Morris Hayes was the legendary Prince’s keyboard player for more than 20 years – his musical director for much of that time. The longest serving member of New Power Generation.
But the pair were close friends too, and shared great times on and off stage in many countries around the world.
Morris is still leading NPG today, with several other original members in the ranks, and an exciting young front man in MacKenzie.
The eight-piece outfit are due to hit the UK shores in December for a handful of shows in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.
Soul star Mica Paris is special guest in Birmingham and ex-Color Me Badd member Martin Kember will guest at the London and Manchester shows.
NPG’s “Celebrating Prince” shows have been described as a “non-stop musical kaleidoscope of the most iconic chart-topping hits from all eras of Prince’s illustrious four-decade career”.
They will perform such timeless classics from NPG era as ‘Diamonds and Pearls,’ ‘Gett Off’, ‘Cream’ ‘7,’ and ‘Sexy MF’, intermingled with hits such as ‘1999,’ ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, ‘Pop Life’, ‘Sign O’ The Times’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘U Got The Look’ and ‘Kiss’.
The New Power Generation, also known as The NPG, was the backing band of Prince from 1990 to 2013. They were replaced by 3rdeyegirl in 2013.
In 2015, the New Power Generation reunited with Prince for his final studio album, before his death in 2016 at the age of 57. Morris put the band back together for the official Prince Tribute concert in October 2016.
After that historic night, they decided to reunite to take a smaller version on the road honouring their former leader, for a US and European tour in 2017.
Prince the prankster!
Almost everyone has seen footage of Prince on stage, heard his songs on the radio and on movie and TV soundtracks, maybe seen his film Purple Rain and many have been lucky enough to see him in concert.
But away from the stage and recording studio, Prince Rogers Nelson was a very private man, and often said to be reclusive. Tucked away in his secure Paisley Park estate home and studio complex in Minneapolis.
Morris reveals a private side to Prince that only those close to the musical genius would know: He was a great prankster and often played tricks on his pal. Like the wind up in a hotel in Germany on tour…
“He absolutely had a great sense of humour. He was serious sometimes, but he loved to laugh. I remember one time he called my room in a hotel we were at in Germany, and pretended to be housekeeping.
“He called multiple times until I get angry and swore at him. He started laughing and said, ‘I knew I could make you cuss!’.
“I miss him laughing. There are many things to miss about Prince, but nothing made me happier than when we were joking around and pulling pranks. He loved to have fun, even though he was a very hard worker. That’s what I miss the most”.
Morris reveals Prince used to don a disguise to go out while on tour without being mobbed. But there were times when the superstar dropped the showbiz stuff and walked the streets as himself without worry, his religious beliefs firmly in focus.
Door to door…
“When I close my eyes, I think of the time that Prince came to my house and he was practising going door to door for his Jehovah Witness work. He pretended that he didn’t know me and went through his programme. I played along as he and his wife at the time, Manuela, were talking to me.
“It was all going nicely when Manuela noticed a new couch and said, ‘Hey I saw that couch over there at the store’. Prince snapped at her to remind her that they were in character. It was funny to me. And they left like they were strangers”.
Morris reveals the private man Prince, gave large sums of money to charities and sometimes had a unique modus operandi of choosing some of the causes to help.
“Prince was a huge philanthropist. I recall toward the end of my run, we were going to Chicago. He asked me to think of three charities that when we got to Chicago, we could give money to.
“He was always like that when it came to any of the cities where we visited/toured. He also did this for most of the band, when we would go to different band members’ home towns. He was amazing that way”.
Prince had a big heart. No doubting that. As Morris reveals, when tragedy struck the Prince camp and the tight NPG family. He stepped in to help.
“Around 2004, NPG drummer John Blackwell’s daughter, my God Daughter Gia, died in a swimming pool accident, right around the time I was getting married.
“It was a very tough time. Prince called me and told me that he would call John and take care of everything. It was a very bad time….”
Morris remembers away from the spotlight, Prince loved photography and was good at it. “I think it started coming out toward the end of his life, but he really enjoyed it. He also had a great eye for photography.
“I suppose being in front of the camera for so many years gave him an edge, being behind it. But then again, he just seemed to be great at everything he tried to do”.
So did ‘The Purple One’ ever really get the full recognition and respect he deserved for such a towering multi-faceted talent as he possessed, Morris? “I don’t actually think Prince gets enough credit for all the innovations and pioneering that he’s done in music or in the industry.
“He would tell me all the things that he was going to do and that he would implement, and it went down just like he said. It was amazing to watch and see the things that he would tell me, come to fruition.
