This oral history was originally compiled by the Star Tribune staff in 2004, when the man behind the “Minneapolis sound” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
IN THE BEGINNING
Prince Roger Nelson was born June 7, 1958, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis to Mattie Shaw and John Nelson. They had been in a jazz ensemble called the Prince Roger Trio. Since Mattie called her husband Prince, she dubbed her son Skipper “because he was small in size and he was just real cute — he was a darling baby.”
HIS MOTHER (Star Tribune interview, 1984): He could hear music even from a very early age. When he was 3 or 4, we’d go to the department store and he’d jump on the radio, the organ, any type of instrument there was. Mostly the piano and organ. I’d have to hunt for him, and that’s where he’d be — in the music department.
PRINCE (Star Tribune interview, 1978): Around the time I was 8, I had a pretty good idea what the piano was all about. I had one piano lesson and two guitar lessons as a kid. I was a poor student, because when a teacher would be trying to teach me how to play junky stuff, I would start playing my own songs. I’d usually get ridiculed for it, but I ended up doing my own thing. I can’t read music. It hasn’t gotten in the way yet. Maybe it will later, but I doubt it.
JIMMY JAM: We were at Bryant Junior High. I was a year younger than him. We were in a band to back up the choir at school. I was gonna play drums, and I knew Prince played keyboards. He showed up at practice and picks up a guitar and plays, note for note, the intricate solo from Chicago’s “Make Me Smile.” I made the mistake of getting up from the drums, and he sat there and he killed ‘em. He had the biggest Afro in the world — that wasn’t fair, either.
PRINCE (on “Larry King Live,” 1999): [Minnesota] was interesting because I grew up getting a wider array of music. I grew up with Santana and Larry Graham and Fleetwood Mac, all kinds of different things.
In 1976 Chris Moon, a south Minneapolis studio proprietor and aspiring lyricist, hired Prince and other musicians to record music for a slide show.
BOBBY Z (drummer): Prince was playing the piano. It was an upright or spinet — a small thing. It was moving, waving like a cartoon, responding to his fingertips. The music was rich and full. I never heard anything like that. I’d never seen anyone play the piano like that. I was taken immediately.
Moon gave Prince a key to the studio so he could work at night. They unsuccessfully pitched a demo tape to record labels, then turned to Owen Husney, a concert promoter who also owned an ad agency. Husney raised $50,000 from investors to support Prince until he could land a record contract. To record a second demo, he enlisted Bobby Z’s brother, Minneapolis recording engineer David Rivkin (later David Z), who had recorded Prince’s band Grand Central in 1975.
DAVID Z: He did all the instruments. He had a little cassette machine into which he’d hummed each part. The horn part, the guitar part — he had it all separated. It was really evolved. He was 16, 17 years old. When anyone came in the studio while he was singing, he wanted me to turn the light off because he didn’t want anybody to look at him. [My wife] came in while he was singing “Soft and Wet,” and he was a little embarrassed. He got over that shyness, that’s for sure.
BOBBY Z: My day job was a runner for Owen’s ad company, but my job became basically to take care of Prince. He didn’t drive. I took him to get his license eventually. We found an apartment. We bought musical gear. We’d hang out in my Pinto station wagon. We went to a Santana concert at Northrop. We would move the furniture around at [Husney’s] office, and we’d jam until dawn almost every night. It was Andre [Anderson, later Cymone], me and Prince most of the time.
OWEN HUSNEY: We put together 15 press kits and sent out seven or eight to the major labels. The first marketing move was I put his age back a year. I knew if he was worth so much at 18, he was worth that much more at 17. I knew that he was shy, so the second marketing move was that less is more. I didn’t want any press clippings or 8 million pictures. I just wanted one line [of copy]. The music would speak for itself. We also wanted to be different. L.A. at that time was jeans; open, untucked shirts, and cowboy boots. We were all wearing three-piece suits; we had one made for Prince, too. And we sent the tape on a silver reel — it was reel-to-reel, not cassette.
Husney refused offers from A&M and Columbia and opted for Warner Bros. because its executives agreed to give Prince artistic freedom and let him produce his debut. But first, they wanted to see him work.
LENNY WARONKER (Warner Bros. VP): You could not only tell there was talent but there was a vision. He went out and played guitar, then overdubbed drums. By the time the drum part was recorded, it was clear. We didn’t want to insult him by making him go through the whole process, but he wanted to finish. As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor. He looked up and said, “Don’t make me black.” I thought, “Whoa!” He said, “My idols are all over the place.” He named an array that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me feel that we shouldn’t mess around with this guy.
CREATING A CONTROVERSY
Prince began recording at the Record Plant in Sausalito, Calif., with veteran engineer Tommy Vicari.
OWEN HUSNEY: Lenny and Mo [Ostin, head of Warner Bros.] came up to the studio in San Francisco to listen. Prince didn’t really want them up there, and I’m trying my best to keep them happy. We’re listening to the playback of “So Blue.” Lenny goes, “Great song, but there’s no bass.” Prince turns around and says, “That’s it. Everybody out. Get out.” I turned white. I thought, “It’s all over.” We go shuffling out of the studio. Lenny said, “Don’t worry about it. The song is great. I get where he’s coming from. I’m with him.”
DAVID Z: Prince is a great practical joker. We were all staying in the same house, and one night Tommy Vicari was out with his girlfriend. We took some of Owen’s clothes, stuffed them full of leaves. Prince put a knife in the back of this shirt and we laid it on the floor of Tommy’s bedroom. Tommy comes home about 4, 5 in the morning, and he flipped out. We were downstairs playing Pong. We laughed our asses off.
OWEN HUSNEY: Prince and Andre were jamming at a music store in San Francisco, and members of Santana’s band invited them to meet Carlos. We open the door: It’s an all-white house with all-white carpeting. Carlos says, “Come in, please. Please take off your shoes.” I said, “Prince, you gotta remove your boots.” He said, “I don’t remove my boots for anyone.” He walks across the carpeting and I see this trail of mud, and I’m cleaning up the mud while they’re in there talking.
One day Prince comes home [from the recording studio] all excited because he met Chaka Khan. She called up and asked, “Is Sly [Stone] there?” Prince happened to answer the phone and he said, “Yeah, baby, this is Sly. Do you want to come down?” About two hours later — this is like 2 in the morning — she opens the door and sees Prince. She says, “Where’s Sly?” He goes, “Ha, ha, ha. That was me.” I guess she cussed him out. And irony of ironies, she has one of her biggest hits a few years later with one of his songs.
After $150,000 was spent on recording, Prince’s “For You” was released in April 1978.
BOB MERLIS (Warner Bros. head of publicity): He did an interview with a woman at Record World. They talked about whatever, then he asked her: “Does your pubic hair go up to your navel?” At that moment, we thought maybe we shouldn’t encourage him to do interviews.
OWEN HUSNEY: We were visiting radio stations and no one had any money, so Prince and I were sharing hotel rooms. Prince always had to have music on loud all night. It was the only way he could sleep. I remember in San Francisco, he was sound asleep, the clock radio is blaring at 4 in the morning. I reached over and hit the off button. He shot up and said, “Never, ever turn off the radio. Music soothes the savage beast.” He hits the radio and turns it back on, and he’s sound asleep.
Prince’s single “Soft and Wet,” co-written with Chris Moon, became a Top 10 R&B hit. It was time to put together a band to perform his music on the road. Many musicians tried out, including Jimmy Jam, who was rejected.
