“Andre’s Alright” by Michael A. Gonzales: [Andre Cymone FEATURE]

Years before Andre Cymone became a bassist in Prince’s pre-Revolution touring band and the sought after producer who laced Jody Watley’s debut with three pop hits, he was just another housing projects kid striving on the streets of Minneapolis. Back when Andre still used his government surname Anderson, he lived in a part of the city we never saw on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

“People think the projects in Minneapolis were fluffy, but that wasn’t the case,” Cymone says via telephone from his California home. “They weren’t gang infested, but one still had to command respect. Luckily, I was the youngest of six kids, and my brothers had already laid the ground work. People were afraid of them.”

Living with his siblings, as well as his mother Bernadette and upright bass playing daddy, Andre remembers watching news footage of Martin Luther King and civil rights demonstrations while in the next room one of the other kids was blasting The Beatles or The Temptations. “There were always different styles of music being played in the house, although my mother was more into playing comedy records by Moms Mabley or Rudy Ray Moore.”

Yet, even as a child Cymone was drawn to the funk. “When I was five or six years old I was playing along to a James Brown record on my father’s upright, which I was forbidden to mess with, and I accidently broke it. He left home a year later, and a part of me felt like it was my fault. To this day, we’ve never talked about it.”

While many moons have passed since the infamous bass incident, Andre Cymone is still breaking the rules when it comes to music. Having shelved his solo-recording career in 1985 after the release of AC, he has returned in prime form with the recently released The Stone. A simmering stew that combines Cymone’s rock, pop and funk aesthetics, The Stone is a bold aural statement that serves as a wake-up call to other artists to stop sloughing in the creativity department.

“Many artists have abandoned real music, and left it on the side of the road,” Cymone says. While he digs listening to Janelle Monáe, Gary Clark Jr and Bilal, what Cymone feels is missing in most contemporary music, especially soul, is simple honesty. “I don’t have a problem with having fun, but how many songs do we need about poppin’ bottles and shaking booties. I could write that in my sleep. As an artist, I feel a different responsibility.”

Cymone came of age at a time young musicians practiced their craft endlessly with the hopes of one day turning pro. After his mom relocated the family to the suburbs after her divorce, their basement became a rehearsal space as well as a bedroom for Dre’s new school friend Prince. “Sometimes we would jam at his house, but after Prince came to live with us, we were always in the basement. I started off playing sax, trumpet and trombone, but the bass became my main instrument.”

Although Andre can remember grooving to the soul of Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, by the time he was in his teens, strumming the electric bass his mama brought him from a mail-order catalogue, the music had shifted and the funk was in his face. Fuelled by George Clinton and Company, the Ohio Players, Mandrill and other 1970s funk stars, Cymone formed Grand Central with his buddies Prince (guitar) and Morris Day (drums) while big sis Linda on keyboards.

“I was into Kool & the Gang, songs like “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging.” Morris introduced us to Tower of Power, while Prince was into Chaka Khan and Earth, Wind & Fire.” With Bernadette acted as Grand Central’s manager, the kids played everywhere from neighborly backyards to menacing bars. “We were playing places where real pimps were the patrons,” he laughs. Yet, as documented in the recently released music collection Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound (Numero Uno), they weren’t the ones making the Twin Cities scene.

In addition to Grand Central, there were soul/funk groups called COHESION, Haze, Mind & Matter and Flyte Tyme. More than a few battles were played out on the stages of talent shows as well as local clubs. “We were playing against guys who were older, but we were fearless and cocky. I used to go around tell people that I wanted to battle Michael Jackson.”

Although most bands had horn sections, Grand Central opted for Linda’s keyboards to fill-in the sound. “She played the horn parts on the organ,” Cymone says. Substituting organs, keyboards or synthesizers for horns was an essential element in the development of what would become, known as the Minneapolis Sound. “We were just copying the horn players.”

When Prince became the first member of their Midwestern posse to break-out and sign a solo deal with Warner Brothers Records, he recruited his friend as a “heaven-sent” helper when it came time to record his self-titled second album. Cymone joined Prince in the studio and on the road, but during the Dirty Mind tour in 1981 he left the group and bounced to Columbia (now Sony) Records as a solo star.

Although the men had their differences, many of Cymone’s post-split interviews came across to the public as bitter. “I just speak, I’m not held or bound by anything, and that used to get me in trouble. I didn’t talk to the press right, and sometimes they took stuff out of context that made it seem as though I was an angry, disgruntled musician, and that wasn’t the case.”

