Shelby J. Had No Idea She Was Auditioning for Prince: Exclusive
Shelby Johnson’s audition for Prince’s band was a slam dunk. She got the gig, wound up singing with him in the New Power Generation for 10 years and forged a close friendship that lasted until his death on April 21, 2016. There was just one catch: She had no idea she was auditioning for Prince.
Johnson, who performs as Shelby J, was taking a two-week break from touring with R&B artist, and fellow North Carolinian, Anthony Hamilton in December 2006. By chance she met Larry Graham, bassist for Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station. The two hit it off and Graham recruited Johnson for a one-off show.
“We rehearsed at Paisley Park before the gig, [which] happened to be at 3121, Prince’s nightclub in Las Vegas,” Johnson tells Ultimate Prince. During the sound check, Johnson and Graham ran through a rendition of Stevie Wonder's “Higher Ground.” Johnson remembers that she kept hearing a disembodied voice in the auditorium telling her to sing the song over and over again. She assumed it was the sound man.
“I thought, ‘That guy really wants to get the sound pristine. This is top quality,'" Johnson says. After the third take, Graham looked at Johnson and told her that she probably passed the audition. Johnson was mystified. Suddenly Prince came out from behind the console and approached the stage. “He said, ‘You’re a good singer,’” Johnson says, “and he seemed to just float away.”
Later that night, Johnson was singing onstage when the crowd started going crazy. “I thought they were really feeling me,” Johnson recalls with a chuckle. She soon realized that the audience was reacting to Prince, coming up onstage behind Johnson to join her on the mic. They started singing together cheek to cheek. “There was synergy happening on that microphone,” Johnson says. “Talking about it now, I can feel it again.”
Despite Graham’s comment about passing the audition, Johnson didn’t realize she had just scored a long-term gig. Chalking the night up to a special memory of performing with Prince, she flew home to Greensboro, N.C. She was shopping at a local Walmart when she got a call from Prince’s team. They wanted her to learn 12 or 13 songs and come out to Vegas – the very next day.
“I flew back out and the first gig I did with him was a New Years Eve [show] transitioning from 2006 in to 2007,” Johnson continues. “I sang all those songs that he sent me.” After the performance, Prince came back to Johnson’s dressing room, and nonchalantly told her that he wanted her to be in his band. “It was like a dream,” Johnson says.
Then as Prince was walking out the door, almost as an afterthought, he mentioned that the band would start rehearsing the following week for their next show. That gig was Super Bowl XLI in Miami, an iconic performance that would be remembered as the best Super Bowl halftime show ever.