Prince Becomes a Bass Hero on ‘Shy’
The clack of a woman’s footsteps. The rattle of a tambourine. The whine of police sirens. The cry of a guitar. That hodgepodge of sounds signals the opening of “Shy,” the 14th track from The Gold Experience, which Prince released in 1995 under his symbol moniker.
But it’s the punchy bass line that really kicks the song into gear.
“I call Prince’s bass technique ‘dirty funk’ because there was a sloppiness to the way that he played, and that’s what gave him his sound,” Prince’s former bass player Rhonda Smith told Bass Player magazine. “It’s meatier, dirtier, and fuller. It’s a feel thing.”
Several more of Prince’s bass players joined Smith for the interview, an homage to Prince’s skills on the instrument. He definitely shows off his talent on “Shy,” a brand of funk-folk that could just as easily have been called “Sly,” as the influence of Sly Stone shines through in the music and the vocals (witness the magnificent growl about three minutes in).
Even more impressive than the groovy bass lines is the interplay of the resplendent acoustic guitar parts, especially during the last minute of the song.
The music outshines the lyrics, which tell a peculiar story of a woman with “cool, dark skin,” wearing “hot virgin white.” She may or may not be a murderer. She may or may not be shy. She may or may not be a figment of Prince’s imagination.
Overall, the beautifully strange number is unlike anything else on the glossy, hip-hop- and rock-influenced album. Released on the heels of Prince’s hit single “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” The Gold Experience was received by critics as somewhat of a turning point in Prince’s then rocky career. St. Paul Pioneer Press journalist Jim Walsh said as much in his highly favorable review, which Prince included in the album’s liner notes.
Though much of the album was performed regularly on tour, “Shy” was an exception. According to PrinceVault, the only known performance took place during a 1995 concert at Paisley Park. That footage, if it exists, has yet to make its way online.
What has surfaced is an alternate, unreleased version of “Shy” with twice as much production and half the magic of the original.
The beauty of the album version is its spotlight on Prince as a guitarist and bassist — and he’s arguably underrated in both roles.
“He was a great bass player,” Prince’s former bass/guitar tech Takumi told Bass Player. “People don’t give him credit because they didn’t get to see him play that much, but now that he’s gone, I’m sure you’ll see a lot more videos of Prince killing it on bass on YouTube.”
Erica Thompson is a journalist in Columbus, Ohio. She is currently writing a book on Prince’s spiritual journey and the spiritual themes in his music. Keep up with the project at A Purple Day in December.