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: Kat Dyson
"DO THE THINGS THAT FEED YOUR SOUL"
How Prince’s Words of Wisdom Continue to Guide Kat Dyson in Both Music and Life
Interviewed by writer: Tony Kiene
Born and raised a true southern girl, Kat Dyson’s personal entré into music was somewhat atypical to that of her peers in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. “It was the bible belt, but we were the odd black family that was Catholic,” recalls Kat, “So I was introduced to the world of music by singing in Latin,” an experience that likewise fostered a lifelong interest in languages.
Beyond the walls of the church, music also permeated the Dyson household. Kat’s father loved jazz and generally didn’t allow much else to be played, at least not in his presence. “Turn that noise off,” he would often say as he settled in to listen to his favorite artists. Kat reveals, “That was the signal for us kids to go outside and play.” Her mother on the other hand preferred gospel and classical, but at least, as Kat laughs, her parents “could agree on Nat King Cole.”
While no doubt influenced by the music her mother and father listened to, Kat, when by herself, eagerly absorbed as much rock and funk as she could. At church, a young Kat was intrigued as she witnessed nuns playing folk guitar during the mass. Neither of her parents were musicians themselves. Kat was the first.
Then one day, while perusing the local Sunday newspaper, Kat noticed an ad for guitar lessons. Self-assured, she proclaimed to her mother, “I can do that.” After all she’d already seen the nuns play guitar as well as the rock bands on TV. Subsequently, “Mom went right out and bought me a guitar.” But mom did even more than that, when she exposed Kat to “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” legendary singer and guitarist, Odetta. “She wanted me to see an example of a black woman playing guitar, and playing it well,” remarks Kat.
Beyond enthusiastic, Kat instantly sought to master her new instrument. Tragically, within a year of gifting Kat both that guitar and the Odetta album, Kat’s mother unexpectedly passed away from an aneurysm. Not even a teenager herself, Kat, the eldest of seven children (four brothers, two sisters), was now tasked with helping her father raise her siblings. One thing that she vowed however, is that in honor of her mother, she “would never stop playing the guitar.”
After graduating from high school, Kat stayed close to home enrolling at Norfolk State University. It was here that Kat not only continued to hone her musical chops, but pursued her love of foreign languages and even studied classical voice. Next, as she established an impressive résumé as a working musician, Kat eventually landed in Montreal where she met talented local bassist Rhonda Smith. The two not only became fast friends but musical collaborators.
While attending the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show in California one year, Kat had the opportunity to meet Sheila E. Shortly thereafter, at another trade show in Germany, the two met again. This time, Kat and Rhonda were presenting for Godin Guitars, and Sheila, taking note not only of the duo’s talent but their chemistry, approached them about joining a new band she was putting together.
“Sheila wanted an all-girl band,” explains Kat, “so Rhonda and I sent her tapes of us playing various styles. By this time Sheila told us she’d reached out to Meshell Ndegeocello and Wendy & Lisa.” However, before the idea actually materialized, Sheila, who was juggling some other projects at the time, shocked Kat and Rhonda when she informed them, “Prince is changing up his band and he’s looking for some girls. So I sent him your tapes.” The response was rather subdued, at least verbally. As Kat observes, “I think I said, ‘Oh. Wow!’ And that was about it.” Of course, on the inside the excitement was palpable.
Welcome 2 The New Power Generation
Rhonda made her way to Minneapolis first, with Kat arriving in June 1996 to officially join the newest line-up of The New Power Generation. This was a monumental stage in Prince’s life, both personally and professionally. That February he’d married Mayte and was in the process of finishing up his first post-Warner Bros. release, the aptly titled triple album Emancipation. Kat, who had been playing with Cyndi Lauper, already bore witness to the volatility between a “big corporate musician” and their record company (Sony/Epic in Lauper’s case).
