Of all of the people who could write a book about the history of the Minneapolis Sound, bassist and singer André Cymone’s stories could blow everyone else’s out of the water. Not only was he one of the musicians who helped to create that seminal era of music, but he was so fundamental to Prince’s musical beginnings that they even lived together for a few years while playing in their first band.
“It’s a lot of stuff people don’t know about,” Cymone says, speaking warmly and animatedly over the phone from his home in L.A. “I mean, I’m probably the only one that could speak about it because I’m the only one that was involved in all that.”
Cymone says his mother actually adopted Prince for a time when he was having problems in his own home, which is how they ended up living together. “It’s probably not the most flattering story, from his perspective,” he continues. “Because, you know, it was an interesting time. But literally, we had so much fun. It really is not a big stretch to see how so many people who came from that became successful, because we had so much fun and there’s so many stories that are real that almost seem like they would be made up, but they’re absolutely real, the way things happened. It was kind of a magical time.”
When Prince and Cymone were still in high school they teamed up with Morris Day to form a band called Grand Central in the late ‘70s. “Back then, everybody was in a band. If you weren’t in a band back then, you kind of weren’t cool. My mother was the director of the YWCA, so she would have us playing every kind of little local gig, every school function. Homecoming, things like that,” Cymone remembers. “There would be school proms, we’d play that kind of stuff, everywhere. This is stuff people know nothing about, as far as the early band we were in—me, Prince, and Morris—because we used to play a lot of those things. I remember one gig in particular was really the most hilarious thing because we were late—I mean, we were like really late—they had hired us to do the prom thing. We were late, and they were waiting outside. Because back then, they couldn’t just play records. People didn’t want to just hear, there wasn’t like a DJ thing. Back then, they wanted live music. When we finally got there, we played, and it was a great, great show, and they really loved it, and appreciated it.”
When Prince was signed to his first record contract, Grand Central evolved into another one of Cymone’s earlier bands, Champagne, but the two musicians stayed in touch throughout the beginning of Prince’s career and Cymone was tapped to play bass in his band as he toured behind his debut, For You. Cymone departed from the band in 1981 to launch his own R&B career and successfully released three solo albums, peaking with the Prince-penned single “The Dance Electric” in 1985.
For the more casual R&B fans, “The Dance Electric” is where Cymone’s story drops off. Which isn’t to say that he stopped working in music—he moved behind the scenes to produce successful albums and singles by Jody Watley, Adam Ant, Tom Jones, and Tina Turner, to name a few—but even Cymone himself humbly laughs that his days as a household name have passed. So to see him resurface this year with a new single, “America,” in tow is not only intriguing; it’s the long-awaited payoff for fans who have been waiting for new music from Cymone for the past 27 years.
“America” certainly contains familiar elements from Cymone’s earlier work, but the Minneapolis Sound has been updated with a modern pop twist, angular guitars elevating a catchy hook. Cymone is donating the proceeds from the sale of the single to Barack Obama’s campaign, but the lyrics of the song are not overtly election-oriented; rather, it’s about reclaiming the feelings of patriotism and pride that Cymone says he had lost over the years.
“A couple years ago my brother passed away, and he was involved in the Vietnam era, he was in the army, and he had gotten exposed to Agent Orange and some of the other chemicals, and he succombed to being exposed to those chemicals, he passed away,” he says. “After he passed away I realized that, you know, when you have family that have made that commitment to this country and then they make the ultimate sacrifice, you have skin in the game. That made me start to look at things a little bit differently. And then also the fact that America, as a country, came together to elect our president, the president that we have right now, speaks a lot about this country. And all of that really just made me proud, extremely proud to be an American. That’s a perspective that I never really thought about that much. And then it became very, very central in my thinking after that. It really hit me: This is my country. This is my country.”
Cymone says that newfound conviction has inspired him to get back to work on his own music. Over the past year he says he’s written almost 70 new songs, recorded demos for about half, and is now in the process of finishing up the studio recordings for a new full-length solo album that he expects will be out early next year.
“I’m not really a household name at this point, and I really haven’t been trying to be, to be honest with you, but I think I’m going to try to change that,” he says. “I’m going to do everything I can do to change that because I want to become a household name, and I want to be somebody that can represent and can be a voice for people, and write the kind of songs, make the kind of music that I think can speak to issues, and doing music that matters.”
With his new single out now, Cymone seems to be on Prince’s mind as well. The Purple One recently performed “The Dance Electric” as part of a set of music he performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and just last week he invited Cymone up on stage to perform the song with him at a late-night gig in L.A. (“Blast!,” he told me afterwards, in a one-word summary of the gig).
Cymone looks back on his early years in Minnesota fondly, and with all the excitement happening in recent weeks, he says he feels that his upbringing in North Minneapolis was fundamental to nurturing his musical talent and getting him where he is today. “There’s no place like it,” he says, his nostalgic smile practically audible over the phone line. “It was a great place and great environment to grow up and to learn about people, and learn about the world.”
Grab André Cymone’s single, “America,” and another just-released bonus track, “American Dream,” over on his Bandcamp page.