost five hours long due to the out-pouring of love following his passing – we just knew it was what the people wanted.
Has that ever opened you up to some criticism?
Some will feel we’re opportunists, and I’ve heard it all, all of the things people have had to say about it. If there’s no crowd and there’s no people, the marketplace will speak. There are those who want to hear this music, and there may come a time when there’s no-one left who wants to, but as long as there is that outpouring of love we have to keep the flame alive.
What’s the main thing you want people to take away from these shows?
We really want to make it a party atmosphere. This is not a memorial – it’s a celebration. We played a show last year in London at Nell’s Jazz and Blues club that reminded me of the aftershow vibe we had with Prince. The crowd was close, with everything so funky and so tight, it made it a lot of fun. This is also about as close as it gets. The thing is – we do care about the music and we do care about the legacy, so I am sure the audience will feel the music. We also have two guys in McKenzie and Kip Blackshire who have great soulful voices. On top of which we don’t try to be Prince, all we’re trying to do is represent in the best possible way. I like it like that, and the audience get to hear the people who helped put some of that music together.
What’s the reaction been from audiences around the world?
You know what, the feedback has been extraordinary, on Facebook and social media. It’s very cool to me and real nice to hear what people think, in real time. This is one of the reasons I want to keep playing and recording different music. We’re also giving some thought to playing some of Prince’s deeper cuts in future like the Exodus material. Music from off the beaten path, that maybe a lot of people wish they’d had the chance to see first time round.
How easy is it to replicate Prince’s unique sound?
Well first of all some of it we played on, and some of it we didn’t, because he could do so much of it himself. It’s hard mimicking Prince because there were so many different styles he could play, and there was just so much music. I had some fascinating conversations with him about this too – which of his recordings he felt translated well to the live arena. Take a song like Lady Cab Driver for instance (from the 1999 album), he never really played it because he felt it didn’t translate well live. Whereas, I thought it was great! It was always fascinating to me what he considered cool in a musical sense. We played the song Mountains a few times but he would always cut it short before what I considered was the cool part. He just had so much music, that he could switch gears or play anything at any given moment.”
What are your memories of working in the studio with Prince?
Well in terms of studio cuts, I worked on this record called Welcome 2 America (currently unreleased) – which was the only thing he let me co-produce. We sat in his car one day and he said, “Morris I want you to produce this record, in fact over produce it. Do your thing. Just do your thing on it”, and to his credit on this occasion he didn’t stand over my shoulder, because he knew I didn’t work well under pressure. Prince was the kind of guy who didn’t have the patience for waiting around on anything, on people or for the sounds he wanted. His whole way of being in the studio was just to pull up a sound he wanted and get going.
When I was able to work at home, as I did on this album, it was a rare opportunity because I didn’t want him to rush me. The great thing was that every time I would take a track back to him for this project, he would say: ‘You did it again Morris, that’s great’. It was a really great moment for me, because any kind of accolade from him was something, as he definitely wasn’t the gushing complimentary type, but he really patted me on the back for it. One day he even called me ‘Duke Ellington’, so it was really cool for me.
Was Prince something of a mentor for you in those years?
I can’t speak for anybody else, but I just wanted him to like what I did, to me he was like a musical father figure. He also had so many great musicians around, to me it felt good just to be in that kind of company.
What kind of music was on the album you were producing for him?
In terms of the music there were a few amazing cuts on there, but one that I loved so much. He told me how the song came about. It was called ‘Born to Die’, which had a kind of Curtis Mayfield vibe. I was watching Dr Cornell West – a good friend of mine – on YouTube one day talking about Curtis Mayfield. He said something like ‘Brother Prince is good but he is no Curtis Mayfield…’, and as soon as I heard this new song, I knew Prince would want to prove a point to him. Of course, it sounded exactly like Curtis, but just as good and in Prince’s own signature style. I did this horn arrangement, with a patch from my keyboard on it, with flutes on there, also a marimba kind of thing, it was a crazy horn arrangement. He said, ‘this is amazing’ – which was really cool man. There was also a ballad called ‘When She Comes’, and I told him: ‘you’ll definitely get kicked out of the Jehovah Witnesses for something like that!’ I’ve heard a different version of it as opposed to the one that was eventually released, and I liked that one better. There would often by things I’d ask him to give over to arranger Claire Fischer, because my view was basically – this is so good I don’t want to butcher it.
