One memorable experience that I had with Prince was at the 2006 BET awards tribute to Chaka Khan. Previous to this event, I had met but never worked with Prince. I always found him somewhat aloof by design. I was asked by the BET producers to put together the Chaka Khan tribute with me as music director and Prince as curator. This meant working everything out to Prince’s satisfaction.
Chaka and Prince both had ideas and designs on the segment arrangements and I needed to find that balance between them and the network to make sure all goals were achieved.
So I organized a meeting with Prince to go over his ideas for the tribute. We were set to meet at the Beverly Hills Hotel on a Wednesday, two weeks prior to the show, at 3 p.m. I arrived early and rang his suite. I was told to wait in the lobby and that someone would come and get me. I sat for two hours until a woman came and asked, “Are you Ray Chew?” She handed me an envelope then walked away. This was a little strange. I waited two hours, then this? I thought Prince and I would sit and vibe on the arrangements. I had anticipated combining his ideas, Chaka’s ideas and my own into a great collaboration. This was different because there wasn’t the interaction that I had hoped for. I was simply handed an envelope and that was that. I returned to my hotel and opened the envelope to find a CD that had apparently just been burned. It was Prince singing and talking through what he wanted for the segment, with some very personalized ideas for the arrangements. That may be fine if it were just him, but I had the artistic personalities of Chaka, Stevie Wonder, India Arie and Yolanda Adams to consider, as well as the ideas of the BET producers. The challenge was editing the artistic while navigating the potential minefield of legendary artists.
Finally, I came up with a plan. I would prepare two segment arrangement options and have the input from Chaka and Prince and the network to determine what the final would be. Since coordinating everyone’s schedule proved to be almost an impossible task, this would need to happen at the rehearsal, which was two days before the show. This was our only off-site rehearsal (and later I found out that Stevie would not be able to make it!)
The rehearsal was scheduled to start at 1 p.m.. The musicians were to arrive at 12 noon to get the room warmed up and adjusted. India would arrive at 2 p.m., then Yolanda at 2:30, and finally Chaka at 3. At noon I started working with the band with the options I had prepared. I hoped Prince would get there soon so that we could talk though the arrangements and have a cohesive approach to the music. While rehearsing with Yolanda, I looked up and Prince was standing at the door. He wasn’t making a move to come in any further…he was just standing there. After we went through several songs, his tech guy goes over to his setup and checks everything, then signals the ready sign to Prince. Without saying anything, Prince walks over, picks up the guitar and starts playing in mid-song. My mindset is “O.K., if this is how we are doing this, then…let’s GO!” He plays two songs then stops and puts down the guitar. He signals for me to meet him in the back room. I go towards the room and am immediately met by his security guy. Prince signals to him that I’m O.K.
In this one-on-one moment, Prince was direct and to the point. He asked me how come I changed his arrangements and I told him that we were working through several options. He said he wasn’t yet comfortable with all the players. The arrangement was too busy and he wanted more space to play in. He had a somewhat harsher criticism for one of the musicians who he said he couldn’t play with. I told him that I would speak with the guy and that it would work out. I reached out to shake on it…and he just nodded and walked out of the room. The feeling I got in that moment was that he was comfortable with me and we were cool…he just wasn’t a touchy, huggy kind of guy… at least not right away.
We worked through arrangements and finished the rehearsal to what appeared to be his satisfaction. After rehearsal that night at 11:30 p.m., I get a call that Prince wanted to see me. So, I jump in the car and make it to his hotel at 12:15 in the morning. I sit in the lobby for an hour and then the same lady comes and politely hands me a CD with changes that Prince wants to make. In my head I’m like, “When is this supposed to happen? We have a dress rehearsal with no time for changes and Stevie Wonder needs to fit in, too!”
In any case, I had to figure out how to craft the final product that would satisfy Prince, Chaka, Stevie and the network. Well, the result was one of the great moments on TV when collaborations come together at the right time and place and the right intention.
I am proud of this moment.
Ray Chew has been a member of Local 802 since 1975.