Prince the Prankster, Part 2: Phone Gags, a Stuffed Penguin, and Sharing a Bathroom With Justin Timberlake

This is part 2 of our birthday tribute to Prince’s humor. Check out part 1 right here

MORRIS HAYES (Keyboardist, 1993-2012)
He’d call my hotel room pretending to be housekeeping. One time I was kind of in a hurry and the phone rings and [high, accented voice] “Housekeeping — I have your iron.” I’m a real easygoing cat, so I’m like “No m’am, I have my own iron, I’m okay, thank you.” Hang up, rings again. “Housekeeping! You ordered an iron?” “No, I’m fine, I gotta go.” Now I’m really in a hurry trying to get out of the place — to get to his show! It rings again and I said “Are you f—ing kidding me?!” and he says [deep Prince voice], “I knew I could get you to cuss.”

He was in the studio with The Time trying to think of a phone number that rhymed for a song, and he realized mine did. He called me up, all excited, “Hey, I used your number in this song! It’s gonna be a single!” Sure enough, the minute “777-9311” dropped, my phone was ringing day and night and we had to change our number. It turned out to be the greatest phone prank of all time — and for once, he didn’t intend it to be.

[A recording of some of Prince’s phone gags was issued on the B-side of the “Cream” single in 1991.] 

We were backstage at rehearsal the day before he played the [2004] Grammys with Beyonce, and there were so many acts rehearsing that they had to share space. He suddenly came out of his dressing room and he looked straight at me and said in that low voice, “I’m sharing… a bathroom… with Justin Timberlake.” Nothing against Justin, of course, I just don’t think Prince was expecting to be sharing a bathroom.

SUSAN ROGERS (Engineer, 1983-1987)
Has anyone told you about the penguin? No? Well, around the time of “Purple Rain,” Prince’s accountant at the time sent him this stuffed penguin as a present: It was about three feet tall and covered with velvet and had a little purple bow tie, but it was really odd because it had this very austere, severe look on its face. Prince said it looked like something from [Gary Larson’s cartoon] “The Far Side.” We didn’t know what to do with it so we brought it on the “Purple Rain” tour, and the road crew had the idea that whenever one of us caught someone sleeping on the job, we’d set the penguin next to them and snap a Polaroid picture. In one of the road cases they made a photo gallery of all the people who had been caught.

This is an aside, but at the very last show the crew wanted to play a prank on Prince and lower the penguin down onto the back of the stage when he was taking his long guitar solo during “Purple Rain” and he would be focused on playing and never know. So one of the riggers up in the rafters had a rope around the penguin and was starting to lower it. But you had to be really careful if you were trying to play a practical joke on Prince, because all of a sudden, for some reason, during the solo he started to turn around — I had a headset on, and the guy in the headset is yelling “Abort! Abort! Abort!” and they’re yanking it up into the rafters. I don’t know if Prince ever saw it but he must have noticed something black and white and purple flying upward at the back of the drum riser.

Anyway, by the end of the tour, the photo gallery was complete except for two people: Prince and me. No one had caught either of us sleeping on the job. We were at Sunset Sound in L.A. finishing an album, it was either [Prince and the Revolution’s] “Around the World in a Day” or Sheila E.’s [“Romance 1600”] album, and Prince had invited some people down to hear it. There weren’t enough chairs, so I sat on the floor. Now, I had been up all night, they’d dimmed the lights and lit the candles, and I’m sitting there and I’ve got my eyes closed, just happy we’ve got the record done, and I hear “Click! Bzzz…” It was Prince and he’d put the penguin on me! I was like “No! No! I wasn’t sleeping! This is fraud!” So I was determined that I was gonna get him.

Sure enough, a little later he’s in the chair, exhausted, listening to music with his eyes closed, and I saw my opportunity. So I came from the back and I’m slowly, slowly pushing that penguin across the floor, and I get it just to the back of his chair and I’m raising my hands to take the picture — and I hear his voice go, “Who do you think you’re gonna get with that?” [Laughter] Nobody got him.

