meta-scriptRemembering Sinéad O’Connor: 5 Essential Tracks By The Iconoclastic Singer/Songwriter | GRAMMY.com
Sinéad O’Connor performing
Sinéad O'Connor performs in 2014

Photo: Rob Ball/Redferns via Getty Images

list

Remembering Sinéad O’Connor: 5 Essential Tracks By The Iconoclastic Singer/Songwriter

Sinéad O’Connor passed away on July 26 at age 56. The Irish musician had a voice like no other, which she used to speak against injustice.

GRAMMYs/Jul 27, 2023 - 02:12 pm

Few had a voice that compared to the eight-time GRAMMY nominee Sinead O’Connor. An artist and an activist, O’Connor wrote with conviction and pathos, packing a punch with both poetry and politics. Her voice was her main instrument and lifelong weapon — one she wielded well in a whisper or a wail. 

Born Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor in Glenageary, County Dublin, Ireland on Dec. 8 1966, the singer passed away on July 26, 2023. She was only 56. 

"The Recording Academy mourns with the music community today as we learn of the passing of Sinéad O’Connor," said Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. "Revered by audiences around the globe, her music has left an indelible mark on our culture that will continue to inspire. Our thoughts are with her loved ones at this difficult time." 

Tributes on social media arrived throughout the day. Everyone from heads of state to fellow GRAMMY winners and nominees paid their respects. Bryan Adams wrote: "RIP Sinead O’Connor. I loved working with you making photos, doing gigs in Ireland together, and chats, all my love to your family." Tori Amos called O’Connor "a force of nature and a brilliant songwriter and performer whose talent we will not see the like of again. Such passion, such intense presence & a beautiful soul, who battled her own personal demons courageously." Billy Bragg added that she was "braver than brave," and  Yusuf/Cat Stevens called her a "tender soul." 

O'Connor's 1987 debut record, The Lion & The Cobra, received critical acclaim and achieved gold certification in the U.S., the U.K. and the Netherlands. Over the course of a three and a half-decade career, the songwriter released 10 studio albums (her last, I’m not Bossy, I’m the Boss, came in 2014) that demonstrated her broad influences and desire to constantly explore new genres, from jazz to pop. One of these forgotten side roads traveled from the mid-2000s was her first reggae album (Throw Down Your Arms), produced by Sly & Robbie.  

The oft-misunderstood artist was a non-conformist and was ok with that. Fame was not always her friend and caused much anxiety; later, she lived behind a veil after converting to Islam in 2018. O’Connor had a troubled upbringing marked by trauma and tragedy, much of which she detailed for the first time in her candid 2021 memoir Rememberings. Just last year, the songwriter lost her son to suicide. The grief of this no doubt constantly consumed her. 

To some, O’Connor is remembered as much for her action as her albums — specifically tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II (that once hung on her mother’s wall) following her October 1992 "Saturday Night Live" performance to raise awareness about sexual abuse within the Irish Catholic church. This act got her black balled for life by NBC, but she never regretted this fit of rebellion nor any other public stance she took on causes and issues she championed. 

Her songs were a gift that will keep on giving for generations to come. To get a sample of the beauty and the passion of this artist gone far too soon, here are five essential Sinéad O’Connor tracks. 

"Mandinka" (1987)  

The second single off O’Connor’s debut The Lion And The Cobra, "Mandinka" (named for a West African ethnic group) resonated most. In Rememberings, O’Connor wrote that watching "Roots’" — a TV miniseries aired in the late 1970s based on Alex Haley’s book of the same name —  inspired this song. 

"Mandinka" became a college radio hit and was nominated for a GRAMMY Award for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female. The then 20-year-old performed "Mandinka" at the 31st GRAMMY Awards, sporting Public Enemy’s symbol on her shaven head in solidarity with the hip-hop artists who boycotted the ceremony that year in protest of the inaugural Best Rap Performance award not being included in the telecast.  

"Drink Before the War" (1987)

One of O’Connor’s earliest demos (she wrote it as a teenager), the song showcases the incredible range — and rage — that the singer was capable of.

"Drink Before the War" was written about the headmaster at O'Connor's Catholic reform school who tried his best to whip the creativity out of her. As this song shows, it just furhter fueled her muse and her ire.   

"Nothing Compares 2 You" (1990)

O’Connor took this song Prince-penned and made this pop lush, string-laced ballad her own. Her voice builds gradually like a steam engine before reaching a climax in the chorus, when the singer shows the full range of her instrument. 

"Nothing Compares 2 You" became an MTV staple, which helped the song climb to the top spot on the U.S. Billboard charts and hit No. 1 in the UK. This single received three GRAMMY nominations as well as her first — and only — golden gramophone for Best Alternative Music Performance. Famously, O'Connor did not attend the ceremony to accept the award, and instead penned an open letter detailing her reasoning.

"Black Boys on Mopeds" (1990)

From its opening lines, O’Connor wastes no time telling listeners what the song is about. 