BOBBY Z: We started to audition in L.A. He liked to jam. Not a lot of talking — the talking is through the music. This keyboard player looked at his watch and that was pretty much it for him. There was one guitar player that they liked, but I think he made some reference in the limo about doing drugs. We didn’t call him back. We were on a mission.
RICKY PETERSON (keyboardist): I’d go over and jam with them for weeks and weeks. They wanted me in the band, but they’d say, “This is what you can’t do: You can’t drink; you have to show up on time . . . “ A light went off in my head that said, “This sounds like horrible boot camp.” I didn’t know what his career was going to be because he didn’t have one. I said “no” to Prince.
BOBBY Z: Keyboard players are the hardest to find because of the technology and what Prince’s music was. My friend Matt Fink came to audition. The first words out of Prince’s mouth were: “Let’s do `So Blue.’ “ Matt goes, “I didn’t learn that one.” Prince bursts out laughing: “There’s no keyboards on there.” Their relationship was funny like that.
Fink and Bobby Z became part of an all-Minnesota band. Their first two shows were at the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis in January 1979. Warner Bros. officials flew in to see the second.
DEZ DICKERSON (guitarist): We were still individuals and not a band yet. Prince was real down on himself. I remember us encouraging him, “Put it behind you. We did fine.”
MATT FINK: He was still learning, still developing what he was going to do stage-wise. It went OK, but I don’t think it went well enough for Warners to say, “You guys are ready to go out on the road.” So they had him do another album, and in the meantime we rehearsed like crazy for many months.
They finally hit the road after the 1979 release of “Prince,” which included the falsetto-fueled hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover.”
MATT FINK: The Rick James tour was the first big tour, the first where we were the opening act for a big headliner. I was wearing a jail suit — you know, black-and-white stripes, because it went well with the keyboards. But Rick [James] would come out in this black-and-white jumpsuit that was Velcroed so he could tear out of it. Prince came to me and said, “I think we need to change your image. What was your second choice?” I racked my brain, came across the doctor idea, and he said, “Ah ha!” So they sent out the wardrobe people to a uniform shop. And that night, I became Doctor Fink.
Keyboardist Gayle Chapman dropped out of the band, so L.A. keyboardist Lisa Coleman submitted a tape to Prince’s new managers, Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli, who had worked with Sly Stone and Earth, Wind & Fire.
LISA COLEMAN: He sent for me to come out to Minneapolis. I was fresh out of high school. Prince picked me up at the airport in his little Fiat sports car. He even let me smoke in his car. I don’t think his ashtray had ever been used. He was really romancing me.
We got to his house and went downstairs. He pointed me to the piano and said, “You can go play, and I’ll be right back.” I knew he was spying on me. I had been working on a Mozart concerto, so I started playing some of that. He came bounding down the stairs. Then he picked up a guitar, and we started jamming; I think he actually played “Party Up.”
I stayed the weekend in a spare bedroom. When I looked around the house, he had the “A Star Is Born” poster — Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand — on his wall in the bedroom. I thought that was so cute — boy rock ’n’ roll.
The band was invited on TV’s “American Bandstand,” where Prince gave the host the silent treatment.
DEZ DICKERSON: Dick Clark came into the Green Room and did his cordial thing: He’s everybody’s friend and puts everybody at ease. After he left, I saw that look on Prince’s face that meant: Uh oh, something’s coming. He said, “This is what we’re going to do. When Dick Clark talks to you, don’t say anything.” My heart sank. But it ended up being considered pure genius. And Dick Clark talks about it to this day.
PRINCE (Star Tribune interview, 1980): That tripped me out when Dick Clark asked how I come from Minneapolis, of all places. That really gave me an attitude. TV personalities are hard to talk to. They come out of certain bags. Music is music. A place is a place.
In the fall of 1980, Prince released “Dirty Mind,” a raw record with songs about incest and oral sex.
MATT FINK: The “Dirty Mind” album was a critical success, but the fans weren’t quite ready for it. It was R&B, new wave, punk, funk and rock all mishmashed together. It was so innovative and different, it threw people for a loop.
DEZ DICKERSON: We had morphed into the Spandex kids. We were trying to dress as outrageously and outlandishly as we could. We were doing two shows at the Roxy in L.A. Between shows, [manager] Bob Cavallo came back and went through his list of critiques. For Prince, it was, “You’re wearing these Spandex pants with no underwear. It’s obscene.” When Bob left, Prince got that look on his face. He said, “Bob wanted me to wear underwear, so I’ll wear underwear.” So he went out in his underwear. Period.
BOB CAVALLO: I told him, “I don’t think you should go out onstage in your underwear.” Prince says, “OK, stay for the next show, I’m going to take off my underwear.” And the band howled.
Prince kept things heated up with the 1981 album “Controversy” — and he caused one when he opened two Rolling Stones shows in L.A.
DEZ DICKERSON: It was [bassist] Mark Brown’s second show with us. Here’s this 18-year-old kid who looks like a deer in the headlights, in front of 110,000 people at the L.A. Coliseum. Prince was in his full “Dirty Mind” regalia with the bikini and trench coat. Halfway through the set, those natives got restless. They started taking their Coke cups and throwing them onstage. I look around, and Prince is gone. So I signaled to the rest of the guys: Let’s do likewise. Then more stuff got thrown.
Prince flew back to Minneapolis that night. Mick Jagger phoned to no avail. Then Dickerson called and told him of playing in biker bars “where no black man had ever set foot before. You can’t let them run you out of town.” Prince returned for Round 2.
DEZ DICKERSON: That audience brought stuff to throw. Someone threw a fifth of Jack Daniels that barely missed Prince’s head during the first measure of the first song. A gallon jug of orange juice exploded on Mark’s bass. I’d point at people and smile and wave. When all was said and done, we got through the set. Going through that added to Prince’s bravado.
BABY, HE’S A STAR
Hungering for an R&B outlet, Prince formed the Time around drummer Morris Day, his onetime bandmate in Grand Central. The self-titled 1981 album, which included the hit “Cool,” was written and recorded by Prince at his house in Chanhassen.
LISA COLEMAN: Morris was undergoing this huge change. He was a friend who would run and get us hamburgers — a funny guy with this freckled face and big 'fro. Prince was grooming him, giving him a haircut. Morris had some hard times. He was trying to work on some vocals, and when I went in there he was crying. Prince could push really hard and sometimes leave out the positive reinforcement. He has more of a Machiavellian “you will do it.”
Another side project was a vampy girl group dubbed Vanity 6.
JIMMY JAM (Time keyboardist): On the Vanity 6 record, he did a song a day. We watched him do it. His recording technique was unorthodox. He would record everything way too loud. It makes everything sound really frantic, so it always sounds louder than it really is. There would always be an edge to his recordings. There’s not a recording we do where there’s not something we learned from the way he worked.
As with “Controversy,” Prince did the double-disc followup album “1999” mostly on his own.
PRINCE (Rolling Stone interview, 1985): The reason I don’t use musicians a lot of the time had to do with the hours that I worked. I swear to God it’s not out of boldness when I say this, but there’s not a person around who can stay awake as long as I can. Music is what keeps me awake.
LISA COLEMAN: I lived in his house on and off for a couple of years. We had a fight one day. He said something about me getting my own apartment, and I left the house and drove around for a while. When I got back, he had written me a whole song. It was so cute. The lyric was, “I guess I have a strange way of saying I love you.” He had recorded it — drums, piano, guitar, bass and vocals with harmonies.
