Ephemera, 1983

Mary Don’t You Weep

It actually does Prince’s performance a disservice to call it a “cover” of the African American spiritual made famous by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915; instead, he takes the barest outline of the song and turns it into a showpiece for his vocals and bluesy, expressive piano chords.

Since the official release of “Moonbeam Levels” in November 2016, the Prince fan community has been clamoring for more unreleased music. The results to date, however, have been more of a trickle than the flood many would prefer. Last June’s deluxe Purple Rain reissue got mixed reviews from the hardcore for its track selection and 2016-ized mix (for the record, I liked it). Since then, there have been rumors of a remastered edition of Prince and the Revolution’s August 1983 First Avenue debut, an expanded version of 1999, and an official release of Prince’s final “Piano & A Microphone” shows at Paisley Park–none of which have come to fruition. It was only with the single release of “Nothing Compares 2 U” this April that the drought showed any real signs of ending. Shortly thereafter, representatives of the Prince Estate (whatever that means at this point) announced two full-length projects featuring unreleased material: one from the Warner Bros. years and coming this September, the other of more recent vintage and premiering, at least initially, on TIDAL in 2019.

While the latter project remains a mystery, today–the 60th anniversary of Prince’s birth–Warner and the estate finally revealed what to expect from the former: a long-circulating collection of 1983 piano rehearsals, cleverly retitled Piano & A Microphone 1983. For better or worse, it’s on brand with the posthumous releases we’ve seen to date: tasteful, collector-approved, and dating from the 198285 zenith of Prince’s primacy in the pop market. It’s so on brand, in fact, that for the first time in the last 18 months of Prince releases, I actually caught myself feeling a slight tinge of disappointment. The Vault has been open for almost two years; isn’t it about time we got something that hasn’t already leaked?

Photo by Allen Beaulieu, © Prince Estate.

Well, yes and no. I’ve argued before that what Prince fans want and what the broader music market needs are two different–though by no means opposed!–things; and while from the eye of the paisley hurricane it’s easy to assume that “everyone” has heard the Piano Jams Formerly Known as Intimate Moments–or “Moonbeam Levels,” or “The Dance Electric”–in this case “everyone” refers to a subset of a subset of hardcore fans, whose boundless passion is matched only by their statistical insignificance. Gatekeeping in fan communities is tedious and oppressive, and this music deserves to be heard by more than just the FLAC-swapping faithful. Besides, I want to be able to stream this stuff on Spotify. Can I live?

There’s also the issue of quality. According to the Estate, Piano & A Microphone 1983 is sourced from Prince’s original cassette tapes, which puts it leaps and bounds above even the lowest-generation source currently in circulation. It certainly sounds better than any version I’ve heard: the version of “Mary Don’t You Weep,” released to streaming services today as a promotional “single,” is rough around the edges–it is, after all, still a home cassette recording from the early ’80s–but Prince’s piano and voice cut through the tape hiss with startling intimacy.

That’s a good thing, because intimacy is the strongest suit of “Mary Don’t You Weep”–and, spoiler alert, the rest of the songs to be released in September. It actually does Prince’s performance a disservice to call it a “cover” of the African American spiritual made famous by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1915; instead, he takes the barest outline of the song and turns it into a showpiece for his vocals and bluesy, expressive piano chords. At one point, he weaves in a few lines from “Strange Relationship,” an original composition he tried out earlier in the session; at another, he croons, “Oh Martha, you cook the greatest omelettes in the world,” and does it so soulfully you almost don’t notice the words. As NPR Music’s Andrew Flanagan observes, the recording even captures a few audible sniffles. It’s long been a joke that Prince fans would want to hear a recording of Prince sneezing in the studio if it leaked; this is the closest we’ve come to making that hyperbole a reality.

One might justifiably argue that “Mary Don’t You Weep,” and the rest of the Piano & A Microphone collection, sits awkwardly between the kind of fly-on-the-wall experience bootleg collectors live for (but have already heard) and a more widely appealing product for the larger music-listening community. How big is the audience, exactly, for half-formed piano covers by a nasally congested Prince? I don’t know, but it’s a testament to his abilities as a performer and interpreter that these private, unfiltered recordings are as spellbinding as they are. Even if we have heard them before, now is our chance to hear them with fresh ears, and give them the attention they deserve.

Piano & A Microphone 1983 is available for preorder in digital, CD, vinyl, and deluxe CD/vinyl editions. If you’re ordering via Amazon, do me a solid and use my affiliate link–every little bit helps support dance / music / sex / romance!

“Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”
(The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1915)
Amazon / Spotify / TIDAL

“Mary Don’t You Weep”
(Prince, 1983)
Amazon / Spotify / TIDAL

By Zach

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. Arguably best known as the author of Dance / Music / Sex / Romance, a song-by-song chronological blog about the music of Prince.

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