Around the same time that Prince was co-opting Flyte Tyme for his project with Morris Day, he was also falling out with another of his oldest comrades: the co-founder of Grand Central and his closest musical partner, André Cymone.
André’s and Prince’s musical fates had been linked since the moment they first locked eyes in the Bryant Junior High gymnasium. Both were budding multi-instrumentalists, the children of talented jazz musicians: André’s father, Fred Anderson, used to play bass with Prince’s father, John L. Nelson. Both, too, possessed a preternatural drive far beyond the norms of their age and circumstance. “There was a sixth sense between the two of us,” Cymone told Billboard in 2016. “It’s something that doesn’t happen, I don’t think, very often where you find two people come together who are really passionate about what they do at a time when they’re both growing and learning” (Cymone 2016).
Perhaps most of all, Prince and André completed each other: like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, they were two complementary halves of a singular whole. While Prince grew up in a solidly middle-class neighborhood, André came from “the other side of the tracks.” “I was a very wild kid,” he told Billboard. “I was from the projects. I was a hustler… I was always talking about we gotta do this, do that, we gotta make some money. He was more laid back” (Cymone 2016). As the pair matured, they began to look like variations on a theme, similar but distinct: André taller and more conventionally handsome, Prince shorter and slighter, a little awkward, but with a doelike prettiness. Even their birth dates were close, but different: Prince’s on June 7, 1958, André’s a mere 20 days later in the same year. They were something like fraternal twins–a bond that became almost literalized when Prince moved in with André’s family at age 14.
In retrospect, both Prince Nelson and André Anderson were on a trajectory to become stars; among those who knew them, it was often a toss-up as to which would break first. Jim Hamilton, a veteran jazz sideman turned Central High School music teacher, told Jon Bream of the Minnesota Star, “when it came to business sense, performance, and playing, I would bet ten dollars to a penny that André would be the guy to make it” (Bream 1984). Meanwhile, the two young men were as inseparable as they were laser-focused. “When he moved in, we’d sit in the kitchen and just play,” André recalled. “We spent literally hours and hours doing that” (Cymone 2016). Even after Prince got his break, André claimed, the plan was for them to eventually share the spotlight: a kind of nonbiological Brothers Johnson, afros and all (Eveland 2014).
But as Prince’s artistic stature continued to grow, tensions with André brewed. The latter, a talented musician and strong personality in his own right, didn’t see himself as “just” a supporting player; furthermore, he had made significant contributions to the groundbreaking musical and visual style that was now being credited to Prince alone. “We both looked similar,” he told Wax Poetics in 2012. “We dressed funky–rock and roll–and we both had that swagger like we were the baddest motherfuckers on the planet. That’s the way we carried ourselves” (Danois 2012). Many of Prince’s early sartorial innovations–the bikini underwear (with or without clear plastic pants), the trenchcoats, the eyeliner–were as much an expression of André’s personal style as his; in those days, the majority of the band’s stage costumes were designed and sewn by André’s sister, Sylvia Anderson. André also had a hand in developing, if not single-handedly writing, many of the songs advertised as “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince”: including “I’m Yours,” “Bambi,” “Still Waiting,” “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, and “Uptown.”
Prince, according to his cousin and former Grand Central bandmate, Charles Smith, “depended on André. He believed in André’s ear and would often ask him his opinion. When he was writing something, he would ask André what he thought. André would go, ‘Change this’ or ‘change that,’ and Prince would do it” (Nilsen 1999 41). But Prince also depended on his reputation, established at the onset of his career, as the Next Stevie Wonder: a sui generis prodigy who could write, play, and even produce it all himself. His relationship with his surrogate brother was thus increasingly calculated to keep André close and limit his opportunities for solo success. Biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert recount a story from around 1980, when André “expressed interest in setting up his own studio to work on songs.” Prince, instead, offered for André to come over and use his own home studio. “This seemingly generous gesture,” Hahn and Tiebert write, “allowed Prince to keep physical custody of André’s music.” When André finally came back for his demos, Prince told him he had “accidentally” erased the tape (Hahn 2017).
