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My Experiences with Prince – by Elrick Williams CEO The Africa Channel

  in  ┬Ě ┬Ě
April 21, 2016

I had the great fortune to inhabit Prince’s orbit for a few weeks back in
2011, just prior to and during his 21-concert residency at The Forum in
Los Angeles. Prince had a fondness for The Africa Channel, which is based
in LA and of which I’m CEO, and asked my sister Paula Madison and me if we
could put together a ticketing solution for his stay at The Forum. Having
roots in technology, of course we said yes.

His first request was that I attend his concert in Raleigh, North
Carolina, in March of 2011, so as to witness one of his concerts
first-hand before we committed to helping him in Los Angeles. This was
just a month after Paula got to dance with Prince on stage at Madison
Square Garden, moments before he kicked Kim Kardashian off the stage for
being too stiff. The request to come to Raleigh was delivered third-hand
(through people I trust), with no details other than to be in Raleigh the
next night. My son Chan was with me and we rendezvoused with The Africa
Channel’s GM, Bob Reid at that time, in mid-afternoon with no itinerary or
agenda. We tried to guess which hotel Prince might use, but the best we
could find in Raleigh was a Sheraton. About 3PM my phone rang: Hello?
“Elrick, this is Prince,” in a bass voice. Cool! He asked if we could move
over to his hotel, several cuts above the Sheraton, roughly between
Raleigh and Durham. He greeted us around 4PM in his suite and we talked
loosely about the ticket sales and scanning solution he wanted. Mostly,
though, Prince gave us his strong views on TicketMaster/LiveNation and the
reasons why he was searching for an alternate solution. A key requirement
for Prince was that all the tickets for the 21-day Los Angeles run should
cost no more than $25 so that his fans of modest means could afford to
attend. Right on! A man of the people.

We talked with him in his Raleigh-Durham suite until 5PM, about an hour in
all, during which time I┬╣m thinking we should get out and let him get on
with his preparations for that night┬╣s concert. But he was in no rush.
Later, after we were in our seats in the concert arena, the crowd was
advised that the show would start one hour late. (Shhhh!!! We didn┬╣t want
to be lynched.) Before we could get fully settled in though, one of
Prince┬╣s crew came to escort us to the Purple Circle, the area just below
the glyph-shaped stage. We rendezvoused with Gwen Salley, one of Paula┬╣s
Vassar buddies and cousin of NBA legend John.

Prince started the concert with a medley of about a dozen songs, each one
bringing massive cheers from the crowd. The Maestro shouted “Do you know
how many hits I’ve had?” Some of us were angling to climb up to the stage
to dance, if invited, but we never got the call. Nevertheless, we had a
fabulous time.

After the concert a crew member came to escort us to one of the narrow
halls beneath the stands and asked us to wait in an area where there were
dozens of people milling about. After about fifteen minutes, I saw Prince
about thirty feet down the hall motioning Bob, Chan and me to come join
him. He was standing there in a bath robe, just a regular guy, asking us
how we enjoyed the concert, wanting to make sure we were well taken care
of by his people. Cool! Prince asked if we could extend our stay one more
day in order to continue our talks about a ticketing solution and to
attend the concert in Charlotte. Uhh, sure!

The next morning we checked out of the hotel and started on the drive to
Charlotte, about 150 miles. We wanted to get there in plenty of time; we
had heard that Prince was notoriously loose with time commitments and we
wanted to be ready to meet with him the moment he called. We had expected
to spend one night only on this trip and had rented a cheap flimsy car
just to drive around Raleigh-Durham. Had we known we’d wind up on the
highway, I would have rented a sturdier, roomier car but this was what we
had. We were halfway to Charlotte, having breakfast, when my phone rang:
“Elrick, this is Prince. Would you like a ride to Charlotte?” I thanked
him for the offer, but we were just at the point of no return so we
decided to press on. So that we wouldn┬╣t have to repeat our Raleigh-Durham
experience of checking into two hotels for the same night, I asked if he
would give up the name of the hotel where he was staying in Charlotte.
Ever mysterious, he said that we could discuss that later.

We arrived in Charlotte and discovered there a Ritz-Carlton hotel, my
favorite hotel chain, and it even had a Morton┬╣s Steakhouse inside the
hotel. We thought there was a good chance that Prince would stay here, but
during an early dinner we decided to hold off committing to hotel rooms,
just in case. Once again, just as were settling into our concert seats,
one of Prince┬╣s crew came to relay Prince┬╣s request that we accompany him
back to Raleigh-Durham after the concert in order to finish our talks.
Uhh, sure! But we had a car full of luggage parked in the garage next
door. Not to worry Prince’s man said, we could give him our rental car
keys and he would take care of everything! I’ve never been very trustful
of best laid plans working out, but okay.