CHUCK ZWICKY (recording engineer): Back during the “1999” era, a friend of mine was dating him, and she said they’d walk down the street or be in some club and — you know how it is in the Minneapolis music scene — people would walk right up to him and tell him what they thought of him: “Who do you think you are, doing this dance music? Who do you think you are, doing this rock?” People just came up venting their opinions. And he always had this one response for everybody: “Yeah? Well, what are you doing?”
Through Coleman, Prince met twin sisters from Los Angeles: Susannah Melvoin, his future girlfriend, and Wendy, his future guitarist.
WENDY MELVOIN: In 1982, my family and Lisa’s family had gone to New York City to spend Christmas. I was in [Lisa’s] room, and I was practicing. Apparently, Prince was walking to his room and heard guitar music. He knocked on the door, “Who’s playing, ‘cause I know it ain’t you [Lisa].” I played some hotshot progression, and he looked at me with that kind of twinkle in his eyes. Didn’t say much. Then he asked me to join a sound check in the Carolinas when Dez [Dickerson] didn’t come to sound check. I played “Controversy” and got asked to join the band.
Prince fired Jam and Terry Lewis from the Time in 1983 for missing a show, Paul Peterson was auditioned to replace Jam — the same month he graduated from Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield.
PAUL PETERSON: I was pretty intimidated. Prince was trying to make me at ease. He wrote on a piece of paper: W-R-E-C-K-A-S-T-O-W. He said, “What’s that?” I don’t know. He said, “Say it again.” He said, “Say it faster. What is it?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Where do you buy your records?” I was just this suburban Norwegian coming into that whole thing. We all laughed, and that kind of broke the ice. He ended up putting that bit into a movie [“Under the Cherry Moon”].
Prince actually had been jotting ideas for a movie for some time. He refused to sign a new contract with his management firm unless they got him a movie deal.
CAVALLO: “And it can’t be financed by some drug dealer or jeweler,” whatever that means [Prince told his managers]. “And it has to be a major studio and my name has to be above the title.”
MATT FINK: Toward the end of the “1999” tour, he sat down with me and said we were going to be doing a movie next. I just looked at him in amazement. He said, “It’s already in the works.” I just said, “OK.” What more could I say, other than, “Oh, I hope he pulls this off.” But, of course, I was excited about it. Everyone was.
BOB CAVALLO: I wasn’t sure how his dialogue — his acting — was going to go. But I had a perhaps naïve belief that the kid could do anything. I watched him rehearse for years. No one had the attention to detail he had. I thought: He’ll figure a way to do it.
Cavallo and his partners paired Prince with a young filmmaker, Al Magnoli.
WENDY MELVOIN: I had no idea what the movie was going to be. Al [Magnoli] and Prince were writing it as they were going. During that whole summer, people were called in and asked, “What is your relationship with Prince? How would you see a situation arise?” Blah, blah, blah. Then 10 days later, there would be some pages [of script] and then they would be shooting.
NEAL KARLEN (writer): He said something about having to “jack up” the story of his father in “Purple Rain.” In truth, he said, his father didn’t swear at his mother or have a gun. It was really clear that his relationship with his father was the formative relationship of his life. His father did kick him out of the house. That song he wrote with his father, “The Ladder” [from 1985’s “Around the World in a Day”], was a critical point in the relationship. I asked him why he was such a control freak. He said, “What if everyone left me and there was no one around except me? I’d gotta know how to control things on my own.” I think that all goes back to his father.
MATT FINK: The whole summer of 1983, we were holed up in a warehouse in St. Louis Park. We were rehearsing the material that he brought in, and we were also co-writing some of it. At the same time, we were working with an acting teacher that they brought in several days a week. Also a dance instructor. It was a good three months of work, leading into the filming in the fall of 1983.
WENDY MELVOIN: You’d go in the next room in the warehouse and there was Don Amendolia doing acting classes: “Act like an ice cream and melt.” Then we’d go downtown to these dance classes, and there would be [Time drummer] Jellybean Johnson, this 6-foot-4 guy trying to do pirouettes across the room with a trenchcoat on. It was full of energy and excitement and big hopes and dreams.
PAUL PETERSON: I picked out this hip pin-striped black suit [to wear in the movie]. Prince was like, “Nobody’s going to notice you with that. Wear this.” It’s orange pin-striped. I said, “Oh, no, I don’t want to wear that.” And he said, “Wear it.” I didn’t want to make any waves because I just got the gig. And then they got ahold of my hair. I was the only 17-year-old male that owned a curling iron and spent more time getting ready to go out than my girlfriend. The title track was hashed out during a day at the warehouse on Hwy. 7.
WENDY MELVOIN: Everybody was coming up with their own parts. By the end of the day, it was pretty much solid. I remembered this woman walked in with her bicycle. She was like a bag lady. She sat down on a chair in front of us while we were playing. Really quiet, very demure, really sweet. And she just started crying while we played “Purple Rain.” She was bawling.
MATT FINK: We did a show at First Avenue in August of 1983 that was a benefit for the Minnesota Dance Theatre, because that’s where we were getting our dance instruction. They brought in a live recording truck. The air-conditioning couldn’t keep up, so we were very sweaty. But we had a lot of fun. A lot of the basic tracks for the album were taken from that show. The other songs were pretty much him in the studio, like “When Doves Cry.”
Filming stretched into winter.
WENDY MELVOIN: Lisa and I had a condo in Edina. I remember that our call on the set was like 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning, and the two of us had to get up an hour earlier to go out and turn the damn car on to get it warm enough to get us into town. We’d be done filming by 10 o’clock at night. And First Avenue was cold. They had space heaters all around.
In May 1984, a month before the album came out, Prince issued a single that became his first No. 1 pop hit.
LENNY WARONKER: He’d made “When Doves Cry” and for whatever reason, he didn’t put a bass on it. He was uptight about it, and he wanted me to hear the record. I hadn’t talked to him in years. I listened to it, and there was so much action going on and so much bottom end that he didn’t need bass. I said, “It sounds good. Why didn’t you put bass on it?” He said, “When I make my records, I work on them ’til I think they’re finished.”
The “Purple Rain” soundtrack zoomed to the top of the charts and stayed there for half a year. Los Angeles critic Mikal Gilmore called “Purple Rain” the best rock film ever made. Its premiere was in Hollywood.
LISA COLEMAN: It was at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, across the street from where I’d wait for the bus to go home after school. Doing that whole red-carpet thing, it was a fantasy.
BOBBY Z: I was sitting next to Prince and my wife and my mom. When people were laughing at the jokes on the screen, he cracked a smile.
The $7 million movie grossed $70 million. Suddenly, Prince was a huge star. His tour included weeklong stands in New York and Los Angeles — and a record five shows at the St. Paul Civic Center.
BOBBY Z: We were at the Forum in L.A. Madonna knocks on the door and says, “Can I use the bathroom?” Sure. [Bruce] Springsteen needed to use the bathroom, too. My dad was there. “Dad, I’d like you to meet Bruce. Madonna, this is Harold Rivkin.” My dad goes, “Nice to meet you.” He didn’t know who he was talking to.
PAUL PETERSON: Prince brought Bruce up and gave him a guitar to play a solo. Then he took the guitar over Bruce’s head and played a little bit, pretending like it wasn’t working right. He gave it a little look. And then he gave it this look like, “It’s fine now that I’m playing it.” He was giving Springsteen the attitude.
ALAN LEEDS (tour manager): For every outfit, there were matching boots. We’re talking like a hundred outfits. Every night he was breaking heels. This kid was a hurricane onstage. Someone found a boot designer in New York who does theatrical wardrobe, an elderly Italian guy. He told her, “The only problem is I’ve got a dozen boots to make for Luther Vandross. As soon as that’s done, we can move to yours.” She looked at him, pulled out an Amex Gold Card and said, “Luther who?”