The final straw, according to many of Prince’s and André’s associates, came when Prince decided to dig up a song his partner had written back in 1979. “Do Me, Baby” originated from the same February 17, 1979 sessions as “If You Feel Like Dancin’,” “One Man Jam,” and early versions of André’s “Thrill You or Kill You” and Prince’s “I Feel for You” and “With You”; at the time, however, it was unambiguously an André Cymone joint. “I had written it for a girlfriend,” Cymone recalled on a recent episode of the Dr. Funk Podcast, and had “forgot about the song” by the time he heard it again at a band rehearsal–introduced as a new composition by Prince (Funkenberry 2017).
“André called me up on that song,” recalled Pepé Willie, who had been present at its recording in 1979. “He said, ‘Hey, you remember I did it in New York?’ I said, ‘What, the slow jam?’ He said, ‘Yeah, well, Prince has taken it for his album’” (Hill 38). For Cymone, the sticking point seemed to have been less about Prince’s appropriation of the song–this was, after all, not the first time his friend had borrowed his licks–and more about his cavalier attitude toward the act. Terry Jackson, another mutual friend from the Grand Central days, told Hahn and Tiebert that André confronted Prince the first time he heard “Do Me, Baby” in rehearsal, asking, “Why are you doing this, man?” Prince responded bluntly: “Because I’m a star and you’re not” (Hahn 2017).
To be clear, this part of my analysis is pure speculation; but I wonder if part of what rankled Cymone was that, on some level, he knew Prince was right. André Cymone was and is an undeniable talent: a highly skilled songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer who played an integral role in developing, popularizing, and innovating the Minneapolis Sound. But he didn’t have the intangible “It”-factor that would make Prince not just a star, but a superstar. “Do Me, Baby,” initially recorded by Prince at his Kiowa Trail home studio and then completed at Sunset Sound in August of 1981, is an immaculate slow jam, with a gorgeous melody and a simple, indelibly sexy bassline that belies its origins as a track written by a bass player. But what makes it a classic is, well, everything else; it’s the ineffable way in which Prince’s mellifluous falsetto wraps its way around the words, shifting back and forth between a fey whimper and a full-on gospel scream. I’m an avowed fan of André Cymone’s post-Prince solo work, but if he’s ever sung quite like this, I haven’t been fortunate enough to hear it.
There is also a magnetically eccentric streak to Prince’s “Do Me, Baby” that, while not absent from Cymone’s work, was never indulged to the same extent. After the song reaches its, ahem, climax–right around the point when the radio version is fading out–the mix pares back to just the bass, drums, and piano, leaving plenty of room for Prince’s heavy breathing. “You ain’t leaving me no choice,” he sighs, his breaths becoming even more suggestive. “What are you gonna do, you just gonna sit there and watch?” A few measures later, he’s still at it, announcing that he’s “not gonna stop until the war is over.” The song finally ends at just under eight minutes, when Prince reaches an impressively authentic-sounding orgasm and murmurs, “I’m so cold… just hold me,” his trembling voice awash in a post-coital haze of synthesizers.
“Do Me, Baby” wasn’t the first piece of aural erotica to reach the American charts–that barrier had been broken halfway through the previous decade, by disco hits like Donna Summer’s epochal “Love to Love You Baby” and “More, More, More” by porn star-turned-professional-moaner Andrea True. But those songs, however suggestive, had stayed firmly within the realm of plausible deniability; in contrast, there’s no question what Prince is doing at the end of “Do Me, Baby.” Indeed, the artist took pains to sell the idea that he was literally masturbating in the studio: in his liner notes for his 1993 compilation The Hits, he recalled his vocal overdubs on the track as “the 1st time Prince turned the control room into a bedroom. Candles were lit, chiffon veils were hung and all the doors were locked” (Dash 2016). True or not, it’s an easy story to believe after listening to the second half of the song.
And it was that second half that made “Do Me, Baby” a signature track for Prince. The ballad was a centerpiece of his live sets for years, from the Controversy tour all the way through the ’90s. Early performances in particular replicated the album version’s slow burn, with Prince disrobing to the waist and unbuttoning his pants for the end-of-song breakdown; in other words, it became a striptease rather than a porno. But it was still plenty effective: for proof, just watch the video above, and listen to the crowd at New Jersey’s Capitol Theatre squeal. By early 1982, “Do Me, Baby” had become the ultimate vehicle for Prince’s mission to, as guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled, “portray pure sex” (Dickerson 62).