I would get him every now and again. He loved movies and sometimes he’d rent out a theater or a bowling alley after it closed, and one time we were seeing this long-ass movie “Amistad.” So we’re sitting and waiting and two hours go by and this dude’s not here, it’s two in the morning, we’ve got a show tomorrow and this three-hour movie hasn’t started. We’re in there sleeping and finally he comes in with one of his security cats, and I’m kinda pissed off because we’ve been waiting all night. It’s all quiet and he says “Who’s in here?” and I yelled out “Yo mama, that’s who!” and everybody breaks up laughing.

Fast-forward to the venue the next night. We’re getting ready to go on and all of the sudden we hear the official announcer cat saying over the loudspeaker, “Morris Hayes, your mother is trying to climb over the back gate.” And [guitarist] Mike Scott — “Mike Scott, the MGM liquor truck is in the back waiting for you to pick up your liquor.” This is going all over the building! The whole crowd is laughing because they know who we are. He clowned us for real — he was like, “I’m gonna get them in front of everybody.” [Taunting Prince voice] “Don’t play with the playa! Don’t joke with the joker!”

I tried to play a trick on him once. It was the first time he came over to the house, and I wanted to see how tall he really was. My plan was to tell him we have a no-shoes policy in the house so he was gonna have to take off his heels. So I meet him at the car, “Hey it’s great to see you, welcome, but I have to tell you, we don’t allow shoes in the house.” And he said, in that beautiful satiny voice, [drops voice to seductive purr], “Then we’ll talk outside.” [Laughing] He did not go for that. I tried, man!

He got Jay Leno once, he called him at his desk in the middle of rehearsal: “This is the head carpenter, we’re gonna come fix your chair.” Jay was like “What the hell?” and then found out it was Prince. I told him, “You know Jay is gonna get you back and he’s got resources, for real. This is NBC, he can go to extraordinary measures, he could hire actors and stuff.” He got nervous! “You think?” “Oh yeah, Jay’s gonna come back and it’ll be really good. He could really go all in!” But Jay got him by pretending to be a security guy at the entrance gate for the show, he put on a mustache and messed with him. [Watch the segment here.] I think it was a big relief to Prince, because I think I scared him.

We were at the Oakland Coliseum in 1986 with Sheila E., opening up for Lionel Richie [Prince was there for a surprise guest appearance]. I’m from Oakland and I used to sit outside the Coliseum and say “One day I’m gonna play there” — my whole family was in the audience, I was 20 years old, this was my night. Prince had this prayer that he did sometimes before shows, so we say the prayer, the lights go down, everybody goes onstage, but I run back to the dressing room. You remember that line in the “Purple Rain” movie where Prince is holding a puppet saying “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the funkiest of them all?” I run to the mirror and I say it — “Who’s the funkiest of them all?” — and then I hear this voice go, “Is THAT right?” And Prince was sitting in the chair, looking at me! I swear, he appeared like a ghost, he wasn’t in the room when I got there. I screamed — “AAAAAH!” — and ran to the stage. It was the scariest shit ever, bro — that was weird. 

We would be playing a show and he’d run offstage and all of a sudden he’d be right behind me or playing one of my keyboards. “Dude, where the heck did you come from?!” It scared me every single time: It’s a good thing we were playing loud music so nobody heard me scream! I’d be like “do-do-do-do — AAAH!” He’d come up after the show and say “I’m sorry I scared you.” “You ain’t sorry, you knew exactly what you were doing,” because he did it a lot — I guess that’s an advantage of being short! He was a jokester and he loved to laugh, and those are the moments that keep me warm at night, remembering those times and seeing him smile and the great shows we did and all of us getting lost in the moment together with him. I’ve never had that experience with another artist on that level. I miss that cat so much, wow.

In a way, every moment felt like a historic moment, and the humor was a huge part of that.

People ask me what I miss about Prince — that’s what I miss the most. That was the most human and endearing thing about him, to me. He was that guy, the one who always had something up his sleeve.

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