Some people’s lives follow a straight trajectory — they move from milestone to milestone as if they’re ticking boxes off a checklist: College. Marriage. Kids. Grandkids.
Tony Mosley hasn’t lived one of those lives.
Beginning with the strange alchemy of luck, circumstance and talent that led to his first meeting Prince Rogers Nelson, Mosley has followed an original life path that’s been sometimes funky and sometimes buttoned-down.
Now, at age 55, he’s landed right back where he started so many years ago — performing music that’s dear to his heart, in front of audiences clamoring for the opportunity celebrate the work and life of The Purple One.
After spending the years between 1987 to 1994 experiencing the rarified world of professional music-making, first-class travel and sold-out concerts around the world as part of Prince’s New Power Generation band, Mosley zigged when everyone else was zagging.
Instead of seeing the rock-and-roll life through to the bitter end, he opted out for marriage, fatherhood and a business career.
But once rock and roll’s been your life, is it ever really out of your system?
In the wake of Prince’s death and an enormous revival of interest in his expansive catalog of music, Mosley was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a reunion of the New Power Generation, known as NPG.
So he picked up a mic — he’s a rapper, vocalist, hip-hop dancer and guitarist, too — and set out this past July with other original members of NPG to perform across Europe to tens of thousands at a time.
Discovered at First Ave
How did this all come to be? To learn that, we need to travel back 33 years, to the iconic rock venue at 701 N. First Ave., Minneapolis.
The scene: First Ave, men’s bathroom. Tony and his friends are killing time between takes of a new movie that’s going to be titled Purple Rain. They’re dancing and singing along to the boom box they’ve brought along.
They don’t realize it, but their lives are about to change.
The backstory: Tony, a 1980 North High School graduate, had already finished a stint of active duty in the Marine Corps. He was still in the Reserves when he and his crew began participating in First Avenue’s weekly amateur dance contests. After winning for four weeks in a row, they were promised roles as extras in the movie. Once they got on set, they were told they’d be wrangling the extras instead.
The big break: To fend off boredom during long down-times on set, they started staging impromptu performances in the bathroom (which had decent acoustics). During one of these sessions, Prince happens to walk in. He watches them for a few moments, smiles, then leaves. The next thing they know, Prince’s manager is pulling them aside and asking them to choreograph seven dance numbers for the next day’s shoot.
Mosley picks up the story from here: “We raced back to my Mom’s apartment in North Minneapolis. We moved all the furniture out of the way and got to work. We never went to sleep that night, but we were on set at 5:30 a.m. the next day, ready to perform those dances on camera.”
Don’t cue up your DVD of Purple Rain to look for them — most of the performances were cut from the final version of the film.
“But I think Prince saw that we could turn around good-quality work very quickly,” Mosley said.
A few months later, Prince asked them to perform at the after party for the Purple Rain premiere in Los Angeles.
“We were just some local cats from Minneapolis performing in front of our idols — stars like Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy,” Mosley said.
He feels good
Performing always came naturally to Mosley, who remembers his mother taking him to a James Brown concert when he was 7.
“He brought kids up on stage to dance, and I did the James Brown impersonation that was always a hit during family reunions,” Mosley said. “I remember really liking the applause.”
His next performance came in third grade, at Harrison Elementary School’s talent show.
“My buddy and I were doing a tumbling act, but we fell at the very first pass. I jumped up and started dancing, and then I launched into a Bill Cosby impersonation. Everyone loved it.”
The important lesson Mosley learned from that experience: “Never act like you’ve made a mistake and the audience won’t realize it either.”
Whether performing at an elementary school or a sold-out arena, Mosley is a cool cat at showtime.
“To this day, I’ve never had stage fright. I get nervous energy before a show. I walk around, away from everybody, to get into my head and get myself ready to hit the stage,” he said. “When I hear the downbeat, I’m gone.”
On the road
Prince formed the New Power Generation in 1990, inviting Mosley, Kirk Johnson and Damon Dickson to join the backing band on tour. Mosley, who went by the stage name Tony M., was hired as a choreographer and dancer.
His role in the show eventually expanded, thanks to another incident in which Prince turned up unexpectedly and observed Mosley-the-soloist in action.
It happened in Paris, during a sound check before a show.
