At 59, Morris Day is, amazingly, the same insouciant cane-twirler the world met in Purple Rain. “Morris Day, calling in,” he announces with a cocky purr on the phone from his home in Boca Raton, Florida.
Last year, the legendary funk-R&B singer and leader of the Time (a group Prince organized and, ultimately, controlled) recorded his fifth solo album at Doggy Style Records – a special request by Snoop Dogg himself, who executive-produced. It was part of a thrilling period for Day. In 2015, his music was introduced to a new generation of fans via Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ clearly Time-informed Number One hit “Uptown Funk,” as well as Hozier and Este Haim’s cover of the Time’s “Jungle Love” at Coachella.
But everything changed one day last April. Day got a call that someone at Paisley Park had died – and eventually confirmed it was Prince. “It was a bad day,” he says, nearly a year later and still shaken. In February, Morris Day released a poignant new ballad called “Over That Rainbow.” The video, premiering here on the one-year anniversary of Prince’s death, shows Day like we’ve never seen him: understated, vulnerable and heartbroken.
Currently on a tour that will last through the summer, Day spoke to Rolling Stone about his last conversation with Prince, his bittersweet Grammys performance with Mars and the pranks he used to play with Prince – namely, lying to the press (including in a Rolling Stone cover story) about a made-up engineer known as Jamie Starr.
Where did the “Somebody get me a mirror!” bit in your stage show come from?
Well, that was all just a part of being cool.
Do you remember the first time you did that, though?
Absolutely. We were at rehearsal getting ready to go on tour. Jerome [Benton] wasn’t in the band yet. He actually used to help us with luggage and kind of do whatever we needed, like a gofer. He’d go to the store, go get us some burgers. So we were rehearsing the song at this little dingy rehearsal hall and when I got to the part in the show where I said, “Somebody bring me a mirror,” he ran in the bathroom and grabbed a big mirror off the wall and ran up to me with it [laughs]. I was only expecting a small one. But we’ve been doing it with the big mirror ever since.
That’s amazing. You even did it when you played Kimmel with Haim in 2015.
That was an awesome performance. The girls just fell right in. We didn’t even have to rehearse. We talked and it was like, “Y’all know how to do this dance?” and they were like, “Yeah, we could do it.”
So, can Snoop Dogg do the Bird?
Oh, yeah. Snoop is always dancing. Snoop is a funny guy. Before I met him we’d be on conference calls, strategizing about doing something in the future. He was always like, “I consider myself the eighth member of the Time.”
Did Snoop have a major influence on the new Time album?
Well, he does his thing on some tracks. When we decided to go into the [Doggy Style Records] studio, he was like, “Give me a little time and I promise you it will be a classic.” We were a couple months into the project when Prince passed away. So, we’d been working already and that’s when [“Over That Rainbow”] came. It took me a while to decide if I wanted to put my emotions on the line in a song like that.
I was in denial like a lot of people probably were. I had just been at Paisley Park like two months prior [because] Prince wanted us to come a party with him. … When I found out it was really him [that died] it didn’t really hit me. It took a while to sink in.
Your Bruno Mars collaboration at the Grammys was considered the best Prince tribute. What was that like for you?
It was double-edged for sure. It was a great opportunity. But I hated the reason that I was there. Now, when I perform onstage it’s like a presence thing. I feel like [Prince] is watching over. We always had such close creative ties – I’d wonder what he would think of my stuff and he’d probably wonder what I thought of what he was writing.
Did Prince seem any different to you before he died?
Well, at the time, I thought nothing of it. But in retrospect, I thought maybe something wasn’t right. I thought, he looked thin, even though he always looks fragile. After he passed away, I just wondered if he knew something that he wasn’t telling me. I just felt like he knew. Like he knew that something wasn’t right. Maybe he said it in just being adamant about seeing us again. Maybe that was a sign in itself.
It’s long been common knowledge that the cowriter on the first Time album – the fictitious engineer named Jamie Starr – was really Prince. But you’ve both insisted he was real to journalists. To Rolling Stone, in fact, you said, “Of course he’s real.”
