Tavis Smiley: 'I'll never know why Prince chose me as one of his young protégés'

Prince, cross-legged on the set of the Tavis Smiley Show, looks at Smiley as he asks a question

Tavis Smiley interviews Prince in 2009. Smiley had a 20-year friendship with Prince, who died on Thursday at age 57.

J. Van Evers/Tavis Smiley Media

"Hello, Tavis?"

"Who's calling?" I asked the voice on the other end of the phone.

"It's Prince."

"Prince who?" I asked.

"It's Prince, the artist," he said.

MORE: See how cartoonists from around the world are honoring Prince.


I hung up.

Prank call, and it's way too early to be playing phone games with me on a Saturday morning.

A couple minutes later the phone rang again. Repeat story, I hang up again. To his credit, he was persistent.

Three times we went through this, until he said, "Hold up, brother, don't hang up. Could you please call me back at this hotel number and ask for me under this name."

Now, I'm getting scared. I could not have...! Could I? No way! Who hangs up up on PRINCE? Three times!

So, quite naturally, I took down the number, called the hotel, and, yes, I had indeed hung up on Prince Rogers Nelson.

I felt like a complete fool. Times ten.

After the hotel operator connected me, I apologized profusely. Prince invited me to lunch. He said he just wanted to talk.

What was supposed to be a one-hour lunch, turned into a four-hour conversation. About what? Everything.

Little did I know that although I was the talk show host, Prince was actually interviewing me! He'd decided that he was ready to talk on a live TV show and I was his choice. Later I realized that he wanted to spend time getting to know me, to decide whether or not I was worthy of the kind of conversation in which he was ready to engage . A frank talk about his music, the word "slave" we'd seen on his face, artists' rights, his world view and then some.

After a few more chats to get better acquainted, I guess I passed the test, because one day he called and asked if I'd have him as a guest on my talk show.

Shut the front door! Would I have him? Ha! I couldn't wait to tell my TV bosses that I had booked Prince! What was funny is that, for a while, they didn't believe me as much as I didn't accept that it was Prince on the phone line! Until, he showed up on set.

That's how my almost 20-year friendship with Prince began. My experiences with him over the years are too many to share here, but here are five short stories that I hope illustrate why I didn't just respect his immense artistic gift, but reveled in his humanity as well.

1. His generosity. I never liked to ask Prince for anything. That's probably why we stayed friends for so long. I just enjoyed his company. Mostly our talks. In person, on the phone, across America, around the world. I will never forget the night we sat on the rooftop of his hotel in Switzerland, after he'd slayed the Montreux Jazz Festival. Michael Jackson had recently died, and Prince would talk for hours that night about his own mortality and what the loss of Michael Jackson really meant for him. But when my youth foundation was celebrating its 10th year, I asked him to headline an anniversary fundraiser. He consented, and then played an intimate performance at Club Nokia in Los Angeles that still ranks as my all time favorite show, even though I've seen him countless times around the globe. He invited my guests and friends on stage to sing with him. That evening his royal badness made everybody feel like royalty. About 3 a.m. he called me at home to ask what we'd raised, so I told him. The next day a six-figure check showed up in our foundation account to match every dollar. My man. I know many times that he quietly wrote big checks. When I was raising money over the radio for the forgotten victims of 9-11, again, he sent me a whopper of a check. But he'd never let me tell. Well, now, it can be told.

2. His spirituality. To say that Prince lived a life in search of deeper spiritual truths is the mother of all understatements. One night at Paisley Park, we were upstairs in the Knowledge Room where he studied his Jehovah's Witness readings. He was trying hard to convert me that night, knowing full well my Pentecostal roots. But that brother was putting it on me! As a JW newbie though, he'd gone as far as he could go in our spiritual tête-à-tête. But then, he stepped out of the room to call for backup, for reinforcement. Thirty minutes later musician Larry Graham walks in, and Prince starts strutting around the room like, "Uh huh! Uh huh! What you gon' say NOW!" I laughed out loud, and Prince, Larry and I talked into the wee hours of the morning about our respective pathways to deeper spiritual truths. Afterwards, we went downstairs for a jam session where I got to play drums. What a night; the spiritual and the secular were conjoined!

3. His curiosity. For a dozen years I hosted an annual forum called State of the Black Union. Broadcast live on C-SPAN, we would feature the best and brightest minds in Black America, trying to wrestle intellectually with our unique challenges, and offer solutions to make Black America better. Like most iconic artists, Prince was not mildly, but wildly curious. He'd sit at home and watch these live sessions all day every year. And each year, I awaited the phone call that I knew was forthcoming when the sessions concluded. He'd taken copious notes and wanted me to continue the conversation over at his house. He wanted in. And, he wanted me to bring certain panelists over to the house with me for a sort of academic after party. I'd always oblige, and everybody from Cornel West to Dick Gregory would sit around his table dissecting the political, economic, social and cultural issues confronting the black community in particular, the nation and the world. I've never met a more curious mind.

4. His sagacity. Periodically, Prince would call me to make connections or introductions for him. Authors, attorneys, advocates, artists. He was always interested in innovations and ideas, everyday people and big personalities. "Hey, T, do you know so and so?" he'd ask. Sometimes I did, occasionally I didn't. But I'd get on the phone and track said person down to tell them that Prince would like an audience with them. More disbelief! No one ever trusted me initially. Then again, no one ever turned me down either. One night he was watching my TV show and saw the brilliant bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who I was helping introduce to a national audience, years before she angered the Beliebers by winning the best new artist Grammy. Prince called and said he wanted to meet her. I set it in motion, and next thing I know, she was opening for him on tour. Sweet! I love that he was always a cheerleader for budding artists.

Tavis gestures to Prince in front of large carrying cases for the tour

Tavis Smiley and Prince, chatting backstage at a show in in Las Vegas.


Courtesy of Tavis Smiley

5. His humanity. Prince played a game with me. At every concert I'd attend, he'd seat me in a particular place. I never wanted to be late to any of his shows because I knew he'd eventually play his way over to the side of the stage where I was seated to see if I was in my seat. Present! One night I'd been seated in the wrong section, and he had his security come move me. He'd acknowledge me with a nod of his head and go on about his business. But at some point during every show I attended, just to make sure I was paying attention, he'd slide my name innocuously into a lyric, and after the show I was certain to be asked to identify the song. My friends and the folks sitting in my section would always scream when they heard it, so there was never really a chance that I'd miss it, but can you imagine how it felt having Prince namecheck you in a song? At Madison Square Garden! Oh my!

There was absolutely no reason for this kind of gracious, generous and charitable display of friendship and brotherhood. Prince could have made news on countless other national TV shows. But every now and then, an artist of his stature just decides that they're going to look out for a young brother or sister, and they just go about helping to expose you and usher you into your greatness.

I'll never know why Prince chose me 20 years ago as one of his young protégés when I was a relatively inexperienced and virtually unknown broadcaster, but I'm eternally grateful.

The world has lost a superhero, and I have lost a superfriend.

Smiley hosts the Tavis Smiley Show, distributed by PRI to public radio stations across the country. He'll look back on his friendship with Prince in a special episode during next week's show.

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