A sexy song on the B side of Prince’s No. 1 single “Let’s Go Crazy” introduced a new flame, percussionist Sheila E.
DAVID Z: We were editing “Erotic City” at his purple house [in Chanhassen]. It was a hot summer day, and I wore this loud Hawaiian shirt. I said, “I can’t hear the bass drum too well.” He said, “That’s ‘cause your shirt’s too loud.”
The soundtrack went on to win two Grammys and an Academy Award.
WENDY MELVOIN: [At the Oscars] we went on the podium with Prince, and we looked like the Addams Family. It was an amazing evening. The most incredible part was me and Lisa sitting next to Jimmy Stewart and just being absolutely amazed at the amount of energy in the room and around Prince.
Prince began looking at new directions for his followup record.
LISA COLEMAN: We used to spend hours and hours playing records for each other. Even classical music. Prince hadn’t really been exposed to it. I remember one time I was living with his girlfriend Kim Upsher in Crystal. He came knocking at the door: “Have you ever heard this?” It was [Ravel’s] “Bolero” — he’d just seen the movie “10.”
PRINCE (Entertainment Weekly Online, 1999): In some ways, [“Purple Rain”] was more detrimental than good. People’s perception of me changed after that, and it pigeonholed me. I saw kids coming to concerts who screamed just because that’s where the audience screamed in the movie. That’s why I did “Around the World in a Day,” to totally change that.
Before the psychedelic-flavored album came out, he broke his silence to the press in a Rolling Stone cover story with a Minneapolis writer.
NEAL KARLEN: His limo took me out to a warehouse. I’m just kind of standing there like a dork. Finally, he sees me and gestures me out to his car, a 1966 T-Bird, which I guess was his dad’s car. He was leaning over the steering wheel saying over and over, “I said I’d never do this again.” So I stowed my tape recorder and everything, and we just started talking. We talked about Minnesota, the Twins, you can’t get good Chinese food here, and finally he started up the car and started driving through north Minneapolis. We went to First Avenue. He pulls up right in front and the crowd parted — it was like Universal Studios where they have the fake Moses crossing the Red Sea.
Prince decided to direct himself on his second movie, “Under the Cherry Moon,” filmed on the French Riviera with actress Kristin Scott-Thomas. It flopped, but the accompanying album, “Parade,” had one of his biggest hits, “Kiss.”
WENDY MELVOIN: He was in a new place, and the whole look started changing and getting sleeker. There was something very Cary Grantish about him. He was happy, and he liked working with all those new people. You could see him growing exponentially. He was fearless, and he wanted to get his hands on all creative aspects of his career.
JEFF KATZ (photographer): We were shooting in La Victorine studios in Nice, where Truffaut made his movies. It was just Prince and me and this little boom box in this massive room. I would shoot a few rolls; he would put on some music. This went on for a couple of hours, not really talking. We ended up with that “Parade” album cover. I was there for four months. He wasn’t interested in candid photos. It was like, “This is my look, and this is how it has to be all the time.”
DAVID Z: I was mixing the soundtrack at a soundstage in Los Angeles. I pull up with two huge tapes under my arms, and I see Prince talking to somebody. “David, do you know Michael Jackson?” In this soundstage, there was a pingpong table. They come in with their bodyguards. Prince says, “You want to play pingpong?” Michael says, “I don’t know how to play, but I’ll try.” The whole crew stops working to watch them play. Pretty soon, Prince says to Michael, “You want me to slam it?” Michael drops his paddle and holds his hands up in front of his face so the ball won’t hit him. Needless to say, the game is over. Michael walks out with his bodyguard. And Prince starts strutting around like a rooster. “Did you see that? He played like Helen Keller.”
Prince actually wrote “Kiss” for an album David Z was producing for Mazarati, a Twin Cities group discovered by Revolution bassist Mark Brown.
DAVID Z: Prince gave us this straight version with just one verse, an acoustic guitar and voice, no rhythm. It was almost a folk song. We went back in the studio and stayed up all night doing this thing. In the morning, I came back around 9:30. Prince had been there, listened to what we did and put his lead guitar and voice on it. He said, “It was too good for you guys. I’m taking it back.”
The Time broke up when singer Morris Day and guitarist Jesse Johnson left to pursue solo careers. The new edition of the band had played only one gig.
PAUL PETERSON: We were all sitting around the warehouse — I’m making $250 a week even after a hit movie and a double-platinum record on the wall. Prince said, “Morris is gone. But I’m going to start a new band, and you’re going to be the lead singer.” He pointed right at me. Huh?
ERIC LEEDS: The Time was basically his way of making R&B music without being pigeonholed as an R&B artist. So he put together the Family as a substitute, with the conscious decision of having the lead vocalists be white people. He was thinking of George Michael and Wham! — thinking he could get in on that market. The Family record is one of my favorite Prince albums. Basically, what he did was bring Paul Peterson in to mimic him. And it certainly worked, to Paul’s credit. Prince wanted to make us look like these little rich kids who can be funky. The first day we did a photo shoot, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “Oh, my god, this is not what I went to music school for.” But it was fun.
WENDY MELVOIN: Those warehouses were incredible breeding grounds for creativity. The Time was in one room rehearsing, and we’d be in the other. Prince was in the midst of doing the Family record. He was really driven, and his moods started getting more serious. He didn’t have a lot of time for fun, except he would go outside and play basketball — in the [high] heels, which he’s now paying for, I’m sure. With his heels on, he could run faster than me, and I was wearing tennies.
DAVID Z: We used to kid that he never slept. He took catnaps. I remember him telling me: “You work better in the studio when you’re tired because you don’t overthink things.”
Meanwhile, trouble was brewing in the Family.
PAUL PETERSON: We rehearsed for months and months, and played one gig. It was a surprise gig, like he said, “We’re going to play First Avenue tonight.” Nobody knew who we were, except we were the new Prince group. He hugged me after the show, he was so ecstatic.
ERIC LEEDS: In the fall of ‘85, there was supposed to be a Paisley Park package tour with Sheila E, the Family and Mazarati. The Family album was out and the single, “The Screams of Passion,” was doing very well, but Paul was starting to have misgivings.
PAUL PETERSON: He had me in singing, acting and dancing lessons out in Los Angeles. Still making $250 a week. They had a contract that they wanted us to sign. [My lawyer] said, “Don’t sign it.” I’d go to Prince, and he’d say, “Don’t talk business to me. Talk to my managers.” None of us signed it.
When the record came out, the band was scattered because Susannah [Melvoin, the group’s other singer] was out with Prince on tour. My phone started ringing. John McClain [of A&M Records] said, “I want you to leave Prince.” He showed me a figure, which was like $250,000. That was a lot more than $250 a week. Steve Fargnoli [Prince’s manager] threatened me with lawsuits and injunctions. I got one of those rare phone calls from Prince: “What is this about? Money? You want a house? I can get you a house.” I said, “It’s too late. I’ve made up my mind.” Here we are, 12 months after the Time broke up; we rehearsed for months and we did one gig. Prince was devastated.
OOPS, PARTY’S OVER
“Under the Cherry Moon” had its premiere in July 1986 in Sheridan, Wyo. — a site chosen in an MTV contest.
WENDY MELVOIN: It was like being on Mars. I don’t know if it was the greatest marketing scheme, [but] the show at the Holiday Inn was fierce. That night I had a huge blowout with Prince. I was at the bar having a beer with Joni Mitchell. An interviewer came up to me and the next day in some paper, it said: “Wendy from Prince and the Revolution answering blah blah blah while nursing a Budweiser.” Prince pulled me upstairs and read me out about being an example to kids. I was completely floored. It felt like something else was wrong here. It’s not about me drinking a beer.