I lie [laughs].
How long did you both keep that going?
[Laughs] Forever. It just kind of kept a bit of intrigue on the behind-the-scenes side of things. Only in recent years did we start saying that basically [Prince] and I did the whole damn album. The Time wasn’t even together as a band at the time. We put the band together after we got the deal with Warner Brothers.
When The Time came out, you guys were the hottest touring band. Was it true that Prince felt intimidated by you?
We’re still the hottest band out there [laughs]. Nobody does what we do. Nobody does the steps, the real music. It turned into a bit of a rivalry for real because sometimes he would lay into us pretty good, and then sometimes, we’d kick his ass musically. And people were seeing it. So it got to the point where in certain markets like L.A. or New York, he wouldn’t let us [perform] and when we were touring together, we’d get the night off occasionally, because he didn’t want that kind of pressure.
In an old Letterman interview, you said you were done working with Prince after Purple Rain. Do you feel Prince is responsible for damaging the Time’s legacy, by not granting you rights to the name?
That was frustrating at times, but in a way, it went the way it was supposed to go. In my opinion, he kind of saved us from ourselves. When we did the Original 7ven project, I think it would have looked like more of a fiasco if we had used the name the Time and it really got the attention it would have gotten then. Because I would’ve used the name. But in hindsight, it was the right decision.
But he still let you perform as the Time, just not record as the Time.
Well, you know what, for the longest [time] I thought that was very gracious of him. But then I found out from a legal standpoint he couldn’t stop me from using the name [laughs]. I was like, “I’ll be damned.”
You know, the last night that I saw Prince he said, “I want to manage [the Time]. … I want to take you guys to Europe. … I want to put it together for you.”
Wow. Was that completely out of the blue? Did he say why?
He just said that he wanted to manage us going overseas, because that’s something we got prevented from doing – which was probably his doing – back in the day. He didn’t want us to go over when the record was hot, when we should’ve gone over there. And we never did. I was just like, “Hey, you know the number. When you want to put it together, we’re ready to go.” And after he passed, guess what? Europe starts calling. The things that he said he wanted to do started to happen. How about that?
There’s been a lot of talk about what music will come out of his vaults. It there anything you know exists that you’re excited people might get to hear?
I know I’ve got stuff in the vault, but I don’t really remember the titles. It’ll be interesting for people to hear that ’cause I know Prince wouldn’t have released it [laughs]. The only time we pulled from the vault was specifically for the Graffiti Bridge project, songs like “Jerk Out.” And that was more Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam asking. It wasn’t on my mind what was in the vault [laughs].
Your relationship with Prince always appeared tense but close. Would you say you were one of the few people who collaborated with him as an equal?
I always kept it real [with him] because we’d known each other since we were kids. I wasn’t in the habit of biting my tongue around him. And he ended up with a bunch of yes people around him. And I think eventually, that drove the divider between us. At times, he was the classic example of a workaholic. And I’m the polar opposite. Whereas, when I reached my limit, I’d be like, “Damn, I need to go lay down,” so I’d just sleep on the couch or I’d go back to whatever hotel, wherever we’re staying, and he’d show up hours later when the sun was up, completely finished with what we were working on.
What’s the ultimate funk song you guys wrote together?
One of my favorites is “Ice Cream Castles.” Back then, of course, we had women on the brain 24/7 – the different flavors – and that’s kind of how that happened. And at that time, there were groups like the Fixx, the Cure doing those haunting, melodic songs and we wanted to do one of our own. And by the end of the song, it kind of turns a corner from being a pop song and starts to get funky. I like that part because back in the day, it was all about the uptempo – the funkier the better. I lived for being in the studio, putting together those grooves.
And you were cool with the Joni Mitchell lyric as the title?
I wasn’t as infatuated with her [as Prince] was. As matter of fact, I didn’t really get it [laughs]. No disrespect to her. I’d try and listen, and I’d be like, “Dude, I don’t get it.” It just wasn’t my thing.
Prince, David Bowie, Andre 3000 and more are prepping exclusive releases for Record Store Day 2017.