STORIES FROM THE PARK
PRN Alumni Foundation is comprised of the former employees of Prince, Paisley Park, Paisley Park Records, PRN Productions, NPG Records, Love4OneAnother, any and all of Prince’s companies spanning his impressive nearly 40 year career.
There have been, quite literally hundreds of us in Prince’s employ. The Foundation represents our collective voice.
We are musicians, engineers, managers, lighting directors, wardrobe designers, stylists, makeup artists, drivers, bodyguards, admin staff, valets, drivers (and more!)
This ‘Stories From The Park’ chronicle is a way for our colleagues of all tenures and job types to share a little bit of Prince’s magic with you through our individual voices.
We hope you enjoy getting to know us…we feel as if we’ve known you, Prince’s fans (fam) forever <3
With love and gratitude,
PRN Alumni Foundation
Spotlight: Cassandra O’Neal (Pt. 1)
“THIS GIG WILL BE OVER SOME DAY… WHEN IT IS, YOU ALL SHOULD BE TEACHING”
Cassandra O’Neal’s Paisley Journey from Prince Fan to Piano Prodigy to Professor
Interviewed by writer: Tony Kiene
As a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid), Cassandra O’Neal readily acknowledges the assumption (of many people) that gospel, and only gospel, was the musical soundtrack to her childhood. However, nothing could have been further from the truth reveals Cassandra, “My parents listened to everything.”
Moreover, Cassandra’s father, the late Rev. Ernest A. O’Neal (singer), and her mother the late Janet Pricilla O’Neal (singer, pianist), were talented musicians in their own right, which helped set the stage for Cassandra, the youngest of three daughters.
The precocious Cassandra, who started playing piano at three, was exposed to just about every genre of music there was. She recalls, “Although my Mom’s default was gospel she had broad tastes, while my Dad especially favored standards and showtunes; From Dinah Washington to Frank Sinatra, and musicals from Show Boat to Carmen Jones.
Cassandra’s older sisters exposed her to some of the more contemporary sounds of the day (such as Parliament, Funkadelic, and the like) and by the time she was six, Cassandra discovered Prince. And though she may have been too young to be a complete fan of any act, she remembers being captivated by “I Want to Be Your Lover.” Beyond that, she thought of Prince kind of like her sisters did, “The light-skinned guy with the pretty hair.”
I WANT MY MTV
In the early 1980s, Cassandra’s whole world changed with the advent of MTV. As such, her musical palate grew to include the likes of Judas Priest, Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, Billy Squier, and other “cats like that.” She also found herself enamoured by The Eagles, in particular Glenn Frye and Don Henley. “I was basically the blackest white girl you’d ever meet,” jokes Cassandra.
Growing up Deer Park, Long Island, Cassandra notes that she always one of only two or three black kids in a classroom. “MTV is how I connected… how I communicated to the world around me. You had to know those songs.” That said, her interest in the offerings of MTV were not simply about fitting in. Cassandra’s classical training and familiarity with multiple musical forms had already spawned a budding musical theorist. “I dug the guitar solos, and there was something about how these bands used chords that really piqued my interest.”
Of course, she’d taken notice of music videos from both Prince and Michael Jackson and recalls just how “funky” she thought “1999” was. Yet for Cassandra, Purple Rain, which arrived in record stores in June 1984, was the ultimate game changer. In fact, she not only had to have a vinyl copy, but the cassette too. “I used to put my little boom box on top of the piano and pluck out the keyboard part to each song.”
From that moment on, Cassandra was hooked for life and worked her way backward through the entire Prince catalogue. By 1986, she had every album and was in her words “practicing Prince all the time.” She would start at around 3:30 every day when she returned home from school. The only problem with that was Cassandra’s mother, a Registered Nurse, worked the night shift and afternoons were her peak sleep time. Still, while Cassandra admits that this routine often drove her mother “crazy,” she never made her stop; a blessing both mother and daughter would recount later in life.
LOS ANGELES… HERE I COME
In the summer of 1990, Cassandra graduated from High School. And, desperately hoping to pursue a career in music, she made her way to Los Angeles by 1991. The transition was made easier in that she had an uncle out in LA, not to mention that almost immediately, she secured a gig playing keyboards in a local church. “That band was happening,” she adds.