“Cherry” was a bomb with critics and filmgoers. Prince’s last show with the Revolution came in September at Yokohama Stadium in Japan.
WENDY MELVOIN: Onstage, he broke his “Purple Rain” guitar intentionally. Me and Lisa looked at each other and went, “It’s over.” He disappeared. Then we got a phone call to meet him at this house he’d rented in Beverly Hills — which ended up being the house that the Menendez brothers killed their folks in. We had dinner, and he said: “I can’t expect you guys to go where I’m going to go next. I think we’ve gone as far as we can go. I’ve got to let you go.” The two of us were like, “What?” He called Bobby [Z] that night, too. We were all completely spun out. We thought we’d be around a lot longer. We were ready to be there.
MATT FINK: He came to me that same day and said, “I’m not going to fire you. You have a choice to leave or stay, and I’d understand if you didn’t want to stay.” It was a really, really difficult moment for me. I thought, “OK, if I quit, what do I do?” I decided to keep my job.
WENDY MELVOIN: Lisa was very vocal with him. And I never kept my mouth shut. Am I intimidated by Prince? No. I was born and raised in Hollywood. There were huge stars in and out of my house like Bette Midler, Streisand, Peggy Lee. At times I was scared of Prince because he had anger stuff. His eyes could burn you. He looked like he was going to kill somebody. And a lot of times that would be me.
Prince reconfigured the band, with Sheila E on the drums. He recorded an ambitious three-disc set, “Sign o’ the Times,” but the label persuaded him to pare it to two discs for its release in March 1987. He took the new band to Europe but abruptly halted plans for a U.S. tour.
ERIC LEEDS: It was a decision that we all were very much in disagreement with him about. We had gone to Europe and did 2 1/2 months, and the reaction was just tremendous. I looked at him and said, “Are you out of your mind?” He said, “We’re going to make a movie out of it instead.” In retrospect, that was a crucial mistake. The album, as great as it was, lost momentum after that.
The concert film did little to invigorate Prince’s career, but he had grander ambitions. In 1987, he opened a new 65,000-square foot playground: Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen.
MARK (RED) WHITE (Paisley facility director): He had the idea for a facility where he could do recording, film and video work in town instead of flying back and forth to L.A. all the time. It cost between $10 million to $13 million, depending on what you want to throw in. You couldn’t replicate that today for that much money, but at the time it was pretty extravagant. We had the opportunity to buy the best of the best. It was state of the art.
Artistically, Prince was restless. Even though he had chart success with the songs “Sign o’ the Times” and “U Got the Look,” a duet with Sheena Easton, he was no longer on top of the music world. He decided to make an underground recording. Then, with more than 400,000 copies ready to be shipped, he paid to cancel its release.
ALAN LEEDS (tour manager): “The Black Album” was a hastily assembled project. We assumed it was: (A) his reaction to the crossover of hip-hop into the mainstream in the era of MC Hammer and LL Cool J becoming pop stars and bouncing real musicians and singers off the chart and, (B) his reaction to some critics and fans who thought his more pop material somehow represented a sellout. He’s said the reason he deep-sixed the record was bad karma — it was a record made out of anger. The records were pressed and boxed on the loading docks. Karen Krattinger [Paisley general manager] got the call in the middle of the night. It was an emotional conversation. He apologized to her for what his moods had been in the office, things that were completely out of character. Insisting this record be stopped was part of this.
His frustration continued as he worked frantically on “Lovesexy,” an album that had a more positive outlook but became notorious for its nude cover of Prince. To regain his commercial momentum, he mounted his most ambitious tour ever.
ALAN LEEDS: He said, “You don’t know what it’s like to look at the charts and see guys at No. 1 who can’t sing or play an instrument.”
CHUCK ZWICKY (recording engineer): He would work around the clock. In the morning, he’d rehearse with his band, videotape the rehearsals, then come into the studio and we’d work until 4 or 5 in the morning. Then he’d go home, watch the videos and come back to band rehearsal.
Once the tour started, he’d fly back to Paisley to record rather than sitting around on a tour bus. On one occasion, we worked 40 straight hours through Monday morning. When he left, we had three songs mixed. [His assistant] Therese always came in to transcribe the lyrics off the tape. I asked her, “Do you want headphones to get the lyrics?” And she said, “What lyrics? He’s not supposed to be singing. He’s got strep throat.” It was a marathon. No breaks for sleeping or eating. And then he rejoined the tour.
PRINCE (Guitar World magazine, 1998): People call me a workaholic, but I’ve always considered that a compliment. John Coltrane played the saxophone 12 hours a day. That’s not a maniac; that’s a dedicated musician whose spirit drives his body to work so hard. I think that’s something to aspire to. People say that I take myself too seriously. I consider that a compliment, too.
During tour rehearsals, Prince made his entrance onstage in a Ford Thunderbird but when he looked at a video replay, he decided he was too small in relation to the vehicle.
BOB CAVALLO: So I was told to get a three-quarters version of the car. Only Prince could do that.
ERIC LEEDS: The Lovesexy Tour was pretty amazing. There were over 50 semi-trailers and hundreds of people on the road. That’s how excessive things were in the ‘80s. You probably didn’t need like four hair and makeup people and the ridiculous amounts of wardrobe. But it’s like they say: If you got it, flaunt it. He’s probably pocketing more net money today on his shows.
It was basically a good vs. evil show. The first half was evil; the second half was good. I think that went over a lot of people’s heads. Also, “Lovesexy” wasn’t as successful compared to the previous albums. It was probably the start of the downturn of the marketability of his career. And it was very frustrating for him, because I think he considered “Lovesexy” his best or at least his most personal record.
HELEN HIATT (wardrobe director): He was an artist right down to the clothes he wore. The Lovesexy Tour, I think, was the best I was involved in. We started writing on all his clothes, and the clothes all had graphics on them. On opening night in Paris, he came to me and said, “Can you write `Minneapolis’ on the sleeve?” And I was like, “Sure, it’s only an hour before show time.” He was thinking of every last detail up to the last minute.
ALAN LEEDS: Early ’88 was the first time we felt financial pressure. He’d had tremendous expansion of his payroll and overhead — the intoxication of “Purple Rain” money. But the subsequent records nowhere matched that success. His ambition was, “I’ve got to outdo the Purple Rain Tour.” He hadn’t toured the States since then. It translated into six months of tedious rehearsals and some new expensive idea every day. He wanted water fountains and a moat around the stage. I don’t know how much money the tour lost.
ROBBIE PASTER (Prince’s valet): He always had a baby grand piano in the hotel rooms so he could play his music. One of the promoters said, “We can’t get a baby grand piano up in the room.” This was the Chelsea Harbor Hilton in London. I said, “There’s got to be a way. It’s the Presidential Suite.” He said, “The only way we could do it is if we got a crane and lifted it over the balcony.” I said, “Do that.” So they lifted it up three floors, and took it out the same way. Who knows how much that cost? Who cares how much that cost? We were there for a month, gotta have a piano. In those days, you didn’t want to cut corners.
Prince’s Paisley Park label, a joint venture with Warner Bros., produced albums by a number of R&B greats — George Clinton, Chaka Khan and Mavis Staples — as well as unknowns including Ingrid Chavez and Carmen Electra. Meanwhile, the vault in the studio basement was filling up with songs by the hyperprolific artist.