Was Prince aware of the legacy he was building while he was alive?
Yes, he was absolutely aware. He was talking to me about the Purple Rain album one day, and said that he had recorded so many tracks that were ‘hotter than Purple Rain’ at the same time he was working on the album. Because that was the biggest moment of his commercial career, I was thinking, ‘yeah right sure Prince, you’re braggin’. He then played me four to five songs in his limo, and oh my God, I said to him ‘you’ve got to put this out’. I had thought it was his ego talking stuff, but when he played it my mouth was hanging open. He would say by reply – “these are my kids”, to which I said “Prince, you ain’t got any kids?!”. Which was my way of saying, who are you saving it for?
Were there aspects of working with Prince that you found frustrating?
Yes, there were definitely things that I couldn’t understand. Prince was on a high frequency. I was a simple country boy, so I didn’t have this business savvy mind. We would be touring on one record but he would already be onto the next one – having recorded, mixed and mastered while we were on tour. I didn’t get it, but he was always way ahead of the curve because he was bored. He always wanted to move onto the next thing because he could get this stuff out so fast. It wasn’t like Michael Jackson releasing a record every 4 years. His attitude was ‘I can write music all day’, so he wasn’t worried about the record sales at all. The record label model of release a single, then another, promote an album and then tour was too homogenised for him, because he just wasn’t like that. That’s why he rebelled against it eventually.
What are your memories of live shows as part of Prince’s band?
The biggest thing when it came to live shows, and where you had to be most prepared in a funny kind of way, was house parties that Prince would do – where sometimes it would just be ten people. It would be late hours of the early morning, so very occasionally I would hit a few poor notes. Big mistake. Prince would pull me aside, and he really went in on me. He’d say, ‘Morris it doesn’t matter if you’re playing to 10 or 10,000 people, you still do the same show’, he was adamant. ‘Play the same and respect the music’. So, this is now what I tell every new artist, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing great. He instilled that in all of us. The serious professionalism aside, when it came to live performing – that’s when he really had his fun. When he got on his stage, it was so important to him. His attitude was basically, every time I play it has to feel like it’s the last time. It always had that intensity, which is what made him so good.
How did you feel when Prince passed away?
Like I was punched in the chest. I stayed up late one night and couldn’t really get to sleep, but I could hear my phone vibrating somewhere. It was doing it constantly…so eventually I answered and a friend of mine was asking me to turn on the TV and watch CNN. When I did I saw helicopters over Paisley Park, and I heard reporters talking about him in the past tense. A body had been found, and at that point I just collapsed, and it was unabashed weeping.
I felt he was in trouble, so I made a call a few days before to people I knew were close to him toward the end. I was basically saying look man if things look crazy, you guys got to get a handle…you knew things weren’t right and that something was up. I always felt as if I didn’t do enough. I hadn’t spoken to him in a while, and the contact in later years would be him emailing samples to me occasionally. One of the last times we spoke was when he was touring with the 3rd Eye girls in LA and he asked me if I wanted to join him to hang out.
How did Prince feel about playing in famous venues, such as Montreux for instance?
Well he knew all about that place, and the jazz festival there. Prince was well up on his music history and the fact it was Montreux, he wanted to stretch out on musicianship, so he played very different type of shows there. He would have rock, jazz and basically be more experimental. I had a funny moment in one of those shows, because Prince would never stick exactly to the set list, it just wasn’t in his nature to go easy. He told me at one point to go to the front of house and check the mix of sound was cool. While I was doing that he unexpectedly changed the song I was expecting to play to ‘All The Critics Love You in New York’. I heard him start it up from the back of the auditorium, and I’m now panicking, trying to run though the audience. I then hear him say ‘C’mon Morris!’ over the PA. I was running through the crowd, just a sea of people to get through so that I could get back onto the stage. But let me tell you, that was one funky jam – it was greasy.
