Morris Hayes on 'Crystal Ball'

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Morris Hayes talks with Sean McPherson at The Current
Morris Hayes talks with Sean McPherson at The Current (MPR)
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Covering musical and personal ground, New Power Generation keyboardist/musical director Morris Hayes and Purple Current host Sean McPherson taped a marathon interview - more than two hours, all told - so we're sharing it album by album. Here's the second of ten.

Crystal Ball

You're with Purple Current and I'm chatting with Morris Hayes, longtime keyboardist and musical director for Prince, and we're going record-by-record through some records that just got a bigger release. Not stuff that was hidden in the vault, but stuff that was not easy to access in the digital era, and that has recently changed, and one of the coolest records from that era is Crystal Ball, which goes back to stuff from the 1980s as well as a lot of stuff from the early '90s. Many songs that you were quite involved with, Morris, including one apparently that you inspired the title of if I'm not mistaken. But can you paint a picture for your periods of involvement that ended up on Crystal Ball?

It was interesting. Crystal Ball - I remember when I first got in the band. That was in what I call the honeymoon period with Prince. When you first get in he's like super nice to you, like he don't yell at you, like you can come in the studio while he's doing backgrounds and singing vocals, and I didn't find out until after it happened that that was like - I'm in there and he's cutting vocals and he's doing his thing and making faces and screaming stuff, and I'm just sitting there. And I go out and tell one of the guys, like dude, that was cool. Prince is in there doing vocals. And like, "He let you come in and watch vocals? You were there while he was doing vocals." I'm like, he was just in there screaming and hollering. He's like, "Dude, he don't let nobody in while he's doing vocals." I'm like yeah, I was just in there hanging out. And then after a while it was like, "Morris, Oprah's on," which means leave. Like go watch Oprah. She's on TV right now so you should go in there and let me do my vocals on my own. But it was cool.

And one of the things he did early on is he had one of the engineers go down and get this song, Crystal Ball, out of the Vault. And he brought it in and he just put it up and he played it. And it starts out like this [sings], and he's going, and this song, like over a period of time, just starts to develop with all of these different things coming in. The song is like 12 or 13 minutes or something. It's a long piece. And I'm sitting there and it's starting to evolve and things are coming in, and Clare Fischer string arrangements and all of this stuff.

Dude, this is cool. Who's playing drums on this? He said, "I am." I said okay, that's cool. And then the bass comes and it's got this crazy bass. I said, "Who's playing bass?" He said, "I am. I'm playing bass." And so I'm like okay who's playing keyboard. He said, "I am." I said, "So wait a minute. You're playing everything on this record right now." Because it's just going, and it's changing tempos, it's moving around. He's playing drums and it's like breaks are happening and tempo changes are happening. And I'm like how are you doing this? You have to play the whole song, because you can't play guitar and bass and keys all at the same - he says, "I see it done in my head. All of the song is done in my head, so all I'm doing is executing, so I know all the parts I'm going to play before I play it. So he's playing the drums, knowing what's going to happen. He plays the bass and puts that down like it's going to - and I'm like are you kidding me.

How does a brain work that way?

That's crazy. It's not even like you have a clock of anything. It's like tempo changes - everything - and he has to remember exactly what he did so he can play it again when it comes back around. It was just astounding to me, and I was just sitting there going dude, I'm way out of my pay grade right now. I had that feeling so many times. Like I'm dealing with a cat who's basically Mozart. He told me his favorite movie was Amadeus, and I think there's a line in it where Amadeus goes to the guy, he says, "I think this is what you meant." That's him. That resonated with him because that's him. He could even hear on your record what you probably meant to do. [sings] Now you go ahead with that.

That was his thing. He could do that, and I thought that was the most incredible thing. I'm sitting there just - my brains are smoking, and it's this massive opus, and I'm just like this is so crazy right now. And he just basically like - yeah, that's just another day at the office for me. That's what I do. I just see it done. So all I'm doing is executing the parts. And I was like oh my God, this is crazy. And so with that project, Crystal Ball, that song eventually would come on to go on that record some years later, because that was at the beginning when I first started. And then he put that record out.

And then we had been in the studio recording. We used to record so much, man. There was a series of songs like "Calhoun Square" and "What's My Name" and different songs like that again, where we'd be in the studio and he'd just give us some stuff. And they were just incredible.