Referencing the Chinese government’s handling of the student protests that occurred in Tiananmen Square the previous year, the singer lashes out at Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government for its brutality, singing in reference to police racism on the homefront: "it’s strange she should be offended when the same orders are given by her." 

Backed by the simple strums of an acoustic guitar, O’Connor's biting chorus further reveals this inherent hypocrisy: "England’s not the mythical land of Madame George & roses, it’s the home of police who kill Black boys on mopeds." 

"No Man’s Woman" (2000) 

From her 2000 release Faith & Courage, this anthem with a bouncy beat was inspired by the birth of O’Connor’s daughter. After more than a dozen years working in a male-dominated record industry — and after being blackballed and ostracized by many throughout the late 1990s following her "SNL" stunt — O’Connor returned with this empowering song that shows both her feminist and spiritual side. 

Remembering Tony Bennett's Monumental Musical Legacy: "The Classiest Singer, Man, And Performer You Will Ever See"

Sheila E. performs during the GRAMMYs Salute To Prince
Sheila E. performs during the GRAMMY Salute To Prince in 2020

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

interview

Living Legends: Sheila E. On Prince, Playing Salsa And Marching To The Beat Of Her Own Drum

"I was a percussion player leading my band, playing timbales, which no one really understood," Sheila E. says of her debut record. Forty years later, the GRAMMY-nominated multi-hyphenate is still forging her own path on the energetic new record, 'Bailar.'

GRAMMYs/Apr 5, 2024 - 01:22 pm

GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter, producer and percussionist Sheila E. has certainly had a glamorous life — and has done a lot with it. 

The child of percussionist Pete Escovedo and goddaughter of legendary timbalero Tito Puente, Sheila Escovedo has been energizing stages for most of her life. First performing as a child, Sheila was one of few female percussionists in the 1970s and '80s, and rose to the upper echelons of the music industry — performing alongside Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Herbie Hancock and Diana Ross. Whether in session or onstage, her dynamism and inventiveness continually made Sheila the star of the show. 

"I think outside the box," Sheila E. tells GRAMMY.com. "You just come up with ideas and it doesn't have to be traditional. It just has to be from your heart, a feeling that makes sense, that compliments whatever song it may be." 

Sheila's energy and unique approach to playing drums, timbale, and percussion caught the attention of Prince, a unique artist in his own right. The two spent decades as creative partners – Sheila acting as the Purple One's drummer, producer, musical director and, for a time, romantic partner; Prince shepherded her 1984 solo debut, A Glamorous Life, into being — and worked together until his death. Among her lasting contributions to their musical legacy, Sheila performed on the Purple Rain sessions and toured the album, and her vocals appear on "Erotic City." The two duetted on Sheila's 1986 single "A Love Bizarre" and, fittingly, got engaged in the middle of a performance.

In addition to her list of impressive accomplishments (which include co-founding the educational nonprofit Elevate Oakland), Sheila E has released eight albums as a solo artist. Her ninth, Bailar, finds the one avenue Sheila had yet to pursue: salsa. 

Recorded in Miami with a cast of local musicians, the 10-track record features originals and covers in both Spanish and English, and its lead single — an energetic cover of Celia Cruz's "Bemba Colorá featuring Gloria Estefan & Mimy Succar — fittingly has Sheila playing percussion, timbale and singing. 

"This is the best record I've ever done. I feel that good about it," she says. Ahead of Bailar's April 5 release, Sheila E. spoke with GRAMMY.com about creating music in a new idiom, the importance of collaboration, and finding space in music. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You've been working in the funk, R&B and pop space for years. What brought you to salsa now?

I've wanted to do a salsa record for a long time. My bucket list is extensive, and then I met [GRAMMY-winning producer and timbale player] Tony Succar in 2015… he did a project and took Michael Jackson songs and flipped them into salsa. I said, "Man, if I ever do my salsa record, we have to do it together because you understand."

I'm bringing that Oakland vibe to salsa. My dad was a Latin jazz artist — that's the foundation of who I am —  however, he also played salsa music in the house. I grew up listening to Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz and Tito Rodriguez, and the Fania All-Stars.  Our whole family loves salsa dancing.

There was music that I had written for an R&B album that I didn't release, and I said we can take some of this and flip it into salsa. This is another side of me that I'm excited about sharing with the people. 

Bailar sounds like something you would hear in New York or Miami, but there's something slightly different about it. What are you bringing to this record that might be different from another salsa band?

Salsa is very demanding. It's specific and traditional; there are things that are supposed to be played in specific sections of a song — whether it's a conga rhythm, a timbal rhythm, a cowbell rhythm. The element of the Bay Area and the Latin jazz with a little bit of funk, that was me [adding something new]. 

I always wanted to do "Bemba Colorá." I did a rumba in front of it and took a conga solo, and when I got to the half-time of that song, I said, "I want to take a drum solo." I don't think anyone has taken a drum solo or have even played drums on this song…especially a woman. Just adding different elements like that, as well as the way that I mix: where I place the horns and where I place the percussion and where the bells are and where the drums are. 

