Throughout the 1990s, Prince lashed out against his label, Warner Brothers, with gestures so grand – the unpronounceable glyph he substituted for his name, the word “slave” he emblazoned on his cheek – they could overshadow the music he recorded. But though the career-making, radio-dominating, era-defining hits of the ‘80s were behind him, Prince’s sound evolved throughout the ‘90s, gaining complexity and nuance. He’d assembled a band versatile enough to expand the contours of his music in the studio and virtuosic enough to change direction mid-song according to his whims in concert: the New Power Generation (NPG).
As the core members of that classic NPG lineup – drummer Michael Bland, keyboardist Tommy Barbarella, and bassist Sonny Thompson – prepare to perform a three-night tribute to their former bandleader at the Parkway Theater, a concert dubbed “This Thing Called Life,” it’s worth taking a moment to look back at that band’s contribution to a dramatic, dynamic, and musically rich period in Prince’s career.
In 1990, Prince was a superstar who could have recruited just about any musicians he wanted, but he primarily plucked his collaborators from the Minneapolis scene. He scouted Bland while the young South High grad was drumming in Dr. Mambo’s Combo at Bunkers, eventually offering him a gig as a mid-tour replacement drummer during his 1990 world tour.
Prince discovered keyboardist Tommy Elm, soon rechristened “Tommy Barbarella,” while the cover- band veteran was backing the legendary Minneapolis soul/gospel family group the Steeles. Bassist Thompson – “Sonny T.” in NPG-speak – was another Steeles sideman, and he’d known Prince for years. Thompson had played with the Family — the house band at The Way, the north Minneapolis community center Prince haunted in his youth — and both men appear on the Lewis Brothers’ 1979 track “Got to Be Something Here.” (Thompson sings lead, Prince plays rhythm guitar and sings backup.)
Barbarella and Thompson joined Flash (also called MC Flash), a side project Prince assembled around singer Margie Cox. With Bland on drums, they worked up an arrangement of a new Prince tune during an impromptu recording session; a year later, that track would emerge as “Diamonds and Pearls.” Though no one knew it yet (except maybe Prince), these musicians already formed the core of the first band that Prince would record with regularly since he’d disbanded the Revolution in 1986.
The other members of what would become the NPG had been around for a while. Levi Seacer, Jr., a member of Sheila E.’s band, first came onboard as the bassist for the 1987 Sign o’ the Times tour, and had since been a part of Madhouse, Prince’s fusion side project, and collaborated on several songs for Graffiti Bridge. (With the addition of Thompson, Seacer shifted to guitar.) Prince had enlisted keyboardist and singer Rosie Gaines in the late ‘80s, when he overheard her laying down a vocal track on a demo Seacer was prepping for the Pointer Sisters.
Then there were the Game Boyz. Prince fans first saw Tony Mosley, Kirk Johnson, and Damon Dickson dancing joyfully in the upper level of First Avenue during Purple Rain. As an NPG member, Johnson supplied additional percussion, while “Tony M.,” to use Mosely’s rap monicker, became the group’s MC — the most controversial addition to Prince’s new sound.
The New Power Generation’s first official appearance was at Prince’s Minneapolis club, Glam Slam, in Jan. 1991. By the time Prince’s first LP with the NPG, Diamonds and Pearls, dropped in October, the group could already be heard on the two hit singles: the darkly funky “Gett Off” and the seductively bubbling “Cream.” The polished, lustrous, yet hard-hitting album was a commercial success, and for the world tour the following year, Prince added the NPG Horns (also known as the Hornheads) led by trombonist and arranger Michael Nelson, and a trio of female dancers, including Mayte Garcia, who’d soon play a special role in Prince’s life.
The NPG personnel would soon shift. After that tour, Gaines left and keyboardist Morris Hayes stepped in – he’d stick around, off and on, for two decades. Seacer departed after the untitled and so-called Love Symbol album, and the Gameboyz were gone in 1993, following the New Power Generation’s debut album under its own name. Kirk Johnson would take over drumming duties for Prince in 1996, however — a role he’d fill sporadically over the next two decades while also serving as the Paisley Park estate manager. (Johnson was one of the two Prince staffers who discovered the singer’s body after his death this April.)
Now down to a four-piece, the reconstituted NPG recorded seemingly non-stop at Paisley Park, trying to block out their now unnamed leader’s tumultuous label battles and fleshing out the tunes he served them up. Only a small percentage of the tracks they recorded even made it onto albums. The Gold Experience displayed the band’s range – delicate on “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and slamming on “P Control.” Even the often trash-talked Chaos and Disorder, which Prince slapped together to fulfill a contractual obligation, showcases how nasty a rock band they could be. In 1995, the band put out a second album of straight funk under its own name, Exodus, and further tracks with Prince would later surface on his 1998 release Crystal Ball.
But once Prince freed himself of Warner Brothers, he was ready to cut other longstanding ties as well. In February 1996, Prince and Mayte married, and when the newlyweds returned from a Hawaiian honeymoon the following month, Prince brought the curtain down on the bustling, freewheeling Paisley Park era of the early ‘90s. He let more than a hundred staffers go, and he fired the New Power Generation as well (though he’d continue to refer to future backing bands, regardless of their members, as the New Power Generation, NPG, or NPG Horns.)
There’s been no shortage of session work for the NPG members in the years since, and they’ve scored some higher-profile gigs as well. Bland drummed on Paul Westerberg’s 1996 tour, and, after the 2005 death of Karl Mueller, he joined Soul Asylum. In 2009, Nick Jonas recruited Bland, Barbarella, and Thompson for his band Nick Jonas & the Administration. It’s easy to understand why they’d be in such demand. After all, any musician who could keep up with Prince during the most hectic stage of his career has the battle-forged skills to adapt to any setting.
Keith Harris lives in Minneapolis and has written about music professionally for 20 years. He’s been published in Rolling Stone, Billboard, Pitchfork, City Pages, the Star Tribune, and many other places that don’t even exist anymore.