Releasing his debut Livin’ in the New Wave (1982) the following year, the album was a mixture of Cymone’s “black Devo” sound as heard on the title track and the delirious pop of “Kelly’s Eyes.” In March, 2013, he preformed “Kelly’s Eyes” with Questlove, Dez Dickerson, Bobby Z and Dr. Fink at a benefit concert in Minneapolis. Based on a model chick named Kelly he dated in the ‘80s, Cymone says, “That song had more effect on people then I realized. Questlove was the one who asked if we could do it as a part of the set.”

Although Cymone had thought about releasing a funk album, after Prince directed The Time’s self-titled debut he settled on a Kraftwerk inspired brand of cyberfunk that was simultaneously soulful and sci-fi. Ten years before, progressive artists (Sly Stone, Miles Davis Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock) were making strides in their music using electronic instrumentation. By the ‘80s, with the rise of hip-hop (Afrika Bambaataa, Warp 9, Jonzun Crew) as well as synth-artists from abroad (Japan, Ultravox, The Human League) the Minneapolis boys and girls were building their own songs with the layered electro-sounds 808s and LinnDrums as well as traditional instruments.

“I’d always been into shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space,” Cymone explains. “There was also a science magazine called Omni that I used to read.” However, not knowing of Cymone’s contribution to the Minneapolis Sound, some critics labeled him a Prince clone.

Following the same afro-futuristic blueprint, his next two albums Survivin’ in the Eighties (1983) and AC (1985) were faves with Minneapolis sound fans, they didn’t crossover as well as the label had hoped. During that period, Andre also started producing other artists including former disco star Evelyn “Champagne” King and fem-trio The Girls. Although their one album Girl Talk (1984), which included the singles “Don’t Waste My Time” and “S-E-S-E-X,” later became a cult favorite, they were dropped after soon after their album was released.

“It was unfortunate what happened to them,” Cymone says. “My brother helped me put them together, and he was also managing them. The group was very talented and sweet, but they got dropped.” In 2013, Funky Town Records reissued the disc.

Burying the hatchet with Prince a year after Purple Rain, they collaborated on “Dance Electric,” Cymone’s biggest solo hit. “It was great to come together again,” Andre recalls. “Prince brought his dad to the studio with him. His dad was an unbelievable piano player. His dad and my dad used to play together in a band; when Prince and I were younger, we used to go to his dad’s house for tea. But, as for ‘Dance Electric,’ he approached me about it, although he later mocked it and made it weird.”

After AC, as Cymone’s battles over his creative direction with Columbia Records continued, he started producing full time. His biggest production hits were for former Shalimar singer Jody Watley, for whom he produced and co-wrote the pop hits “Real Love,” “Looking for a New Love” and “Still a Thrill” for her 1986 self-titled solo album.

The musical duo, who would eventually marry and divorce, worked on three more albums together (Larger than Life, Affairs of the Heart and Intimacy) before parting ways. “After the success of those records, lots of female artists approached me about producing their records, but I refused, because I didn’t want mess with Jody’s sound.”

Although Andre Cymone has continued crafting songs and making music, in his two-decades-plus away from the solo limelight he was missed by the fans, but felt no pressure to release any new material. “I figured with there was no real need for me to make a comeback,” he says. “But, over time I thought of the artists I had helped (Prince, Jody) get their thing off and I figured there was no time like the present to do my thing.”

Cymone worked on [amazon_link id=”B00I0GE4GM” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Stone[/amazon_link], which was co-produced by studio wiz Joel Soyffer at his Coney Island Studios in Glendale, California. “We had a crew of really good musicians who were hungry,” he says. “They reminded me of myself when I was younger.” After playing them the songs on an acoustic guitar, he and the band jammed often before recording. There was a purity to the sessions he had felt since those Minneapolis basement days so many years ago. “We played together until it felt good and I felt I knew where I was going.”

Utilizing a blend of styles that varies from the hardness of “Rock and Roll,” the disc’s first single, to the soft folk of “It’s Alright,” Cymone’s latest effort is beautiful, unpretentious pop from a musical vet with something to say. “Before my mother died (in 2003), she told me to follow my heart,” says Cymone, who dedicated The Stone to the loving memory of Bernadette. “It might sound simple, but those words transformed my life and helped bring to where I am today.”

Michael_Gonzales-dreamMichael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.
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