Prince and popper

A would-be Detroit gospel star seeks his own purple reign

When in Vegas, it’s the norm to see Elvis, Dolly and Michael Jackson look-alikes. As a matter of fact, Elvis can even marry you at certain wedding chapels. However, in Detroit, there aren’t many people walking around in ode to a celebrity. But we do have Prince. At UDetroit, Motor City Casino and Bert’s Warehouse in Eastern Market, where the karaoke is as popular as the flowers, fruits and vegetables, Prince entertains with the flair of … the Artist.

As he jumps on tables to the sounds of “Kiss” and “Purple Rain,” the crowd roars — and, like any entertainer, he drinks it all in. So who is this guy who looks, acts, walks and talks like Prince? He’s Prince St. Paul, and he is Prince all day long. Not just on Friday night or Saturday mornings or weekends.

It’s 9 a.m. when we meet at a midtown coffee shop where people are working, studying and munching on bagels. Most of the coffee sippers have a relaxed aura around them, but not Prince St. Paul. He is in full Prince mode. “This is everyday, baby,” he says. His hair is coifed, his makeup is fierce, his mustache is immaculate and his clothes are purple, right and tight. And on some days the back of the pants have windows … yes, you can actually see his butt. Prince designs all of his celebrity couture and everything has a splash of purple or blings with sequins and shine or better yet diamonds and pearls.

Prince St. Paul even has the infamous “Prince shriek” down to a science. As he demonstrates his vocal prowess — still in the coffee shop — people glance up from their cappuccinos and computers, look at him from head to toe and stare intently with curiosity and interest. “Is that Prince?” is what their eyes say.

However, nine months ago, Prince St. Paul wasn’t Prince. He was simply Paul Jack William Hall, a would-be gospel singer trying to spread the word of Jesus and, of course, acquire money and fame. He had a self-produced album available on iTunes, Hot and Poppin’ for Jesus. But, nothing was poppin’ for Paul. Nothing, that is, until a chance encounter with R&B singer and radio personality Keith Washington, who happened to be at the Signature Grill Nightclub when St. Paul was performing gospel songs from his album. Washington pulled him to the side and encouraged him to do a Prince act. “He said, ‘Man, you look, talk, you even walk like Prince. I know him and I’m telling you that you should do Prince,’” St. Paul recalls.

“I wasn’t even dressed like Prince at the time, and Keith said that,” he said. He laughs as he remembers that Washington said, “Man, get you a guitar and get that money.”

St. Paul gave it some thought. The gospel CD wasn’t gaining any traction, and he had been praying for some direction regarding his career. And every month of pushing the CD meant that he also was getting a month older. At the age of 49, St. Paul is five years younger than Prince is right now and almost twice the age of Prince when he released Purple Rain at the age of 26.

So, St. Paul looked in the mirror and saw what Washington saw: Prince. In addition to the physical similarities he also plays three instruments, the keytar, drums and keyboard.

He says the next time he stepped on stage, dressed liked the Artist and singing like the Artist, people went crazy … the total opposite of the people who sat and listened out of politeness to his gospel music.

Prince describes it as people screaming, pulling and almost fainting — just as if they’ve actually seen the original Prince.

Washington also remembers meeting St. Paul before he became Prince. He said that when he and a friend suggested the Prince act to St. Paul, he expressed doubt. But the next time he saw St. Paul, he was all decked out as Prince. “He really puts his heart in the performance that he gives, he has the wardrobe and people love taking pictures with him, like in Vegas,” Washington says.

His friend, Big Daddy Boo Bear, who has been in Vegas performing as Barry White for the last 13 years, says that Prince has what it takes to succeed. “He’s very exciting, he has the character down, and adds his own personality to it,” Boo Bear says. “And he’s doing it the right way, because the guys like him too, they are not offended or intimidated.”

Prince says that his fan base crosses all groups and his favorite song understandably is “Baby I’m a Star.” “I sing these songs because that is what they want,” Prince says. “Prince has been such an inspiration in my life and the movie Purple Rain told me you can’t be afraid to be you.”

Prince says that his popularity as a singer, artist and entertainer has quadrupled since Washington pointed him in a new direction. He said that clubgoers get excited when he walks through the door. Entertainers that are already performing, for instance at a casino, tell the managers not to let him through the door because he distracts from their acts. Prince said that he has been denied entry to several clubs several times.

“I’ve been told not to come back to a nightclub if I wouldn’t perform for free,” he said. “That’s when I knew I had something. It comes naturally: The look, voice, his ideas, walk. You never know how I’m coming.”

Prince said that his journey to becoming Prince was rocky, and he’s glad that Washington saw what he didn’t even know existed, and basically turned his life around.

Pushing 50, St. Paul realizes that life can be short. That’s the same age at which his biological father committed suicide more than 30 years ago.

Prince has two sisters, and all three were removed from their home and placed in foster care when he was about 5. He was adopted at the age of 11, and said his early years were turbulent, with lots of fighting. But he knew that there was something bigger waiting for him. Besides, he could sing and he could dress and he could even style hair. At one point, he says, the great Aretha Franklin was a client.

But Prince himself was a client at the crack house and then a five-year resident in Jackson Penitentiary. As a matter of fact, Prince said that by the time he was sentenced to prison, he requested that the judge grant him his time because he was sick and tired of the drugs, the wayward friends and of disappointing his adoptive mother.

“When I got out, I showed her that I had changed,” he said of his mother, who died three years ago.

Every weekend Prince sets out to set somebody’s stage on fire. “Flood’s charges extra when I’m there,” Prince says.

Cristina Byrd, manager at Flood’s Bar and Grill, knows Prince and says that his act is “quite interesting and definitely an entertaining experience. He has the hair, costumes and the whole nine.” However, she said that the entry remains the same with or sans Prince.

In addition to club owners who want to benefit from his appearance, Prince said that last year at the Detroit Auto Show — where the cars are the stars — he was the only one shining. So much so, that security escorted him right to Jefferson Avenue and asked that he leave the premises.

Beverly Sommers, a friend who has known St. Paul for about four years, has seen his Prince in action and also has witnessed club owners show him the door. “I think he is too much for the places where he has been in Detroit and these venues are too small for what he can do,” she says. “I think he’s a big-time stage entertainer and he outshines most people. He did a show at MotorCity and the audience went crazy for him. He has a flair about him and it’s a natural thing for him.”

His plan is to take the Prince act all the way to Las Vegas. He has an agent and plenty of plans. “Nobody in Vegas can do it all like me,” Prince says. In February, he will perform in New York as Prince along with Michael Jackson and Barry White look-alikes.

“We are born with certain talents and we are lucky if we can find out what they are,” Sommers says. “He’s found his.”

Prince feels he is on the road to something humongous, whether it be Vegas or California. “You can’t stop what God has for me,” he said. “Prince St. Paul gave up drugs for His grace and mercy. I’m going to do what God meant for me to do — entertain the world, baby.”