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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.

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Michael B Nelson

Spotlight: Michael B. Nelson

Saving Grace

Michael B. Nelson, Producer/Arranger/Trombonist and Leader of The Hornheads

By Laura Tiebert


At the chime of the incoming email, Minneapolis-based producer/arranger/trombonist and leader of The Hornheads Michael B. Nelson sat up in the desk chair in his home studio and checked his inbox. It was June 22, 2015.

The subject line read: “Send 2 MIKE NELSON”


“Mike … after listening 2 this: (link to song “Baltimore” with orchestrated guitar solo) U CAN TELL We’re really on the brink of some landmark recordings this summer. We truly wanna keep going in this direction: REAL MUSIC BY REAL MUSICIANS!”

“ … we r going to record the basic trax 2 an album that will re-define the MPLS. SOUND and set dancefloors all across the globe aflame. Please carve out some time 4 Us this summer, cuz alot of arrangements will b needed from Ur pen.”

“Love & respect- THE NPG.”

For a span of 25 years, emails from Prince were part of the rhythm of Nelson’s life. In June of 2015, when this particular email arrived, Nelson and Prince were in regular communication. Prince had been experimenting with orchestrating his guitar solos with strings and horns, and had asked Nelson to create the arrangements for four different songs. Prince was delighted with the results.

“I know Prince sent me some of these songs just to hear what it they would sound like with full orchestrations,” Nelson says. “There are only a handful of people that have the resources and the creative curiosity to say `Let’s drop tens of thousands of dollars just because I want to hear what it sounds like.’”

Nelson was collaborating with Minneapolis musician Adi Yeshaya and StrinGENIUS after Clare Fischer, the Grammy Award-winning string arranger who worked with Prince for decades, died at age 83 in 2012. Nelson’s arrangements were regularly receiving high praise from Prince, in emails punctuated with exclamations of “SPLENDID” and “MAGNIFICENT.” Everything pointed to a bright future.

While other musicians came and went during Prince’s historic career, Nelson had unique staying power. With the exception of a gap from 2004-2011, Nelson worked with Prince from the 1991 Diamonds and Pearls tour to the HitNRun Phase Two album released months before Prince’s death in 2016. In the early years, Nelson and the five-horn section he led called The Hornheads were on Prince’s payroll; at most other times, they were paid for individual sessions and tours. But whatever the business arrangement, one thing never changed: Where other musicians came and went, Nelson kept getting invited back, and he attributes that to three saving graces.

The First Saving Grace: A Work Ethic to Match Prince

When preparing to tour, Prince would be rehearsing and moving quickly, and Nelson took it upon himself to take the horn section’s individual notes home and refine them and fix them if needed. He would return the next day with a finished chart of written music. Even after a 14-hour day, Nelson would go home and work through the night.

“The next time we did the song it would be exactly what he wanted it to be and he didn’t have to worry because he figured out very quickly I would handle it,” Nelson says. “Every day we’d go into rehearsal and people would forget things. Because we (the horns) were reading charts, we didn’t forget things.”

Later on, Nelson says, Prince would tell everybody, `get notepads and if you’re not a genius, write it down.’

On tour, when something changed during the performance or the long jam sessions otherwise known as soundchecks, Nelson would stay up all night writing the changes down and slip the charts under the hotel room doors of the horn players in the morning.

During these demanding early years, Nelson rarely witnessed Prince putting together a song from start to finish. Rather, The Hornheads would be called in to record the horn parts on an as-needed basis. But one day, Prince called the horns in, along with the band, and taught them a tune from beginning to end.

The horn arrangement that Prince taught them had the trumpets heralding, the trombone doing soaring counter lines and the tenor and baritone saxophones doing yet another line. The three different parts come together and then separate.

“I just don’t know where that horn arrangement came from,” Nelson marvels. “It’s a fascinating horn arrangement. It’s beautiful, really beautiful.”

Then, a rare occurrence took them by surprise. Prince began to sing, something he normally did only in isolation in the recording studio.

“He realized that she was new to love …,” Prince sang.

“You would never have guessed that melody with those chords,” Nelson says of “Morning Papers,” off the 1992 Love Symbol album. “… that was just Prince, Prince, Prince.”

Of that iteration of the NPG, Nelson says, “The talent in that rhythm section was crazy and they could do anything. He was with a band finally who could do anything. There were a lot of experiments.”

The Second Saving Grace: Remember, It’s Prince’s Song

Over time, Nelson and Prince’s working relationship morphed into Prince sending Nelson songs and requesting horn arrangements. On those recordings, Prince would play the horn parts on the synth. Nelson would record the horn line the way Prince played it, and every time the horn line repeated, Nelson would play it differently. That way, Prince could decide which version he preferred. Nelson would fill every space, hit every drum fill, throw in a solo, then, “I’d let him do whatever he wanted to do with it,” he says.

The horn licks in 2001’s “Y Should I Do That When I Can Do This” is a perfect example of this process, he says.

“I used his main horn hook, added a bunch of other stuff, and he also asked me to write the bridge,” Nelson says. “In my world, these licks are very big,” he says. “In Prince’s world, it’s very tiny. In his body of work, it’s such a tiny little blip. How much did I contribute? It’s a huge contribution in my world. In his world, he’s on to writing another 20 tunes in the space it took me to write that,” Nelson laughs.

Other times, Prince would send Nelson a song and ask him to do a complete arrangement, then they would go into the studio together, and Prince would start messing with it.

