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22 April 2016

We should celebrate Prince for championing female musicians

The singer and songwriter, who has died aged 57, always picked the best players for his band - and that often meant choosing women. His musical legacy is richer as a result.

By Tracy King

When I first started playing bass in the early noughties, it was because of Rhonda Smith. She was Prince’s bass player, and one of the very few female bassists anyone could name. Instrumental in more than one sense of the word, Rhonda is credited with persuading Prince to ditch the soulless fretless bass samples he’d been using in favour of a real fretless. I wanted to play fretless (an electric bass with no metal divisions between the frets, which makes a really smooth sound), like Rhonda and Jaco Pastorius, but it was harder to play in tune so I got a regular Fender Jazz instead. But I still wanted to be like Rhonda in soul, if not skill.

I wouldn’t have known about Rhonda if it wasn’t for Prince. She played alongside him for a decade, including the 2002 One Nite Alone tour which had 64 shows worldwide. In the audience at one of those shows was me. It was my first time seeing Prince live, and it strikes me now that until that gig I hadn’t really understood him as a musician. He was a pop star, songwriter, a singer and dancer, controversial Tops of the Pops veteran, and sex symbol. The man with the golden gun-shaped microphone. But on this stage was a different guy.

Wearing a perfectly fitting flared three-piece suit instead of his sequinned catsuits, he spent the first half of the gig on a stool with an acoustic guitar and microphone, and my god he could play. At that point in my life I was spending a lot of time in the bass and acoustic guitar shop my partner managed, so I saw a lot of skilled musicians. World-class touring session musicians buying top of the range Lowdens and Martins with eye-watering price tags of up to five figures. Guitarists who played on hit singles but whose names you’d never know because they were the talent behind the *talent*. Prince was a better guitarist than any of those guys (for guys they were, without exception). And with him, Rhonda Smith. A female bass player who was on that stage on merit and merit alone. You have to be the best to play with the best. Prince hired the best, because he was the best.

Rhonda was not the first female musician Prince championed. In 1978 he met the drummer and percussionist Sheila E, who had already played with legends like Marvin Gaye, Herbie Hancock and George Duke. In 1984 she made her vocal debut on Prince’s B-side Erotic City, catapulting her into fame, two solo albums, and two Grammy award nominations. She was called Prince’s ‘protege’. By the time he recorded Sign O’ The Times in 1987, Sheila was his drummer, his band’s musical director and his fiancee (she says he proposed while they were playing Purple Rain together). A cynical reader might infer favouritism, but any drummer worth their sticks will tell you that Sheila E is world class

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Prince with guitarist Donna Grantis and drummer Hannah Ford at the 2013 Grammy awards

It was Sheila E who recommended Rhonda Smith to Prince. It is not coincidence that both women are beautiful, as is Gayle Chapman, the keyboard player in Prince’s first touring band from 1978 to 1980, before he hit the mainstream. She auditioned, he hired her “because you have blond hair, blue eyes and you can sing. You’re the funkiest white chick I ever met”. She could also “play her ass off”, according to Prince, who eventually replaced her with Lisa Coleman when Gayle left to begin a solo career.

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Lisa Coleman was the long-time romantic and musical partner of Wendy Melvoin. Together they play as Wendy & Lisa, and were key members of Prince’s band The Revolution, co-writing Prince hits including 17 Days and Sometimes It Snows in April. The band relationship eventually soured and the pair left Prince’s employment not entirely happily. Although the duo have since carved a successful career as TV and film composers, the post-Revolution years were spent in the shadow of Prince’s reputation. The industry wanted to replicate the band’s sex appeal, as Lisa complains in an interview for Out, “after the band split up, the record labels would be like, you need to be wearing fur coats and sitting on motorcycles and [have] long fingernails”.  

In the same interview, Melvoin confirms that Prince deliberately championed female artists and believed them musically worthy, at a time when perhaps the industry would not have taken a chance on them without his endorsement. There’s little reason to think Prince had any particular feminist motive, however. His reason, according to Melvoin, was to assemble the most diverse bands he could, because that was more interesting than anything other bands had to offer, and appealed to a wide fanbase. She also suggests that Prince enjoyed being a white knight figure, and that there may have been a “sexual component” to his choices. Indeed, unsubstantiated rumour has it that Prince offered Bangles singer Susanna Hoffs the hit song Manic Monday specifically as a seduction technique, but drummer Debbi Peterson claims that Prince enjoyed their music and offered the song on merit. Indeed, insinuations about casting couch tactics are precisely the sort of barriers to entry women in music face. My own short-lived music career was beset by as many “I bet he just wants to sleep with you” (“he” being any producer, studio owner or musician who showed an interest in my music) accusations as actual attempted seductions, although the latter too are a genuine risk for women in music

I wryly note that no suggestions of ulterior motive exist about Prince’s backing singer Rosie Gaines, as gossip doesn’t find her conventionally attractive enough to assume he hired her on anything but merit. When skinny singers make it, there must be a reason beyond talent, it seems. I prefer to believe that Prince, being graced with as much musical ability as it was possible to shove into five feet and two inches, knew talent when he saw it, and that’s as true for The Bangles as anyone else. 

Prince with Rosie Gaines

Prince surrounded himself and collaborated with the most beautiful women he could, yes, but also with the most talented. Power, platform and privilege gave him access to beauty, but he elevated only those whose musical skills he respected. In sexuality too, he promoted a new kind of equality. His female dancers wore costumes Prince himself would happily wear. He boosted his stature in high heels; appeared naked in a decidedly feminine pose – with flowers – for the cover of Love Sexy; cavorted on top of a grand piano in the Cream video. He did not surround himself with sex objects, but sex equals. The audience was invited, indeed expected, to understand that as your lover, Prince was prepared to put in some serious effort. 

But even when he moved his sex-god image on, his diversity policy remained. At the 2002 One Nite Alone gig, there was no piano-cavorting, no suspender-clad dancers. Just Prince on a stool with an amazing band. Alongside Rhonda Smith played saxophonist Candy Dulfer, who had worked with Prince on and off since 1988. She played on seven of his albums. Prince could have hired any saxophonist, but he hired Candy, in an industry where women almost never get the gig.

And that remains the point. Prince is dead, but his legacy includes some of the greatest female musicians ever to grace a stage. For a man who was literally and figuratively a symbol, we should not underestimate the symbolism of his actions.