Note: Following last month’s post on “Do Me, Baby,” I knew I wanted to give André Cymone another, proper sendoff before he disappears from our pages until 1984. So, here’s the latest in my series of thought experiments, imagining an alternate reality in which André, not Prince, was the Grand Central member who went on to greater solo success. For anyone just dropping in, the idea here is to bring attention to the web of contingencies that shaped Prince’s career; to shake up our sense of inevitability and offer a glimpse at one of the many possible alternatives had things gone even slightly differently. It’s also, in this case, an opportunity to reevaluate Cymone’s legacy beyond his friend’s deceptively long shadow. As always, have fun and don’t take this too seriously. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week!
For a brief but significant period in the 1980s, the cutting edge of R&B and pop could be found in the unlikely locale of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Known as the “Minneapolis Sound,” this unique hybrid of funk, rock, and nascent electronic and New Wave styles emerged almost organically from the Twin Cities’ small but vibrant Black communities in the late 1970s. It thus wouldn’t be fair to give a single artist credit for “inventing” the genre; but the fact remains that when most music fans think of Minneapolis, one man in particular comes to mind. I’m talking, of course, about André Cymone.
Born André Simon Anderson on June 27, 1958, Cymone grew up on the North Side of Minneapolis: the youngest of six children raised by his single mother, Bernadette. André’s father, Fred, was a musician on the local jazz scene; though largely absent from his son’s upbringing, he played an outsized role in shaping his musical ambitions and work ethic. By the time the younger Anderson was in middle school, he had grown proficient on guitar, bass, and even a few wind instruments.
As a teenager, André was something of a juvenile delinquent, both gifted and cursed with enormous reserves of energy and a hustler’s spirit. For a while, he was notorious in the neighborhood for stealing cars; few at the time would have considered it a stretch to predict that he would follow his older brother, Eddie, into prison. Music ultimately provided a less destructive outlet. At age fourteen André formed his first band: Grand Central, a funk-rock outfit that was, by all accounts, polished and accomplished far beyond its members’ years. The group’s lineup fluctuated over time, but ultimately coalesced around a core of André, his sister Linda, and a young phenom of a drummer named Morris Day.
It was while recording a demo tape for Grand Central that Cymone got his first break: Chris Moon, the ambitious proprietor of local recording studio Moonsound, approached André to collaborate on some songs he was writing. The unlikely duo–a self-described “wild kid” from the projects and a White English transplant with a day job in advertising–co-wrote and recorded a number of tracks: including “Soft and Wet,” which of course later became Cymone’s first single. Moon immediately recognized Cymone’s potential as a solo artist and enlisted the help of Owen Husney, a business colleague with interests in managing pop acts. By 1977, Husney had landed Cymone a two-album deal with Columbia Records; recording sessions commenced that September at the Record Plant in Sausalito, California.
In later years, Cymone would all but disown I’m Yours, his Columbia debut released in April of 1978. He had wanted to produce the album himself, but his label was understandably nervous about handing the reins to an unproven 19-year-old; instead, they enlisted David Paich, best known at that time for his work with blue-eyed soul singer Boz Scaggs. Paich gave a professional, radio-friendly sheen to Cymone’s songs; the results were pleasant enough, but bore little resemblance to the demos recorded at Moonsound and Sound 80 in Minneapolis. With its ebullient gospel-disco arrangement, the aforementioned “Soft and Wet” sounds in many ways like a dry run for Paich’s arrangement of Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real”; it was, however, nowhere near as big a hit, peaking at Number 12 on the Billboard Soul Singles chart and only Number 92 on the Hot 100. The title track, meanwhile, was notable as the first recorded appearance by Paich’s band Toto, offering a kind of preview of the manicured arena rock of their own debut later in 1978.
I’m Yours sold respectably, but not overwhelmingly, peaking at Number 21 on the Top Black Albums chart and barely troubling the Top 200 LPs & Tapes. Cymone used the resulting downtime to steer his career in a direction he was more comfortable with, recruiting a backing band of musicians from his hometown. The multiracial lineup was engineered specifically to capture the crossover audience his debut album had missed. Guitarist Dez Dickerson was Black, but with a style more indebted to hard rock than funk or soul; drummer Bobby Z, a part-time employee of Husney’s with whom Cymone had spent hours jamming in the manager’s Loring Park offices, was White, as were keyboardists Matt Fink and Gayle Chapman. On stage, the new band played in what was rapidly becoming the trademark Minneapolis style, using Fink’s and Chapman’s layered synthesizers to approximate the horn arrangements from the record. Cymone also led the group in pushing the envelope aesthetically, with outrageous stage attire designed by his sister Sylvia. Most infamous were his transparent plastic pants, under which he would wear a pair of crotch-hugging bikini briefs and nothing else.