RICKY PETERSON (keyboardist who turned down Prince in ‘79): He called me out of the blue to come and help him do something at Paisley Park. I ended up getting an office upstairs and put a studio in there. He made me a staff producer. That’s when I started doing the Mavis Staples record.
MAVIS STAPLES: His manager called Pops [Staples, her father] and said Prince is looking for me. I said, “What Prince? I don’t know no Prince!” I thought he meant Prince Charles or something. [After an oldies show] he met us back in the dressing room. I’m talking and talking, and I notice he’s just smiling and rolling those big eyes. I started to realize this kid is bashful. So I said, “Prince, how’s the new Paisley Park?” and he just said, “You’ll see.”
RED WHITE (facility director): Everyone was excited about Paisley Park. Everyone from the Bee Gees to Sheena Easton, Jeff Beck, Steve Miller, Kool & the Gang, you name it, went through that place in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. We filmed tons of motion pictures out there, from the original “Grumpy Old Men” to “Drop Dead Fred.” There were tons of commercials, too. M.C. Hammer did a British Knights commercial. It didn’t make money at first, but for many years it was at least paying for its overhead.
TOM TUCKER (studio director): Stevie Wonder came to Paisley one day to overdub [local group] Sounds of Blackness — he wanted a choir on one of his songs. Stevie sat in the studio playing, and Prince came in. That was a pretty magical moment. Another fun time would be whenever George Benson was there making an album. I wasn’t used to seeing people just walk up to Prince, grab him and hug him, but George would do that. Prince was a big fan. He was respectful toward the other artists, and he became really tight with guys like Miles [Davis] and Lenny Kravitz. When Prince was around them, they’d all be very down to earth, and it was just like regular guys working together.
BONNIE RAITT (Star Tribune interview, 1987): He called me, and he came to one of my shows. He told me he wanted to work with me. I’m not exactly in the same fashion modus operandi. But it was nice to be working with another singer and guitarist. He relates to women’s energy really well.
TOM TUCKER: It was a fun pressure cooker out there. There was an intense creativity. When he was around in the studio, or there were other artists in the studio, I could easily work 80- to 100-hour weeks. But I was OK with that — at least they had a heated parking garage.
CHUCK ZWICKY (engineer): You were given a pager, and he seemed to have an uncanny sense of when to call at the worst time. Right when the meal would arrive at a restaurant, the pager would go off. Crawl into bed with your girlfriend, the pager would go off. You’d get called in at very odd hours, set up and wait. Sometimes he’d show up, and sometimes he wouldn’t.
TOMMY BARBARELLA (keyboardist): My friends kept asking: “Man, what’s it like out there? Is it just women in lingerie, walking around all the time?” It wasn’t like that, but that’s what people thought.
CHUCK ZWICKY: He was so prolific, by the time he released an album, he may have had literally 10 albums sitting around. By the time the critics got ahold of something and ripped it apart, he’d moved on. When he was on the Lovesexy Tour, I was assigned to go in the vault and provide mixes for songs that had never been mixed. I think I did 130 songs that had never appeared anywhere.
TOM TUCKER: We tried to talk him into archiving everything when he was still with Warners. We were going to buy a convection oven and bake all the analog tapes, and archive them to digital. But at the last minute he pulled the plug. He said he didn’t want anybody to hear all that music. Those old analog tapes are just gumming up down in his vault. And then what’s going to happen if it’s not in his will? What if it’s in his will to destroy that stuff? That would be like half the Beatles’ tunes being lost.
With its massive in-the-round stage, the Lovesexy Tour was a financial disaster, but Prince was still spending blindly.
BOB CAVALLO: He totally, totally did not care a whit about budgets, money, etc. Before we finally parted ways, he was spending, I’d say, over $100,000 a week making videos at Paisley Park that meant nothing. [For] girls he met. He’d fly cameramen in. He was unstoppable.
ALAN LEEDS: [Financial woes] led to his famous New Year’s ’89 house-cleaning of his managers as well as his attorney and his business manager. Rather than accept the responsibility for being more prudent or paying more attention to the financial aspects of the business — whether it be record-making, touring or running a studio — it was easier to blame everybody.
In retrospect, his manager from 1979 to ’89 wished he had offered Prince more philosophical guidance.
BOB CAVALLO: I could have been more like a father. That’s what he needed. I could have been that if I’d moved to Minneapolis. He needed someone to say, “You’re full of [crap]. You don’t believe what you just said.” Nobody took him on. I took him on a couple times. He needed more of that.
After two film flops, Prince finally latched on to a hit: Tim Burton’s “Batman.” He was hired on the recommendation of star Jack Nicholson, a Prince fan who inspired the song “Partyman” on Prince’s million-selling soundtrack.
LENNY WARONKER: Prince is working on “Batman” and, out of the blue, he walks in with Kim Basinger [the movie’s co-star, whom Prince dated]. She walks in first; she’s taller. I’d heard he’d done this 18-minute version of “Scandalous” with her moaning or groaning for 8 or 10 minutes. It was a setup of sorts. She’s sitting in front of me; she has her legs crossed. He gives me the cassette. About five, six minutes into it, he taps me on the shoulder, and he says, “That’s good enough.”
ERIC LEEDS: That soundtrack was all his doing. I’m on the album credits, but I can’t find anything on there that I played. The only thing I can think of is Prince sampled some horns and cut them into the mix. He’ll do things like that.
CHUCK ZWICKY: He was very hyped about it, experimenting with a number of things. He was exploring house music. He had this girl, Cat, a rapper; she was kind of loud. One day, she walks in and blurts out, “Man, you guys are the same size.” I’m 5-4, and Prince is really self-conscious about his height. Well, for a whole week it was short jokes. Sheena Easton was coming in to sing a duet with Prince, and she wanted to sing in the studio, not in the control room, which he always did, sitting down in front of the console with a microphone. So I go out and set up the microphone, and he says over the speakers, “Chuck, you’d better lower that microphone. She’s really short. She’s your size.” I came in the control room, and he’s looking busy, trying not to laugh.
The ’90s started with another Prince-directed movie, “Graffiti Bridge,” featuring the reunited Time. It collapsed faster than the bridge over the River Kwai.
JIMMY JAM: The original Time went to Warner Bros. and said, “We want to do another record and a movie.” We actually had a script writer. We asked Prince to get involved with the music part, because we felt it wouldn’t be a true Time album without his involvement. The next thing we knew, there was “Graffiti Bridge.” It became his project, and we were just kind of the bit players. I remember standing on the set and going, “What a mess. It’s going to be terrible.” We laughed our way through and had a great time.
Prince was still slaying ‘em onstage. He recruited a wealth of young talent for his band the New Power Generation.
MICHAEL BLAND (drummer): I was playing in Dr. Mambo’s Combo down at Bunkers [in downtown Minneapolis]. Prince would come down every couple weeks, sit in, play a couple numbers. My friends would say, “Dude, you’re gonna play with Prince.” I didn’t catch on until one night he threw an after-party for Bon Jovi at Paisley. When I got to the front door, the security guard grabbed me and said, “Hurry up, he’s waiting for you.”
Keyboardist Tommy Elm and bassist Sonny Thompson caught Prince’s ear while playing with Twin Cities gospel/R&B heroes the Steeles. Elm is better known by his Prince-invented name, Barbarella.
TOMMY BARBARELLA: My first official gig was a warmup show at Glam Slam. Next show, 200,000 people at Rock in Rio II. It was just a mindblower. I rode up the elevator with Billy Idol. He was holding a bottle of champagne with two women on his arms.