Tony Succar and I produced this record together. I did a couple of arrangements [and] co-wrote seven of the 10 songs. The songs that I had already written were arranged, but then we wanted to flip them into salsa. 

Are there any other songs on this record that you're particularly proud of?

All of them. Every one is a different story. The only woman that I could think of to call [for "Bemba Colorá"] was Gloria Estefan; she's like my sister. Mimi Succar is a new and upcoming artist, so we had her to sing as well, and the three of us just had a blast. 

[Also] playing "Anacaona," which is a song I used to hear [by] Fania All-Stars and Cheo Feliciano. My dream was to have Rubén Blades sing on my record; he sang that song and I started crying. I was just overwhelmed. 

["El Rey del Timbal"] was one song that I had played with Tito [Puente] and my dad many times. When Tony sent me the demo, I listened to it and was like, "We got to go way faster than that. If Tito was playing it, he would've played it this way, and I know because I've played it with him."  So I started taking a solo, banging my legs while I was listening to it through the phone, and I just kept going faster, and then Tony's like, "Are you serious? This is 200-something BPMs." 

It was perfect for me taking the timbale solo, but when I had to then overdub and play all the parts on the bells and everything, it was so fast, I was like, What was I thinking? The horn section had it worse. A trumpet player yelled on the track  — "Ahh!" —  and I boosted him yelling [on the final mix], because that's real stuff.  It took everything for them. 

I'd love to hear a little bit about your relationship with Tito Puente and any important musical lessons he taught you, especially now that you're coming out with an album that's very much influenced by his work.

He was such an influence. He was amazing. He did so much for us as a family, musically, as well as being our friend and growing up listening to him. He and my dad met when they were 18, and having him around the house when I was growing up, I didn't even know he was.  

The biggest thing was we would go to New York, my dad and I, and we would sit in with Tito at the Palladium and the Corso. And back then, you'd have four bands playing in one night until 6 in the morning. And they would jump from one club to the other. It was the most stressful time because, as jazz artists, we didn't hardly sit in with salsa bands. I was like, "But papa, I don't know the clave, I don't understand what bell pattern or what conga pattern to play." He goes, "Don't worry about it. You don't listen to those guys. You just go play you."

So he kept encouraging [me]: it doesn't matter, you have the heart to go ahead. And my pops would say the same thing: We might not understand it technically, but we play it from our heart. [Tito] always encouraged me, and I got to play with Celia, Tito and [bassist] Cachao [Lopez] at the same time.

What a dream come true. Tito introduced me to all of these musicians as well, but really just telling everybody, "You be quiet and just let Sheila play."

Read more: Celebrating Tito Puente's Centennial: 10 Essential Songs By The Mambo King

Bailar is a bit more celebratory than your last album, 2017's Iconic: Message 4 America, which was heavily political. Obviously we continue to live in increasingly fraught times; why was it important for you to put more positive messages out into the world? One of your tracks is even called "Possibilities."

We are living in hard times, and it's challenging. Things are changing every single day. And everyone is going through something every single day.  One of the things that has been such a blessing to me is the gift of music. I don't take it for granted. To be able to share music and at least make people happy for the five minutes that you listen to this song or the entire record…is healing.

Many times in my shows, people end up crying. It's emotional, and music brings joy. It lifts you up. It brings you to a place of happiness and love, and we just want you to have a good time. But the joy that I get to be able to do this, it heals me too. And I just thought it was important.

Your work and relationship with Prince is so extensive and deep. What would you consider the peak of your creative partnership?

I don't think there ever was. We continued to grow and just kept experimenting on different sounds, and recording and jamming. We first jammed together in 1977 when he came to my house. We either recorded or played together [on] so many songs. There's still tons of stuff in the vault…I counted at least 200 songs I played on that I haven't even heard yet.

We were always jamming, coming up with something, or recording. A lot of times I would engineer for him as well; it's just he and I [in the room] most of the time. I taught myself some engineering when I was growing up; I saved all my money and started buying recording gear so I could learn how to write and produce myself when I was in my teens. 

So when I started to record with [Prince], I had already recorded songs on tape before. Being in the studio with him, we would see who could stay up the longest, who's going to fall asleep first. We would catch each other [falling asleep] almost at the same time. 

*You also worked with Prince on your debut album, 1984's The Glamorous Life. You'd been working so much as a musician up to that point already that it's interesting to think of it as your debut. How did you work on that project together?*

We had already been jamming and playing together before we did all that. And I had been out on tour with so many artists beforehand; when we first met, I was already touring with George Duke in the mid-'70s. [Prince was] like, "I've been watching you and I'm following your career, and maybe one day we could do something together." 

He started doing all these albums, and then he becomes the Prince that we all know. He changed every record, which was amazing musically. At the time [we recorded Glamorous Life], he was at Sunset Sound [recording studio and] he had all the rooms going at the same time. We just went in and started recording.

