When Prince stepped out onto the stage of a Minneapolis club in 1983 the room was sweaty, jam-packed and about to taste history. The story of Prince’s career defining sixth album, Purple Rain, involves a reclusive genius learning to make friends, a eclectic creative approach and one world changing performance.
Prince had recorded his first five albums alone. The multi-track whiz kid recorded almost every instrument, writing every part to perfection. The sexy pogo-funk sound that typifies his first few records is evident on tracks like When You Were Mine, I Wanna Be Your Lover and I Feel For You.
However, the flamboyant, insular powerhouse was always lurking the shadows. An elusive character drenched in mystery was exactly how Prince liked to be seen. But he realised that if we was to sky rocket to the top floor of global rock supremacy he was gonna need a band.
After 35 years we reflect on the making Prince’s magnum opus, the sex-funk masterpiece Purple Rain and it’s theatric birthing.
The first and most critical step to Prince creating Purple Rain was forming a band. Prince told Rolling Stone in 1985 why he hadn’t done so already.
“The reason I don’t use musicians a lot of the time had to do with the hours that I worked. I swear to God it’s not out of boldness when I say this, but there’s not a person around who can stay awake as long as I can. Music is what keeps me awake. There will be times when I’ve been working in the studio for twenty hours and I’ll be falling asleep in the chair, but I’ll still be able to tell the engineer what cut I want to make. I use engineers in shifts a lot of the time because when I start something, I like to go all the way through. There are very few musicians who will stay awake that long.”
The two missing pieces were Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin. Lisa Coleman first met Prince in 1979. He was looking for a girl keyboard player and she was it.
“I think we lived up to the flamboyant image because we worked so hard,” said Coleman. “When Wendy Melvoin joined to play guitar, it made a big difference. I was happy because she was my girlfriend, and Prince was so excited”
Prince showed a deep respect and support for women unlike many of his peers, which speaks volumes about his outlook and stance on sexism and equality. Prince definitely preferred female company in the studio too with Wendy and Lisa becoming his most entrusted sidekicks and musical collaborators.
If Prince was an enlightened prophet of the ‘Purple Palace’, Wendy and Lisa were his disciples. The West Coasters hailed from royal musical lineage with their fathers being top session cats in the ’60s. They were part of the famous ‘Wrecking Crew’ who were a group of elite session artists responsible for recording thousands of musos from Sinatra to The Beach Boys. From them, the girls inherited their chameleon abilitioes to provide the perfect parts for any song, regardless of genre or groove.
“We didn’t hoard stuff” Wendy explains. “We were more than willing to give him what he needed. Men are very competitive, so if somebody came up with a melody line, they would want credit for it.”
At the time of the First Avenue gig, Prince’s band consisted of Matt ‘Doctor’ Fink on synth, Brown Mark on bass, Bobby ‘Z’ Rifkin on drums, Eric Leeds on sax, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman.
On August 3rd 1983 history was about to be made… and Prince knew it. A congregation of 1,500 were studying at the 18 year-old Wendy Melvoin strumming some circular gospel-like chords on her purple Rickenbacker. It’s the final song in a set of 10 wildly modern and eclectic numbers. Electricity was in the air as the swelling groove hypnotised for almost five minutes before a lurking, veiled figure emerges from the shadows with interstellar fuzzed out lead breaks lurching from his Telecaster.
1,500 onlookers stared in awe as Prince approaches the mic, shaking with emotion. Little did the band know but this was where Purple Rain was to be recorded live.
‘Prince was really excited and kept pumping us up: “We’re making history tonight.” It all makes sense now: if you’re going to record something, make sure you’re as badass as you can be. Don’t fuck around,’ explains Lisa Coleman.
There were no cheers of recognition as Prince first sang. It was the debut performance of a legendary song and one that would forever canonise Prince Nile Rogers in the pop culture lexicon.
Watch the stunning first performance of Purple Rain below:
Within 18 months the 25 year old dynamo would be selling out arenas. Purple Rain was the most cohesive musical statement Prince ever made spending a staggering 24 weeks at No.1 and selling more than 20 million copies worldwide.
His sexed up ethos, production personality and unique songwriting influenced many later artists from George Michaels to Beyoncé. Prince also become one of the most iconic figures of the ’80s and is still one of the worlds most respected artists.
Purple Rain endures as one of the all time great albums and is a testament to the musical genius and relentless dedication of Prince.