It was one year ago today that 236 people attending a sold-out tribute to Ray Charles at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres got the surprise of a lifetime: Midway through the song “Let the Good Times Roll,” the city’s most famous resident, Prince, stepped out of the wings and onto the side of the stage to rip a blissful, bluesy solo that left everyone in a giddy shock.
Although no one could have predicted it at the time, that 90-second jam with a band of seasoned Twin Cities music scene vets would end up being the final public performance Prince would give in the Twin Cities, and the last time he was seen playing guitar in any public space before passing away at his nearby Paisley Park compound five weeks later.
It’s a story that seems so perfectly Prince. After living in Chanhassen for over 30 years, he finally stopped by the intimate and well-known Dinner Theatres to catch a show, popping on stage to join some old friends in a few rounds of the blues. And true to Prince’s style, his decision to attend the Saturday-night show was so last minute that it sent the Theatres’ staff into a frenzy, and even led them to tear down a wall hours before showtime so he could view the performance from a private room.
This is the story of Prince’s surprise visit to “the Chan,” as told by the people who made the night happen.
Mick Sterling, bandleader: I produce a bunch of different shows — basically they are just people who have influenced me as a musician and a singer. Ray was one I wanted to do for a long time. So I put it together with Wain McFarlane and Scottie Miller and Bobby Vandell and David Eiland and all these guys, horns and background singers, it was an amazing band. So that night in Chanhassen, that was the first night that we had ever done the show. We just had a couple rehearsals, and it was a little shaky. We were a little bit nervous about it.
Nick Haug, marketing manager for the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres: It was March 12, and the night before that we had just opened Beauty and the Beast on the main stage. So I was at work until like 1:00 a.m. the night before this all happened. I was walking around Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, enjoying my day off after the craziness, and I get a phone call from our Vice President, who books the concerts. And she said, you have to go into work. And before I could start complaining, she was like, “Prince is coming. And you need to go figure this out and make sure it works.” His manager — or liaison, is what he called himself — Kirk Johnson, came into the box office. The concert was pretty much sold out, there were only a couple seats left, and he bought two seats. After he finished getting the tickets, he quietly mentioned, “So, this is for Prince. Is there any way we can sneak him in the back or do it after the lights go down?”
Mick Sterling: When we got done with the soundcheck, I walked off stage and there were a couple people from Chanhassen there, and they said, “Prince wants to come and see the show.” And I said, “He wants to see this show?” [laughs] After the run-through, I’m going, really? But he’s Prince, you know, so I don’t know what he’s going to do. When I used to play at Bunker’s on Sundays I would hear that he wanted to come down, and then he never did. So I just didn’t know. I only told one guy in the band.
Nick Haug: We had our maintenance guy rip out a section of an old dining room that overlooks that concert venue. We ripped out a chunk of the windows, so that it would be open-air and he could look down into the concert, and that way we could sneak him up the back staircase and he wasn’t seen by anybody. We tried to stash the broken wall in a closet. It was quite a big production. I spent most of my time cleaning up the dining room and I made a little lounge area for him, with a couple different sizes of chair, because I didn’t know how tall he was. And I had to lie through my teeth to all of the employees, they were asking, “Why are you shutting down one of our dining rooms for no reason? We need that space,” and I said, “You’re going to have to figure it out. It’s closed.”
Mick Sterling: When the show started, I didn’t think about it because I didn’t think he was going to be there, and if he was there, I didn’t see him. So I just kind of forgot about it. It was actually going really well, which always happens. Once you start, everything kind of kicks in. You know these guys are such pros, that it all worked out.
Nick Haug: I want to say that they got through two or three songs at the beginning before he pulled up. He had a couple big black SUVs. We’d been working with Kirk all day on how it was going to go, where to take him when he comes in, just so he knew the route to get up to the dining room. They go up and sit down — there were probably half a dozen of them all together. They just wanted water, and sat and watched the show. The nice thing about that dining room is there’s a staircase that goes from the dining room down basically back stage, so he didn’t have to go out into the lobby and come into the back and do the normal things, so he basically went down that.
Scottie Miller, keyboardist: He must have walked around the catwalk, through a back way to the stage. There’s wings, like curtain wings, and the stage is tiered in levels, and I was way up toward the audience part, front and center. Our guitarist was kind of behind on the second tier, and the drums were on the third tier, above behind that, to the back. So Prince and his bodyguard were standing right next to the guitarist, Steve Morgan, on his tier, in the wings, so the audience couldn’t see him. And Steve said he couldn’t even see Prince behind the bodyguard. The bodyguard asked him for a set list and his pick, and then ultimately the guitar. He says, “Let me see a set list,” then, “Give me your guitar pick,” and then, “Give me your guitar.” [laughs] So he put his guitar right around Prince’s neck.
Mick Sterling: We were doing a song called “Let the Good Times Roll,” and I gave Scottie a solo, and it sounded so good that I wanted him to do it again. And so my head is down, his head is down playing, and all of a sudden both of us hear a guitar playing. And I’m thinking it’s our guitar player, Steven Morgan, who – you know, it sounded just like Steve. And all of a sudden I hear this rumbling in my left ear, from the audience, this rumbling going on, and both Scottie and I looked up at the same time, and there’s Prince. Playing the solo. Scottie’s mouth drops. I’m wearing sunglasses, going ok, there’s Prince.
