Prince’s Sunset Sound session on February 3, 1984 was highly productive, even by his lofty standards: After taking “A Million Miles (I Love You)” from jam session to finished track, he still had time to complete a second number for Apollonia 6. To date, his efforts to write for the group’s namesake had been dogged by her limited range as a singer. “In a Spanish Villa” was his most ingenious solution to the problem yet: Rather than spending another long night building Apollonia’s confidence in the vocal booth, he’d craft a song around one of the bilingual actress’ existing strengths–sounding sexy in Spanish.
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).
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 2014 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’” (Light 2014 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 2014 77).
If you’ve spent any time on the Prince-obsessed corners of the Internet lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Super Deluxe Edition of Sign “O” the Times was the only recent release of note. But just three days before that mammoth box set landed with a thud on our doorsteps, the University of Minnesota Press also published a new memoir by Revolution bassist Mark Brown, better known as BrownMark; and, while it understandably hasn’t generated the same level of interest as the late-1986 Vault laid bare, My Life in the Purple Kingdom is still worth a look.
Brown’s book is noteworthy in large part because, even amidst the boom of posthumous Prince publications–with memoirs by early associate Pepé Willie and longtime journalist/confidant Neal Karlen hitting shelves in just the past few weeks–firsthand accounts by former band members are still comparatively rare. Pre-Revolution guitarist Dez Dickerson’s My Time with Prince: Confessions of a Former Revolutionary was self-published in 2003, and is long out of print; Sign “O” the Times/Lovesexy-era drummer Sheila E’s The Beat of My Own Drum came out in 2015, and was marketed more as a Sheila E book than a Prince one. This makes Brown only the third ex-bandmate to share his story in book form–and the first to do so since Prince’s passing almost five years ago.
And, make no mistake, My Life is very much Brown’s own story. Arguably its best chapters come before Prince even shows up, detailing Brown’s South Minneapolis upbringing and his entry into the city’s segregated music scene. Brown’s recounting of the shutdown of downtown R&B club King Solomon’s Mines after months of police harassment will be familiar to readers of Andrea Swensson’s excellent Got to Be Something Here; while his vivid descriptions of encounters with neo-Nazi skinheads and racist cops will be familiar to anyone who’s been following the news in 2020. Full disclosure: I read an early version of this book about a year ago while it was still in the editing process; reading it again now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, feels markedly different. A passage about the insidiously “subtle” nature of racism in the Midwest–where “White people would smile in your face but call you a [racial slur] behind your back”–felt especially (and unfortunately) relevant.
Ironically, it’s when the ruler (or despot) of the titular “Purple Kingdom” shows up that My Life loses some of its vitality. Readers of other Prince biographies won’t find much here to surprise them: His Royal Badness is seldom warm, often funny, sometimes vindictive, and, as his fame grows, increasingly distant from his bandmates. When Brown’s portrait of his erstwhile colleague is revealing, it’s mostly him and not Prince who is being revealed; his creative conflicts with his first band Phantasy, for example, parallel Prince’s own struggles to “cross over,” and suggest why Prince may have been drawn to recruit the younger musician as a sideman.
Mostly, though, Prince is here to serve as an inciting incident for Brown’s own personal growth. When Prince demands that his new recruit “start playing the bass, or I’ll find somebody who will,” it’s up to Brown to build up his chops. When Prince has a stylist straighten out Brown’s Jheri curl and leaves him with a “dry and bushy” shag, it’s up to Brown to “find [his] mojo” with a new hairstyle. One of the book’s most compelling conflicts barely even involves the frontman, as Brown finds himself confronted with resentful female fans–and his own low self-esteem–after “replacing” the group’s heartthrob original bassist André Cymone.
Indeed, my biggest complaint about My Life is that it doesn’t leave enough space for Brown’s post-Prince experiences; instead, the book comes to a happy, but abrupt ending after he leaves the Revolution and secures a recording contract with Motown. While I understand that the public hasn’t exactly been clamoring for a blow-by-blow account of BrownMark’s solo career, I think most readers would have been interested to hear how he ended up recording Prince’s “Bang Bang” and “Shall We Dance” in 1989. Likewise, I would have expected a new book by a member of the Revolution to include some kind of perspective on the group’s 2016 reunion, let alone Prince’s death that same year. In a recent interview with friend of the blog Erica Thompson, Brown revealed that he wrote My Life about 15 years ago “to vent and let out a lot of frustration”; this certainly squares with the bittersweet note on which he leaves his relationship with Prince, but in the current context there’s a surprising lack of closure.
Whatever its flaws, however, My Life is still recommended reading for fans of the Minneapolis Sound. Brown and co-writer Cynthia M. Uhrich have crafted a narrative that is breezy and consistently entertaining: much like Morris Day’s in his own memoir last year, Brown’s voice comes through loud and clear, from the hilarious passages about his youthful experimentation with a Jheri curl to his idiosyncratic (but consistent!) spelling of the word “cool.” If nothing else, and for reasons I won’t spoil here, I’ll never think about the passage where Brown drives out to Chanhassen for the first time to audition for Prince without laughing out loud.
BrownMark may have been the first ex-band member out the gate with a book after 2016, but I, for one, hope he isn’t the last; my personal position–which may come as heresy to some corners of the Prince fandom–is the more books, the better. Prince, as this blog itself can attest, had as many facets as there were people to observe him; books like this ensure that those many facets, and the people who were there to see them, remain in the public record.
If you’d like to read My Life in the Purple Kingdom, and support D / M / S / R in the process, I earn a small commission from any purchase made using a Bookshop.org affiliate link.
(Thank you, everyone, for your patience as I work on the next proper post; “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” is coming soon. Thanks, also, to Joseph Swafford and Tonya Pendleton, who both joined the Patreon in the past two weeks! I really appreciate your support. While I continue to work on my own stuff, I highly recommend the following Prince-related projects: De Angela Duff’s #SOTTSDC virtual roundtable series, which takes place this Saturday afternoon/evening; and the latest #PrinceTwitterThread series curated by Edgar Kruize and UMB, which will be ongoing through the rest of the month. See you soon!)
Note: I first wrote about “Electric Intercourse” in 2017, when the previously-unheard studio version was released in advance of the deluxe expanded edition of Purple Rain. That original post has been preserved for posterity, but this is now the official D / M / S / R entry on the song.
Much as he had the previous year during the Controversy tour, Prince spent part of his “downtime” between the two legs of the 1999 tour at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. Over the course of a single week, from January 7-14, 1983, he completed overdubs and mixing for the 12″ versions of his own “Little Red Corvette” and “Drive Me Wild” by Vanity 6, plus edits for the single release of the Time’s “Gigolos Get Lonely Too.” Finally, on the last night of the sessions, he recorded a new song: the aching, piano-led ballad “Electric Intercourse.”