“Prince had been working on the final edits of the film Graffiti Bridge, so he was in and out of town quite a bit, and we didn’t realize he was there,” Mosley said. “I was playing guitar and singing The Humpty Dance during the check. Then I heard Prince’s voice from the sound tower: ‘That was kind of funky.’”
Prince sent for Mosley after the show and asked if he could rehearse the song and perform it when he went off stage for a wardrobe change, starting the next night.
“I said ‘absolutely,’ but I was shaking in my boots,” Mosley said. “He told me ‘the stage is yours.’ It was a great opportunity, and luckily I didn’t mess up the lyrics on my first chance to rap before a live audience.”
His performance of The Humpty Dance remained in the show for the rest of the tour.
Time to get serious
As the years passed, Mosley began to feel it was time for a change.
He and Kirk Johnson had tried to establish a record label — MPLS Records — but quickly began “hemorrhaging money” in the process, Mosley said.
In 1994, after NPG has release a solo album, Goldnigga, just a year earlier, Mosley left his post with NPG.
“I still loved performing, but I was getting burned out on the business side of the industry,” he said. “I took a serious self-assessment and told myself: ‘You’re a 30-year-old African-American male without a college degree. It’s time to get serious.’”
Mosley says he “swallowed his pride” and took a temporary job with Pro Staff, which placed him at Carlson Marketing. He moved up through the ranks and gained experience in loyalty marketing, incentives, interactive marketing and claims.
Three years ago, Mosley took a job as senior project manager at the promotional marketing firm YA in downtown Minneapolis.
Chris Behrens, the firm’s president and CEO, said Mosley never mentioned his music background when interviewing for the position.
Details about his former career emerged slowly. The more Behrens heard, the more impressed he was — both at Mosley’s show-business talent and his decision to make a change.
“It’s impressive to me that he knew the rock and roll life would not last forever, and that he had the foresight to pursue a career in business,” Behrens said. “Tony is a focused, genuine and down-to-earth person. Our clients think the world of him and the work he does here. And, at our holiday party last year, he led us in a YA-version of Soul Train that got us all warmed up.”
It’s an attitude shared throughout the ranks at YA.
“He handles his fame with grace and honor,” said senior digital project manager Lee Reed. “He owns it and is so natural about it. He is proud, but so humble, and he’s been very kind to the co-workers who are also fans. He seems amazed at what he experienced and thankful for the gift he was blessed with and all it has brought him, including his family, who he cares most about in this world.”
YA account manager Caroline Kornowicz said Mosley’s shared some of his stories with her in the past two years.
“He told me how Prince was his friend and mentor during a critical time of his life where he could’ve taken a different — and worse — path,” she said.
After Prince’s death, a sold-out Prince tribute concert was held at the Xcel Energy Center in October 2016, with performances by Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Tori Kelly and Jessie J.
The New Power Generation reunited and performed at the show in front of 17,000 fans.
“We wanted to make sure it was right and we wanted to make Prince proud,” Mosley said.
They achieved their goal and then some. A City Pages review described Mosley’s performance: “Prince hypeman pajama-clad Tony M. came out for a seriously funky Sexy MF.”
“It felt like home to be back together with the band,” Mosley said.
Mosley’s office mates from YA were there in full force.
“I’ve always known Tony as an office professional, so seeing him performing at the Xcel Center was so exciting,” Kornowicz said. “He had so much energy, so much swagger and so many dance moves. The entire office couldn’t stop talking about it the next day.”
And it wasn’t just Mosley’s office mates talking in the days that followed.
“The fans who lived and breathed Prince’s music were overwhelmingly appreciative and told us, ‘You need to get back out there,’” Mosley said.
The European tour
While the NPG reunion had been arranged as a one-time event, the group was approached about doing additional shows.
They went for it — and found themselves this past July on a 12-gig European tour in eight cities, including London, Zurich, Paris, St. Petersburg and Rotterdam.
It was such a success that another European tour is in the works for fall, along with a U.S. tour in spring.
The physical pace of the tour was different for Mosley at age 55 than when he was touring Europe in his 20s.
“It’s a young man’s game,” he said.
While the tour was sometimes a physical challenge, it included many highlights, including the band’s first performance in London’s Hyde Park.
“Phil Collins was performing on the main stage. And when I saw the size and location of our stage, I thought ‘No one is going to show up for this.’ We went backstage to get ready, and when we came out, there were more than 60,000 people waiting for us. I was stunned.”