Still in need of a “regular job” in LA, Cassandra found employment through a temp agency. And, after one week as an administrative assistant with Security Pacific Bank, she was happy to receive her first paycheck, that is until she read it. “It was $150. That’s when, out loud, I said I must make my living playing music.”
Cassandra’s first union gig as a musician was on an episode of the HBO Comedy Half Hour, that featured an up and coming Eddie Griffin. Around the same time, she began touring with legendary Gospel singer, the late Daryl Coley. Although she loved performing gospel, Cassandra was looking for something a little more mainstream. So after two years on the road with Coley, she asked a friend to help her find secure gigs of a more secular nature.
One afternoon, Cassandra, along with several members of her church, were about to spend the day at a nearby amusement park, when that friend called and said “I got a gig for you, meet me in Reseda in an hour.” Cassandra explained she was about to walk through the gates at Six Flags Magic Mountain, to which he promptly replied, “Do you want to spend money or do you want to make money?” When put that way the choice was easy; Cassandra had to leave. She explained to the Youth Pastor that she’d been given an opportunity she could not pass up. And while he expressed his understanding, there was still one minor issue.
As Cassandra declares, “You don’t show up at Magic Mountain and not get a funnel cake.” Since she hadn’t yet entered the park, Cassandra gave money to a friend who bought and then handed her three funnel cakes (two strawberry, one plain) through the gate and Cassandra made the 24-mile trip down the I-5 and then the 405 to Can Am Studios.
HANGING OUT AT THE ROW
Upon her arrival at Can Am, Cassandra learned she was there to do session work for Death Row Records. It didn’t take her long to feel at home, plus her new friends in the studio were happy to help polish off her funnel cakes. Not to mention that the pay Cassandra received for just one day’s work, let her know that she’d made a sound decision, both musically and financially.
Cassandra spent about a year as a session keyboardist with Death Row, working on a number of projects including those by 2Pac, Lady of Rage, Snoop Dog, MC Hammer, and The Outlawz, and others. However, when Tupac was killed in September 1996, things around Death Row “got really tricky.” Dr. Dre had already left the label and Snoop was soon to follow. Tensions were high and Cassandra knew it was time to look elsewhere.
Now that her talent was no longer a secret, it didn’t take her long to land on her feet. After contributing to the motion picture soundtrack of The 6th Man, Cassandra spent the ensuing years touring and/or recording with the likes of Chanté Moore, Sheryl Crow, Michelle Shocked, Pink, 98˚, LeAnn Rhimes, Macy Gray, Babyface, and Patti LaBelle.
“COUSIN… I NEED YOU IN MY BAND.”
Although she was now immersed in the worlds of rock, pop, and soul, Cassandra never abandoned her gospel roots. In 1997, she joined the historic West Angeles Church of God in Christ, led by Bishop Charles E. Blake, Sr., who remains her Pastor to this day. She also went on to an instructional dvd titled West Coast Piano: The Ultimate Gospel Piano Master Class Featuring Cassandra O’Neal. And in 2005, she returned full circle to the gospel world when Sheila E., musical director for the 3rd Annual Sisters in Spirit Tour, tapped Cassandra to participate. “You couldn’t tell me that I didn’t just strike gold,” declares Cassandra. Like Prince, she reminds us that Sheila was one of her childhood idols, noting that in addition to every Prince record, she “owned every associated artist album too.”
If meeting, much less performing with Sheila E. wasn’t mind blowing enough, backing up gospel icons such as Yolanda Adams, Martha Munizzi, Kelly Price, and Juanita Bynum was also a thrill. And, early in the tour, Cassandra was able to put her training to good use during one of Yolanda Adams’ sets. “In the gospel tradition, just like with Prince,” she explains, “A musician must be able to follow the lead performer wherever they might take you.” And that night, wherever Yolanda went with her performance, so went Cassandra, just like clockwork.
After the show, a pair of arms embraced Cassandra from behind and a voice said, “Cousin… I need you in my band.” It was Sheila. And before long, Cassandra found herself on stage with Prince, playing with the band Sheila put together for the 2005 NAACP Image Awards. Still floored by the entire experience today, it goes without saying that meeting and playing with Prince was a dream come true. Cassandra was also introduced to the likes of Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Oprah… the list goes on.
