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June 18, 2019

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Elisa Fiorillo summons Princely spirit in ‘Purple Rain’ performance

Elisa Fiorillo

Jake Klein Photography

Elisa Fiorillo performs at Club Madrid at Sunset Station with the Lon Bronson All-Star Band on Thursday, April 21, 2014. She’s shown with a tambourine from her tours with Prince.

Click to enlarge photo

Elisa Fiorillo appears onstage with Prince on March 8, 2014, during a performance at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, just after an appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show.”

There are moments when you don’t need to ask, “How do you feel?”

To ask Elisa Fiorillo that question late Thursday night would have been pointless. She had just walked offstage after singing “Purple Rain,” bravely and beautifully, at Sunset Station’s Club Madrid.

As she took the few steps away from the stage’s floodlights, she stopped and began crying, covering her face with her hands.

These were big cries, as she would later say. “Baby crying, I-need-to-be-on-the-floor crying.” Michelle Rohl, who also was performing with Lon Bronson that night, left the stage to console Fiorillo, wrapping the singer in her arms for several minutes.

Fiorillo had not planned to sing at all that night, having been invited to the stage by her friend Bronson, who had asked her that morning to sing that song in honor of Prince. Fiorillo had spent five years as a backing vocalist in the New Power Generation lineup and had known Prince for more than 25 years.

“Prince was my teacher,” she said as she was introduced, her voice wavering. “Thank you for teaching me.”

The crowd erupted. Fiorillo then summoned a chilling performance, reciting perfectly a song she’d never sung in its entirety.

“I had sung just the choruses,” she said a day later, still shaken from the experience. “I sang the choruses, waved my arms for 20 minutes and ducked purple confetti.

Fiorillo’s appearance before a nearly full house at Club Madrid during Bronson’s regular appearance at the free-admission show was the culmination of a day that was a collision of grief and creativity.

Bronson had heard of Prince’s death at Paisley Park in Minneapolis about 10 a.m. Fifteen minutes later, he was writing charts for a setlist to be played at his show at Club Madrid, which was set to start at 10 p.m. During the day, he contacted Fiorillo, who was absorbing the news from her real-estate office — Fiorillo is known in the entertainment scene as the Singing Realtor, as her day job is with Knapp Realty in Las Vegas.

She was in a professional quarantine that morning, working in isolation, when she received a call from Shelby J. The two were members of Prince’s New Power Generation (NPG, the more common term) lineup from 2009-14. The fiery trio of backup singers was joined by the great Liv Warfield.

“She said, ‘Someone died at Paisley. Oh my God, who could it be?’ ” Fiorillo recalled. “We stayed on the phone together as news came in, screaming, balling, crying, ‘No, no, no!’ I started getting texts and phone calls, but I am glad it was her who told me. We were very close in the group.”

Fiorillo had been recruited by Prince long before she joined NPG. She had won “Star Search,” the pre-runner of “American Idol” and other talent contest shows, in 1985. She signed with Chrysalis Records and teamed with electro-funk musician and producer John “Jellybean” Benitez on the dance hit “Who Found Who.”

Having little knowledge of Prince’s catalog aside from the obvious — “Purple Rain,” “Darling Nikki,” “Little Red Corvette” and the like — Fiorillo met with producer David Z (who had worked with The Jets, Sinead O’Connor and Fine Young Cannibals) to record at Paisley Park. This was in 1989, just after “Lovesexy” was issued and two years after “Sign o’ the Times.”

After Fiorillo finished her session in the studio, Prince showed up in the studio and listened to the track, a song titled “He’s in My Life,” and asked, “Is that you singing?” Fiorillo said it was; Prince asked her to return to the studio. “Please go in and prove it.”

Fiorillo playfully punched his arm and delivered the same performance once more. He then asked her to record the extended, 12-inch version of “Partyman,” on the “Batman” soundtrack. But she did not actually sing.

“I just breathed, in and out, in and out,” Fiorillo recalled, laughing. “There was dust in the room, and I was just dying. … That was the start of it all.”

Fiorillo wound up moving back to her native Philadelphia and was a backing singer for Savage Garden, among others. She met her husband, Michael Dease (Fiorillo also has used her married surname in her entertainment career) while touring and eventually settled down in Las Vegas. She seemed finished with show business but after a few years was hungry to sing jazz regularly in town.

She recorded a YouTube clip with a jazz trio around the time Prince was headlining at Club 3121 at the Rio. Through the Prince circuit, the artist had seen that clip and called Fiorillo to reconnect.

“I was working at my daughter’s preschool cooking chicken nuggets and French fries and veggies,” she said, chuckling again. “I took the call in the bathroom, and there was a major echo. I kept thinking, ‘Please don’t let him know I am in the bathroom.’ ”

Prince asked how she was. “I can’t get a gig,” she told him. “We’ll change that,” he said.

Thus, Fiorillo toured intermittently from 2009-2014, crisscrossing the country and visiting such international outposts as Paris and Abu Dhabi. Prince was always mindful of Fiorillo’s role as a mother, often taking her off the road for periods so she could balance her life.

“I’m going to take care of you, don’t worry,” he often said. “I’ll be calling you.”

“Just don’t forget me!” Fiorillo said back. “Touring was tough, but I always knew — and everybody in the group talks about this — that just before he would call, you would hear a Prince song. It was like the bat signal.”

In the end, the two were “in different places,” with Prince touring with his new fascination, 3rdEyeGirl. The final performance for Fiorillo was at the Ebony Awards in the New Orleans Superdome on July 5, 2014. (Fiorello’s next gig is as vocalist for the Bruce Harper Big Band on June 3 at Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts.)

She recalled having lunch one day at Paisley Park, years ago, when Prince invited Fiorillo to meet his father, whose stage name was Prince Rogers, same as Prince’s legal name. A jazz pianist, Prince the elder was fascinated to know Fiorillo's father was a classically trained pianist who had studied with Vladimir Horowitz.

The group ate soup in near silence. Fiorillo became edgy and turned to Prince’s father. “You smell so good!” she blurted. “What are you wearing?”

“I got this at Target for $10!” the dad said.

“Prince’s face — he looked at me like, ‘What did you just ask my dad?’ ” But the next day, the artist told Fiorillo that his father related his affection for the singer. “Out of all the people who have come into his life, the ones he considers real friends are you and Sheila E.,” is how Prince stated that message.

Those memories, and many similar, flooded Fiorillo’s senses as she sang once more for Prince. She waved her tambourine as the crowd stood, many of those audience members crying right along. Bronson, a veteran of 25 years in the city, just bowed his head.

“I know that he loved me, and I loved him,” she said as if drafting an epitaph of her relationship with the man who changed her life. “He was like my brother.”

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