Prince was very involved in getting me the deal with Warner Brothers. He just one day said, "You want to do the record now?" And I was like, "Yeah, I think I'm ready. Let's do it." It was that simple. We went into the studio and we were pretty much done with my record, from top to bottom, in a week.

We just stayed in there, literally no sleep. We were so excited. We had so much fun.

Back then, I wasn't really playing drums a lot. I wanted to make sure that my percussion was in the forefront, and he knew that too. That's how Glamorous Life came about, to showcase me in a light that I wasn't really a singer. I was a percussion player leading my band, playing timbales, which no one really understood because, in pop culture, no one had done that. 

So it took even a minute for [Warner Brothers] to understand releasing the record. They wanted to release "Belle of St. Mark" first as the single and not "Glamorous Life"; I had to fight them on it because I said, "'Glamorous Life' is a song that is important to me, and it showcases me as a percussionist and a singer. If I do 'Belle of St. Mark,' it's only me singing. I'm not even playing percussion."

I would love to hear about other musical collaborators who are a big part of your story.

I've been able to play with so many people: George Duke and my dad, and [drummer] Billy Cobham, [bassist] Alfonso Johnson, and it went on. Then [jazz guitarist] Lee Ritenour and [jazz pianist] Patrice Rushen and all of these other artists; Herbie Hancock…. Then you go switch over to Marvin Gaye, and then you go to Brooks & Dunn. I just hopped all over the place with Con Funk Shun and sitting in with so many people and recording. When we do these events, you get to sit and play with Phil Collins and Elton John; I'll just play percussion, I'll be the backup. I don't need to be in the front. Part of what I love is I get to be on both sides.

I can be a team player and play with a group, which is so exciting. Or if you want to feature me, that's fine. That's kind of what had happened throughout my life; anyone that I performed with would just say, "Sheila, you just go out in the front." They would push me out there. Marvin Gaye is like, "Sheila, you take over. I'm going to go back and change." He made it a part of his show. And then same thing with Lionel Richie. Everyone would just feature me, it became that thing. Everyone has influenced me in some sort of way.

You're out there being featured and just putting so much into your performances. You have this incredible amount of energy. What powers you?

God's given me the gift and point-blank. I am forever grateful to be able to do what I get to do because of that gift. I don't take it for granted. 

You have musical directed the Obama's Festival Latina, the Recording Academy's Tribute to Prince, and of course, you were his musical director for many years. Does that work require a special set of musical muscles?

When it comes to music and just being an artist, whatever you put into it is what you get out. I would always do the homework that was needed to play with an artist — learn all the music — so when I walked into a situation, I would walk in with confidence. I wasn't a great reader at all; it was really all by ear. That preparation is everything. 

Putting together my first ever band during that time in the early '80s, I knew what I wanted. [Today] I'm able to put together projects and put the right people together. For some people, it's just a gig and for me, it's more than that. It's a lifestyle and it's family and it's trust and it's respect. 

How did you choose the music for "Let's Go Crazy: The GRAMMY Tribute To Prince"?

Some of the songs they already had, some of the other songs I suggested. Almost everything that they were going to play, I knew and I had a lot of the original music. I had a lot of the samples; I had Prince's vocals. There were things that I had that could help in some of the arrangements, and a lot of the arrangements I used from my show. 

You try to adjust to make sure that [the artists] shine and that they feel comfortable, because everyone was really nervous. I had many conversations with people making sure, "Is this a good key for you?" Making sure that "You don't have to sing it like Prince. This is your representation of who you are and you happen to be doing a Prince song and no one's going to judge you for it." 

Speaking of collaborative efforts, The Greatest Night in Pop music doc came out recently. What do you remember from recording "We Are the World"? 

I kind of didn't want to do it because, initially, we were on the Purple Rain tour [and] we were exhausted. At some point I thought,  Do I even belong in that caliber of people? 

[At the "We Are The World" session,] everyone was hanging out, everybody was really cool. No one had a huge entourage. I was excited to meet people I hadn't met before. One of the people I was excited about meeting was Cyndi Lauper. I loved her. I wanted to meet Bruce Springsteen, the boss. 

In that moment of being in that room with everyone, and it was just amazing to [think], Wow, we're going to do something incredible to be able to raise money for people who are starving.  Then you just take a breath and you do what you do, and then things happen.

Do you think that you have changed or contributed to the sound of percussion in R&B and pop music?

My style is my style. Different artists from the Bay — Sly and the Family Stone, Carlos Santana, my dad's band [Azteca], Grateful Dead, Tower Of Power, of course, Pointer Sisters — listening to all those bands and being able to watch their rehearsals when I was a teenager influenced me. 

The key was being adaptable to what needed to be for that specific song. You have to make up your own beats, because being a percussion player is like [working on] a beautiful painting that's already painted and they're asking you to put one color in there or you see a space — what would you put in that space? 

It's not about playing all over the place and playing something that doesn't belong. You have to figure out those spaces and, to me, the most important part of music is space. That space is what allows a song to breathe.