While his live show grew increasingly raunchy, Cymone’s second studio album aimed directly for the charts. André Cymone, recorded in the summer of 1979 and released that October, brought the nascent Minneapolis Sound to a national audience, with Cymone sounding more assured as a singer, songwriter, and performer. This time, he and Husney successfully lobbied Columbia to let him produce; sessions were completed at Hollywood Sound Recorders, with Cymone playing most of the instruments. The result was his first hit record–though it didn’t look that way at first. Lead single “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, a power pop corker with a searing guitar solo by Dickerson, fell just short of “Soft and Wet” on the charts–a victim, most likely, of the market’s rigid segregation between pop and R&B. It was with the second single, quiet storm classic “Do Me, Baby,” that Cymone struck paydirt: his first R&B Number 1, the sexy ballad elevated Cymone to teen idol status. That autumn, he and his band found themselves dropped from a tour opening for Kool & The Gang, ostensibly because his presence was too distracting for the girls in the audience.
The success of “Do Me, Baby” ensured that Columbia renewed Cymone’s contract; much to the label’s chagrin, it also gave the artist leverage to take his next album in a more esoteric direction. Having failed to cross over to the mainstream rock market with his two previous albums, André saw an opportunity in the burgeoning New Wave scene, which blurred the lines between the rigid radio formats of the late 1970s and provided opportunities to cultivate a more dedicated, grassroots audience. The stripped-down “punk-funk” of his third album, Uptown–named after one of the hotbeds of Minneapolis’ homegrown New Wave scene–was a major departure from both of its predecessors, and failed to yield any hits at the level of “Do Me, Baby.” But the album and its supporting club tour firmly established Cymone as a critical darling; and the title track, released in September 1980, did manage to crack the Top Five for both Dance and R&B.
Cymone toured relentlessly through 1981, culminating in a pair of dates opening for the Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But what should have been another career breakthrough turned into a borderline riot, as members of the Stones’ audience hurled racist invective and foreign objects at Cymone and his band. The incident, and Cymone’s fuck-you response, only improved his punk cred, but the strain on the band was beginning to show. By the end of the year, the majority of his musicians had departed.
Cymone’s next album, 1982’s Livin’ in the New Wave, played up the electronic elements of the Minneapolis Sound with synthesizer programming by Roger Dumas, best known for his work in Lipps, Inc. Tracks like the electro-flavored “Get It Girl” helped introduce sounds from cutting-edge dance music into a pop idiom; but the real breakthrough was on the pop charts, where single “Kelly’s Eyes” made the most headway of Cymone’s career to date. Its success was helped immeasurably by the music video: one of the first by a Black artist to break MTV’s unspoken color barrier.
Perhaps most influential in spreading the gospel of the Minneapolis Sound, however, were the tracks Cymone wrote and produced for other artists. His opening act on the 1981 and 1982 tours was the Time, whose first album he had helped conceive before handing over the reins to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. A second group of protegées, the Girls, soon followed. After the success of Livin’ in the New Wave, Cymone began to produce for artists outside his immediate circle: penning the title track and a handful of other songs for Evelyn “Champagne” King’s Face to Face in 1983. His biggest success came in 1987, with his work on the self-titled solo debut of former Shalamar frontwoman Jody Watley: a project that, along with Janet Jackson’s Jam and Lewis-produced Control from the previous year, represented the peak of the Minneapolis Sound’s influence on Top 40 pop.
Like many artists associated with the 1980s, Cymone struggled to adjust in later decades. He continued to write and produce for Watley, with whom he was briefly married, through the release of her 1993 album Intimacy. Later, however, he wrote primarily for film and television–most notably the theme song for the Brooke Shields sitcom Suddenly Susan. But even after fading out of view in the late ’90s, Cymone’s legacy nevertheless remained intact. As Jimmy Jam put it in 2004, inducting his former colleague into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, André Cymone put Minneapolis on the map: his innovative infusions of New Wave and electronic music into pop, rock, and funk remain without parallel.
Today, Cymone is back to performing, having reemerged after the Hall of Fame induction with a more rock-oriented sound. His latest album, 1969, was released last year to critical acclaim–though longtime fans have been clamoring for a return to the style on which he built his initial reputation. Whether or not that ever happens, Cymone remains an artist worth watching. 40 years after his debut album, he’s still doing what he does best; and, in a musical landscape where living legends are an increasingly rare commodity, that is something to be treasured.
(As usual, this work of fiction is based in part on real research: particularly helpful was Ericka Blount Danois’ 2012 feature in Wax Poetics, which shed some fascinating light on Cymone’s musical identity beyond Prince. And yes, of course, 1969 is a real album and you should definitely check it out–along with Cymone himself, who is currently touring with the original New Power Generation.)