The Prince Piano At NAMM
Celebrating a special instrument Yamaha made for the legendary artist.
In early 2016, a call came in to Yamaha Entertainment Group in Nashville with an extraordinary request: “Prince wants you to make him a purple piano.” So began a whirlwind journey that ended up with Yamaha delivering a one-of-a-kind grand piano to Paisley Park in Minnesota.
In celebration of the artist known as Prince, this is the story of that project and how a piano transcended its role as a musical instrument.
Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) was well known throughout his lifetime for his singing, songwriting, guitar playing, recordings and live performances, but he was also a phenomenal keyboardist; in fact, piano was his first instrument. Prince’s father was a professional jazz pianist, and a great musical influence on Prince early in life.
Early in his career, Prince was not often seen playing a piano or keyboard in concert, but he often played them on his demo recordings. In 1983, he recorded a free-form performance at the piano, likely just a rehearsal capture of song ideas to be worked on more fully later on. This was eventually released in 2018, entitled Piano & A Microphone 1983. The title came from a limited series of concert performances Prince undertook in early 2016 to flesh out a concept he had for a solo tour that would feature him performing alone at the piano. These performances would also include him reminiscing about his life, his music, and his thoughts on a wide range of subjects.
It was during the early prep for what was planned to be a much larger-scale tour that Prince and his friend/confidante/sometime-drummer Kirk Johnson discussed the idea of using a custom-colored purple piano, and Johnson reached out to Yamaha to make it a reality. “We wanted a combination of a great acoustic piano that had an awesome look and had great sounds that could be manipulated,” recalls Johnson.
In previous live shows, Prince had often used one of the onboard faders of his Yamaha Motif synthesizer to fade up strings behind the grand piano sound he was playing. “He was doing that for sustain,” explains Scottie Baldwin, who served as Prince’s Front of House engineer during tour dates. “He was using it as a means of sustaining a chord so he could change keys and things like that. Sometimes he would do it during a song, but often he would use it at the end of a song, knowing that a grand piano only sustains for so long, but a string patch would carry on until he made his next move and decided what song he was going to play next.”
The Project Is Defined
Once Yamaha vetted that the inquiry was genuine, Chris Gero, one of the company’s directors and Chief Artist Relations Executive, got involved. As he relates, “Our relationship with Prince goes back to the mid-’90s — he often contacted us to try out and buy products, ranging from digital mixers to synths, and he had bought six grand pianos for his studio. But he didn’t believe in endorsements, and so we helped him out but never did any type of promotion with him. I had met him a few times at Grammy® and other industry events, and I would say our relationship was friendly, but not close.”
But now that was changing, and Prince wanted Yamaha to make a custom-colored purple version of the C7X SH SILENT Piano™, which he had been using for the tour dates and at his studio.
Prince was very specific about the shade of purple he wanted. “He and I walked around the Paisley Park building and picked the couch color he liked best,” says Johnson, “and that’s the swatch he sent to Yamaha.”
Prince had seen some documentary films that Gero had created over the years and wanted him to produce the concert opener film sequence to play before his live shows. In essence, Prince was asking Yamaha to partner with him both technically and creatively to realize his vision for the planned full tour. This massive collaborative effort led to Prince greenlighting the first endorsement deal of his career. Per Prince’s request, papers were drawn up and sent over for sign-off on this historical partnership with Yamaha.
Yamaha Goes Into Action
Gero realized that exactly matching a custom color and painting the piano in a way that would hold up under the rigors of touring was a tall order, but he had the perfect partner for the job: Justin Elliott. In addition to being a master piano technician, Elliott and his wife have forged a unique career cosmetically modifying pianos to match décor, special needs and events. Needing to find a type of paint that would stand up to the wear and tear of touring and look good under stage lights, Elliott decided to use enamel car paint. After many experiments and communication back and forth with Prince directly, they finally got the color to his satisfaction. (“He loved it!” says Johnson.) The final color ended up being adopted by Pantone as a new addition to their portfolio, entitled Love Symbol #2.
With the color selected and the piano painted, it was shipped from Elliott’s studio in Florida up to Nashville so Gero and his team could shoot the first part of the film. Chris recalls: “Prince and I came up with the concept of showing the piano being prepared and painted, and he wanted it to be sexy, and to ‘represent me.’ So we put together the concept, and had only a day and a half to shoot it. But I think the film came out well, and Prince was very happy with it. The second part of the concept was to be filmed with him when the piano was delivered to his studio.”
Another aspect of the project had to do with the sound engine that was built into the piano. Each Yamaha SILENT Piano has a mechanism built in to stop the hammers from hitting the strings and instead trigger an internal sound engine via MIDI technology, for private practice or an expanded tone palette. As he had done with his Motif synthesizer, Prince wanted to be able to play piano layered with strings to provide a fuller, more sustaining sound for certain songs, but he had a very specific string sound he wanted. In a very short period of time, Yamaha sound designers in Japan were able to create this custom sound to load into the piano before it was shipped. “In order to get the effect of fading strings in, he’d manually switch between the Grand Piano sound and the Grand Piano / Strings patch,” explains Baldwin.
The last request was to put the symbol that Prince had taken to using to represent himself on the piano. After some discussion, everyone agreed to place the graphic on the fallboard of the piano, right above the keys, as shown in the tweet below.
Done and Delivered
When the piano arrived at Paisley Park, Prince took to it right away, often playing it for hours on end. Here was his tweet:
BOOM (FROM LOTUSFLOWER) ON THIS NEWLY ARRIVED PURPLE PRESENT FROM YAMAHA…. “RESOUNDING!” pic.twitter.com/cXwRPi1wzG
— Prince (@prnlegacy) April 12, 2016
After about a week with the piano, Prince decided to hold an event to showcase the new instrument. Chris Gero remembers it well. “On April 16, 2016, Prince invited a small crowd to a music party at Paisley Park,” he says. “The piano was covered with a purple cloth. Then he dramatically pulled the cloth off the purple piano. He played chopsticks first, then a few minutes of classical music without singing. He finished with the piano and did not play again publicly.”
The Prince Piano Today
Since that time, the piano has remained in Studio B at the Paisley Park complex in Chanhassen, Minnesota, near Minneapolis. This massive facility served as Prince’s creative playground for over 30 years, and now, as per Prince’s original vision, it has been opened to the public as a museum, a recording facility and an event venue. Makayla Elder, Museum Collection Manager, explains: “Studio B is a spot on the tour that is only for ticketed VIP and Ultimate Experience guests, so it’s an upper level part of the tour. While it’s blocked off by purple ropes, it’s the only area where visitors get that close-up and personal with an instrument. It’s also the only place they get their picture taken, and the piano is right behind them, with the now-iconic logo that Prince used clearly visible in the shot.”
And now, for the first time since it was delivered to Prince, this one-of-a-kind instrument will be moved from Paisley Park and brought to Winter NAMM 2024 to be displayed in the Yamaha booth. “2024 is the 40th anniversary of Purple Rain,” states Charles F. Spicer Jr., a managing member of Prince Legacy LLC and longtime friend of Prince’s. “This event will be the stepping stone to a year’s worth of celebration of Prince’s life, and the phenomena we know as Purple Rain, both the album and the film. It is only fitting that we recognize the partnership between Yamaha and Prince that created this instrument, so starting at NAMM we plan to turn the world purple again.”
Coming to NAMM? Be sure to visit the Prince piano at the Yamaha exhibit on the third floor of the Anaheim Convention Center.
Can’t make the show in person? Check out the Yamaha NAMM Page for updates on Artist performances and information about new product releases.