"What's My Name" was just like Prince and Sonny playing bass together. Sonny T. was - Prince told me like Sonny - he used to just camp out at his house and look through his basement window to try to learn from him, and Sonny would take him in and show him things. Him and Sonny playing bass together, just almost like this bass duel thing, was just incredible. And there's just so many interesting pieces. There's one song called "2morrow" that he basically left me in the studio and said - he was sitting there. He said, "What key is Most Beautiful Girl in the World in?" And I told him, and he kind of looked around and said - like Stevie Wonder - he was like - he says, "Okay, those vocal samples work on this. It's just that they're in - just flip them to this. The tempo should be about the same. What's the relative minor?" He'd ask the key, and then he would know. His relative pitch was so good, he'd know like if it's in Bb, that can work in G, and so he's like that's great. And I'd be like - and I'd go get the thing and be like, "Crap, it works!" He just knew. And there's so many really cool things.

We did fall out about that particular record, though, because I said, "Prince, it's like five CDs. The Truth is one of the coolest records you've done in ages. If you put it in here you're going to kill this thing. You're going to kill this record. There's too much data." And he was like, "No, I want it to be five CDs." And I was just like wow, it was amazing. I thought this record, The Truth, was amazing. It's him on acoustic. I had a manager, Craig Rice, used to tell - Prince isn't what - he just breaks it down, him on the guitar, him on the keyboards. He's amazing. And I thought when I start hearing him - with some of the tracks he would - I went in the studio and he was working on The Truth. I was blown away. I was like bro, this is it. This is going to be a smash because you're on guitar, singing and playing guitar. Forget about it. It's over. And it just got stuck in there with everything else and just overlooked. I think it was a great work of art that just didn't get the proper credit that it deserved.

I'm talking with Morris Hayes. We're talking about a really interesting era in Prince's career where, yes, the output started coming more frequently and often sort of in irregular shapes, not necessarily your 45-minute CD. Some of that had to do with newfound freedom for Prince because he wasn't beholden to Warner Bros. records. Some of that had to do with the technology permitting him to speak to his audience in a different way. At what point as a member of his working group, of his touring band, did you realize that it was going to be a different workflow now that he wasn't with a major label?

It was, and not only that, like you were saying, it was an interesting time because this was at the rise of the internet. Prince figured out that we don't need record labels. We have the internet. So we cannot go direct to the people. Prince - one of the biggest things he used to tell me all the time was like - I asked him. I said, "Dude, why did we change the set? We changed the music." He says, "I'm bored. And if I'm bored I figure everybody else is too. So I don't want to do anything that - I just think if that's the way I feel, that's the way my public feels, is that they're bored and they want something new and something fresh too."

He was just out of the traditional - I looked at the Michael Jackson model and I thought Mike was very clever in terms of Mike would take four years before another record would come out. That record would stay on the charts for three years. And then you get a year of lull and then pow, this next big giant record comes out, and then he does the same thing. So there was just this thing. Prince was like prolific, man. He was like, "No, I'm not going to wait four years. I'm going to put a record out at least every year, and maybe two records." Because that was in him. And he needed to get it out. It came to him in floods and he wanted to put it out. And so - you know me. I don't know anything. This dude is a genius and I'm just like a layman. I'm just looking at what is normal and what everybody else does. He never looked at things like that. He was like, "I don't think about what the norms are and what everybody else and how everybody else does business."

The internet was an interesting situation because I think that's around the where Madonna and all them got these big crazy deals, and I think he was just telling me, "Man, I don't need a label. Think about it. If you have a name - Madonna don't need a record label. Janet Jackson doesn't need a record label. They have names that are so big now, if we implement the sales online that we could do, then I think it's over."

And I think that could've really singlehandedly sunk the record labels had he voted outright. The biggest problem I think he had is that he didn't trust anybody. So in order to make that record, Crystal Ball, there was a big kerfuffle about it because people had put in orders for this thing and waited like months and months. Then he did a deal with Best Buy, and it ended up coming out that the people who had put deposits were still waiting for theirs, and then it came out in the regular store. I think it was just a fulfillment thing. We had three people in the back that was trying to get these things out, and he had so many orders, you can't get three people - but he didn't want - the people in Paisley Park - like outsiders in there, so he had people that he trusted, but only a few that were doing it. And I think - just in my own mind again - I'm no record mogul and I'm not anybody that is savvy with that whole thing. But I just thought wow, had that rolled out in a big way it could've upended the situation. Anybody that had stature like him could say, "Oh." So Prince had this model that he's proven we could sell these things and get them out there. Of course nowadays that's commonplace. But back then I think it would've been a very frightful thing for the record labels had he been really successful in the rollout of Crystal Ball on the internet like he wanted. I think then it would've been really scary for them because any artists with a name, once they got out of their record deal would be like yeah - they had their own distribution because now they have the name recognition to put it out.