In 1991, Prince bounced back with “Diamonds and Pearls,” his most commercial — and bestselling — album since “Sign o’ the Times.”
LENNY WARONKER: [Warner Bros.’] urban department didn’t think there was a song on the album that they could get played on radio. So I get him on the phone, and he said, “Maybe I could take so-and-so and turn it around.” Then he stopped and said, “It’s a marketing problem. You guys deal with it.” And he hung up. That was on a Friday. On Monday, I get a call from him, and he says, “You’ve got yourself a new baby.” It was an amazing new track, “Gett Off.” It turned out to be a big hit.
TOMMY BARBARELLA: The NPG wasn’t a collective by any means, but he loved the band concept. With Michael [Bland] on drums, he had a band that could do anything musically on the drop of a dime. On “Diamonds and Pearls” and that next record, he would come in with the tunes, pretty skeletal, and we’d try this, try that, throw out ideas. We had played together so much, we got to know what he wanted. Things would happen very fast. We cut entire records in a day sometimes. “Sexy M.F.” was one take.
His whole idea was of a band as a gang, that we were gonna go kick some ass. “We want people to be scared when they see our equipment.” During the Purple Rain Tour, the Revolution would go out to clubs in their stage clothes, and we did that, too. He loved to go where another band was playing and take over. That’s the closest thing he’s got to a family, or friends.
Prince’s impact on pop culture continued, good and bad. At the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, he wore an infamous buttocks-exposing suit later spoofed by Howard Stern. In 1992, he signed Carmen Electra, and they had a modest hit with the single “Go Go Dancer.”
HELEN HIATT: The [butt] suit was right after I quit working with him, but I knew that was totally his idea. There was actually a layer of skin-toned fabric so the pants wouldn’t hang funny. It was a nice fit. That outfit made an impact. Many people [in fashion] still remember that. For all of us who worked with him, he remains a fabulous calling card.
MICHAEL KOPPELMAN: Carmen Electra lived here for a year or two while Prince named her and all that stuff. But she sat here and rotted doing almost nothing, except working on a little music and waiting for Prince to call and take her out to clubs. I used to drive her around in my Hyundai, and I just remember thinking what a waste it was for this beautiful woman to be sitting in Eden Prairie, waiting for Prince to call.
Prince was now co-managed by former bodyguard Gilbert Davison, who hatched the idea for a nightclub called Glam Slam. Clubs opened in Miami, L.A. and the Minneapolis Warehouse District, where he’d often hang out with a young dancer, Mayte Garcia, he met in Europe.
ROBYNE ROBINSON (KMSP-TV anchor): For many years, he had his own booth at the club. Sometimes he’d show up with Mayte, and the two of them would just go in there and dance their little hearts out. Some nights, he’d have the guys with him, just sitting and talking. Later, it would be with Mani [his second wife] after hours. They’d get bored and want to come in from Chanhassen.
Prince became the target of talk-show jokes when, on his 35th birthday in June ‘93, he announced he was changing his name to an unpronounceable glyph.
PRINCE (Vibe magazine, 1994): I followed the advice of my spirit. I’m not the son of Nell. I don’t know who that is — “Nell’s son” — and that’s my last name. . . . I would wake up nights thinking, “Who am I? What am I?”
JEFF KATZ (photographer): I flew to Paisley Park the day after he decided his name was now a symbol. I walked in to the receptionist, and I said, “I need to talk to him.” The usual protocol was to page him. She said, “We haven’t figured this whole thing out.” I said, “How do you get in touch with him?” She said, “We just wait ‘til we see him in the halls, and we run and grab him.”
So what did Prince’s musicians call him?
TOMMY BARBARELLA: “Hey, man.” I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that.
Prince signed an eye-popping $100 million contract with Warner Bros., but the headlines masked a growing divide between the artist and label. Moreover, the figure was essentially meaningless. “That was if he made 10 records that sold 10 million copies apiece,” notes writer Neal Karlen.
MICHAEL BLAND: The idea behind the New Power Generation became all-inclusive. We would play stadiums, then we’d do a gig in a place that holds 300 people. It was all about getting closer to those who were really making it possible. The New Power Generation became everybody involved: us, the fans, everybody. He really wanted it to be a movement, and once the rift began with Warner Bros., it became more about, “Why can’t I just come do my thing?”
He released his biggest single in years, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” on an indie label.
RICKY PETERSON: I would rearrange his stuff and make it into more of a song. On “The Most Beautiful Girl,” the [demo] track had his vocal part, a low, undecipherable piano part, a guitar part and a drum machine. I wrote [musical] changes on that song, but I didn’t ask for writer’s credit. He would never have given it to me.
Prince became increasingly angry that Warner Bros. owned the originals of his releases — the so-called master recordings. He began emblazoning his face with the word “slave.”
PRINCE explaining “slave”: This is what my record company has reduced Prince to. So now Prince is dead. They’ve killed him. (Time Out magazine, 1995) . . . I don’t own Prince’s music. If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you. (Rolling Stone, 1996) . . . Imagine yourself sitting in a room with the biggest of the big in the recording industry, and you have “slave” written on your face. That changes the entire conversation. (Icon magazine, 1998)
TOM TUCKER: Up until then, he seemed really happy [with the label]. I mean, when “Diamonds and Pearls” came out, he played on the roof of the Warner Bros. building and was very proud of the relationship. I think it stung all the more because of all that. He genuinely was hurt. He didn’t know that he didn’t own his own stuff. It was just lack of communication with his managers and lawyers, whether they didn’t tell him or he didn’t want to know. He felt like his songs were his children and someone took his children from him. He really changed then. At that point, he took control. He started signing the checks, literally
ANITA BAKER (singer): Bob Krasnow [head of Elektra Records] and I once flew into Minneapolis to talk to Prince about producing an album. I got to [Paisley Park], and he basically dismissed the chairman of my company and took me on a tour of the complex. He talked to me about things that at that time I didn’t understand. When he showed me the vault, he talked about ownership of masters [recordings] and how they’re parlayed into a real business. I think I got scared. He overwhelmed me. He was trying to explain things in the music business that I would have to subsequently experience in order to understand.
RED WHITE: When I dropped out of [Paisley] in ‘94, things got a little behind financially. It was slow pay for the vendors. But, God bless him, he paid for a lot of mortgage payments in this town. He was very good to a lot of people in the entertainment business in this town.
In 1996, Prince wed Mayte Garcia on Valentine’s Day at Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. After a honeymoon/tour in Hawaii, he dissolved the NPG and turned Paisley into more of a home for him and Mayte, who was pregnant.
MICHAEL BLAND: I guess we were enlisted in the fight by proxy, and sometimes it was hard to keep up morale. In hindsight, I wish I would have been more cooperative. He pretty much foreshadowed what we now live in: several independent record labels, many of them artist-owned. Personally, it was difficult for me to see at the time. “Dude, I didn’t sign up for this. I just want to go out and rock, eat some steak, wear funky clothes and watch a little Nick at Nite.”
RICKY PETERSON: [The Paisley staff] had to turn in all our keys. So we’d come to the door and have to buzz it. Mayte answered the door. It was the sweetest thing. Pregnant, basketball out to here. Barefoot and pregnant. And he came down the stairs by the front door in these big bunny slippers. He said, “Come on in.” He was so happy. I’ve never seen him happier than when she was pregnant.
Prince and Mayte’s baby died in October 1996, seven days after being born. A few months later, they broke their silence.