Be that as it may, Prince (or as he was still known), perhaps with the exception of Ani DiFranco, was already miles ahead of what anyone else was had envisioned. “I’m not doing that anymore,” Prince told Kat in regard to the standard relationship between an artist and their label. “I’m doing it my way.” “This was a huge shift in thinking from any other artist,” Kat acknowledges, “Particularly considering so many thought it was crazy at the time.”
Upon her arrival at Paisley Park, Kat didn’t expect to participate much, if at all, in the completion of Emancipation. “I felt like I was there for tour support. He didn’t have to let me play.” But, whether it was during rehearsal and just playing around a bit, Prince took note of the range of musical styles, unique tones, and nuances that Kat brought to the table. For example, Prince was impressed with Kat’s slide technique, “Oh, a little Bonnie Raitt, huh?”
Kat was “lucky enough” to play on a handful of the 36 tracks that made up the record, including “Dreamin’ About You” and “The Love We Make.” Regarding the latter, Kat played an expanded chord one day that Prince really liked. In turn he built the song around the pattern. Kat fondly reminisces about Prince’s invitation to contribute adding that she was just happy to “be useful.” Additionally, she graciously recounts all that she learned from Prince. “I’m a sponge. Plus, I tend to jump into everything with both feet and both hands.”
In looking back on how much she absorbed from Prince, Kat also muses on some their conversations and how fervently he sought knowledge himself. “We’d talk about different musicians, guitarists that really influenced me,” says Kat, “Some of them he knew, some of them he didn’t.” She marvels at the fact that whenever you might mention someone or something Prince wasn’t familiar with, “You could rest assured he’d investigate and know all about next time you saw him.”
On the Road with and the Band
Kat’s first performance with Prince and The NPG, occurring right on the heels of her relocation from Montreal, took place on The Late Show with David Letterman as Prince was promoting Chaos and Disorder (which along with The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale satisfied his contractual obligations to Warner Bros.) Then, after a few warm-up gigs at Paisley Park in October 1996, Kat’s next big performance was the Emancipation Celebration concert November 12.
Simulcast live via satellite from Paisley park by MTV, BET, VH1, and radio stations across the world, the show celebrated Prince’s newly found artistic freedom and the release of the album (on November 19) he said he “was born to make.” A performance on The Oprah Winfrey Show soon followed and as the calendar turned to 1997, the band continued on the Love 4 One Another Tour.
On January 3, which happens to be Kat’s birthday, they made a quick, early morning stop in New York City to surprise mega Prince fan, Bryant Gumbel during his final day hosting The Today Show. Remembered hilariously as the occasion where Prince dressed up as Gumbel, Kat notes that Muhammad Ali was also a surprise guest. “We didn’t come on until the end of the show, so NBC confined us to an area of the studio where Bryant wouldn’t see us.”
The band had access to an elevator that allowed them to move about some, and it seemed as though every time Kat stepped on Ali and his wife Yolanda were already inside. “The first couple times,” she giggles, “I was afraid to say anything.” But the third time, Kat said, “Hello. I don’t mean to bother you, I just wanted to shake your hand.” Having mentioned it was her birthday, Kat saw him smile as Yolanda repeated that to him. “The Champ” (who shares her astrological sign) took Kat’s hand and replied “Capricorn. Strong hands.” How cool must that have been?
Once the tour was in full-swing, the first thing that struck Kat was that there was “no off-switch” with Prince. Mind you, it wasn’t that she didn’t know that going in, but experiencing it in real time versus just hearing the legend of it, are two different things altogether. Whether it was the soundchecks, aftershows, clubbing on an off-night, whatever, “Prince never ran out of energy.”
Another thing that was endlessly profound to Kat, was the love, respect, and appreciation Prince received from those of absolutely every walk of life. This no less, was at a time in his career where many in the media and industry seemed to have written him off. “Every city we were in, the adoration for this man was unmistakable. It wasn’t just the typical fan. It was buttoned-up type people; politicians, doctors, lawyers. My friend, a news anchor in Tampa, talked about how crazy her newsroom went when we played there.”
