In the fall of 1972, André Anderson walked into the new student orientation at Bryant Junior High and locked eyes with a kid who reminded him of himself. “I didn’t know any of these people, and they just looked weird,” he told Wax Poetics in 2012. “I looked down the line, and I saw this kid and I thought, ‘He looks cool.’ I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, how you doin’? My name is André.’ He said, ‘My name is Prince.’ I said, ‘What are you into?’ He said, ‘I’m into music'” (Danois 2012).
André was into music, too. He played horns, guitar, and bass; Prince played piano and guitar. In addition to their mutual talent, both teens were mutually ambitious: André later recalled to Billboard magazine how he “started talking about how [‘]I’m going to be this[’]. And he’s [‘]yeah, me too[’]. Next thing you know we became best friends.” They went back to John Nelson’s house, where Prince was living at the time, and jammed; Prince showed off his expertise with the theme songs from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Peanuts. That same day, they learned of a weird coincidence: André’s father, Fred Anderson, used to play in the Prince Rogers Trio with Prince’s father John. Pretty soon–“maybe within the week or month,” according to André–he and Prince had formed a band of their own with Prince’s cousin, Charles Smith (Cymone 2016). The group went through the usual teen-band assortment of quickly-discarded names–“the Soul Explosion,” “Phoenix” –before finally settling on “Grand Central.”
Though no recordings of the group are currently in circulation, Grand Central was by all accounts an eclectic, polyglot crew, befitting both Prince’s genre-bending reputation and Minneapolis’ unique racial and cultural dynamics. It used to be widely assumed that their name was a tribute to Graham Central Station, the solo vehicle for former Sly and the Family Stone bassist (and later Prince collaborator) Larry Graham. On the contrary, it was meant as an homage to Flint, Michigan bong-rattlers Grand Funk Railroad, who were in heavy rotation on Twin Cities FM rock station KQRS: one of the few sources for new music in a broadcast market with a paucity of R&B on the airwaves. As Prince told Rolling Stone’s Bill Adler in 1981, Minneapolis “got all the new music and dances three months late…The white radio stations were mostly country, and the one black radio station was really boring to me” (Adler 1981). Grand Central’s early repertoire of cover songs was thus broad by necessity: according to André, they played everything from Earth, Wind & Fire and War to Jimi Hendrix and Santana to the Four Tops (Cymone 2016).
In the band’s early days, Prince and André shared a single, “teeny amp,” while Charles’ bass drum “didn’t have drum heads on both sides.” At battles of the bands, they often had to rely on their competitors to loan them proper equipment. In his Billboard interview, André recounted the story of one particular battle where he took advantage of Grand Central’s perceived youth and inexperience: “I went to the leader of one of the other bands that had fabulous equipment and I said [adopting a high voice]: ‘Please, can we play on your equipment? We’re not really that good. We’re just little guys.’ So they felt bad for us and said, ‘Oh, go ahead’” (Cymone 2016). They proceeded to blow that band–and everyone else–off the stage. Garry “Jellybean” Johnson, now best known as the drummer for the Time, gave a similar recollection from his days in the rival North Minneapolis group Flyte Tyme: “The first time I saw them they were 13 and 14, and I thought they were cute but I thought we’d kill them. But they got better and better” (Nilsen 1999 23).
Even at this stage, Prince and André in particular were possessed of an unusual ambition and drive; to them, their principal competition wasn’t Flyte Tyme and the other local bands, but national stars like the Jackson 5. Charles Smith recalled to biographer Per Nilsen that the Jacksons were “a big inspiration because they were our age and we thought we could beat them. We said, ‘We’re just as talented, and we’ve got the same kind of vibe and everything, except we ain’t really brothers but we’re related in one way or another’” (Nilsen 1999 19).
André later reflected, “I knew other musicians but no one ever really took it all that serious. I was deadly serious. Anybody who would listen to me, I’d tell them I’m going to be a star one day. Michael Jackson, I wanted to challenge him and the Jackson 5 to a duel” (Cymone 2016). Charles attributed similar grandiose statements to his other bandmate, who already held a healthy disdain for less disciplined musicians like Sly Stone: “Prince would go, ‘I’m not going to be like Sly, I’m going to practice my behind off like James Brown’s band, and I’m going to have everything so tight that you’re not going to be able to say anything about it’” (Nilsen 1999 20).
By the end of 1973, Grand Central had added original compositions to their repertoire. First came “Do You Feel Like Dancing?”, a likely Anderson/Smith co-write. Another song, “Danger Lover,” has been attributed to Smith; “Funk It Up” was probably written by André. The only Grand Central song known to have been written by Prince was called “Sex Machine”–seemingly later retitled “Machine”–which multiple sources have confirmed as an early hint of Prince’s risqué lyrical tendencies. Prince himself seems to have been referring to “Machine” when he recalled writing “the really, really vulgar stuff” in high school (Miller 1983). He told New Musical Express in 1981, “The audiences didn’t want to know the songs I was writing for the group. They’d just cover their faces, largely because of the lyrics. I remember I had a song called ‘Machine’ that was about this girl that reminded me of a machine. It was very explicit about her, urrhhh, parts. People seemed to find it very hard to take” (Salewicz 1981).