Scottie Miler: God, when he showed up it was such a surprise. I was in the middle of a piano solo, right? And Mick cued me to take another one: “Take another one, Scottie!” So I started taking my second round. But right in the first bar of that second solo I hear the guitar come in. And I turn around and it’s like, God that’s a sweet solo. I turn around and noticed it was Prince, you know, two, three bars into it. And the crowd is gasping for air. I mean you could hear some of the people in the audience just making strange gasping sounds, you know? Like, “Oh!” “Ohh my God!” “Oh my GOD!” It was just hilarious. I even turned to the audience, after I noticed it was him, I turned back to the audience and mouthed, “What the f***?!” I remember doing that, vividly.
Nick Haug: It took way too long for people to start registering what was happening. Because it was — it was him! He was in all black, with a black fro, and he went out there and did his thing. They started screaming, and they were cheering him on, but they didn’t want to cheer too loud because they wanted to listen to the guitar.
Mick Sterling: They were just clicking, doing their phones and screaming. I mean, they were just so thrilled. My mom was there – my mom saw the show. My wife was there. It was just – you know, it only holds 236 seats. It was lost on nobody what transpired. It was huge. They will tell this story for the rest of their lives, that they saw Prince in Chanhassen. It’s one of those moments that are just going to be etched in their brains forever. And he gave that to them. What a gift. What a gift.
Scottie Miller: He took three solos, and cued right out to Bobby Vandell on drums, so Mick could end up picking up the tune, where he left off, without any interruption. It was seamless. It was just a beautiful moment.
Mick Sterling: He played for like 90 seconds. I think the coolest part about it was, it was just so Minneapolis. You know? It was very loose and fun, lots of smiles. Prince was playing the bag, you know, he wasn’t trying to showboat. He just wanted to play.
Scottie Miller: What struck all of us was how tasty that solo was. It wasn’t overblowing, you know what I mean? It wasn’t flashy. It was just a really musical solo. He played the blues, and was tipping his hat to that style, to that tune. Kind of B.B. King-esque soloing, even. He played the bag. He didn’t go full shred. So that just shows me even more what an amazing talent he is. I mean, I would expect nothing less. He’s like a god.
Nick Haug: He came out, did a few licks on the guitar, gave it back, and went back upstairs. And he went back upstairs, they probably laughed a little bit about it, and then they left at the intermission, and didn’t stay for the second act. So he was probably there for 45 minutes at most.
Scottie Miller: That second set is kind of a blur. I just remember at the break, of course, everyone was in the dressing room going, “What the heck?” “Amazing!” The rest of the show was way inspired, obviously. Because everybody was on cloud nine. Musically, I think that was probably one of the best shows we’ve had. It was just killing. You’re inspired, you play better. You play with more fire.
Mick Sterling: Later, I found out that since he was doing the solo [Piano and a Microphone] show, he was watching a lot of Ray Charles stuff. So it was just the timing of it was opportune, for him to see the show. But the weirdest thing was, Jon Bream called me after, and I was on a couple radio stations and television shows, and I commented on all of them, “Why is this particular thing so special?” It’s not like he hasn’t popped up in other venues before. I asked out loud, “I don’t know why this one is so special. Why is it?” And maybe in some weird way, people had some hunch that he wasn’t going to be around long. Because that’s the only thing that makes sense, why people took this thing as a big deal. It was big.
Nick Haug: He lived down the street from us for years and years and years, but he hadn’t come here. I don’t think we’ve had any interactions with Paisley Park, other than when he used to do his really late-night parties, he would ask permission for his concert attendees to use our parking lot.
Mick Sterling: He used Steven’s guitar, you know. And actually Steven’s getting offers from around the world for his guitar that Prince played. And the weirdest thing is, this show is a trivia question now. What was the last band that Prince played with in public? It was my Ray Charles show. How bizarre? I can’t believe that show was the last show he played with a band, in public. At least that I know of.
Scottie Miller: We were so excited about it, and it was so poignant and tragic when he passed. As a musician I think it just validates you, makes you feel good, and he was so good about that, as you probably know. He’d show up everywhere. Countless jamming and sit-ins and just being there to listen, and he had a beat on the local scene. He knew who was out there.
Mick Sterling: Obviously I was a huge fan of his. I’ve always said he’s our Mozart, you know. He’s that influential. And I think there literally won’t be another artist like him, ever again, because the record business is not remotely like it was, and never will be. So I view it as this beautiful gift that I received. It’s something that I will always be able to look back on, not just for me but for my band and that audience, that we really experienced something just so lovely. And the fact that it was such a beautiful music experience. It was just a very Minneapolis music scene moment. People knew each other, they were happy to see each other, it was just great. It just couldn’t have been any better.
Nick Haug: The day he died, we were all sitting in the lunch room and we were getting the notifications, and were just sitting in a circle super depressed, because 40 days before that he was in our theater, jamming. So we put up a bunch of purple lights and made our own little memorial in the lobby, and our Vice President, Tam, was like, “I think we should put a star on the stage. Just a little purple star where he played.” Our maintenance guy found a star shape in one of our offices and got some purple paint and went and put it on there, as a little subtle nod; you can’t really see it from sitting in the audience, you kind of have to be on top of it, but it’s there.