ROBYNE ROBINSON: She had just started the New Power Generation dance troupe, and I had just started a new talk show. She said, “I’d love to get some publicity for the dance troupe.” So it turned into an interview. He was very concerned about what people were going to ask because it was not long after the death of their baby. I didn’t see the need to hurt them, so I asked about it in a gentle way that wouldn’t make her feel uncomfortable. The police were looking into it. They felt vulnerable.
The piece went on the air, and about an hour later I got a phone call from Paisley Park. They said, “He would like you to come out.” He still wasn’t using his name then, so it was “He would like.” I was really nervous. I got out there, and was sitting and waiting in the lobby. I heard all these dogs barking, and these four little dogs come running up the hallway with Mayte. She’s in like 3-inch heels, and she’s literally jumping up and down, yelling, “I loved it.” And about 10 paces behind her was Prince. He walked up very quietly and just stuck his hand out. He looked at the floor and not really at me. He doesn’t really make eye contact with new people. He said, “You treated my wife very fairly.” Then he got quiet, and he said, “You want to do an interview with me?”
Warner Bros. finished its contract with Prince by finally releasing “The Black Album” in 1994, “The Gold Experience” in ‘95 and the appropriately titled farewell, “Chaos and Disorder,” in ‘96. Prince arranged a one-shot deal with EMI for a three-CD set, “Emancipation,” that was well-received, although sales were modest. Meanwhile, he was getting deeper into spirituality.
RICKY PETERSON: We were doing “Emancipation,” and he had a cuss jar. He was getting into Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was trying to quit cussing himself. George Benson, who’s a full-fledged Jehovah’s Witness guy, was at Paisley doing a record. He said, “I don’t know about our boy. I don’t think our boy’s going to make it.” He couldn’t get past the part of Prince cussing and trying to get religious after doing a song like “Sexy MF.” No one knew what Prince was doing. This was right after Mayte lost the baby.
TOMMY BARBARELLA: Our last real long conversation was a spiritual discussion that went awry. It left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. He’s just not interested in things that aren’t in accordance with his views. He likes to argue, and he likes to win the argument, which is why [his current religion] seems to work well for him. But he’s searching, trying to make sense of it all, trying to get right with God. I’m cool with it as long as I don’t get into an argument with him, because he’s a very persuasive speaker. I sat up in his office the day after his name change. He talked for about three hours, explaining to me what it meant and why. I walked out of there feeling pretty good. It made sense to me. Later that night, I was like, “What? Wait a minute. What did he say?”
WENDY MELVOIN: We tried to put together a [Revolution] reunion tour in 2000, and he declined because of my homosexuality and the fact I’m half-Jewish. It came back: Go have a press conference denouncing your homosexuality and that you’re converting to Jehovah. I was like: I guess we’ll never hear from him again. And I had to kind of mourn him. It was devastating to think we’ve kind of lost him.
Prince went independent, selling albums via the Internet, and tried a commercial comeback with another one-shot on Arista Records in 1999. “Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic” had guests including Sheryl Crow and Gwen Stefani, but no one raved about its sales. One surprise: It was by the glyph guy, but “Prince” was listed as producer.
PRINCE (Star Tribune interview, 1999): I allowed him to have the final say. As strange as that may sound, look at it this way: Malcolm X thinks differently than Malcolm Little [Malcolm’s birth name]
MICHAEL KOPPELMAN: I think the best thing that could happen is for someone besides Prince to produce a Prince record. Like a lot of artists, I don’t think he knows what it is people like about him. No one wants him to come out with “Purple Rain II,” but we like that funky freak we heard on all those great records.
In 2000, he started calling himself Prince again and staged a weeklong birthday celebration at Paisley for his followers. He would reprise these festivities for the next two years.
ROBYNE ROBINSON: I think the best interview we did was the last one. I was asking him about his birthday. I don’t know how it popped into the conversation, but I looked down at his feet and said, “Man, what size shoe do you wear? A size 3?” He was quick. He said, “Come here and put your foot on this wah-wah pedal [a guitar effects box]. You see? It’s too big. But when I put my foot on the pedal, it fits. It fits, because God made it fit that way.”
A TIME FOR RECONCILIATION
He continued to tour and record, releasing his first live CD, the boxed set “One Nite Alone,” and an instrumental disc (“N.E.W.S.”) that got a Grammy nomination.
ERIC LEEDS: The One Nite Alone Tour was one of the nicest gigs I’d done with him. It was mostly new music, and it was a pretty wide-open affair. Prince really seemed to enjoy himself. It seemed to me he came to terms with the fact that he’s not going to be selling 15,000-seat arenas anymore. He seemed to think, “Now I’ve got a good band, and I can just go out and play music for music’s sake.”
PRINCE (“The Tavis Smiley Show,” 2004): A big change happened for me in the year 2000. . . . Once I changed my name back and the war was finished with my so-called enemies, I started reading the Bible intensely, and I came to find out that this is . . . this is the truth.
There were changes in his personal life. He quietly divorced Mayte and married Manuela Testolini, a former Paisley staffer, on Dec. 31, 2001, in Hawaii, purchasing a mansion in her hometown, Toronto. His dad died in August 2001. His mother passed away five months later. Associates discovered a different Prince.
ROBYNE ROBINSON: I got to see him at his last birthday party out at Paisley, and I got to see him interact with his mom. It was good to see him in that relationship. She didn’t stay long, but he introduced us and had us sit together. He was very sweet. He loved his parents so much. Everyone was really worried when he lost them. They really kind of kept him together emotionally.
RICKY PETERSON: [In July 2003], he came up to me when I was playing with David Sanborn at the Hollywood Bowl. I look out of the corner of my eye, and Prince is there. At the end of the tune, he extended his arms to me and gave me a big hug. What? This is unheard of. He said, “Man, it sounds really good.” I went, “Geez, man, maybe you are turning a corner.” ‘Cause he would never do that.
MICHAEL BLAND: Sonny [Thompson] and I went to Paisley last June . We jammed, and it was like there was this automatic fit. He said we were welcome out here any time. Everyone was in good spirits; it was almost like no time had passed.
The Revolution reunited without him in December for a Los Angeles benefit concert organized by Sheila E.
MATT FINK: We all had a great time. We talked about maybe doing more gigs like that, for charity or not. We wished Prince had been there. We’ve made several attempts to get him to reunite with us. So far, he hasn’t been open to it.
But after Prince surfaced at the Grammys in February, he finally hooked up with one of his old bandmates.
WENDY MELVOIN: Me and Bobby [Z] and Susannah wanted to go see him at the House of Blues [the L.A. club where Prince played on Grammy night]. I called his guitar tech to let Prince know that the Revolution wanted to be there. Bobby got this call saying, “Bobby can go for free, but everybody else has to pay.” What the hell is this? So we get there; none of us has to pay, but it was incredibly difficult to get in. There’s Steven Tyler [of Aerosmith] and Beck walking by us, and all these other people.
We finally got shuffled off to this room where there wasn’t a seat for us. He called a whole bunch of people onstage but didn’t call any of us. I thought, “Well, that’s it.” His wife introduced herself, and I told her to thank him for the tickets and goodbye.
Then the next day, I get this call: “Prince would like you to come and rehearse with him on acoustic guitar for `The Tavis Smiley Show’ he’s doing.” Curiosity got the best of me. I went down, and he was remarkably kind and open, and gave me a huge hug. He had me sit in with his band, and I hung with him for two hours.
The next day, it was just him and me, and he was gorgeous. He was the guy I knew when I first met him. He was the guy who spent the night at my and Lisa’s house on our pullout bed. I held on to him and kept kissing him and hugging him and telling him I loved him. I don’t know what to think of it. He knows we all love him.