It’s important to note, as ever, that Prince had a talent for self-aggrandizement, and that “(Sex) Machine” was likely quite a bit tamer than he would have wanted to admit–especially while on the promotion circuit for his genuinely filthy 1980 album Dirty Mind. But it seemed to have been unpalatable to mainstream audiences for at least one other reason. Prince’s cousin-in-law Linster “Pepé” Willie, an aspiring musician and songwriter brought in to give Grand Central some pointers in 1974, recently told Rolling Stone about the first time he heard the track: “It was a really, really good song, but it lasted for 10 minutes. And I said, ‘Wow, that’s a nice song, but for it to be on the radio, you have to use a certain formula’” (Grow 2016).
Willie’s involvement with Grand Central came soon after a period of transition. First, the group expanded, adding André’s younger sister Linda on keyboards and neighborhood friends Terry Jackson and William Doughty on percussion. Then, for reasons that are uncertain, but likely adolescent in nature (André remembers an unspecified “falling out”; other sources claim Smith was spending too much of his free time on football practice), Charles was forced out of the group sometime in 1974. The passive-aggressive manner in which he was dismissed, as we’ll later see, wasn’t far removed from future firings in the Prince camp: Smith just showed up at rehearsal one day to find his drums pushed to the side, with someone else’s in their place. “I said, ‘Who sold me out?’” he later told Per Nilsen. “Everybody said, ‘Prince did!’ But he said, ‘It wasn’t just me. André too!’ I think they were all so glad to still be in the group that they all went along with it” (Nilsen 1999 24).
Charles’ replacement was Morris Day, who attended Central High School in the class above André and Prince and had, per André, been trying to get into the group for a while: “Morris would always come to me and say, ‘Man, I’m a drummer and want to play in your band. I can play.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, we have a drummer.’ We’d do a gig and I’d see Morris on the side. ‘Man, can I play in your band?’” Finally, André gave him a chance: “he put on Tower of Power’s ‘What is Hip’ and played it lick for lick. Completely blew me away. He was left-handed and I’d never heard anybody play like that ever. I’m like, ‘Oh shit, you’re in’” (Cymone 2016). Along with the upgrade in musical chops, Morris brought to Grand Central a white Fender Telecaster bass and his mother, LaVonne Daugherty, who André remembers as a “gorgeous” Pam Grier type with some show business connections and a desire to manage the group. Around this time, they renamed themselves “Grand Central Corporation”–an apparent, if slightly on-the-nose reflection of their new professionalism.
They also entered the studio: Audiotek Systems, Inc., a tiny sixteen-track facility on Broadway Ave. that engineer David Rivkin later recalled as “a horrible piece of junk” (Hahn 14). The six-track demo tape was said to include “Machine,” André’s “39th St. Party” (a favorite of Pepé Willie’s), and a few other songs of unknown authorship: “Lady Pleasure,” “You’re Such a Fox,” “Grand Central”–a Monkees-style theme song?–and “Whenever.” André also recalls cutting versions of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” and “Love’s Theme” by Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra (Cymone 2016). It’s presumably this demo that secured Grand Central Corporation’s first–and, as it turned out, only–shot at a big break, when former Stax Records star Isaac Hayes took an interest in the group and promised them a deal on his HBS (Hot Buttered Soul) record label. André took the news as confirmation that their ship had come in, and dropped out of school; Prince “was smart” and kept going. A few weeks later, André said, “somebody showed me a copy of Jet magazine with a story…about Isaac Hayes filing for bankruptcy. I thought, ‘OK, guess I have to go back to school’” (Cymone 2016).
The HBS deal’s collapse understandably took the wind out of Grand Central’s sails, though they continued to limp on for a while. Early in 1976, they changed their name to “Shampayne”: partly out of respect for the ousted Smith, and partly because they didn’t want to be mistaken for a ripoff of the aforementioned Graham Central Station. As Shampayne, they cut a few more demos, though even less is known about those recordings than about the earlier sessions at ASI. In the meantime, Prince was growing restless. His dissatisfaction is palpable in his first known interview, published in the Central High student newspaper in February 1976: “I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they’re good,” he complains. “Mainly because there aren’t any big record companies or studios in this state. I really feel that if we would have lived in Los Angeles or New York or some other big city, we would have gotten over by now” (“Nelson”). Within a few months, he’d be out of the band and working on his own music.
In retrospect, the Grand Central/Shampayne era is easy to see as an anomaly in Prince’s career: probably because it seems strange for such a notorious control freak, even in his teenage years, to be a willing partner among equals. During a 1982 interview on Detroit local music show The Scene, André–now performing as a solo artist under his stage name “Cymone”–would elicit incredulous laughs and cheers when he insisted that Morris and Prince were in “[his] group” before they were famous. But for all of Prince’s self-created mythology as the one-man band who can do it all his own damn self, thank you very much, it’s important to remember that he spent almost as much of his professional life playing in groups as he spent holed up by himself in the studio. From the Revolution to the New Power Generation all the way to 3RDEYEGIRL, he clearly took pleasure in being part of a musical unit–even if his ruthless desire for perfection and jealousy of the spotlight often made him a difficult person to be in a band with. Grand Central was only anomalous insomuch as it took place before Prince had found his voice as a frontman; it was the closest he ever came to participating in a pure democracy. And it wasn’t the end of his “humble phase,” either: just as his time in the group was waning, he’d take the next step in his artistic development by becoming, of all things, a session musician. We’ll pick up there when we return next week.
(If you couldn’t tell already, André Cymone’s 2016 interview with Billboard magazine was pretty much indispensable in putting this post together. The whole thing is fascinating, and well worth your time as a firsthand account from an underrated figure in popular music. I have also made a few small, mostly clarifying edits in light of the definitive account presented in The Rise of Prince 1958-1988 by Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert. Thanks to Terry Jackson for holding me to an appropriately high standard.)