Can’t be beat: Columbia native recounts years drumming for Prince

One thing legendary performing artist Prince was a proponent of was live music. With backing bands like The Revolution and The New Power Generation, live instrumentation was a hallmark of Prince’s style and the development of the “Minneapolis sound.”

John Blackwell, drummer for Prince, developed his passion for music at W.J. Keenan High School. (Photo by Kelly Petty)

John Blackwell, drummer for Prince, developed his passion for music at W.J. Keenan High School. (Photos by Kelly Petty)

The musician, who died April 21 at his Paisley Park compound in Chanhassan, Minn., called one Columbia native one of the “funkiest drummers.”

Meet John Blackwell.

The W.J. Keenan High School graduate returned to his hometown last week to pay homage to his musical friend and to reconnect with his former band director, Willie E. Lyles, known for building the “School of Funk” at the high school.

Blackwell picked up a set of drums at the age of 3. His father, John Blackwell, Sr., had a well-established career as a drummer playing for such artists as Mary Wells, The Drifters and The Spinners.

At Keenan High in the 1980s, Blackwell sat in on class sessions with Lyles, who played trombone with Blackwell’s father, and was known as a challenging instructor.

“There were many days when he kicked me in the butt,” Blackwell said. “I might have been mad then, but later on I realized a lot of the things he was telling me and warning me came to pass.”

Initially, Lyles didn’t know if Blackwell would succeed. But while tuning an instrument on day, the teacher discovered that Blackwell had perfect pitch. After that he also saw that his gifted student was motivated to pursue a career in music.

Blackwell speaks to band students at Keenan High School. (Photo by Kelly Petty)

Blackwell speaks to band students at Keenan High School.

“With a lot of the students, especially him, there comes a time when a little light comes on,” Lyles said. “Most guys that are successful, you jump in and do it.”

Lyles, who was Keenan High’s band director for 40 years before retiring in 2010, always told his band students that music could be found anywhere, in school, at work — anywhere. To him, music keeps the rhythm of life going.

“Music is a part of everything that we do.  It’s a part of life,” Lyles said. “So goes life. So goes music.”

Blackwell joined Keenan High’s jazz and marching bands and began picking up jazz club gigs at the age of 13. At 17, he began his professional career playing behind jazz singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine.

In 1992, Blackwell continued his education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a school that has graduated many notable musicians, including Quincy Jones, Chick Corea, George Benson and Wynton Marsalis.

“This is where I wanted to go because all my heroes went to that school,” he said. “Getting into Berklee and attending was the preparation for the real world in music.”

Just out of Berklee in 1995, Blackwell hooked up with funk band Cameo and played with them for three years. He then headed to Los Angeles in 1998 and performed with R&B singer Patti LaBelle, appearing on her 1998 album “Live! One Night Only, which scored a Grammy Award for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.

Prince saw Blackwell performing at a concert with LaBelle in 1999 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis and approached the drummer after the show.

“I was in shock,” Blackwell recalled.

“He didn’t say, ‘Hi, I’m Prince.’ He came up to me and said, ‘My God, you’re unbelievable,'” Blackwell said, mimicking Prince’s deep voice.

Blackwell, right, talks about studying under former Keenan High School Marching Band Director Willie E. Lyles (left). (Photo by Kelly Petty)

Blackwell, right, talks about studying under former Keenan High School Marching Band Director Willie E. Lyles.

That meeting led to Blackwell replacing drummer Kirk Johnson in Prince’s band, The New Power Generation, in September 2000.

Blackwell said that Prince, who had just joined the Jehovah’s Witness religion, told him that he was a different kind of person in the 1980s and that he was much harder to work with at that time.

“He did tone down a little bit,” Blackwell said. “He still talked about what he wanted to talk about, but in a clean manner.”

Blackwell played with Prince for 12 years, performing on two of his albums, “Live at the Aladdin Las Vegas” and “N.E.W.S.” He also performed with Prince on his “Musicology Live 2004ever” tour.

Blackwell remembers Prince’s mastery in the studio during one-on-one sessions. But, he said, Prince reminded him of his old high school band director. Like Lyles, Prince gave him personal and professional advice and supported him when his father, daughter and mother died.

“Respect the music,” Blackwell recalled Prince telling him. “It’s cool to have  a computer and sequence, but there’s nothing that takes the place of a live musician.”

“I miss him dearly already,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell played with guitarist Terence Young and his local band Finesse last Thursday during the Five After Five concert. (Photo by Kelly Petty)

Blackwell plays with guitarist Terence Young and his local band Finesse during last Thursday’s “Five After Five” concert.

Blackwell also has performed with the funk group Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, Justin Timberlake and rapper P. Diddy. He has traveled as far as Tokyo and Beijing to play with international stars. His musical styles range from R&B, and funk to jazz, fusion and pop.

Much of what Lyles taught him about music in high school held true as he moved through the industry, Blackwell said. Lessons about being a consummate musician and being able to interpret sheet music helped him when working with artists that had a sound or musical direction already established.

“Lyles would always tell me, ‘You’ve got to play the groove. Learn how to read that music because you’re going to need that one day,’” Blackwell recalled.

Blackwell, who now lives in Tampa, Fla., played to a large crowd of Columbia locals during last Thursday’s “Five After Five” concert hosted by the Five Points Association. He also shared the story of his career and time working with Prince to students at W.J. Keenan High School.

Blackwell said Prince should be remembered always for his body of work and the kind of person he was.

“Everything about Prince should be remembered, just like Michael Jackson,” he said. “He’s a genius and people should recognize that. If they didn’t before, they need to now.”

(Have a comment about this story or an idea for a story you’d like to see? E-mail Kelly Petty at

Categories: Local News, Richland County