“Sometimes we never got to the stuff I wanted him to hear,” Nelson says. “But that’s okay – it’s his song. You write stuff and you want it to be your way artistically, this is a great idea, but when you’re hired by him to work on his songs, you have to let go of that immediately. You can’t say, `I like mine better.’ It’s not my song. Anything we did, I had to allow it to turn into whatever he heard it to be. It wasn’t that hard most of the time because he did such interesting stuff, but there were times when I was like, `Oh, man! Oh, well.’ I didn’t take it personally or get upset. Just let it go.”

The Third Saving Grace: Never Ruin the Prince-ness of the Music

When Prince called Nelson again in 2011, the first song Prince asked Nelson to arrange was “Xtraloveable.” The original version of the song, from the 80s, included a rap section. Prince asked Nelson to do a “crazy horn thing” where the rap is, similar to “Intermission,” a funky tag that Nelson had written for The Hornheads.

Nelson was in a studio at Paisley Park listening to the finished recording when Prince came in with Peter Asher, the British guitarist and producer known for producing James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Barbra Streisand, Nelson recalls.

“This is Peter, he’s looking to buy the place,” Prince said, joking. Asher was in town to play at The Dakota, and Prince was giving him a tour.

“We were playing “Xtraloveable” back and we got to the end of the horn part solo and Prince pops up, kicks over the garbage can and exclaims, `That’s it!’ And he just spins around on his heels and leaves,” Nelson laughs.

Being on the road with Prince was so all-encompassing that Nelson and The Hornheads had to turn away any other work for long stretches of time. After a tour, it could take nearly a year to get their regular clients back. When Prince invited The Hornheads to go on the road in 2013, The Hornheads realized they couldn’t manage it. Nelson told Prince, and then held his breath.

Prince decided to bring in arranger and trumpeter Phil Lassiter to put together a couple of horn sections, and then invited Nelson to Paisley Park for a meeting. Not without some trepidation, Nelson went upstairs and entered the conference room. Prince got up.

“He gets up out of his chair and comes over and gives me a hug,” Nelson says. In all the years they had worked together, Nelson says, Prince and he might have shaken hands once, when they first met.

“Prince says, `I know you guys don’t want to go on tour and I understand,’” Nelson recalls. “Then he says, `I’ve had a lot of arrangers over the years, but only you and Clare ever really `got’ my music.’”

It was a highlight in Nelson’s career.

“Prince did quirky stuff in all his music,” Nelson says. “You could look at it and go, `Yeah, but what he meant to do was this, and if you add this note or that note, it’s this chord and traditionally this is how that harmony would be,’ and you could mess up the Prince-ness of it. You’ve just ruined it.”

Nelson says that if Prince placed a note in his music, it was there for good reason.

“He might have stumbled across something, but once it was there, there was the intent. That’s staying there, that’s it. So don’t force your stuff over the top and lose the essence of his genius,” Nelson says.

At times, Nelson says, Prince would send him a song – as was the case with the 2014 re-recording of “If Eye Could Get Ur Attention” and say, `I want something like Earth Wind and Fire.’

“I can do that, okay,” Nelson says of the more conventional requests. “But most of the time I think he wanted to be surprised.”

Some days, a song would appear in Nelson’s email inbox, and listening to it, Nelson would suffer a momentary panic because it was so unconventional that he had no idea what he could do to make the song work harmonically.

“Some of those songs when I’d first listen, I’d go, `Oh no, I have no idea. I’ve got nothing for this.’ And it would be really stressful because we had to turn them around fast. He wanted them back fast.”

Somehow Nelson always came up with something. “That was the gift he gave me,” he says of Prince. “To allow me and give me his songs and to tweak my brain. I have to fire differently for this. For some of them, I’d say, I know exactly what I’m going to do on this. And other ones, it was terrifying. And then the new pathways have to form, and that’s the gift.”

Saving The Final “Grace”

Of his own work, Nelson says there is a technical element as to how he puts an arrangement together, as opposed to the way Prince wrote music, which was “a flowing composition thing.”

“I somehow connected to his flow and stuff came to me,” Nelson says. “My melodies are kind of ordinary most of the time. It’s not songwriting like he writes songs. And it’s not hook writing like he writes hooks. He has so many ideas. Prince inspired me and I wanted to inspire him back.”

On Prince’s final album, HitNRun Phase 2, The Hornheads played on seven songs, five of which were Nelson’s own arrangements. Nelson and strings arranger Adi Yeshaya of StrinGENIUS were finally hitting a stride with their process.

Now, sitting in his home studio on Feb. 14, 2019, Nelson turns his attention back to Prince’s email of June 2015 and recalls the excitement of the road ahead. That June 2015 email was followed by more requests for arrangements, and more songs.

One of them that Prince sent, he says, is called “Grace.”

In “Grace,” Nelson says Prince sings of being on a mountaintop with the wind rushing by. Looking back on his life, Prince sings, he is astonished. Memories rush by like the wind. As they pass, the memories fall behind him, and all that remains is grace.

Nelson tears up at the recollection.

“I can’t listen to it without breaking down,” Nelson says. “I had no idea the depth of his talent when I first worked with him. It was revealed over time. The longer you worked with him the more you said, `Another one, really? Really?’ You got little windows into it. How many tunes he sent me and I’d say, `Now geez, where did that come from?’ I wouldn’t have expected that one at all.”


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