I would use different things even in the studios; I didn't use all of the right mics all the time. I would bite on an apple and sample it and put that sound on top of the snare. I just experimented. I started on pots and pans, and I used keys, and I used a spray bottle can that blows out air to clean your computer as a high hat. Everything can be musical. 

One of the biggest things is Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough." Quincy [Jones] had called me and said, "Michael wants this kind of sound, I don't know what it is, bring all your toys." I brought everything. I ended up getting two bottles and I poured water in it, and I used the holder to play the triangle on the sides of the bottle. So "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" has those bottles.  

You just come up with ideas and it doesn't have to be traditional. It just has to be from your heart, a feeling that makes sense, that compliments whatever song it may be.

Are there any other female percussionists out there right now that you see carrying the torch that you lit?

Oh my God. There are so many drummers right now. I go on social media frequently throughout the week, and I try to find at least someone new and DM them and say, "You're amazing. God bless you. Thank you for your gift. Keep doing what you're doing," and people freak out. 

That's part of my job, to continue to encourage the young people to keep playing. 

You've mentioned in previous interviews that you've dealt with a lot of harassment throughout your career as a woman playing an instrument that women don't traditionally play. I'd like to know how you continued to move forward and own your vision in an industry, and in an era, where women are often belittled or posited as like sex objects.

When I first started, I didn't know it was a big deal that I was one of few — or one of one — that was doing what I was doing. In the Bay Area, you see a lot of women playing percussion. In Berkeley, we all go and hang out at the park and everyone plays and it's like 20 or 30 of us and whoever brings their instrument, they just jam with us.

Coming to L.A. and recording with other artists, when I walked into a room, the drummer would say, "Can you get me a cup of coffee?" And I'm like, "I'll get it for you but I'm not the receptionist or anything. I'm the percussion player." They would freak out. 

When that first started happening and things were being said that were really rude and bad, I would go back to my parents. They would just say, "You just keep doing what you're doing. They're jealous or they're mad because you're there, or they've never seen anyone like you. You have a gift and you just go ahead. You learn the music, know what you have to do, so when you walk in with confidence, it's not an issue." A lot of the time, those musicians were not prepared, and I was, and they hated me even more because I knew everything. 

I got so much joy out of performing. And even with all the nos and the nastiness and the stuff that was being said [like], "Hey, if you sleep with me," all of these other things. It just made me stronger. You keep pushing through; you just keep playing. 

When you find your passion and that's your purpose, no one can stop you.  I stand on that word.

Living Legends: Cuban Pianist & Composer Chucho Valdés On Developing "The Creation," Growing Up On The Island & Loving Dizzy Gillespie

Lizzo GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Lizzo at the 2023 GRAMMYs

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

video

GRAMMY Rewind: Lizzo Thanks Prince For His Influence After "About Damn Time" Wins Record Of The Year In 2023

Watch Lizzo describe how Prince’s empowering sound led her to “dedicate my life to positive music” during her Record Of The Year acceptance speech for “About Damn Time” at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

GRAMMYs/Jan 19, 2024 - 06:00 pm

Since the start of her career, four-time GRAMMY winner Lizzo has been making music that radiates positive energy. Her Record Of The Year win for "About Damn Time" at the 2023 GRAMMYs proved that being true to yourself and kind to one another always wins.

Travel back to revisit the moment Lizzo won her award in the coveted category in this episode of GRAMMY Rewind. 

"Um, huh?" Lizzo exclaimed at the start of her acceptance speech. "Let me tell you something. Me and Adele are having a good time, just enjoying ourselves and rooting for our friends. So, this is an amazing night. This is so unexpected."

Lizzo kicked off her GRAMMY acceptance speech by acknowledging Prince's influence on her sound. "When we lost Prince, I decided to dedicate my life to making positive music," she said. "This was at a time when positive music and feel-good music wasn't mainstream at that point and I felt very misunderstood. I felt on the outside looking in. But I stayed true to myself because I wanted to make the world a better place so I had to be that change."

As tracks like "Good as Hell" and "Truth Hurts" scaled the charts, she noticed more body positivity and self-love anthems from other artists. "I'm just so proud to be a part of it," she cheered.

Most importantly, Lizzo credited staying true to herself despite the pushback for her win. "I promise that you will attract people in your life who believe in you and support you," she said in front of a tearful audience that included Beyoncé and Taylor Swift in standing ovation, before giving a shout-out to her team, family, partner and producers on the record, Blake Slatkin and Ricky Reed

Watch the video above for Lizzo's complete acceptance speech for Record Of The Year at the 2023 GRAMMYs. Check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind, and be sure to tune into the 2024 GRAMMYs on Sunday, Feb. 4, airing live on the CBS Television Network (8-11:30 p.m. LIVE ET/5-8:30 p.m. LIVE PT) and streaming on Paramount+ (live and on-demand for Paramount+ with SHOWTIME subscribers, or on-demand for Paramount+ Essential subscribers the day after the special airs).