What are your memories of the O2 concerts – 21 nights in London?
“That was without a doubt one of the coolest times in my career. We had already done a similar residency in Vegas, but those gigs were just epic. For several weeks, I had the keys to my own studio space and my own living quarters while we were there. The Rolling Stones played one night in the middle of our run which meant I had to move briefly, and then when Elton joined us one night I just worked around it.
I have great memories of catching the tube from Tower Bridge into the venue. They were just the dopest gigs you ever had in life, and I also used to enjoy getting myself a little Nandos chicken from time to time.
We had so much fun then, and because we didn’t work every day we got to see some of London. It was really cool, I’m so glad I got to experience it. And of course, so many people experienced it. He really could have done whatever he wanted in those shows, and frequently did. I got a plaque in LA – which basically said that the band had played to over 450,000 people on that run. So almost half a million came to see our shows. When Prince charged £31.21 for most of his tickets in London, we knew he did that because it reflected the possibility that everyone could come to a great live show if they wanted.
Is it true that Prince once shaved your head onstage?
Yes! I had told him I was going to get a haircut, but he initially told me he was worried because we were making a lot of music videos at the time, and there was a continuity thing you had to think about. ‘Morris it takes months to grow that thing back, so I don’t want it to mess with those videos’. Anyway, we eventually agreed I was going to get a haircut, but Prince asked me to take one of his film-makers Parris Patton. ‘Yo, take Paris with you, so we can film you getting it cut’. I said ok, cool, and I told Parris about it. For one reason or another that didn’t happen, and Prince then asks me if he can cut it. His view was – what can I do to it that’s going to be wrong, it’ll be fine, just let me cut it. So, I was thinking, ok if the boss wants to cut my hair, why not? In the meantime, I had a conversation with his ex-bass player Mark Brown who said to me – ‘don’t ever let Prince cut your hair. He will butcher your hair dude. He did it to me and my hair was all jacked up man’. A few days go by and we were playing a show with lots of NBA stars and hanging with various famous sports people who were coming along for the event. When showtime rolled around he got excited, so I figured he had something up his sleeve, clippers as it turned out. We get to the middle of the show, and he cuts all of my hair of while we were playing! He must have been happy with it though, as he kissed me on my bald head twice straight after!! His view was – this is rock n roll man, because the look on people’s faces, that’s what he wanted, another way to have their mouths hanging open.
How did Prince keep you on your toes?
Anyone who got comfortable, got gone. I never got too comfortable with the situation. You could always tell when musicians were at the end of their tenure, because they started to check out. It was no different for me, I felt the handwriting on the wall, and then you accepted it. Nobody stayed forever. I was definitely luckier than most.
What was it about your personality that made him keep you around?
He was not shy about letting you know what he liked and didn’t like. You also knew which people he wanted around. Part of it I’ll never know. I always wanted to be straight up and honest with him. Prince never saw that as a problem with me, so there was no clash of personalities, plus I always knew Prince was the boss. We never clashed, except when I made I mistake. I had a clear understanding of what I had to do. I liked playing the music and I knew my role. I didn’t have conflicts. Prince was one of the best and most spontaneous individuals you’ve ever seen, things he did you couldn’t believe, they were crazy. The term genius has often been used, but he is about as close as I’m ever going to get. I’m not just saying it, I saw things that were phenomenal – that other people were never able to do. He would say to me, “Morris if you want to stay here I don’t really accept no and impossible. If you want to stay here figure out how to get it done.
What was the most difficult aspect of working with him?