I was blown away that the Charlotte concert had been totally changed from
the Raleigh concert just the night before. Almost an entirely different
play list. Nevertheless, it was just as fantastic. Afterward, we were
asked to wait by one of several limos until Prince was ready. I was a
little surprised to actually see our bags being loaded into the trunk.
When Prince did finally arrive, there wasn┬╣t enough room in the trunk for
everything, so our bags were moved to a big long-distance bus for the band
and crew. Cool, if we┬╣re all going in a caravan back to Raleigh, although
the next concert in two days time was in Greensboro. Trust!

Instead of a highway caravan back to Raleigh-Durham, we wound up at a
small airport where we boarded Prince┬╣s jet. I saw no sign of our bags,
however. There must have been a weather delay en route because we were in
the air for an hour, but it gave us a chance to get to know each other
better. Prince was clear that as an artist he needed the freedom to be
able to change his mind at the last minute, even for a contract to ticket
The Forum with 18,000 seats. “Why can┬╣t this be just like me inviting a
few friends over to my house to listen to me play?” Prince asked. I was on
my best behavior, so I was extremely polite in delivering my response. If
your house held 18,000 people you would have the same logistical problems.
As I quipped to my folks later, I don’t think Prince has stood in line to
enter a concert hall in quite some time.

We checked back in to our Raleigh-Durham hotel rooms around 2AM, after
having checked out around 9AM the previous morning. Except we didn┬╣t have
our bags! Magically, they showed up around 4AM.

Having survived our North Carolina sojourn with Prince in March of 2011,
we were starting to understand the challenges of putting together a ticket
selling and door entry solution for his 21-night concert series at The
Forum in April of that same year. The best part of the whole experience,
however, was listening to Prince rehearse his band all day while I was
hanging around The Forum waiting for him to get his head to a place where
he would be ready to meet. On most days that never happened. But I got to
hear eight hours of rehearsal. And then attend the concert. And then
attend the after-party. Hard work, but somebody had to do it.

While in the end Prince decided not to use our ticketing and door entry
solution, The Africa Channel nevertheless helped to promote his LA concert
series by producing a half-hour promotional video for him consisting of
footage from his prior concerts and celebrity interviews conducted at The
Forum during his first few days in LA.

On several concert nights Prince showed up in The Forum Club for the
after-party. On one magical night, he invited several of the senior people
from The Africa Channel to his mansion in Bel Air. I made sure to include
Andy Allo who had appeared on The Africa Channel in an hour-long program
showcasing her compositions and her singing. My sister Paula and my
brother Howard also came along with their significant others. Paula’s
daughter Imani was there, as was our good friend Harriette Cole. We drove
to Bel Air in a caravan of seven or eight cars, arriving at about 1AM. I
was driving one of the last cars to arrive and did not get to witness
Prince with his sleeves rolled up and washing dishes in the kitchen as his
first guests arrived. I wish I had a visual memory of that scene!

At about 2AM, Prince and two or three of his band members started jamming
in the basement party room. Prince invited Andy Allo to join them. About
4AM, the rest of the band arrived with their instruments, including Larry
Graham, and we were in full party mode. We┬╣ve all heard rumors of this for
decades. I witnessed it happen on that night! Prince finally kicked us out
around 6:30 in the morning. Several of us found a Denny┬╣s to grab a hearty
breakfast to soak up all the champagne we’d had.

During this time I learned two things about Prince that I think of as
musical genius. First, Prince was a first-class musician and could
improvise as if he was a jazz musician. His band members could all do the
same. At several points during the concerts, he would say to the audience
“This is real music by real musicians.” This was on top of his
compositional skills; so many hits! Every day the band would spend much of
their rehearsal time on one or two songs to get them perfect. That night
during the concert, they’d come with a playlist that was largely different
from the previous night, and those songs that they repeated were in a
different order. “When did they rehearse this?” I would ask myself.

Secondly, I never heard Prince sing off-key, whether he was singing in
that high falsetto voice, his bass voice or anywhere in between. I’ve
heard singers who cannot sing on-key in live concerts; I assume technology
cleans up a lot of their mistakes for their studio recordings. But Prince
seemed to hit his notes effortlessly.

A couple of years later, Paula and I were invited to come to Paisley Park
in Minneapolis. Prince wanted to pitch us on putting together a TV show
for Andy Allo which would run on The Africa Channel. He was always
gracious and overwhelmingly polite. And as Andy was rehearsing her band on
one side of a cavernous gymnasium-like space, Prince sat on the other side
and chimed in with his voice in perfect pitch.

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