10 Must-See Moments From The 2023 GRAMMYs

Photo of Prince
Prince

© Paisley Park Enterprises | Photographer: Randee St. Nicholas

feature

Behind 'Diamonds and Pearls' Super Deluxe Edition: A Fresh Look At Prince & The New Power Generation’s Creative Process

With unreleased songs and a concert, a new series of box sets broadens the understanding of Prince's 'Diamonds and Pearls.' GRAMMY.com spoke with the New Power Generation's Tony Mosley about creating the 1991 release.

GRAMMYs/Oct 27, 2023 - 03:25 pm

When Prince released Diamonds and Pearls in October 1991, it represented both a sea change and return to form.

The 13th album since his 1978 debut, Diamonds and Pearls was Prince's first release with the New Power Generation — a band formed with several musicians who toured with him in the years since the Revolution. Where the Revolution, which disbanded in 1986, was synth-heavy, NPG were more guitar and percussion-centric. The new group was anchored by Rosie Gaines, a powerhouse vocalist and songwriter from the Bay Area, and rapper Tony M.

Aesthetically, the holographic album cover — which depicts Prince in close contact with two new faux girlfriends named Diamond and Pearl — reflected the sensuality and excess long associated with the Purple One. 

Fans devoured saucy singles such as the title track, "Gett Off," "Insatiable" and the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1, hit "Cream." The title track was nominated for Best Pop Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal at the 35th GRAMMY Awards; "Gett Off" was nominated for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal the previous year.

Thirty-two years later, on Oct. 27, Paisley Park Enterprises, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Records will release remastered standard, deluxe and "super deluxe" versions of the album in digital and various physical formats on Sony’s Legacy Recordings. The latest of several posthumous album reissues, this new suite of Diamonds and Pearls releases include a variety of fresh amenities.

For example, the super deluxe edition includes 33 unreleased studio recordings, 14 live songs, 15 remastered singles (which include remixes and edits) and three hours of video, including a full live performance of the album at Glam Slam, Prince’s former Minneapolis nightclub. The album wasn’t accompanied by a tour in America, so it’s a show that Stateside fans never got to see.

"Prince collectors are excited about every release, though mileage varies," says Scott Woods, author of Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods. "The gold for collectors is really in unreleased material…. Even if you don't like Diamonds and Pearls, you have to love the dozens of unreleased tracks that come with it.

"I don't know most of the unreleased tracks, so it's about to be Christmas in October for me," Woods adds. 

The unreleased songs provide a gift of insight into some of Prince’s musical interests that he explored in the early '90s, including hard guitar-driven rock, house, hip-hop and New Jack Swing. Yet the original release of Diamonds and Pearls showcases Prince's experimental nature.

"He took some chances — especially on me, to bring me into the fold," admits Tony M, a.k.a. Tony Mosley, the New Power Generation’s rapper who was also a dancer and appeared in Purple Rain. The pop community felt like Prince had ditched them and his fan base didn't want to hear rap, Mosley shared. "So how are we going to bridge this gap? There were plenty of times I felt like I was swinging at both sides." 

Mosley co-wrote and/or appeared on several songs on Diamonds and Pearls, including "Gett Off," and he contributed heavily to several of the previously unreleased songs on the super deluxe edition. Many of the previously unreleased songs contain riffs and iterations of ideas that appear on the original album track listing, so listeners can get a notion of how he refined the known songs along the way.

Since Prince was notoriously guarded about all of the unreleased material in his vaunted Paisley Park vault, he may not have wanted his fans to hear some of the works in progress that are included in the super deluxe edition. But they offer a much-welcomed window into his creative processes that will strengthen a fan’s ardor for the artist.

"[Prince] was so protective and so reclusive on a lot of this stuff," Mosley says. 

"Some of [the tracks], we were like, ‘Man, this is it, you need to drop this now!’ But it would never see the light of day. I’m glad, in the same breath, that some of these things are coming out, because you see a different side to him… it gives the fans an opportunity to see how he progressed and began to put songs together."

While none of the tracks were finished, the foundation was there, Mosley explained. "Once he brought in the musicians to expand upon the original idea, you start to see it flourish and grow and bloom into something totally different."

"I remember being fascinated with the rapper on the album, Tony M," Public Enemy frontman Chuck D wrote in an essay that accompanies the super deluxe edition called "He Taught Everyone You Can Never Make Too Much Music." "I thought he was just dope, thought what they were doing was funkier and more on point than anything that was going on in the rap circles and R&B at that moment, and they were on it.

"Prince definitely used rap as an instrument. He kept the tempos up and strong, and the music was giving it air and space, and I don’t think a lot of rap records were doing that," he continued.

The beyond-prolific Prince didn’t exactly have patience for the long album cycles that were typical from major labels of the era. While he was touring the Diamonds and Pearls album, he was writing songs that would appear on 1992’s Love Symbol.

"By the time [Diamonds and Pearls] came out, we had three more albums in the can and he was ready for the next project," Mosley recalls, "and I just remember listening to the argument over and over and over again. You know, Warner Brothers looks at it from a business perspective — they’re, like, ‘Dude, there’s five more singles on this album, we need to work this.’ And Prince was like, ‘I’m done, I’m ready to drop the next one.’"

