Jerry Martini knows the feeling of wowing the crowd at Woodstock as the saxophonist for Sly & the Family Stone. But in a career that also included being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the biggest highlights for the Folsom-based musician was getting the call to play with Prince.
Martini toured the world with Prince from 1997 through 2000. The saxophonist was first part of the tour’s opening act: Graham Central Station with fellow Sly & the Family Stone alums Larry Graham and Sacramento-native trumpeter Cynthia Robinson. As the tour unfolded through 50 countries, Prince integrated Graham Central Station into the headlining show with a 45-minute chunk dedicated to Sly & The Family Stone tunes.
Stone, who seamlessly fused R&B and rock into a funky and politically minded dance party in the 1960s, was a major influence on Prince. Martini says that Prince passed along that respect as they hit the road in 1997.
“He treated us first-class, the best hotels I ever stayed in,” said Martini, in a phone call from Solvang, where he was preparing to play a gig with The Family Stone. “He always took care of us.”
Some of the outings were dubbed the “Jam of the Year Tour,” and reflected Prince’s independent spirit following his split with Warner Bros. records. Along with the Sly & The Family Stone tributes, the show would mix Prince’s signature songs with improvised jams, new material and cover tunes.
On some nights, Martini would blow his saxophone while poised on top of Prince’s purple piano. The tour marked a whirlwind few years for the veteran saxophonist, who said Prince was a tough taskmaster during band rehearsals – even for the musicians who performed on some of rock music’s most pivotal tracks in the 1960s and early 1970s.
“He was strict and made us practice a lot,” said Martini. “Sometimes he drove a hard bargain, and I thought at times he was being a little mean, but he had a lot of respect for us.”
Prince continued to stay in touch with Martini and Robinson, and invited the two to sit in at some of Prince’s Northern California shows. Martini last performed with Prince at a 2011 concert at Oakland’s Oracle Arena, which included a cover of Sly & The Family Stone’s classic “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).”
“He was one of the most brilliant people I ever met, and definitely one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met,” Martini said. “I’m going to miss him.”