Bobby Z saw the words “Prince is dead” scroll across his TV screen. Those words were unimaginable to Prince’s former drummer and friend of 40 years.
Ray Roberts, Prince’s personal chef, was in disbelief as he headed to Paisley Park on April 21. Then when he arrived at his place of employment for the past three years, he couldn’t even get in. It was a crime scene.
Shelby J, who sang with Prince’s NPG for 10 years, couldn’t even talk about his passing for nine months. She still cries whenever she hears one of his songs.
Kathy Drews sat between Prince and Jimmy Harris (aka Jimmy Jam) in piano class in junior high school. For several years, she went to Paisley Park almost every weekend hoping that Prince would perform. Now she won’t even go Paisley; it’s too hard for her.
For all four members of the Purple Family, life without Prince was unimaginable. But they’ve somehow managed to cope during the 365 days since he died of an accidental opioid overdose. They share their stories of the past year in their own words.
Bobby Z, 60, drummer for Prince & the Revolution, was pals with Prince since they met in 1976. He is about to go on tour with the Revolution, which reunited for three shows at First Avenue in September.
“For me, he was such a daily part of my entire adult life. I always had to keep tabs on him everyday whether it was Twitter. Just knowing where he was every day. I still got that occasional phone call. My old role when I started in 1977, never really stopped. I had a personal friendship with him, another role was kind of a caretaker and the third role was professional drummer.
That morning I was on Twitter and saw the hashtag ambulance to Paisley Park. I turned on the news and within 20 minutes ‘Prince was dead’ was on the screen. It was like it was another language. Unreasonable words. It became hard to process that loss. I internalized it and watched the world explode with grief and appreciation and shock.
A huge part of my life was gone. It was very surreal for a long time. I was secluded. It took months to come to grips with it especially the way it ended. It’s still extremely difficult. It’s not what I expected. It’s a completely unimaginable outcome.
Playing the music is what really makes me feel better. The Revolution is kind of a safe zone. We can laugh together. It’s very cathartic. We got together right away. It was so important that we do that. The Revolution felt like a real family. The band never really breaks up. We’re always emotionally attached. I feel better playing those songs.
I wasn’t playing much. Last spring and summer, I took drum lessons from the amazing 80-year-old Floyd Thompson. He played with Sinatra. It’s kind of like a pro golfer gets adjusted. I’m playing more correctly. That was my therapy. I get back to being a drummer and not just Prince’s drummer.
There was so much confusion and indecision after his death. First Avenue [concerts by the Revolution] was something that needed to be done. I broke down after that last show. I’m the organizer and the pusher. It was too much. That night the finality hit me the hardest so far.
I knew him when we were unfamous together. That’s the part I needed to talk about the most at the official tribute in October. The sense of humor. He was human. There were moments when he was just kind and thoughtful. He was there for me when I was at my sickest. He was the first guy to call the hospital. That is as important to me as playing in the Reovlution. My personal relationship with him for 40 years is part of my DNA. I have to look at the world in a completely different way now.
I’ve been to Paisley two or three times. It’s hollow. Strange. Quiet. Just walking in there was a completely different feeling. The finality of it.
I’m still consumed by his loss. I just didn’t want to talk to the media. I had nothing to say for a while. Now it’s coming out a little easier. I’ve done six or eight interviews. I’m still turning down stuff. It’s cathartic for me to tell people that this is not a normal musician. It was effortless. Completely one of those characters who had supernatural gifts with instruments and composing. Now it needs to be told.”
Shelby J, 44, was a vocalist in Prince & the NPG for 10 years. Based in Greensboro, N.C., she celebrated the release of her debut solo album, “10,” this week with performances at the Dakota Jazz Club on Wednesday and Thursday. She sang there in March with Judith Hill and Liv Warfield.
“My first trip back to Minneapolis was in May at Kingdom Hall. I wanted to honor his religion. I left the next day. I did go to Paisley that morning. It was real different. I kept waiting for him to come around the corner. I could feel his spirit and his energy. It’s in every brick and every piece of that place.
The first few months were just sad. We cried a lot. I didn’t leave my house for a minute. I didn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t do anything. It was nine months after his death that I spoke about it other than putting a post on Facebook. I didn’t do any interviews. There were news vans outside the house. I was still grieving.
My first breakthrough came at the tribute and that was in October. This joy started coming when we started playing this music again and I’m hearing the people who played it on the record I didn’t know personally. In rehearsal, there were times when we were crying and the music just lifts you. It’s like medicine. It’s gonna be all right. We were delivering a healing not just for them [fans] but for us. That was the first major, major, major shift for me.
Originally was my album was supposed to come out by 2014. My life fell apart. I went through a divorce. I had to reassess life in general. I leaned a lot on Prince and I leaned on my mom. They helped me get through a dark time. I’m dedicating the album to Prince and my dad, the two most important men in my life that taught me the most about myself and about life and about who I want to be.
The Dakota with Liv and Judith [in March] was surreal. Prince had told me when we were leaving the Dakota one night and he nudged me: ‘You know you need to play the Dakota, right? I’m really seriously.’ It felt like a full circle moment. When we’d come to see folks play, we’d always sit at the same table on the second floor. I guess they call it the Prince table now. There was a moment when I looked up there and thought ‘He’s here.’ He believed in me more than I believed in me.
