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Starr Cullars: "Prince used to come out to P-Funk shows – he was tripping that I was playing with them"

Starr Cullars
(Image credit: Courtesy of Starr Cullars)

How did you get into bass, Starr? 

“I’m from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My father was a science professor, and my mother was an educator as well. I asked for a guitar when I was five years old, and I remember my father got me a little Roy Rogers plastic guitar. I looked at it, handed it back to him and said, ‘I want a real guitar’. He was like, ‘How does she even know what a real guitar is?’ and he gives me a little Yamaha classical guitar and I start taking guitar lessons. 

“I also studied cello and viola. On the radio in Philadelphia back then, there was all those great '70s groups like Earth, Wind And Fire and Parliament-Funkadelic and Cameo, so I started hearing bass. As I recall, I started playing bass on the acoustic guitar before I switched to a real bass.“

What’s your go-to gear these days? 

“Right now I’m building a new rig. It will probably be Mesa/Boogie. You want a bass sound that is punchy and powerful, but which doesn’t lose that rounded resonance. I’ve played Trace Elliot and Gallien-Krueger too, and they’re great because you can get the highs that are important in funk. I’m not a big effects person. 

“I like for bass to sound like bass, but when I do use effects I like an octave divider. I want to keep it rock – I’m not trying to have the neutron funk thing. Just a touch of fuzz and still keep the bottom-end. For basses, I came up on a Fender Precision, which I souped up with some EMG pickups and a Badass bridge. These days I love Yamaha.“

How did you connect with Prince? 

“Round about 1989, when I was in college, in my senior year at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, I found out that Eric Leeds, Prince’s sax player, and his trumpeter Matt Blistan went to Duquesne too, so I got their information and started writing them, like pen pals. 

“We became friends and I gave them my demo tapes. I also sent tapes of my songs to Paisley Park, but I kept getting rejection letters, so I decided to drive out there, all the way to Minneapolis. I go home for Christmas, and I tell my father, don’t give me anything for Christmas, just give me gas money so I can go drive to Minneapolis and go get a record deal with Prince.“

How long was the drive? 

“It took about 16 hours to drive there. My roommate Armand and I drove from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis in a snowstorm. You have to understand, I’m not even legal to drink. I’m like 18 or 19 years old. We followed a tractor trailer through the snowstorm to get to Minneapolis. It was freezing, and we didn’t have enough money for a hotel, so we got a room at the University of Minnesota.“

I go to Paisley Park.... Prince has BMWs parked there, so I lift up the windshield wipers and leave notes that say ‘Dear Prince, I drove 16 hours to give you my demo tape. Love, Starr Cullars’

So you were just planning to knock on the door at Paisley Park? 

“Basically, yes! We get there and we find Prince’s mansion in Excelsior. He had a big purple windmill in the back of his house, all lit up, and I was like, ‘That’s got to be his house.’ The only person on the block who would have purple windmills got to be Prince, right? So I go to the security guard and give him my little demo package, and he tells me where Paisley Park is, around the corner from the mansion. 

“I go to Paisley Park, and the gates are open to the parking lot, so I drive in. Prince has BMWs parked there – yellow, black, and purple ones – so I lift up the windshield wipers and leave notes that say ‘Dear Prince, I drove 16 hours to give you my demo tape. Love, Starr Cullars.’ I did that for three days in a row, because I wasn’t going anywhere until I saw this man.“

What happened then? 

“I finally get invited in by Eric Leeds and Matt Blistan, who were in Minneapolis, so I walk in with a bass on my shoulder and my cassette tapes in a bag. Prince’s manager Steve Fargnoli was there, so I talked to him for a minute, and then Prince walked in.

“I said, ‘Hi, my name is Starr Cullars,’ and he goes to shake my hand. And he never lets go – he keeps on holding my hand as we’re standing there. I said, ‘I’m here to give you my demo tape’ and he says, ‘You can give it to Eric Leeds upstairs, and then he’ll give it to me.’ 

“Now I say, ‘Man, fuck that! I just drove 16 hours across the country. I’m giving it to you.’ He says, ‘Listen, I tell you what, you go upstairs and take the tape to Eric Leeds in the office, and you tell him if I don’t get your demo tape tonight, I’m gonna kick somebody’s motherfucking ass.’“

Wow. 

“Right? So I said ‘Okay!’, snatched the tape out of his hand and ran up the stairs. I found Eric and said, ‘Prince says, if you don’t get my demo tape to him tonight, he’s gonna kick somebody’s motherfucking ass!’ He goes, ‘Come on in, darling, sit down,’ so we sit down at his desk. He opens his top desk drawer and in there are all my demo tapes. He says, ‘Is this all from you, Starr?’ I go ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ He says, ‘Oh, we didn’t know who you were. You’ll get a call tonight.’“

So the strategy worked? 