It was always kind of crazy in the sense that he could change the arrangements frequently on you. I don’t read music, so he could come in with a new piece of music that he was really familiar and comfortable with, and you had to memorise it in like 10-15mins. And this was on top of everything else that you had to remember – several hundred songs! His view was that you had to store it up in any language you want, hieroglyphics if necessary, I don’t care how you do it, just don’t hold everyone up. It was crazy, just trying to keep up.”
Do you think people realise how good he was?
I really don’t think so, no. It really pisses me off when I read those greatest guitar players of all time lists, whether this is the Rolling Stones or anybody else, and you see that Prince isn’t on there, or in 40th place. Here’s something that many people won’t know. Steve Vai, who many consider to be one of the greatest guitar players of all time, he really respected Prince. He would come by and bow down to pay his respects, he even gave me a guitar to give to Prince once. I also liked Eric Clapton’s quote about ‘how does it feel to be the greatest guitar player?’, and he said, ‘I don’t know – you should ask Prince’. I agree with these cats. His reputation suffered because he did so many things well, so maybe he wasn’t appreciated for individual instruments and the skill he had on them. Towards the end of his career, and after he passed a lot of people talked about his Hall of Fame induction performance (Prince played a guitar solo, guesting with Tom Petty, Steve Winwood and Jeff Lynn from ELO) as one of his greatest moments. I told him – ‘Man that was amazing.’ His response was, “Morris, you know what I did. I gave ‘em half gas at rehearsal. When the show rolled around I went in on ‘em hard.”
Editor’s note: Morris Hayes is also involved in a non-profit organisation called No Worries Now, which helps children with terminal illnesses by organizing prom events specially for them. The organization also helps fund osteosarcoma research.
How did No Worries Now come about?
There was a young 17-year-old kid who lived down my street, named Freddie. One day he rang my doorbell, and as I opened it he said: ‘I understand you’re some kind of rock star? Your mother in law and my family live down the same street. I want you to help me with my charity.’ I said ok I’ll look and see what it is. Well, when I found out I just broke down and wept. His girlfriend had osteosarcoma, so as a tribute to her, they did these proms for kids with debilitating diseases who couldn’t go to their school events. Freddie had already been on the local news, so I looked into it a bit deeper.
I was appearing on Jay Leno one night in the States and thinking about what I could do, how I could involve celebrities like Dave Chappelle and others. Eventually what I realised was that I could ask everybody I knew to do a home movie style message to these kids on their phones. I called all my celebrity friends and in the end we had clips from Will.I.Am, Ice Cube, Snoop, Sheila E, friends of mine who’d worked with Michael Jackson – I got all of these guys involved. even Jay Leno wanted to do it, but couldn’t in the end. The kids just freaked out. Snoop was talking about his Prom experience, Teddy Riley sent a message – they just had the time of their lives when they saw it. I just happened to know some people, but it was amazing the difference that it made. Some of those kids are no longer around now either. Freddie was eventually on CNN, so I was very proud of him.”
Are you involved in any other philanthropic work?
Yes, I’m involved in the World Symphony for Peace. It came about after I’d left Prince’s group and had been living in China for 6 months. To be honest I had no direction, and felt quite depressed about my prospects. I didn’t know what else to do. So I spent some time trying to figure out what to do next. I really wanted a way of bringing people together through music, you see it on cookery shows – they eat and they talk. During that time, I challenged my own perceptions of the world, which started in China. It was a country that I thought was going to be one way, but it was so different to what I expected. Forget politics and religion, I now realise that everyone just wants to be with their kids, be loved and hang out. Racism, and a lot of the things you see happening in the Trump era, it’s so sad, but the love and peace, I think that’s out there, so we can stay out of that negative part.
Now my focus is – what can we do to help one another? Focus on the good. I just got back from Houston, where I’m trying to raise £2m to make a film. It’s been an inspirational time, just playing my own music, and the positive reaction I’ve been getting from people, who often feel very emotional about it. I never expected that kind of outpouring. This was just stuff that resonated to me, it was music that I felt in my heart.
Morris Hayes and the NPG will be playing at the IndigO2 on 2nd August, purchase your tickets here