“There will ever be another Prince. He had a very unique work ethic. He did so many things. He was amazing with fashion. He could play so many instruments. He could operate in all different frequencies.
“He was a Renaissance man. I think there’s a lot of talent out there, but Prince was prolific as a writer. He was the exact opposite of a lazy person. He was all about getting things done”.
So, did he ever have words of wisdom for you? “Prince said to me, ‘it’s not a mistake until you stop.’ And, ‘respect the music.’ For me, this means you don’t hit the stage without knowing your parts, without knowing the lyrics.
“You have to come rehearsed and you have to come with humility and respect. Prince’s whole thing was to be ready. You had to be ready for anything”.
Of the the huge catalogue of songs that he had written, did Prince have any favourites? “He really loved ‘Days of Wild’. There are many other songs, but I remember him saying he could play that song for 25 minutes. Two of my personal favourites are ‘Joy in Repetition’ and ‘The Question of U”.
Morris left the Prince band in 2012, and he recalls the last time he saw the legend face-to-face, a year or two after he left, before Prince’s shocking sudden death.
“It was around 2013 or 2014, and he called me to ask me to come hear him with Third Eye Girl in Anaheim. There were a lot of celebrities there, but after the show he summoned me over and I spoke to him briefly and told him how great the show was, and that I was glad I came.
“But I kept it brief, as I knew there were a lot of people waiting to see him. I almost didn’t go to that show. I didn’t feel like driving to Anaheim that day, but I’m so glad that I did. That would be the last time I saw him in person”.
Morris explains that even though Prince has left us, he still feels his spirit watching over him and the NPG at every show. “There are many times when we play certain songs that we can really feel that energy. It happened just a few days ago; many of us started crying on stage.
“We were performing at a fundraiser in New York for a charity he supported, in conjunction with the release of his new memoir. There was a huge image of Prince on a screen behind us, and it really hit most of us. Prince is always with us”.
So what would he think of the NPG’s current set and sound? “I think he would want to get on the stage and get his piece in! It’s the kind of set he would love”.
The young singer with the band, MacKenzie Green, has big shoes to fill. But, of course, there is not one person on the planet who could replace such a monster talent and star as Prince, and he does not try to.
But feedback from previous NPG shows with this young artist at the front, heap nothing but praise on him for his dynamic and respectful interpretation of the slew of iconic Prince songs.
“We love MacKenzie. The thing I love about MacKenzie is, he doesn’t try to be Prince. He does his best interpretation of the music and that’s what we like about him. He has his own style and personality and he’s a great performer”. MacKenzie reached the semi-finals of America’s Got Talent 2019, accompanied by Morris on the show.
What can fans expect when they come see you guys in the UK this December, Morris? “Fans can expect the same level of entertainment they did when Prince was there. After all, we are the NPG. We played that music with him, and we still know how to do it. We want to deliver that same energy and passion that he used to both deliver, and demand of us”.
The personnel for this tour is Morris Hayes – musical director and keyboards, MacKenzie – lead vocals, Sonny Thompson – bass, Homer O’Dell (formerly of Mint Condition) – lead guitar, Tony Mosley – rapper/rhythm guitar, Les Cleveland – drums, Kenni Holmen – sax and flute, Damon Dickson – dancer/percussion.
Morris, Sonny, Tony and Damon are all original NPG members. Homer often played with/for Prince. Les, who also plays for bass legend Larry Graham, was the protégé of original NPG drummer, the late John Blackwell. Kenni is an original NPG Hornzheadz member.
There’s a bunch of unreleased Prince and NPG recordings in the vaults, controlled by the Prince Estate, who also licence his songs for NPG to use on stage.
Morris also reveals that the current line-up is working on new material “every chance we get”. Morris says he is “really diggin’ what we have so far and I think the greatest stuff is yet to come. So stay tuned to see what’s cooking!”
Impossible to pin down just one “best moment” of the years spent with Prince, but Morris does have one time that he recalls fondly, from a previous to the UK. “I have had so many great moments with the New Power Generation…
“I suppose two of the greatest memories include playing at Wembley Stadium around 1994 and playing the Super Bowl in 2007. Those were momentous moments in my career. There have been many others, but those two really stand out”.
Maybe there will be a few more great memories created, for Morris to treasure from his imminent UK visit, to honour his late friend and boss, the truly one-off Prince, with the NPG crew. Tour dates below:
Words: Simon Redley
Photos (not album cover image): Peter Lodder
Saturday 07 December: London, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Tuesday 10 December: Birmingham, O2 Institute
Wednesday 11 December: Manchester, O2 Ritz
Thursday 12 December: Glasgow, O2 Academy