Among her fondest memories of the performance and the days leading up to it was simply spending time and performing with artists she’d revered for years. For example, upon seeing Eddie Minnifield for the first time (at rehearsal), Cassandra laughs as she recalls walking right up to him and saying, “O my Gosh, I know you. You’re Eddie M.” She continues, “All of us went roller skating together. It was so much fun.”
Not long after the NAACP performance, Cassandra joined an all-female group Sheila put together called C.O.E.D. (Chronicles of Every Diva). The band, which also featured Kat Dyson and Rhonda Smith toured Europe and Japan, while recording new material, most of which remains unreleased to this day.
Although she loved participating in the project, Cassandra acknowledges that at the time, “I felt like a bit of an outsider. I mean, all of these women had played extensively with Prince. I just did the one gig.” However, it would not be long until the hands of fate would permanently welcome Cassandra into the purple universe, sans one minor delay.
“DO YOU HAVE A COAT?”
After spending some time on the road playing with Macy Gray and Mary J. Blige, Cassandra received “the call.” Prince was scheduled to headline the Montreux Jazz Festival in July 2009 and was putting together a new band. “Can you do it?,” Prince asked Cassandra. Of course, there was no way she was going to say no. The only hitch was Prince never gave her an exact date. And, when she finally found out the gig conflicted with her mother’s 70th Birthday, Cassandra faced quite a dilemma.
She recounts, “My mom told me this is what you’ve been dreaming of, go ahead and work.” But her mother had been in and out of the hospital and for Cassandra family came first. “I needed to be with mom.” So Cassandra made the decision to pass on Montreux. “Everyone one understood; Prince, Sheila, Rhonda, Kat” sighs Cassandra, “So Prince just went in a slightly different direction with the band.” Though it was beyond difficult to turn down Prince, Rhonda left Cassandra with the hint that this might not be her last chance, “Prince really digs how you play.”
A few months later, Cassandra received a second call indicating that Prince wanted her in Minneapolis. When she walked through the doors at Paisley Park, she couldn’t believe she was there. Prince soon greeted her, instantly inquiring “So… How long do I have you?” Without hesitation, she replied “How long do you need me?” To which he asked, “Do you have a coat?” Although she didn’t want to jinx anything, Cassandra couldn’t help think to herself that she might be around for a while.
Although she did have a coat, she found out she needed to add to her wardrobe as “dressy casual’ was the vibe at Paisley Park. Neither jeans, nor tennis shoes were allowed during rehearsals or in the studio, at least not for the band. So, she made a quick trip to the Mall of America to find some “new threads.”
Cassandra’s first gigs were just around the corner; a two-night stand at the Grand Palais in Paris. In preparation, she began rehearsing extensively with Morris Hayes. “I already knew most of the songs by heart,” says Cassandra. However, she confesses that the last album she’d bought was The Gold Experience, so Morris got her up to speed on the more recent material they’d be performing. Regarding Morris, Cassandra couldn’t think of a better person to acclimate her to her new world.
“Morris was my Prince guru,” expounds Cassandra, “He prepared me for so much about the day to day routine.” Morris also proved to be the perfect complement musically to Cassandra. “I was all about foundation, piano, and Rhodes. I’d always throw in with some Russell Ferrante or Bill Evans. Morris was the ‘colors’ guy, the programming genius.”
When she arrived in Paris, Cassandra was thrilled to learn her new bandmates included Cora and Josh Dunham, friends of hers from Los Angeles. She also knew Liv Warfield and was excited to meet both Shelby J. and Elisa Fiorillo Dease. That first night, for the first few numbers Cassandra was not part of the set. However, Prince had already told her, “Cassy (as he called her). When you come out on stage, act as though we can’t play without you.”
Already nervous beyond belief, she thought to herself, “What does that mean?” But, when she finally got the chance to stand behind her rig, she fit right in. And now, she knew exactly what Prince’s advice meant, “Play like you belong.” Not long after their brief stint in France, the band returned home for some intense rehearsals and a nearly three-hour gig at Paisley Park, which Prince billed as “The Last Jam of 2009.”
Part 2 coming next week
© Tony Kiene & PRN Alumni Foundation