Fellow artists were not immune to hero worship either. As Kat illustrates “We were playing a club in New York City one night and in the audience there’s celebrity after celebrity, all of whom were totally entranced. Toward the back, there’s one guy just going crazy. He’s standing on a table, screaming his heart out. I look closely and its Sean Combs. I said to myself, ‘Is that Puffy?’ People just loved Prince. It was an amazing thing to witness.”
After the Love 4 One Another Tour concluded in June 1997 at Chicago’s United Center, the band was right back on the road three weeks later to kick-off the Jam of The Year Tour in Detroit. This tour, which ran through January of the following year, brings back another slew of memories for Kat.
Among those that still tickle her today revolves around a favorite instrument. As she explains, “I had this acoustic guitar that I would sometimes play during the pre-tour rehearsals.” Kat adds that often she would leave it behind for the crew to care for. One morning around three or so, Kat was wide awake when the phone rang in her hotel room. It was Prince’s guitar tech Takumi Suetsugu. “Did you take your guitar,” he inquired, to which a somewhat puzzled Kat replied, “Uh… yeah.” Takumi informed her that he would be right over to pick it up, further raising Kat’s curiosity. “Okay… why?”
Turns out, Prince had been borrowing the guitar to record at night. “The funniest thing about it was,” admits Kat, “Is that once he found out I was up at three in the morning when we weren’t out a club, he wondered why.” She explained that, like him, she was a bit of an insomniac. “Of course, then he proceeded to call me regularly at such hours just to make sure I was up. He was so crazy.”
After the tour, Prince began to “retool things and pair-down the band.” He was also preparing to release a pair of new albums (on NPG Records) by Chaka Khan and Larry Graham. Then, that summer came the New Power Generation record New Power Soul, which featured Kat’s acoustic slide guitar on the single “Come On.” By this time, Kat reveals that she was still “hanging around” but less involved in what was going on. That’s when Kat, who was preparing to record her own EP, 1998’s Colour Kommentary, received another really big telephone call from California.
Sheila E. had just been named musical director and band leader for Magic Johnson’s new syndicated talk show. So, at Sheila’s request, Kat made her way to Hollywood to join The Magic Hour house band. After that run ended, Kat found her way to a different show, Donny & Marie (Osmond), where the band was fronted by another veteran of The Minneapolis Sound; St. Paul Peterson. Finally, beginning in August 2001, Kat made one final stop performing on the talk show circuit as guitarist on Wayne Brady’s primetime variety show, where the band leader was none other than Sheila’s brother, Peter Michael Escovedo.
Prince continued to keep an eye on Kat during this period. “He would call me up and say ‘Dyson. I saw you on TV the other day. That was kinda funky.’” Prince would often follow-up by saying that he needed her to come to Minneapolis, to which Kat usually responded, “Yeah. You’re just trying to get me fired.” Still, not long after Kat reunited with Cyndi Lauper as guitarist/vocalist and co-arranged a few tracks on Lauper’s album of jazz standards (At Last), her former boss would come calling again. And this time she didn’t even have to leave Los Angeles.
“He’s a Genius Among Us… A Giant in Our Midst”
Prince was to be honored with the Vanguard Award at the 2005 NAACP Image Awards, and Sheila put together a band to perform with him. That night in Los Angeles reminded her of so many nights that she’d played alongside Prince. After an acclamatory introduction by Angela Bassett and Cornel West and a brief speech by Prince himself, he and the band (which also featured Sheila and appearances by Morris Day and Jerome Benton) tore the roof of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with what at the time was the longest single musical performance (without commercial interruption) in television history.
In the audience were Julian Bond, Sidney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle and (newly elected Senator) Barack Obama, among dozens and dozens of icons. Yet, as she recalls, having witnessed first-hand the unadulterated joy on the faces in the crowd, the night was all about Prince. At around 6:00 am the next morning, as Kat began to walk out of the after party into the Los Angeles sunrise, she turns and “there is Prince at a table holding court with Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock. What can you say? No matter who you were, Prince was just bigger than life.”
