I Was on That Fateful Flight With Prince: A Protégée Tells Her Story

Tuesday - 21/06/2016 21:30
Her swift reaction may have helped save Prince’s life that night, six days before he died of an accidental overdose of the opioid painkiller fentanyl.

LOS ANGELES — It’s the moment that Judith Hill has been replaying in her mind for the last two months: She was sitting on a plane with a man she loved, talking, having dinner, when suddenly he lost consciousness. She shouted his name: Prince. She shook him. But he didn’t come to.

Her swift reaction may have helped save Prince’s life that night, six days before he died of an accidental overdose of the opioid painkiller fentanyl.

“His eyes fixed,” just before he nodded off across a table from her, Ms. Hill, 32, recalled in an interview here, speaking for the first time about her presence on the April 15 flight from Atlanta, after Prince’s two shows there. Only one other passenger was on the private jet, Prince’s longtime friend and aide Kirk Johnson. They were bound for Paisley Park, Prince’s estate outside Minneapolis. Over vegetables and pasta, Prince and Ms. Hill discussed his performances that night, which turned out to be his last public concerts; other musicians like the funk singer Betty Davis; and photography, one of Prince’s hobbies.

According to flight-tracking reports, the chartered 1988 Dassault Falcon 900 took off at 12:51 a.m. from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and was near Chicago, less than an hour from its destination, when Ms. Hill witnessed Prince fall unconscious. If she had glanced away in that instant, down at her phone or purse, she might have thought he had simply dozed off. “Thankfully, I happened to be looking into his face,” she said.

She immediately got Mr. Johnson, who was near the front of the plane. And when they couldn’t rouse Prince, they alerted the pilot, who called air traffic controllers in Chicago for help at 1:12 a.m., reporting an unresponsive man on board. “We knew it was only a matter of time; we had to get down,” Ms. Hill said. “We didn’t have anything on the plane to help him.”

Ms. Hill was “very freaked out,” she said, as they kept trying to wake him, shaking him and calling his name, while the plane descended. At 1:17 a.m., it made an emergency landing in Moline, Ill., where an ambulance met them. Paramedics and Mr. Johnson carried Prince, 57, into the vehicle, and he was revived on the tarmac with a shot of Narcan, which is typically used to treat opioid overdoses. Eighteen minutes after landing, the ambulance took him to nearby Trinity Moline Hospital.

Prince and Judith Hill. CreditPhotographs by Karrah Kobus/NPG Records, via Getty Images

Ms. Hill has experienced the loss of a musical superstar before: Working as a background vocalist in 2009, she was chosen to duet with Michael Jackson on “This Is It,” his planned concert series in London. He died less than three weeks before its start. Ms. Hill performed an emotional rendition of “Heal the World” with a children’s choir at his televised memorial service.

But “Michael was different,” she said in another interview late one night, after a rehearsal with her band in Pasadena, Calif. “I didn’t know Michael,” she continued, except “as a fan and as someone that worked for him.” Her grief for Prince was much more personal.

Asked if their connection was romantic, Ms. Hill said only: “There was a very intense relationship. I deeply cared for him.” In a conversation not long before he died, Ms. Hill said, “He told me that he loved me and that he would always be there for me.”

Her parents, also musicians, met him in January, when they went to Paisley Park and performed alongside their daughter, in a bill with Morris Day and the Time. Ms. Hill’s father, the bassist Robert Hill, known as PeeWee, and mother, the keyboardist Michiko Hill, are part of her touring band, which she said had delighted Prince. The couple had played with Sly and the Family Stone and Chaka Khan. Judith wrote her first song, a gospel number, at the age of 4.

Ms. Hill appeared on the 2013 season of “The Voice,” the TV singing competition, and, the same year, in the Oscar-winning documentary about backup singers, “20 Feet from Stardom,” earning a Grammy for her work. In an interview around that time, she was asked about her dream collaborator: “Prince,” she replied. By chance, he saw the interview and called her up, soon inviting her to jam at Paisley Park. By the winter of 2014, they were busy arranging and recording the funky, soulful album she’d written, “Back in Time.”

He played guitar, bass and drums, and sang. “He was my background vocalist for a lot of the songs,” she said, smiling.

Judith Hill with Prince, from Ms. Hill’s video “Back In Time (Behind-The-Scenes at Paisley Park).”

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