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Purple Rain, 1984

Purple Rain (Verse 1)

Note: I was just over 1,800 words into the post you’re about to read when I finally admitted defeat; there is, quite simply, no way that I can fit everything I have to say about “Purple Rain” into a single, digestible piece of writing. So, in the grand tradition of my “Controversy” three-parter from 2018, I’m splitting it into chapters. The first, and likely longest, will talk about the song’s composition; the second will go into detail about its debut performance at First Avenue on August 3, 1983; and the third will delve into the final recording that appears on the Purple Rain album and film. There will probably also be a coda of some kind discussing the song’s impressive (and ongoing) afterlife. Basically, just think of July 2021 as my unofficial “Purple Rain” month–and, for the next several weeks, sit back and let me guide u through the purple rain.

It’s a sweltering August night at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. Prince and his band have just returned to the stage for the first encore of their benefit show for the Minnesota Dance Theatre: the local dance company and school, located just up the street at 6th and Hennepin, where the musicians have been taking dance and movement classes to prepare for their imminent feature film debut. Moments earlier, MDT founder and artistic director Loyce Houlton thanked Prince with a hug, declaring, “We don’t have a ‘Prince’ in Minnesota, we have a king.” Before that, Prince had run the group through a fierce 10-song set: sprinkling a handful of crowd-pleasers amongst the largely new material, and ending with the biggest crowd-pleaser of all, his Number 6 pop hit “Little Red Corvette.”

No one in the sold-out crowd of around 1,500 recognizes the chords that now ring out from the darkened stage. Even the film’s director, Albert Magnoli, hasn’t heard the song before; it wasn’t among the tapes he’d reviewed to prepare for his draft of the screenplay. But the chords–played by 19-year-old guitarist Wendy Melvoin, in her first public performance with Prince–are immediately attention-grabbing: rich and colorful and uniquely voiced, somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.

A spotlight shines on Wendy as she continues to play, her purple Rickenbacker 330 echoed by her partner Lisa Coleman playing the same progression on electric piano. Prince begins to solo around the edges of the progression; he paces the stage, walking out to the edge of the crowd as he plays, then slings his “Madcat” Telecaster around his back and makes his way to the microphone at center stage. He holds the mic for an instant and backs away, as if suddenly overwhelmed. Then, he steps back to the mic and begins to sing: “I never meant 2 cause u any sorrow…”

Categories
Purple Rain, 1984

Darling Nikki

With Albert Magnoli on board as director, preparations for Prince’s film debut finally began in earnest. The artist’s new rehearsal space on Highway 7 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota became the epicenter for a “flurry of activity from morning ’til night,” recalled Brenda Bennett of side project Vanity 6 (Bellaire 2015). Along with a stage setup and recording console, “the Warehouse” also included a small wardrobe department for Vaughn Terry and Louis Wells: costume designers, best known for their work with Earth, Wind & Fire, who had joined the Prince camp during the 1999 tour and would be instrumental in crafting his iconic Purple Rain-era look.

Soon, Terry and Wells would be joined by another familiar face: tour manager Alan Leeds, whose capable handling of the inter- and intra-band tensions during the latter months of the 1999 tour led to his being rehired to help coordinate the film’s production. “I got a call from [manager Steve] Fargnoli sometime in July, offering me the gig to come to Minneapolis,” Leeds told journalist Alan Light. “And I said, ‘Well, what’s the gig? Are you going back on the road?’ ‘Not right away. We’re going to make a movie first.’ I go, ‘Okay, you need me to come there because you’re making a movie? First of all, I don’t believe you’re making a movie. Second, why do you need me to make a movie? I don’t make movies.’ He said, ‘We got three bands: we got Prince and his guys that you tour managed, we got Morris [Day] and the Time, we got Vanity 6. They’re all in the movie. Everybody’s taking acting lessons, everybody’s taking dance lessons, and everybody’s rehearsing new music. We need an off-road road manager to coordinate all this stuff.’ ‘Okay, Steven–you’re really making a movie? Get the fuck outta here!’” (Light 82-83).