You're with Purple Current and I'm chatting with Morris Hayes, longtime keyboard player with Prince. We're talking about Crystal Ball, and I want to talk about a track - "Days of Wild" - which is this like fun, funky track, and I'm hearing all these hip-hop influences, but I'm also going what a creative person, to throw in Duke Ellington's "Caravan" in between the verses. And in preparing for this, and also preparing for being a lifetime fan of Prince, his ears are so big in so many ways. He was aware of so many things. Can you walk me through how a fun-loving hip-hop track that's all sort of braggadocio ends up getting a pinch of Duke Ellington?

Number one, Duke Ellington was one of his favorites. One of the greatest compliments he ever paid me as I was working on another record, and he let me just - it was cool because it was one of the few things where he just gave it to me and just said take it home, and you just overproduce it. He just said, "Overproduce it. Whatever I don't need I'll take it away. Just throw everything you want at it and just do it." Which was cool because whenever we had to do something at Paisley, like if he was there, it was zero patience. I had to figure it out quickly. This is like I got to go home to my own studio and every day I brought him back something new. I'd bring him a new egg every day. I'd pick a song, I'd work it out all night, and I'd come back the next day and bring it to him. I remember bringing him this one song called "Born to Die," and he kind of liked the horn arrangement. He said, "You're Duke Ellington, man." He just shook me all over like oh, this is great. You're like Duke Ellington, man, and he started shaking me because Duke was one of his favorites. He just had a swagger about him and of course he was amazing.

And I think that song, "Days of Wild," what it was all about when we did it - we just knew like bro, this is it, because it just had such a groove. It was like a train going down the tracks. He gave me an organ part just like [sings] and he got a four-bar section that just grooved. Just four bars of solid groove, and he said, "Man, we can play this for 20 minutes. We can just play that circle for 20 minutes and just add on whatever we want to add on to it, throw some breaks in." And it was incredible, man. That song turned out to be one of my favorite pieces on that record because when we would get to it we'd be laying for it. And when it came on, hold on to your wigs and we just would break it down to just those elements and just groove, and it would be different every time because he'd stop in a different section and do different things, and play his bass or play his guitar, and it was just fun, and that's what made it so great to me.

That was one thing I really like about Crystal Ball and kind of the start of this era, is you get to see a little bit more of how the sausage gets made, because there was more available, and also you get to see Prince working and Prince stretching out. I think about a track that goes way back to the 1980s - "Cloreen Baconskin." I'll tell you the truth. I read an article about that song before I listened to that song, and I went oh, it's boring but there's something worthwhile, and I was like there's not a minute of boringness on this. It's him stretching out.

You know what's great about it is like when you get to know the Prince that I guess everybody else didn't know, that was him. Him doing that "hey, don't you like me, yeah", and doing that whole shtick. He used to love to replay that song at the very beginning where it does the thing where he hits the beat and he drops a stick or something, and [sings] and then just kicks the groove back in. that was like one of his - he just would laugh uncontrollably at just doing that, and just keeping it rolling. [sings] and then go right back into it, and then him just doing his shtick. It was funny. I was in Mexico yesterday, riding to the airport, and we played one of the records, and he does all these segues on it, like where he's being other characters and he's doing his Italian guy, and he's doing - that was so much fun for him. So that "Cloreen Baconskin," he got to do his alter ego thing and [sings], and he loved it, man, because he got to be outside of himself and do that thing that made them all laugh in the studio, but still knowing that they're funky and they're grooving, and just bass and drums, and just doing it - him and Morris Day. It was crazy, man. It was just fun, and I think he loved that, and that's what I like about it, because that just embodied the comical spirit of him and the fun-loving part of him. But still wasn't nothing to sneeze at.

Hosted by Sean McPherson
Audio by Michael DeMark
Video by Steel Brooks and Cecilia Johnson
Web feature by Cecilia Johnson

Morris Hayes on Prince's 1995-2010 discography


The Gold Experience (1995)Crystal Ball (1996)Emancipation (1996)Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic (1999)The Rainbow Children (2001)Indigo Nights (2008)Musicology (2004)3121 (2006)Planet Earth (2007)20Ten (2010)


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