Shelby Johnson was shopping at a Walmart when she got the phone call that changed her life.
“I picked up and it was Prince’s team,” she remembers. “They asked me to learn 12 or 13 songs and come out to Las Vegas.”
Johnson, a vocalist who performs as Shelby J., accepted the offer to perform with Prince Rogers Nelson, the musical genius and juggernaut who defined pop culture and music for at least a generation. Johnson subsequently sang with Prince’s New Power Generation for 10 years. It was during this time that she found encouragement and inspiration from Prince to launch her solo career, she says.
On June 7, Johnson joins a host of Prince’s former band members at the Neighborhood Theatre for Purple Note 4: Celebrating the Life of Prince through Jazz.
It will feel like a family reunion, Johnson enthuses. The Greensboro native, who lived in Charlotte from 2009 through 2014, will be joined onstage by Charlotte’s X-Men, a group of songwriters and producers turned live band comprised of Evan Brice, CJ Mercer, Chris Kee, CJ Thompson and Ahji Love. Fellow North Carolinians Joey Rayfield and Lynn Grissett, both former members of Prince’s tight-as-funk brass section New Power Generation Hornz, will also be playing trombone and trumpet, respectively.
Saxophonist and Charlotte resident Adrian Crutchfield, another NPG Hornz alumnus, was originally scheduled to play the show, but due to a misunderstanding will not be in the lineup. Crutchfield teaches a course on Prince at Catawba College in Salisbury, where he encourages students to be as fearless and innovative as his former boss.
Crutchfield also remembers when he was recruited by the iconic artist. In 2011, Crutchfield had assembled a horn section for fellow Charlottean and Grammy-winning R&B artist Anthony Hamilton. When Hamilton opened for Prince’s Charlotte show that year, the paisley impresario was impressed with the horn section. A few months later Crutchfield got a call from Paisley Park, Prince’s estate and production complex in Chanhassen, Minnesota. The saxophonist was tasked with building a horn section for Prince protégé Andy Allo.
“I told my guys, ‘If we have one shot of working with Prince, we automatically become immortals. People will be listening to us for the next 200 years,’” Crutchfield recalls.
Eventually Crutchfield’s work on Prince’s project became a gig backing the man himself as part of NPG Hornz from 2011 to 2015, then as a solo sax man until Prince’s untimely death on April 21, 2016.
In retrospect, Crutchfield’s rendezvous with Prince seems fated. When the future horn man was just 4 years old, his parents took him to a concert by Kenneth Bruce Gorelick, better known as Kenny G. Gorelick noticed the young fan in the audience, invited him onstage and gifted Crutchfield with a small electronic saxophone, sparking the young Crutchfield’s love for music, he says. With a laugh, he remembers getting into fights at Northwest School of the Arts because his classmates were talking trash about the lambasted Kenny G.
Johnson’s transformative phone call and dream come true was also many years in the making, she recalls. As a child she sang at St. James Baptist Church in Greensboro, where her mother Mamie Johnson was choir director. Johnson immediately knew she wanted to make a living with music.
As Johnson grew up, she held down a myriad of day jobs while singing nights in clubs, restaurants and bars. In 2000 she joined D’Angelo’s band, the Soultronics, where she performed alongside her friend Anthony Hamilton. Later, singing in Hamilton’s touring band, she befriended Crutchfield, the ensemble’s saxophonist.
To this day Crutchfield fondly calls Johnson his sister. Johnson subsequently toured and performed with jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Mary J. Blige, Santana and bassist Larry Graham.
It was Graham who pulled Johnson into Prince’s dazzling orbit. Johnson was taking a break from touring with Anthony Hamilton’s band when the Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station bassist asked her to fill in on vocals for a one-off show.The band rehearsed at Paisley Park, then moved to 3121, Prince’s Las Vegas nightclub in the Rio Hotel for the gig.
During the sound check, as Johnson and Graham ran through a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” a voice from behind the sound console kept asking Johnson to sing the song again and again.
“I thought, ‘The sound guy really wants to get it right,’” Johnson says. “Then, all of the sudden, Prince came walking out from behind the [console].”
Prince told Johnson she was a good singer, nothing more, before seemingly floating away, Johnson remembers. The next night during the show, Johnson was singing when the crowd went wild. She thought the audience was really feeling her until she realized that the frenzy was caused by Prince who was behind her approaching the mic. It was the first time she sang with her soon-to-be boss, mentor and friend.
“There was synergy happening on that microphone,” Johnson says. “Talking about it now, I can feel it again.”
After the gig, Johnson flew home, where she got the transformative Walmart call. She flew back to Las Vegas where she performed for Prince’s 2006 New Year’s Eve show. After the gig, Prince nonchalantly told Johnson that their very next show would be at the Super Bowl.
The band flew to Miami and rehearsed on the game field for a full week before the gig, Johnson says.
“Every day was sunny and beautiful,” she continues, “then we woke up the morning of the Super Bowl and it was like a monsoon.”
But the torrential downpour didn’t dampen Prince’s spirits. Johnson recalls a quick meeting with the boss where he told the band to not change a thing and do everything just like they rehearsed.
“I [was] spinning in five-inch stiletto thigh-high white boots, running from one end of the stage to the other,” Johnson says.
Prince played three different electric guitars, oblivious to the rain, as the band sloshed through the leads, wires and pyrotechnics.
