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Ephemera, 1983 Patreon Exclusives

Patreon Exclusive Bonus Track: 1983 Piano Rehearsal

At this point, it’s customary to marvel at the sheer, staggering amount of music Prince recorded. His finished recordings number in the hundreds, if not the thousands: enough, to borrow a cliché that became ubiquitous after the Vault was cracked open in 2016, to fill an album a year for the next 100 years; or, to put it in more personally meaningful terms, enough to keep me working on this goddamn blog until roughly the end of my natural life. But the mind truly boggles when one considers that those “finished recordings” are only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface are hundreds more hours of rehearsals and rough sketches recorded for private use–only a fraction of which are ever likely to see the light of day.

By this reckoning, the solo piano rehearsal officially released in 2018 as Piano & A Microphone 1983 is not, in itself, remarkable; it’s just one of countless other “work tapes,” as former Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman describes them in her liner notes, by an artist for whom making music was an avocation as much as a vocation (Coleman 3). Prince Estate lead archivist Michael Howe told Newsweek that when he found the recording–a standard, consumer-grade TDK SA-60 cassette with two tracks, “Cold Coffee & Cocaine” and “Why the Butterflies,” listed in Prince’s handwriting–it was in a box with “[l]iterally thousands” of other tapes (Schonfeld 2018). But what it lacks in uniqueness, it makes up for in historical importance: capturing, with near-unrivaled intimacy, a snapshot of Prince’s creative process on the very cusp of the career-defining success of Purple Rain.

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Purple Rain, 1984

Baby I’m a Star

“The MUSIC segues into a fierce BEAT.
The CROWD lets out a ROAR! Prince
strips off his guitar, streaks center-
stage. The Band launches into ‘Baby,
I’m A Star.’

“…And the CROWD laughing, dancing,
shouting and loving. The CLUB is ALIVE!

“And the MUSIC continues…forever…”

Draft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983

In the spring of 1983, Prince’s contract with managers Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli was up for renewal. They had, on the face of it, little reason to worry: the 1999 tour was selling out arenas, “Little Red Corvette” was in the Top 10 of the pop charts, and 1999 was well on its way to Platinum certification by the RIAA. By the end of April, Prince would make the cover of Rolling Stone: a coveted opportunity for which his managers had netted a Richard Avedon photo shoot without granting an interview. “I thought we did an incredible job, we had a creative relationship, I’m sure he’s gonna sign another contract,” Bob Cavallo later told music journalist Alan Light. But Prince sent his main handler, Steve Fargnoli, back to Cavallo with a surprising ultimatum: “he won’t sign with us again unless we get him a movie” (Light 51).

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

No Call U

The months after Jill Jones joined Prince’s orbit were “one crazy blur,” she recalled in a recently-published interview with writer Miles Marshall Lewis. From the “spring of ‘82 all the way until July, we were pretty much in the studio daily,” working on the Time and Vanity 6 projects alongside his own fifth album. “And who knew what was going to end up where, with who, what. I was just ready for the ride” (Lewis 2020 “Part 1”). Initially, her role was strictly as a backing vocalist: providing support on the 1999 album and tour for both Prince and Vanity 6. But the Artist Formerly Known as Jamie Starr had grander plans: namely, turning his newest protégée into a star in her own right.

Not all of these plans went off without a hitch. Jones resisted Prince’s overtures to change her name to Elektra, after the recently-introduced Marvel Comics character; a decade later, that moniker would of course find a more willing beneficiary in Carmen Electra, née Tara Leigh Patrick (Lewis 2020 “Part 2”). But she did allow him to give her a makeover inspired by prototypical blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe: “Prince said I looked like every girl with long brown hair and I needed something to stand out,” she told Michael A. Gonzales for Wax Poetics. “He said, ‘When Vanity walks in a room, people know she’s a star. You need your own thing’” (Gonzales 2018 66).

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What Time is It?, 1982

I Don’t Wanna Leave You

The Time’s What Time is It?, was released on August 25, 1982–just two weeks after the self-titled debut by Vanity 6. It easily outperformed both Vanity 6 and the Time’s own debut, and effectively tied with Prince’s Controversy: peaking at Number 26 on the Billboard 200 and Number 2 on the Black Albums (recently renamed from “Soul”) chart.

Despite their success–or, more likely, because of it–Prince was determined to keep the spinoff group in their place. Studio tech Don Batts recalled him showing up to one of the band’s rehearsals with a rough mix of the finished record: “He threw the cassette at [guitarist] Jesse [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey man, you play really good on your album,’” Batts told biographer Per Nilsen. “That kind of comment, it was like saying, ‘Hey puppets!’” (Nilsen 1999 108).

More than anything, though, Prince kept his grip on the Time’s strings by saving their best material for himself. It’s hard to hear What Time is It?’s underwhelming closing track, “I Don’t Wanna Leave You,” without imagining a stronger alternative in its place: something that would end the album with a bang, rather than a whimper. Something, that is, like “International Lover,” which Prince had originally conceived for his side project back in January before poaching it for the finale of his own forthcoming album

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1999, 1982

Little Red Corvette

Upon his return from Los Angeles in May of 1982, Prince’s first task was to upgrade the basement studio in his home on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen: replacing the original 16-track console with a new 24-track Ampex MM1200 machine. According to biographer Per Nilsen, this project took about two weeks, overseen by Prince’s go-to home studio tech and engineer, Don Batts. Astonishingly, within hours of the new studio’s setup, Prince had recorded the basic track for one of his most enduring songs, “Little Red Corvette.” “It was incredible to build the studio in that short time and then come up with that tune so quickly,” Batts recalled. But, as he also acknowledged, “That’s how fast it generally went” (Nilsen 1999 100).

Indeed, much about “Corvette” seemed to emerge with almost supernatural ease, as if Prince had merely plucked it from the ether fully-formed. According to legend–and like other 20th-century pop standards, the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”–the song first came to him in a dream, while he was dozing off in the front seat of keyboardist Lisa Coleman’s 1964 Mercury Montclair Marauder. “I bought this vintage pink Mercury at a car auction,” Coleman told The Guardian in 2008. “It was so bitching-looking that Prince used to borrow it and dent it, which I’d make him feel bad about. He slept in it one time and came up with ‘Little Red Corvette’… even though it was a pink Mercury” (Elan 2008). Prince wrote in his unpublished liner notes for the 1993 compilation The Hits that he “always considered the song a dream because it was written between 3 or 4 catnaps and he was never fully awake” (Dash 2016).