Remembered for its nakedly brazen jams (and the accompanying assless outfits) as well as its super sweet ballads, Diamonds and Pearls remains a highly listenable effort among Prince’s vast discography.

"It holds its value," Mosley says of hearing the album today. "We were moving so fast at the time and we were just constantly recording and you didn’t really have time to sit back and reflect on what you had just created because he had moved on. So you had to move at that pace. When I go back and I start to listen to a lot of that stuff, I say, man, we really did some different things, some creative things.

"It was frustrating at times. But, he had his vision, and one thing he always schooled me to do and taught me along the way, he said, ‘Tony, I don’t write for everybody else, I write for me and what I’m feeling," Mosley recalls. "So when you write, don’t write to impress a certain demographic or community, write what comes from you.’" 

Elton John's 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road' Turns 50: A Track-By-Track Breakdown

Sly Stone performing 1973 in color
Sly Stone in 1973

Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

list

9 Things We Learned From Sly Stone's New Memoir

The recently released 'Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)' reflects on Sly Stone's career and personal history with a focus on the late '60s through the 1980s.

GRAMMYs/Oct 18, 2023 - 07:51 pm

Nearly 60 years into his career, Sly Stone remains thankful.

His recently released memoir, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), offers an earnest look into the life and music of the funk and soul giant.

"He's at the top of the pantheon for a certain part of rock ‘n’ roll and funk and soul, and should stay there," says Ben Greenman, who co-authored the memoir.

The book – which is the inaugural release on Questlove’s publishing imprint, AUWA Books – pulls its title from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 single of the same name.

"When I'm co-writing with somebody, they start to define the rhythm," says Greenman, who’s also co-written memoirs from Questlove, Brian Wilson, and George Clinton. "Sometimes I'll pitch a certain structure. Other times in the course of talking, they start to develop their own sense and rhythm of things and then you have to reflect that."

Thank You comes over 40 years since Stone released his final album, Ain’t But the One Way, and reflects on the musician’s career, along with surprising, little-known moments. To Greenman, Stone’s tales were reflective of his headspace in the late-1960s and throughout the ‘80s, when  the artist was often preoccupied with a chaotic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

Towards the midpoint of the book, Stone hilariously shared that he once loaned a Cadillac to  Etta James, although the police later discovered that the vehicle was stolen. 

"The assumption that I had is ‘Oh my God, you gave her this car and good faith and then it turned out it was stolen. How embarrassing, Greenman explains. "But the vibe I got was he probably knew, he just thought that the fake papers on it would hold. That story was so strange and weird and out of nowhere, but sort of representative of what it must have been [like] to be him at that time."

Despite certain points of misfortunes in Stone’s journey, including decades-long drug abuse, the Sly and the Family Stone frontman carried on as an prestigious musical act. To honor Stone’s legacy and Thank You, here are nine takeaways from the book. 

Stone Started Out In A Family Group

Stone, born Sylvester Stewart, began in music as part of 1950s family gospel group the Stewart Four. The second of five children, the Pentacostal family  got their start in church upon relocating from Denton, Texas to Vallejo, California. The siblings all learned an recited material by gospel pioneers Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, Brother Joe May and the Swan Silvertones.

Stone’s parents, K.C. and Alpha, were multi-instrumentalists who noticed their children’s musical forte, and the Stewart Four signed a hyperlocal single deal with the Church of God in Christ, the Northern California Sunday School Dept. Released in 1956, Stone’s first-ever record "On The Battlefield / Walking In Jesus Name" was limited to roughly 100 copies.

Stone Influenced Herbie Hancock And Miles Davis

Sly and the Family Stone debuted in 1967 with A Whole New Thing, and the collective reinvented funk and progressive soul with follow-ups Dance to the Music, Life, Stand!, and their 1971 landmark There's a Riot Goin' On. Their 1973 album Fresh came at an auspicious time for Sly devotees.

Jazz greats Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock took notice of Stone's musicianship. The artist was a direct influence for Hancock’s seminal 1973 album Head Hunters, which includes a punchy jazz fusion cut named after Stone.

Stone recalls that in 1973, Columbia Records dropped multiple jazz acts, including  Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, in favor of rock and funk artists. Miles Davis was fascinated by the introductory Fresh track "In Time"; according to Stone, Davis was rumored to have replayed the song for his band to "work out the rhythms of it."

The Black Panther Party Took Offense To The Family Stone 

Sly and the Family Stone almost ended before the group went mainstream. In the ‘60s, the Bay Area-based group were neighbors to the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party. 

The organization protested the band’s for leaning into "what White America wanted," per Stone. The Panthers disdained the presence of white members Jerry Martini (saxophonist) and Greg Errico (drummer), pressuring Stone to get rid of the musicians. 