“In the end it was like God’s perfect special effect,” Johnson says. “We were playing ‘Purple Rain’ in the rain.”
Prince’s halftime show for Super Bowl LVI is one of the institution’s few legendary performances and a testament to Prince’s dedication and disciple, Johnson maintains. She remembers rehearsing for 13 hours, so when the time came to go onstage, everybody knew the show backward and forward. Players could rely on muscle memory and be the energy in the moment, she says.
“Prince would always push you to a higher bar,” she continues. “He was going to elevate you. You were going to learn more about your strengths and [how to] work on your weaknesses.”
In the course of his five years with Prince, Crutchfield worked on the artist’s last five albums, Plectrumelectrum, Art Official Age, HITnRUN: Phase One, HITnRUN: Phase Two and the unreleased Black is the New Black. The last of these, which may never see a commercial release, is a holy grail for Prince aficionados. Rumors persist that it is Prince’s jazz album, but Crutchfield says it’s much more than that.
“At that point in Prince’s life, he was in a different place,” Crutchfield maintains. “He wanted to innovate and experiment without having to explain it to anybody.”
The album draws on all the music Prince enjoyed, an amalgam and homage to jazz, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and more. In his final years, Prince was openly co-creating and crediting his collaborators, Crutchfield continues. Unlike earlier albums, which identify each song as “performed and recorded by Prince,” later albums like the Grammy-nominated HITnRUN: Phase Two credits players like Crutchfield for performing and arranging.
In the midst of the open and collaborative sessions for Black is the New Black, Prince enquired about the music Crutchfield was creating on his own. Crutchfield had released his solo debut Private Party fresh out of college in 2009, but had not released an album since.
Although he never stopped writing songs, Crutchfield was disillusioned by restrictive radio playlists and the music industry’s efforts to pigeonhole him. He had allowed his solo efforts to slide while he concentrated on being a sideman.
So Crutchfield gave Prince the answer he though this boss wanted to hear.
“I told him that I liked being a sideman,” Crutchfield says. Referencing James Brown’s fabled North Carolina sax player, Crutchfield added that all he wanted was to be the Maceo Parker to Prince’s James Brown.
Crutchfield thought his answer would flatter his boss, but Prince was angry.
“He looked at me sternly and said something I’ll never forget,” Crutchfield continues. “He said, ‘James is dead. What’s Maceo doing now?’”
The message was clear. Prince recognized a fellow artist in Crutchfield, one who needed to be making and releasing his own music.
“He said sometimes you have to take a leap for yourself,” Crutchfield remembers. It was the last time Crutchfield and Prince spoke face-to-face.
By the end of the following month, Prince was dead, but Crutchfield took his mentor’s advice to heart. In 2017, he released his second album, entitled Leap in honor of his former boss and the advice he had given.
Crutchfield had also confided to Prince that he felt his solo music would never chart. It was too aggressive for smooth jazz, but too jazzy for urban playlists. Prince replied that anything was possible. On May 13, 2017, the title track from Leap hit 29 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz Chart.
Like Crutchfield, Johnson had also followed a solo career before joining Prince’s court. She had performed with her own band, Black Gypsy, prior to joining the New Power Generation. When it came time to return to her solo career, Johnson also found her boss extremely supportive.
“He knew what my dreams were, and he was going to help me to get to that dream through his teaching and his support,” she says.
Released on December 12, 2012, Johnson’s first single “North Carolina” featured her vocals along with Anthony Hamilton’s, but all the instruments were played by Prince. The single was meant to be a teaser for Johnson’s forthcoming album, but life took the exuberant singer in a different direction.
Her marriage to Levern Allen III ended in divorce in 2013 and Johnson moved from Charlotte to Greensboro. As her debut album, Ten, named after the number of years she sang with Prince, neared completion, she got a phone call far more somber than the call that launched her stint with the NPG. Johnson answered and learned that Prince had died at his Paisley Park estate at the age of 57.
Ten came out a year after Prince’s death, but Johnson finds solace in the fact that her former boss heard about 80% of the album before he passed away. He took great pleasure in monitoring the project, she remembers.
“He would say, ‘It’s fine to be singing “1999,” but what about your music, Shelby?’” she recalls.
Johnson was planning a series of tours to promote and sing the songs from Ten, but another obstacle arose when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. With the same vigor and energy that defines her career, Johnson concentrated on her recovery. In fact, she composed her latest single “God is Here” while undergoing radiation treatments.“[Lying] in the radiation machine I heard God’s voice saying, ‘I am here. I will never forsake you,’” Johnson remembers.
A melody popped into her head, so she jumped out of the machine and told the nurse she would be right back. Still in her robe, Johnson ran down the hall to her locker so she could grab her phone and sing the new song into it before she forgot the lyrics and melody.
Now on the other side of surgery and treatment, Johnson is ready to tour and sing “God is Here,” which dropped this past Christmas, as well as her other material. On some dates, she will be accompanied on saxophone by her friend Crutchfield, but first she’s going to meet up with other old friends and band mates at the Neighborhood to celebrate the life of their inspiration and mentor.
Purple Note 4 will be much more than a jazz show, Johnson enthuses.
“It’s an all-Prince fantastical, musical catalog by some of the great musicians that have played with him and been inspired by him,” she promises. “It is going to be one of the most epic nights of music in Charlotte. It’s going to make that whole town vibrate.”