I miss him every day. Some days I still cry. When one of his songs comes on the radio or I hear an interview.”
Ray Roberts, 35, owner of four Peoples Organic restaurants in the Twin Cities, was personal chef for Prince’s last three years. He now runs the cafe at Paisley Park.
“It was so hard because Paisley Park was like our second home. Juel [his wife and business partner] and I drove there once we heard [he died] in kind of disbelief. It got more real the closer we got. We couldn’t get inside. That was really hard. It was a crime scene. We went back a few days later for a private little memorial among friends. Then we weren’t in contact with anyone for a while.
The people from Graceland brought Juel and I back in to do the food. We weren’t there at all for four or five months. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I got a lot more sleep. It was nice to be back with my kids and family more often. My kids — a 2 year-old and a 4-year-old — would come out and hang at Paisley Park. The older one, every time we see a picture, he yells: “Prince!” For the longest time, he thought Prince was my father instead of my boss. He’d say: “Are you going to go work with your father today Prince.” He just mixed up the words.
We kind of felt like we were lost. Life was going one way and without him, it was back on a different path. It was hard and sad. I miss him a lot. I miss the excitement of what was going to happen next. With him, it was always a roller coaster.
It’s bittersweet to be in Paisley. It doesn’t have the same aura. Before you had the feeling he was just there, everywhere. Because he was. Now it’s different. Like seeing something on the wall and thinking ‘oh he wouldn’t have wanted it like that.’
What reminds me most of him is seeing his purple piano and walking past that area. That was one of the last memories was seeing him practicing on that piano in the soundstage. I used to be so careful every time I’d walk in that room. Now it’s a little bit more carefree. Now they always have Prince music playing in there. It used to be either really quiet in there or somebody was practicing.
I miss the spontaneousness of life on a given day. You’d be hanging out and we’d go somewhere tomorrow. I’d have to get my work shift covered and get a babysitter. Or at the last minute he’d be having a party and you gotta cook for a few hundred people tonight and it’s not going to start till 2 in the morning.
It was disbelief for so long. It felt sometimes like he had gone on tour and he was going to be back any day. I saw him the day before [he died].
My life changed overnight. It was [a case of] getting back to reality. Because when you were with him, you weren’t in the real world anymore. You were in his world.
The hardest part of getting the restaurant going was: Don’t bring computers in, don’t bring phones in. How are we supposed to organize it and get things going? In August and September, I’d have notepad and write down stuff and try to figure it out later. We were always used to something being a little more difficult than it had to be.
I have one of his favorite candles. I keep it on the nightstand. We don’t burn it. It’s jasmine. It reminds me of being on tour with him on the Piano and a Microphone Tour. He’d always write me little notes in his funny Prince language. [Chuckles.] I kept those.”
Kathy Drews, 56, went to high school with Prince. An adminstriative assistant at a Minneapolis financial institution, the avid Prince fan was a regular at Paisley Park for several years, even getting invited to private performances. Her daughter Vanessa worked there, selling merchandise, buying incense and running a Teleprompter.
“As soon as we heard that Thursday morning [that Prince died], my boss said I could go. I was devastated. I went home and I did shots of straight vodka. And I’m typically not a drinker. Then Paisley Park was the only place to be. I was a nonfunctioning zombie.
The next day I went there again. And on Saturday I went there on instinct and they were having a service. People were so solemn and quiet. Larry Graham and Sheila E came out and talked to the people.
The next Friday afterward, they were having press confreence with the coroner and chief of police at the Carver County courthouse. I snuck in. They said it was for media only. ‘Well, I’ll just stand in the corner.’ They described how they found him in the elevator and described the 911 call. I just needed to hear it for my own because I couldn’t believe it. Then they said a drug overdose and I said ‘No way.’ He sounded sick when we were at Paisley on the 16th [of April]. He’d gotten so frail at the end.
I went to the second tour on the first day that Paisley Park was open as a museum. It was like you were going into somebody’s house for an estate sale. Their spirit is still there, their things are still there, but you know they’re not still there.
For me personally, it was hard to look at his clothing that wasn’t properly pressed or adjusted on the clothing dummies. Even his clothing looked like it had lost all of its life.
I remember paying $15 to see ‘Purple Rain’ at the Uptown theater. I think I sat there and sobbed. A lot of sobbing.
I helped all three nights at the Parkway Theater for the NPG concerts. It was good to see the fans. The Revolution at First Avenue, I didn’t feel it was the right time to go. I sold my ticket. I went to the tribute at the Xcel. That was amazing.
I still wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning looking for a tweet or something from Prince.
I was out at Paisley three or four times a week. Now it’s like cold turkey. You have to do something else with your life. I decided I couldn’t live in that house in Minneapolis anymore. People were leaving purple flowers, I don’t know who. This house in Carver County came along. I moved April 1st. It’s exactly what I needed. I’m closer to the grandkids. You just have to find your new normal.”
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719