Early BPP leader Eldridge Cleaver also wanted Stone to make a six-figure donation to the cause, which Stone refused. Stone condemned the Panthers’ defiance of laws  and considered his group to be politically neutral.

Bob Marley And The Wailers Were Removed From The Family Stone’s 1973 Tour

In October 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers began their first U.S. tour as a supporting act for Sly and the Family Stone. The 17-date tour ended after four shows for the reggae band, who had just released their seminal Catch A Fire. 

From Stone’s perspective, the Wailers weren’t a "good match" for American crowds at the time, and Bunny Wailer was no longer performing with the group. Stone dismissed allegations that his group felt they were upstaged.

"They played slow. They had accents," Stone wrote about the Wailers, adding, "There was no offense on our part but we shipped them off."

"How was Bob a threat to Sly Stone?" Joe Higgs, in the 2017 Marley biography So Much Things to Say. People said they can’t hear us: our accent, they couldn’t understand; our rhythm, too slow. We weren’t happening. And our outfits were inappropriate. We were rebels."

Stone And Kathy Silva Had 20,000 Guests At Their Madison Square Garden Wedding

Stone’s marriage to actress-model Kathy Silva was arguably the first concert-turned-wedding. The couple wed on June 5, 1974 at Madison Square Garden. Plans were made in a rush, and guests who received invitations were asked to RSVP by May 31.

An audience of almost 20,000 (some who paid as little as $8.50) attended the wedding ceremony, which doubled as Sly and the Family Stone’s concert. The Temptations co-founder Eddie Kendricks performed first before Stone’s mother and niece, Lisa, gave religious acknowledgements. 

Later, on the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf Astoria, champagne flowed and guests dug into a cake shaped like a vinyl record. A reception featured soul food and Japanese cuisine, honoring their Black and Hawaiian heritage.

The day after the special occasion, Stone discovered that wedding officiant Bishop B.R. Stewart wasn't registered in New York, but paperwork was hurried to the city clerk to make the marriage legally official.

Stone And Prince Almost Collaborated

Although Sly and the Family Stone disbanded in 1983, Stone had his eyes on up-and-coming artists. Stone was told that a young Prince was a "new version" of himself and peers Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix. Stone’s then-girlfriend (and now-manager) Arlene Hirschkowitz encouraged  the artists to collaborate following a late-’80s meeting at L.A.’s Roxbury Club. 

"I wasn't always on Prince, but that day I was," Stone wrote. "I told [Hirschkowitz] that I was excited about the idea and I meant it. But he never called."

Stone And George Clinton Were Close Friends 

In the mid-’70s Sly and the Family Stone was a supporting act on the collective’s P-Funk Earth Tour. After the Family Stone disbanded in the ‘80s, Sly Stone reconnected with fellow funkateer George Clinton. 

Clinton owned a farm in Michigan, where he and Stone dabbled in recreational drugs in their downtime. The two closely worked together, with Stone co-writing "Catch a Keeper" for Clinton’s all-female group the Brides of Funkenstein, composed of four women who were previously Stone’s background vocalists. The song was later released by the P-Funk All-Stars, and the Funkenstein was shelved, but Stone also had a writing credit on 1981 Funkadelic album The Electric Spanking of War Babies ("Funk Gets Stronger").

As Stone’s collaboration with P-Funk continued, he noticed that bassist and vocalist Bootsy Collins replicated his style. "Sometimes when I was out walking people would call to me, ‘Bootsy! Bootsy!’ I didn’t mind it so much," Stone wrote.

Michael Jackson Offered To Return Sly Stone’s Catalog

Stone was friendly with the Jackson family, mainly vocalist and former Jackson 5 member, Jermaine, but it was Michael Jackson who upheld Stone’s music. In 1983, Jackson acquired the international rights to Sly and the Family Stone’s catalog. The acquisition was Jackson’s first under his publishing company, MIJAC Music, as Stone didn’t assume that the group’s old songs were of monetary value.

Shortly before his death, Jackson offered to return Stone’s catalog under an agreement that he would go to substance abuse rehab. Stone disagreed with Jackson’s terms, even being a no-show to a meeting that the King of Pop scheduled. Stone later tried to make amends by sending  Jackson a letter, though Jackson never received it. Someone sold the letter as memorabilia. 

In 2019, Stone closed a deal with MIJAC, allowing Stone to keep minority interest in the catalog and resume collecting on his music.

Sly Stone Was Honored With A Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award

The music of Sly and the Family Stone was featured in a tribute performance at the 2006 GRAMMYs. The Nile Rodgers-curated ceremony consisted of tribute performances from Joss Stone, John Legend, and Van Hunt ("Family Affair"), Maroon 5 ("Everyday People"), will.i.am ("Dance to the Music"), with Steven Tyler and Stone ending with "I Wanna Take You Higher." The live show was Stone’s first since 1987.  

In 2017, Sly Stone was honored with the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement special merit award.

10 Music Books To Dig Into This Summer: A Kate Bush Bio, A First-Hand Account Of The Grunge Scene & Feminist Punk Histories