Leeds wasn’t the only one surprised by the sudden increase in scale. As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled, “For the longest time, we would talk about [the film] like, ‘We’re gonna make the best cult movie, it’s gonna be cool, we’re just gonna put it out there and see who responds to it.’ Then Al Magnoli came and actually kind of connected with Prince, and Al was the one who was like, ‘If we’re gonna make a movie, why don’t we make it a hit movie? It seems like we’ve got all the parts here. Let’s not just make some artsy movie, just for fun. What do we have to lose?’” (Light 91).

In aiming for a “hit,” however, Prince faced the inevitable temptation to sand away some of his rougher edges. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin, who had been a fan before she joined Prince’s band, recalled being disappointed by the new material at rehearsal: “The songs weren’t as funky to me,” she told Light. “They were pop songs; they were definitely watered down.” Coleman remembered Prince himself poking fun at his newfound populist tendencies: “He would imitate an old granny, like, ‘You could make Granny dance to this one,’ but then I think he was just like, ‘We’re leaning it too far to the granny; we still need danger’” (Light 77).

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Dance to the Beat

During the weeks leading up to the release of their debut album in July 1981, Prince had honed the Time into a formidable live unit. “He brought stuff out of us that we didn’t think we could do,” keyboardist Jimmy Jam later recalled. Left to their own devices, the band would “rehearse for like four hours and think we were tired. We’d go through the set twice and sit around and talk for two hours.” But with Prince as taskmaster, “we’d work five or six hours straight, over and over, no breaks… He would give us keyboard parts that were impossible. We would be like, ‘We can’t play these.’ He would be like, ‘Yeah, you can, and while you’re playing them I want you to do this step of choreography and sing this note of harmony.’ Couple of days later we’d be doing it. A month later we’d be on tour and it would be automatic. He was a great motivator and the thing that made him a great motivator was that he works so hard himself. He’s always squeezing the most out of everything” (Nilsen 1999 87).

That summer, the Time made their live debut in a showcase for Warner Bros. executives at S.I.R. Studios on Sunset Boulevard–the same venue where, three years earlier, Prince had held auditions for his own backing band. “It was just 10 or 12 of us,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing executive in the label’s “Black Music” division, told biographer Per Nilsen. “We went down there after work one day to be shown this new Warner Bros. group that was produced by Jamie Starr. No one knew who Jamie Starr was. They turned off all the lights, and this diminutive little character with a veil walked in to stand behind the console and mix it. Somebody says, ‘That’s Jamie Starr!’ And I looked and said, ‘No, that’s Prince!’” (Nilsen 1999 87).

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Ephemera, 1979-1981

The Second Coming

Controversy was released on October 14, 1981, days after Prince’s disastrous experience opening for the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles. The album outperformed both the previous year’s Dirty Mind and (narrowly) 1979’s Prince, reaching Number 21 on the Billboard 200 and Number 3 on the Top R&B Albums chart. A little over a month later, on November 20, the Controversy tour launched at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre with opening act the Time.

After this time spent licking his wounds (and, more importantly, rehearsing), Prince returned with his most grandiose show to date. The tour-opener in Pittsburgh kicked off with the brazen call to arms “Sexuality”–complete with a full recital of the “tourists” speech–before hitting the audience with a turbo-charged version of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” “Jack U Off” flourished in front of the sympathetic, largely female crowd, earning squeals rather than jeers; it was followed by the similarly crowd-pleasing “When You Were Mine” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” both with glistening new synthpop arrangements. From there the band launched directly into a surgical rendition of “Head”–by then such a live staple that the audience got to take a solo on the chorus. Shifting gears from that song’s masturbatory climax, a punkish “Annie Christian” followed, enlivened by Dez Dickerson’s guitar solos; then it was back to the crowd-pleasers with “Dirty Mind.” Despite being only five weeks old, “Do Me, Baby” had already earned its place as a concert setpiece–a designation helped, no doubt, by Prince’s onstage striptease. Closing out the setlist proper was a rousing rendition of “Let’s Work,” followed by a hat-trick of encores in “Controversy,” “Uptown,” and “Partyup.”