Damon Dickson, 56, is enjoying being back on tour as well, a big change from his day job as security manager for Allied Universal, managing a security team for Golden Valley-based Mortenson Construction.
“It’s crazy to see all of us in the same room at the same time after all these years,” Damon said. “We laugh a lot when we’re together, and we have so much fun. But when we’re talking about the music, it’s serious. That’s when you see how special it is.”
For Mosley, standing ovations from adoring crowds pale in comparison to the joys of being a husband and father. He and his wife, Deanna, have been married for 19 years, and the family lives in Eden Prairie.
Daughter Kira, 17, is a basketball phenom who has been generating interest from Division I schools.
“Her first concert was a Prince concert, when she was still small enough to perch on my shoulders,” Mosley said. “I remember it went on until after 11 p.m., but she was still rocking out.”
Son Shane, 15, is a competitive swimmer who has just begun expressing some interest in the music business.
“I would prefer for him to stick to swimming, studies and college prep, but I have to appreciate that my own mom let me pursue the life I wanted, and so I have to be open to what he wants,” Mosley said.
When his children were little, Mosley never showed them his platinum albums or awards. (He co-wrote several songs with Prince, and he has two Grammy nominations for Diamonds and Pearls and Love Symbol Album.)
The first time his kids ever saw him perform was at the Prince tribute performance at the Xcel last fall.
“The place was filled to the rafters, so that was pretty exciting,” Mosley said. “I knew where my kids were sitting, and I was able to see the looks on their faces when they saw old Dad make his entrance. Later, I brought them both up on stage to dance along to one of the numbers.”
Mosley has decades of positive memories about his collaborative work with Prince.
“He lived and breathed music, and his creativity was off the charts,” he said. “For so much of the time, the band was really his family, because we were with him 24/7. We’d start rehearsing between 10 a.m. and noon, and work until 5 or 6 p.m. Then maybe we’d shoot a video, or go into the studio to record. And then there might be a party at Paisley Park that night. The next day, it would start all over again. That was the pace all the years I worked with him.”
Mosley and Prince didn’t always see eye to eye. In 1998, he and fellow musician Levi Seacer filed a lawsuit against Prince — which was resolved — for shared royalties on compositions such as Sexy MF and My Name Is Prince, which Mosley and Seacer had co-written.
Mosley still kept in contact with Prince over the years, however, sometimes being invited to parties at Paisley Park, sometimes through the serendipity that seemed to mark their relationship.
“I was at a Beyoncé concert and he spotted me in the crowed. He had one of his security detail shine a flashlight on me, and I looked over and saw him waving me down. We talked and laughed together for a while. It was good to see him.”
Mosley remembers being at work when he heard the news of Prince’s death. Along with so many others, he felt disbelief.
“I just slumped in my chair for a minute, staring into space. Our lead sales executive heard about it and very kindly told me to head home. It was a tough time, and it hit me hard,” Mosley said. “All the band members who had performed with him had a private get-together, just to tell stories and be with one another.”
Mosley, along with his wife and children, attended the private memorial service for Prince in August 2016.
“I think that was the first time it really hit me,” Mosley said. “I broke down, because I realized my man was gone. I had to walk away so my kids wouldn’t see me crying.”
The past year has been a whirlwind for Mosley. He lost a creative mentor. He reunited with old bandmates — and experienced the rebirth of a long-dormant music career. And he’s toured in many of the cities he performed in more than 25 years ago.
What can possibly be ahead for him?
Mosley is adamant that his revived music career is temporary — definitely still a side hustle.
“This is not a midlife crisis, and I’m not giving up my day job,” he said. “But doing this is one way to keep Prince’s memory alive.”
He’s also feeling quite content in his job with YA, having logged a collective 17 years of project management.
“I love the people I work with and I’m comfortable with what I’m doing. This change happened under unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “But since it presented itself, I’m going to enjoy it while it’s here.”
With two high schoolers at home, he knows an empty nest is in his future, but he’s sanguine at the prospect.
“We’re talking about downsizing, maybe moving downtown,” he said. “Maybe Deanna and I will just look at each other and say, ‘What now?’ But I think we’ll be OK.
“And maybe I’ll even have the chance to get in some golf once in a while, once I’m not driving to practices, games and meets all the time. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to the ride.”
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.
Stay in touch
Follow the New Power Generation at facebook.com/originalnpg for information about future shows, including another European tour this fall and U.S. tour dates in spring 2018.