Formerly Known As (A Tribute to Prince)
There are few pop stars as complex as Prince. He’s a mega-selling artist, but still, after more than 30 years in the limelight, difficult to understand. It’s partly because he’s a bizarre dude, known for his flashy past-the-point-of-tacky style of dress and weird moves, like suddenly changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol.
But the more interesting reason for his complexity is that his music doesn’t fit easily into any one genre. He combines synth-driven R&B pop, New Wave, hard-edged funk and guitar-based psychedelia into a seamless, personal, immediately recognizable whole. He’s not strictly red or blue, he’s purple. No other pop star, not Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley or anybody else, has ever been quite as idiosyncratic. He’s both an icon and an iconoclast.
“This project has improved my perception of music in general,” says Bishop Cummings. “I’m amazed by some of the connections he makes.”
Cummings is the frontman of Formerly Known As (A Tribute to Prince), a local seven-person tribute band celebrating the music of Prince. The name of the group is a play on the wordy phrase “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince,” used to describe Prince in the ’90s after he changed his name to the symbol. (He has since changed it back.)
To properly portray Prince, a musician would have to be an amazing vocalist, dancer and lead guitar player. Formerly Known As divides the role into two: Cummings handles the singing and dancing, and guitarist Woodrows Wilson tackles Prince’s out-of-left-field guitar parts. Keyboardist Thayne Atencio, bassist Matt Decker, drummer “Hot Hands” Roy, and backup singer-dancers Bre Fretz and Susan Young round out the group.
The band concentrates primarily on Prince’s biggest hits from his classic era, songs like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Little Red Corvette” and “When Doves Cry.” While picky listeners could quibble with details, Formerly Known As manages a fair approximation of Prince’s music and conveys the spirit of the songs. Cummings manages to replicate Prince’s acrobatic vocal histrionics, hitting all the right falsetto moans and throaty screams.
The members of Formerly Known As all come from punk and metal backgrounds, and many of them were not very familiar with Prince before joining the project, but all of them are ardent admirers now. They say their respect continues to grow as they explore his extensive catalogue and learn to play his songs.
“To me, it was all about the challenge of seeing if we could pull it off,” says Cummings. “A lot of it sounds easy, but it’s not.”
Another challenge for Cummings has been finding the right clothes—flashy, tight-fitting stuff, mostly from the women’s section.
“We need to find him more purple outfits,” says Young.
Cummings adds that he has a message to attendees of Formerly Known As shows: “Stop stealing my clothes!”
Cummings, Wilson and Roy originally started the project nearly two years ago, and they’ve been performing shows for over a year. The band members say audience reaction has been mostly positive.
“I was surprised at some of the people who like us,” says Wilson.
“Well, the cougars love us,” says Cummings. “The ladies in general like us, and the guys like it, too, once they get past me and start looking at the back-up singers.”