Just a Black Girl who Wanted to Play Rock
Although Prince entertained the idea of a pre-3rd Eye Girl “all girls group” – which would have included Kat, Sheila, Rhonda, and Cassandra O’Neal – the NAACP gig was in effect, Kat’s final time playing with Prince. That said, while she was already well established before her tenure in Minneapolis, Kat took the lessons she learned from Prince and ran with them full tilt. “Prince taught me to seek my own passion projects,” she states, “To be intentional. To do things that feed my soul. And to mean every single note that I play.”
In a professional career that now spans over 30 years, Kat has performed with a myriad of musical giants from the worlds of rock, funk, jazz, blues, soul, and gospel. A list that includes but is not limited to: Big Mama Thornton, B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Nona Hendryx, George Clinton, Natalie Cole, Carlos Santana, Mick Jagger, Keb Mo, Yolanda Adams, Dave Stewart, Stevie Wonder, and her childhood inspiration Odetta. And, among those passion projects she refers to are: partnering with T.M. Stevens and Cindy Blackman-Santana in the power trio Challenge; fronting her own all-girl band Rocksugah; playing with a number of LA-based all-female collectives; and taking part in showcases sponsored by the Black Rock Coalition and Jessica Care Moore’s Black Women Rock, among many other endeavors.
Over the last decade, Kat has toured extensively with the “Father of the Italian Blues” Zucchero Fornaciari, whom most liken to an “Italian version of Joe Cocker.” “I’ve been all over the world with him,” says Kat, “Europe, Canada, Cuba, Australia, Tahiti; five nights at Royal Albert Hall and an 11- night stand at the two-thousand-year-old Arena di Verona.” Never one to take much of a break, Kat has also composed for a number of film and television projects. “I can’t stop. I want to play as much music as I can in honor of my mother.”
On April 21, 2016, just a little after 8:00 am on the west coast, Kat was having her morning coffee while chatting with Rhonda on the telephone. “We were talking about Prince and our concern that he’d recently cancelled his shows in Atlanta” (two weeks earlier). Along with his emergency landing in Moline a week later (after playing the rescheduled shows), the two of them couldn’t figure out what could be wrong. “There were times we saw he didn’t feel well,” observes Kat, “But to cancel a show. That just didn’t happen with Prince. How bad must it have been?”
Moments later, while still talking to Rhonda, Kat heard her fiancé’s voice from the other room, “There’s something going on at Paisley Park. Someone has died.” Within minutes, it was confirmed, Prince had passed away at 57. “Are you serious,” Kat blurted out. Almost instantly Rhonda’s phone started “blowing up.” Then Kat’s. “My head was spinning,” recollects Kat, “My initial thought was it has to be foul play, a mistake, a surprise.” The shock and sadness were so overwhelming; she admits “I couldn’t even talk.”
When it was discovered exactly how Prince died, it “boggled” Kat’s mind even more. “He treated his body as a temple. All the knowledge he possessed about health, wellness, nutrition. This simply couldn’t be.” Kat shares that in her own personal ordeal with cancer, it was Prince that helped her fight through it without relying on “standard treatments and medication.” “I knew he’d experienced pain,” she continues, “And let’s be honest, Prince pushed his body as hard as any athlete.” And, while she acknowledges “time is not kind to the bones,” his death still didn’t seem possible. It still doesn’t.
Kat had the honor of performing in June 2016 alongside Sheila E. and many of her former bandmates for the BET tribute. And this April, as part of Celebration 2019, Kat will once again take part in Prince: In Concert on the Big Screen at the Minneapolis Armory. She states that these are passion projects too. And, as she always has, Kat plays to honor the memory of her mother and the music she has been blessed to perform with artists like Prince .
For more from Kat Dyson, visit @kittykatdeezy on instagram
© Tony Kiene & PRN Alumni Foundation