New Power Generation and Prince keyboardist Cassandra O’Neal became his fan as a kid the moment she heard “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
“I fell in love with that music,” O’Neal said. “My parents allowed me to listen to his music even though he was sexually risqué.” It was no minor concession for her parents — her dad was a minister. “I just knew what I heard and liked it,” said O’Neal, who performed recently in the Twin Cities at concerts noting the second anniversary of Prince’s death.
O’Neal first met Prince in 2005 while playing with the all-female Sheila E. band that backed up Prince when he received the NAACP Vanguard Award. In 2009, Prince wanted them to accompany him at the Montreux Jazz Festival. While practicing in a studio, she was told, “ ‘Prince is checking you out,’ but I didn’t want to get all hyped,” she said. She didn’t play that gig because “in proper Prince fashion” he hadn’t said when it was. “It was my mother’s 70th birthday, and she had been in and out of the hospital. I told him I couldn’t go. He understood. He said, If I can’t have all of you, I’ll go in a different direction.”
A few months later O’Neal got “a call to come to Paisley. I went and rehearsed with his other keyboard player Morris Hayes. That was the beginning of all of it.”
When her music career took off, O’Neal postponed finishing college. During this phone interview, she was preparing her undergraduate thesis at the School of Jazz at the New School.
Q: Do you have perfect pitch when you wake up in the morning?
A: Yeeess. I have perfect pitch when I go to sleep at night, too. It is a gift, but I’m going to say a lot of people have it who don’t know.
Q: Is it correct that you played keyboards on the “Dreamgirls” soundtrack?
A: That’s true. I’m playing the piano and doing vocals. I had a lot of fun doing that. I was just chilling out one day living in Hollywood. The biggest perk of living in that area was you’re minutes away from all the studios. I [ended up playing] a medley of songs on the album. The scene is after Jennifer Hudson sings “And I Am Telling You,” and Beyoncé is watching a film of herself.
Q: I’m told you have a big heart and working with youth is important to you?
A: Yes, it is. Especially in the senior-in-high-school, freshman-in-college area. They are eager to learn and know what they want but are just not sure how to do it.
Q: What was a highlight of being an artist-in-residence at Columbia College last year?
A: At the end of it when the young people were coming to me with tears in their eyes, telling me how much I inspired them, how much fun they had. Telling me they want to stay in school and get their degree and pursue a career in music. Another highlight was being able to work with them and break down Prince’s music.
Q: Do you ever encounter a student who needs to do something besides perform?
A: Oh sure. Everybody wants to be in the industry. I’m not a dream crusher. I’m going to acknowledge their dreams are valid, but even if you are talented you need to have a backup plan. The message is still the same whether you are talented or not. Some people just want to do it because they want to be famous. You have to make sure your priorities are right.
Q: Your backup plan is teaching?
A: Right. To get the degree. Because of the way my career fell into place, while I was in college, is why I am getting my degree now, in my 40s.
Q: If you had known that you were seeing Prince for the last time, what would you have said to him?
A: The same thing I said to him when I saw him for the last time. We went to St. Bart’s for a New Year’s Eve concert. Paul McCartney was there. We were hanging out with him. Everyone was leaving. I was the last to go and Prince said, Hey Cassy. It’s good to have you back, we missed you. I said, “Thank you, sir. I missed you, too. More than you know.” And I said, “I love you,” and blew him a kiss and waved goodbye, and he blew me a kiss back and that was the last time I saw him alive. That was a very precious moment.
C.J. can be reached at email@example.com and seen on FOX 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.