It’s a little ironic, but hardly unbelievable, that a song so central to Prince’s mystique was written by someone else; after all, as anyone who’s heard his latter-day covers of modern rock hits like Radiohead’s “Creep” and the Foo Fighters’ “Best of You” can attest, Prince could be as astonishing an interpreter of other artists’ work as his own. And, while André’s demo hasn’t seen the light of day, we do have some idea of what the song sounds like without Prince’s touch: the cover version by Meli’sa Morgan, which topped the Billboard R&B charts in 1986. Like the original, Morgan’s version is tailor-made for the “Quiet Storm” R&B radio format, which by 1986 had become much more codified than it was in 1981: all tinkly keyboards, soft-muted guitar plucking, and cavernous processed drums. It’s a fine interpretation, and it has its supporters; but it lacks the frisson, the electric sexual charge, that Prince brought to his version.
In purely Machiavellian terms, Prince made the right decision by wresting “Do Me, Baby” from its creator; he’d make plenty of variations on that same decision in the future, all more or less artistically (if not ethically) justifiable. What’s harder to defend is his decision to claim full credit for the song: not sharing the songwriting credit, like he did with Carole Davis for “Slow Love”; or giving credit for the arrangement, like he did with David Z for “Kiss“; or even paying André under the table, like he did with Morris Day for “Partyup.” There is, as always, the excuse that he felt pressured to hoard the authorship for his songs, having expended so much energy promoting himself as a one-man music machine. But that doesn’t explain why he made no effort to compensate André for his work behind the scenes–even, presumably, pocketing the publishing royalties from Morgan’s aforementioned cover version. This, combined with the story of André’s erased demos, suggests that Prince’s motivations were more spiteful than merely pragmatic.
In any case, by the time Prince released “Do Me, Baby” on his fourth album, Controversy, André had long since departed the band. He’d made the decision to leave in early 1981–“Right before we did Saturday Night Live,” he told podcaster Dr. Funkenberry–but stayed on board for the short European tour “out of friendship.” He left, he recalled, because he felt like he was losing his identity: “Because we were so close, and… I feel like there was a lot of me in what was going on at the time” (Funkenberry 2017).
These days, Cymone is philosophical about his sometimes vexed relationship with Prince. “We literally saw each other every day for maybe 4-5 years straight before all the fame,” he told Billboard in the wake of his old friend’s death. “When you have that kind of a closeness, you kind of know what the other person is thinking without even having to speak. And when you start talking about music, it’s the same thing. There are gigs and pictures where I’m playing the bottom end of the bass and he’s playing the finger board; that doesn’t really work unless you’re really on the same page” (Cymone 2016). That closeness would, of course, be the undoing of their professional relationship; but, as he told podcaster Michael Dean, “The reality is, literally we came up together… we inspired each other, we lived in the same house, we used to bounce ideas off each other; so when people would say things like, ‘You know, I know André wrote this song’ and ‘I know André wrote that song’… I wasn’t looking at it like I ripped Prince off or he ripped me off or whatever… I just think that, you can’t take credit for something when everybody’s in there, you know, cookin’ the same dish” (Dean 2016).
Like many of Prince’s former collaborators, Cymone has reemerged in the public eye since last April, paying tribute to his departed friend alongside the Revolution and, more recently, the early ’90s lineup of the New Power Generation. There’s a great video, posted above, of Cymone at the 2016 Minnesota State Fair, playing a few of his and Prince’s songs and talking to Andrea Swensson from Minneapolis’ public radio station the Current. It’s intriguing, however, that of the songs he plays–“Sometimes It Snows in April,” “Little Red Corvette,” “When You Were Mine”–only one comes from his tenure with Prince. “Do Me, Baby” is not on the setlist.
Folks, this is the last d / m / s / r post of 2017. I want to thank everyone who’s read, listened to, or otherwise enjoyed my work this year; it’s been amazing. I hope you all have a great holiday season, and I’ll see you in the new year!