You may not immediately recognize the name Cassandra O’Neal, but chances are you’ve definitely heard her and danced to her music before.
Over a career that has spanned almost three decades, the dynamic keyboardist, vocalist, producer, composer, and musical director has collaborated with a who’s who of music royalty, including BabyFace, Chante Moore, Macy Gray, Mary J. Blige, Shelia E., and Yolanda Adams, among others. Also on her resume is a seven-year stint as a key member of Prince’s New Power Generation collective.
N’DIGO recently caught up with O’Neal to discuss her musical beginnings, her time with Prince and the NPG, and the upcoming tribute events those closest to him are putting together in his honor.
N’DIGO: Who were your musical influences? Who were the artists that made you want to pursue music?
Cassandra O’Neal: I listened to so many things as a kid. In the gospel genre, Walter and Edwin Hawkins, James Cleveland, and Thomas Woodfield. In the pop and rock genre, definitely Prince, Billy Joel, Elton John, Patrice Rushen, Michael Jackson, and George Duke. As far as piano players, Oscar Peterson, Joe Sample, and Art Blakey. There’s so many more, but that’s off the top of my head. There were local people as well due to my upbringing as a preacher’s kid.
What was your first big break in the music industry?
My first break was playing for comedian Eddie Griffin for a HBO comedy hour special. That was back in 199-. No, let’s go a little further back. My first main gig was playing for a gospel artist under Command Records.
How did you come to Prince’s attention and become a part of New Power Generation?
I was playing for Sheila E. at the time, and we had a four-member female band called C.O.E.D. It stood for Chronicles of Every Diva. We played the NAACP Image Awards, and our band backed Prince up. That was 2005. I was scared out of my mind! He won the Vanguard Award.
Then in 2009, Sheila E., Kat Dyson, Rhonda Smith and I had a band. They had already played with him. He asked if we could go to the Montreal Jazz Fest with him. We locked ourselves in a room and recorded three of his songs to CDs. He liked what he heard. When he asks if you are available, he usually never gives you a date. But this particular time, he did, and it was my mother’s 70th birthday.
I just felt in my spirit that I needed to be with her. Prince understood, but he said, “If I can’t have all of y’all, I don’t want none of y’all.” Coincidentally, my mother passed away that same year shortly after I got the gig with Prince. She never got to see me play, but I called her every day from rehearsal. She passed away two weeks after I got back from Paris.
What’s the biggest thing you learned from your time working with Prince?
How not to apologize for being a perfectionist and knowing what you want. That was the interesting thing about him – everything you heard, and saw, was how it was in his head, how he pictured it. He was hashing out parts, and you’d have to get it as he was saying it. He’d say, “You got it?” and then count it off.
I would see the look on his face, and he would say, “It sounded even better than it did in my head.” It was always the perfect combination. He might tweak a few things, but coming out of the gate, he knew what he wanted to hear.
Can you share a funny story or moment that sticks out from your days in NPG?
We were in Norway playing a show and Prince would invite people on stage to dance with him. There was what looked like a little girl in the audience, and he was saying to the people in the front row, “Bring her up here!” And we whispered to him that it was a boy. We watched that show on tape often; I don’t think we ever laughed so hard! It was the look on his face. That was one of the funny moments. We’ve had so many.
Tell us about the upcoming showcases (Celebration 2018, Nothing Compares 2 Prince) that you’re working on in his memory?
Yesss! We are doing the annual Celebration April 19-22. It’s a four-day experience at Paisley Park, Prince’s iconic home and creative sanctuary in Chanhassen, Minnesota. It’ll feature live music, rare concert screenings, panel discussions, and special presentations. We’ve had two so far, and it’s going to be a lot of fun, great to reunite with my brothers and sisters. So many I haven’t seen since he passed. And our fans, our “purple friends,” will be there to celebrate with us. I can’t wait.
After that, we’ll be doing the Nothing Compares 2 Prince concert with extended purple fam at the Sydney Opera Hall on April 27 and Arts Center-Hamer Hall on April 29 in Melbourne, Australia. Those shows will feature four decades of his hits performed by the likes of Nik West, Jelly Bean Johnson, St. Paul Peterson, Ricky Peterson, Shelby J. (my NPG sister), Andy Allo, and Cora Coleman.
Jellybean and St. Paul were members of The Time. Ricky Peterson was a part of the Minneapolis sound. These cats had a part of my musical upbringing and a soundtrack to my childhood. These are people that I’m very familiar with through music, but I get to meet and talk to them. I’m excited, and they are just as excited to meet me.
What are your thoughts on the importance of keeping music and art alive in schools?
I think one of the main things is maintaining a balance between creative education and academic education. I think that children need to have that balance right off. Music helps you in so many other ways. It sharpens your hearing skills and all of your senses. It’s great for kids to be able to figure out as early as possible what their passion is in life. Music, art, drama – it’s great to give the kids a choice.
What are three of your all-time favorite albums?
Wow, that’s hard. Pat Metheny Group, Still Life (Talking). Prince, Parade. Oscar Peterson Trio accompanied by The Singers Unlimited, In Tune.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
Hmmm…I’m allergic to berries.
Best advice for young artists?
Learn your craft. Make sure that this is your passion and that you’re doing it for that reason, and not because you want to make money. There is an old saying, “Take care of the music, and the music will take care of you.” It’s very true. When your profession is your passion, it’s not work anymore. Learn as much music as you can, practice every day, and have fun. Always have fun.
Favorite quote or affirmation?
“I walk by faith and not by sight.”
What’s next for Cassandra O’Neal?
In the immediate future I plan to graduate from the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music with a degree in Vocal Jazz Performance. Then after that, I’m definitely planning on working on my album full-time.
For more information on Cassandra O’Neal, visit www.princevault.com, or find her on all social media platforms: @CassyQTKeys