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Ephemera, 1983

Father’s Song

Director Albert Magnoli liked to call Purple Rain an “emotional biography” of Prince: An impressionistic mélange of the star’s pet themes, anxieties, and obsessions, true to its subject in spirit if not in every detail. And of all the themes, anxieties, and obsessions Prince brought to the film, none loomed larger than his father, John L. Nelson.

John Lewis Nelson was born on June 29, 1916 in Cotton Valley, Webster Parish, Louisiana, the youngest child of farmers Clarence Allen and Carrie Nelson (née Jenkins). Not long after his birth, John’s parents divorced; the reason, according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, was because Clarence had become involved with another woman (Hahn 2017 50). By the 1920 census, writes historian Kristen Zschomler, Carrie was remarried to a man named Charles Ikner and living in Webster Parish with three-year-old John and his siblings: James (born 1915), Ruby (born 1908), Olivia (born 1904), and Gertrude (born 1903) (Zschomler 9). By 1930, she was widowed, and had traveled north with Gertrude, Ruby, and their husbands and children to a rented home in Southside Minneapolis, near where Olivia had settled with her husband, Edward Mason Lewis. The now-teenaged John likely followed between 1930 and 1935 (10).

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Ephemera, 1983

Wednesday

From its original treatment, the story of Purple Rain had always revolved around three characters: Prince (a.k.a. “the Kid”), Morris, and Vanity (later replaced by Apollonia). Yet, in the early stages of production, Prince and director Albert Magnoli envisioned a broader depiction of the Minneapolis music scene, with subplots for the various supporting players. There was even talk of the accompanying album including tracks from associated artists, along the lines of the later Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. In the end, of course, this ensemble version of Purple Rain was not to be; the final album and film are both unambiguously Prince’s show. But Magnoli’s draft screenplay made plenty of time for one supporting player in particular: “Jill,” the First Avenue waitress played by Prince’s real-life backing singer and paramour, Jill Jones.

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Ice Cream Castle, 1984

The Bird

In the months since Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were dismissed from the Time, the group’s morale had reached an all-time low. Singer Morris Day, in particular, was all but fully checked out: “When we started switching musicians,” he later recalled, “it wasn’t my favorite band anymore” (Tudahl 2018 72). Only the promise of a costarring role in Prince’s upcoming film kept him from leaving the camp entirely–that and, he admitted in his 2019 memoir, a burgeoning cocaine habit (Day 83).

The powder keg was primed in the summer of 1983, when Day and the rest of the movie’s principal cast were enrolled in mandatory acting lessons with coach Don Amendolia. “He had these exercises,” Day wrote. “Pretend you’re a weeping willow tree. Pretend you’re a butterfly lost in the forest. Well, I didn’t wanna be no weeping willow tree. I didn’t wanna be no butterfly lost in the forest. I thought that was some dumb shit and said so.” Eventually, Day’s “cutting up” got back to Prince, who “said this was some serious business and I better not fuck it up or I’d be out on my ass… He’d banish me from his empire” (Day 86).

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Purple Rain, 1984

The Beautiful Ones

On August 1, 1983, Albert Magnoli arrived in Minneapolis to finish his revised screenplay for Purple Rain. He spent his first week in town interviewing the prospective cast members, including Prince’s band, the Time, and Vanity 6, to mine their real-life relationships for dramatic potential. As he explained to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, “My research was for me to sit down and say, ‘Okay, I have a scene I’m developing between you, Wendy, Lisa, and Prince, and you’re very angry at him. And you’re in the dressing room and you’re about to go on and you want to know if he hear[d] your music. Give me what you feel like?’ And they start, ‘Oh well, yeah that happens all the time!’ So all their shit comes up because they’ve been in that with him” (Tudahl 2018 117).

The director supplemented his research by sitting in on band rehearsals and attending the August 3 First Avenue performance where the film’s title song received its debut. Mostly, though, he wrote: spending his days in a motel room drafting in longhand, “from seven to seven… with a ruler and pencil, on paper. Then a secretary would come in and type everything up from that day in script form” (Light 2014 91). By the end of the month, when Magnoli flew back to Los Angeles to finish editing James Foley’s Reckless, his first draft was complete.

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Ephemera, 1983

Irresistible Bitch

From his debut through 1999, Prince was releasing albums at the steady clip of one per year–with side projects the Time and Vanity 6 doubling, and then tripling, his output in 1981 and 1982, respectively. But as his attention turned to the development and production of his first feature film, the release schedule inevitably slowed. The year 1983 would be the first in half a decade without a new Prince album on shelves.

As it happened, this arrangement served his record label just fine. “Warner Bros.’ pop department worked really hard to launch Prince to pop radio,” recalled Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing executive in Warner’s “Black Music” division. “But there never was time. As soon as something was starting to happen on pop radio, the next album arrived. The fact that we weren’t getting a new album in 1983 ended up being a tremendous blessing because it gave us more time” (Nilsen 1999 119).

For Prince himself, the “blessing” was considerably less tremendous. “Delirious,” the third single from 1999, had released on August 17 paired with “Horny Toad,” an outtake of similar style and vintage. But the fourth single, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” wasn’t due out until November; and Prince, who had recorded enough music that year to fill a whole LP and then some, was itching to put out something new. According to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, the hyper-prolific artist spent his time at Sunset Sound on September 16 reviewing two prospective B-sides: “G-Spot,” which he’d tracked in May and would later dust off for protégée Jill Jones; and “Irresistible Bitch,” the latest version of which had been recorded just a day earlier. “Not surprisingly,” Tudahl writes, “he chose his most recent work” (Tudahl 2018 170).