“It worked, because I got an appointment the next night to go play bass with Prince and his current band, which had Sheila E on drums. So I go to Paisley Park the next night and set up with the band. They’re telling me to wait because Prince is coming down. 

“Now I’m nervous as hell, because after all this craziness, he’s actually going to play with me. Everybody else is in the engineer part of the studio, looking through the glass, and I’m sitting in the play room holding my bass. Finally, Prince comes into the play room. He’s dressed head to toe in black and white, and when he walks into the room, he has this aura that comes into the room with him. He’s holding in his hands all the notes that I wrote him, and he starts reading them aloud.“

It took about 16 hours to drive to Paisley Park. My roommate Armand and I drove from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis in a snowstorm

“‘Dear Prince, I drove 16 hours to give you my demo tape...’, and he says, ‘A girl bass player. I’ve never seen a female bass player before.’ He looks through the glass at my roommate, Armand, and he goes, ‘Is that your boyfriend?’ and then he says, ‘Yeah, you know, I’m tough on musicians. I’ve never had a girl play bass,’ and then he looks back to the window and says ‘Are you sleeping with him?’

‘I’m getting sick of this shit, so I stand up – and I’m taller than him, so he’s looking up at me – and I say, ‘Look, man, did you listen to my demo or not?’ and he goes, ‘Yes, I think you have a lot of talent. I think you have a lot of potential, and I want to work with you.’“

Did you jam with him?

“I did. He picks up his guitar, he puts it on, says, ‘We’re in B flat’ and starts playing. Sheila E comes in on the drums, Dr. Fink comes in on keyboards, I start playing bass. Now Prince is tripping. He’s going in and out of my face. He’s on his knees. He’s dancing around.

“This goes on for like 20 minutes, and Prince leaves because Miles Davis, who he’s playing with at the time, needs him. I keep jamming with Sheila, and when we finished we sat down and talked about being female musicians – about how rare and difficult it is – and she tells me that she could never do what I did. They’re all blown away at the courage and the potential.“

What happened then? 

“They said, ‘Prince is going to call you’, so I went back to my little room at the university. The next day he calls and says, ‘Hi, this is Prince. I just wanted to thank you for jamming with me’ and I was like, ‘No, thank you. Thank you so much.’ He says, ‘I don’t want to tell you what to do, but you can stay with me while I finish Lovesexy, and then we’re going to go out and tour.’ 

“Now, I knew I wasn’t getting hired: as I understood it, he was inviting me to hang around as a concubine. Even though I was young, I got that. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna go back home and finish school, and you go finish Lovesexy, and then we’ll hook up.’ So he says, ‘All right, I’m going to be looking for you.’“

Sounds like a wise decision. 

“Definitely. He was gorgeous, don’t get me wrong – he was very good-looking – but even though I was young, and I didn’t know a lot about the business, I knew not to become a girlfriend. I think he ended up respecting me in the long run for that.“

Starr Cullars

(Image credit: Courtesy of Starr Cullars)

You then joined Parliament-Funkadelic. 

“Yes. They came to Philadelphia a couple of years later, maybe around 1991 or ’92, and once again, I was giving out my demo tapes backstage. I ended up being invited to come to a string of shows they did in New York, and then they did some dates down in DC.“

We were going to Paisley Park one time to record, and I said to George, ‘You know, I’m not sure Prince will remember me.’ George says, ‘Are you crazy? How many girls break into his private sanctuary with a bass?

“It was during the DC shows that I was actually contracted and signed on. Now, at the time [P-Funk frontman] George Clinton was signed to Prince’s Paisley Park label, and I told him my story about meeting Prince.

“We were going to Paisley Park one time to record, and I said to George, ‘You know, I’m not sure Prince will remember me.’ George says, ‘Are you crazy? How many girls break into his private sanctuary with a bass? He’s gonna remember you.’ I’m like, ‘All right, we’ll see.’

“So I go do my first European run with P-Funk, playing over in England and in Amsterdam, and we come back and we go to Minneapolis. Now, Prince’s group loves P-Funk – they’re gods to them. So when Prince sees me again, he wants me to leave to come do some stuff with him.“

And...?

“George says ‘No, you can’t go,’ so I never went. Prince used to come out to P-Funk shows for the next year and a half in different places. He was tripping that I was playing with them. So all that is the intro to my professional life. The rest is history!“