The drummers of Prince
Prince Rogers Nelson, aka Prince, was, himself an awesome drummer, and played or programmed the beats on much of his considerable recorded output. But live, he always picked the very finest sticksmen and women to back him and play those incredibly funky tunes with pocket, feel and chops.
As we reach the fourth anniversary of Prince's passing, here's a look back at some of the great drummers who backed him over the years.
Robert Rivkin, aka Bobby Z, was the drummer in Prince's seminal band The Revolution, who backed him on classics including the Purple Rain album.
While Prince himself played many of the instruments on his recordings, Bobby Z's touch brought real human and funky feel, and he adapted to the increasingly electronic drum sounds on Prince's records. He was a crucial part of Prince's live performance.
One of the best known of Prince's drummers, and a great percussionist from a famous percussion family, the Escovedos. Sheila joined Prince as drummer between 1987 to 1989. She also had three solo albums produced by Prince during the ’80s.
Sheila recently spoke to Rhythm about joining Prince's band: “At that time, ’86, I was touring, opening up for Lionel Richie, and I was pretty much exhausted. I was tired of fronting the band. It was a lot of work - believe me, it still is - to get to that level, and I worked my butt off, non-stop. I was out on tour for a year and a half and then I did the movie Krush Groove - it was just back-to-back.
"I got to that point where I was so tired I said, ‘I feel like I have left my first love and now I’m singing so much I don’t feel like I’m playing anymore.’ I thought, I want to get back to music. I was talking to Prince and I was still on tour with Lionel. He said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t think I want to do this anymore. I think I want to go back and play with some other people because I enjoy that.’
"I got to the point where I really felt that something was missing in my life and it was getting away from my drums, my playing. So when I said that to Prince, I think a lightbulb went on in his head and he said, ‘So, what about playing for me?’ I said, ‘Play what?’ He said, ‘Drums.’ I said, ‘Really? That would be so dope.’”
Michael Bland was just 19 when he joined Prince's New Power Generation as drummer in 1989, and stayed with him for seven years and a number of albums, including Diamond And Pearls (1991).
He also later teamed up with Prince again to provide the drumming for the title track of the 2006 album 3121. A big hitter, he also has tons of tasty groove and a deep pocket, as befits any drummer considered worthy by Prince to play in his band.
John Blackwell Jr
Undoubtedly one of the funkiest drummers working today, John Blackwell Jr is best known as a long-time Prince drummer, playing in the Purple One's New Power Generation band for a mighty 12 years. When Rhythm spoke to John in 2007 he was working with Justin Timberlake, and he talked about his trademark pocket groove and impressive showmanship skills.
“Juggling’s great if you have the confidence to do it. But you don’t need it, as long as you’ve got the pocket - that’s the most important thing. If you can’t do anything fancy, play the beat, you still got a job. If you can twirl sticks and stay disciplined it’s even more of a job - you’re adding a visual thing to the show. Which is what Prince liked.
“Showmanship helps, but if I didn’t have the discipline to keep the groove, the pocket, for 10 or 20 minutes, that stuff would do me no good. I learned that from my dad, John Blackwell Sr, and I definitely learned it from [Cameo’s] Larry Blackmon.”
Cora was invited, along with her husband and bass partner Josh Dunham, to join Prince's band, known as the After Party House Band, in 2006, and played on his albums 3121, Planet Earth and LOtUSFlOW3R.
“We came in and sat down and he said, ‘Hey, I just want to try a couple of ideas,’” she told Rhythm of that first meeting. “Most of what we recorded, we learned; there were no charts or anything. It was like, ‘Hey, try this groove.’ He might sing what he’s hearing or sing the bassline to Josh. Then he’ll say, ‘OK, play with that.’ We’ll groove on it; we can groove on it for a good 15 minutes or so. It’s kind of like James Brown. James Brown would sit on the groove until it’s just really right.
“Having a bandleader that plays several instruments has its advantages and disadvantages,” she added. “He’ll get behind the kit and say, ‘OK, you can roll on that snare at the beginning. Then make a clean break or let it linger. When he sits down and plays, he’s really saying, ‘This is the energy that I want; approach it like a big fat man. Smash it like a big, fat dude!’ So you think, ‘OK, big, fat dude on drums’. It’s relentless.”
Hannah Ford is Prince's latest drummer, part of his all-female 3rdEyeGirl backing band. She was just 22 when she caught Prince's eye through her YouTube videos.
Of working with the Purple One, Hannah reveals: “Prince is an incredible bandleader,” says Hannah. “He’s a phenomenal teacher and arranger and performer and he’s really serious about what he does and so are we, so he’s amazing at lifting everybody up and making sure that we’re all on our game. When it comes to live shows, we definitely have to keep our eyes on him, because just with the flick of a wrist or a look, in a second the song can stop, and if you don’t stop when everybody else does, it’s obvious.
“I’ve learned a lot of different styles and studied different genres, I knew the importance of being versatile, but to really dig into funk and to know what it means to have pocket, I was never really taught that,” she says. “Prince really was hands-on teaching me about pocket and funk and being solid and grooving. I’ve always had good time but there is a difference between time and pocket. That difference is felt, so when I learned how to feel pocket, how to get to that point and lock it in, that was so eye-opening. Prince is my favourite drummer right now; he’s incredible, so funky.”