Prince’s purple reign, remembered by his closest friends and collaborators

Prince would have turned 61 on 7 June. To mark his birthday, Kevin EG Perry travels to Paisley Park and speaks to bandmates and collaborators including Chuck D and Eve, who share their favourite stories about the artist formerly known as an unpronounceable ‘love symbol’. And yes, that includes what happened to his airborne guitar at the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame...

In 1979, Earth, Wind and Fire’s manager Bob Cavallo travelled to Anaheim, California to see a young artist who’d approached him about the possibility of working together. Cavallo had with him his wife and 12 year-old daughter, so he was somewhat taken aback when the performer came onstage wearing a trenchcoat and pantyhose. Every time he span around the coat would lift and open, revealing the G-string he was wearing underneath. After the show, Cavallo made his way backstage. “Well, young man,” he began. “I thought your show was great and your band is great, but I don’t think it’s right for you to go onstage in your underwear.” Prince looked back at him. “Okay,” he said. “Next time, I’ll take it off.”

Cavallo, naturally, signed Prince on the spot and would go on to manage him for the next decade. As well as shepherding the wildly ambitious 1984 film Purple Rain into existence, in 1987 Cavallo also helped Prince build his 65,000 square-foot, $10 million home base Paisley Park in Chanhassen, just outside Minneapolis. Prince had gotten the idea when shooting pick-ups for Purple Rain at Earth, Wind and Fire’s own studio, The Complex. “Whenever he wanted something, he just pretty much told me I was doing it,” remembers Cavallo, sat inside Paisley Park’s own soundstage as part of Celebration 2019, a gathering of thousands of the world’s purplest Prince fans at their own, personal Mecca to mark the third anniversary of their hero’s death.

“Whenever he wanted something, he just pretty much told me I was doing it”
Bob Cavallo, Prince’s former manager

From outside, Paisley Park gives little away, concealing its mysteries behind white aluminium panels, like a big box goods store. When I’d landed in Minneapolis the first thing I’d done was take a picture of the sky to send to a friend because it was full of the sort of perfect white, fluffy cumulus clouds I always associate with the opening sequence of The Simpsons. Inside Paisley Park, the main atrium is painted in the exact same style: white fluffy clouds on pale blue walls. I want to take another picture but my phone has been locked inside a specially-designed Yondr pouch. Prince forbade photos inside Paisley Park and his estate continues to enforce that ban. A painting of his eyes looks down from above the entranceway, as if he is still keeping watch over his property. Meanwhile, up on a balcony, a pair of doves sit inside cages. They do not cry.

Paisley Park atrium. The Prince Estate/Jeremy Gavin

Of all the Prince fans and associates here at Paisley Park this weekend, very few knew him for as long as Bobby Z. The original drummer in The Revolution, Bobby first met Prince in 1977 and says that in all the years he knew him Prince rarely “took his foot off the gas”. “He was ‘on’ all the time, creating the world around him,” says Bobby. “He was one of those people, like Da Vinci or Shakespeare or Michelangelo.”

“[Prince] was one of those people, like Da Vinci or Shakespeare or Michelangelo”
– Bobby Z, The Revolution bandmate

As an example of the swiftness of Prince’s genius, Bobby recounts a story that happened while on the road touring fourth album ‘Controversy’. “We were traveling in the South and the hotels were not luxurious in those days,” Bobby remembers. “This one night we stopped at a place that had ‘Free HBO’ written outside. That sign made us all just crazy. We were so excited to watch cable for the first time. There was this Orson Welles film on, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. It was about Nostradamus. He kept saying that Armageddon was coming in 1999. The next day, everybody was talking about this Orson Welles thing, like: ‘Did you see that?’ Prince just took out his little cassette and played us a demo he’d written. It was ‘1999’. While you’re just watching a show and processing the information, he’s watching it and being inspired. He’d written a free flowing masterpiece instantly. He did that many, many times over.”

Indeed he did. ‘1999’, released in 1982, kick-started Prince’s imperial phase, which saw him record and release singles including ‘Little Red Corvette’, ‘Delirious’, ‘When Doves Cry’, ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘I Would Die 4 U’ – and that was just within the next two years.

For all his success, it’s telling that Prince would choose to eschew Los Angeles and New York in order to stay close to his hometown. “Prince was fiercely Minnesotan,” says Bobby. “He was proud of it. Some of his greatest moments were playing here, coming back as conquering heroes. He grew up here and he loved it. People say it’s cold, but sub-zero weather is the ultimate security. People aren’t going to be wandering around your property when it’s 20 below zero. It keeps the weirdos out.”

Prince’s decision to remain in Minnesota also teed up one of his most infamous quips. At the premiere of The Bourne Ultimatum, Matt Damon asked him: “So you live in Minnesota? I hear you live in Minnesota.” To which Prince replied: “I live inside my own heart, Matt Damon.”

Studio A at Paisley Park. The Prince Estate/Jeremy Gavin 

Speaking to those who knew and worked with Prince, there’s often a tension between his otherworldliness and his oftentimes ordinary behaviour. Chuck D remembers travelling to Minnesota to collaborate on 1999’s ‘Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic’ and being surprised to find, on his arrival, that Prince was hosting a garage sale. “He had about 100 items outside, old amps and gear,” remembers Chuck, still incredulous to this day. “There’s maybe like 15-20 people there. They’d ask him about something and he’d pick up a guitar with a tag on it and go: ‘I’ll give you $60 off that one.’ What the fuck, man? A garage sale at Paisley Park and Prince is out there giving price breaks!”

After he was done flogging his old instruments, Prince returned to the matter at hand: recording a rapper he would later namecheck in ‘Musicology’ as being one of the all-time greats. “We go inside and we talk for a few,” remembers Chuck. “Listen to the track. The year was 1999 by the way, so that was mind-blowing again. After I was done rapping he says: ‘Go and wait for me in the lobby, man.’ So I go outside and I’m looking through a window through a window, and it looked like he was making a salad. He’s throwing tape around like a chef. He knew every aspect of that studio. Half an hour later he said: ‘Come on in’ and it was done.”

“When Prince was in the studio, it looked like he was making a salad. He was throwing tape around like a chef”
Chuck D, Public Enemy

Another collaborator on ‘Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic’ was Eve, who recorded with him at Electric Lady Studios in New York. “My memory of him goes beyond his immense talent,” she tells me. “After we met, I was privileged enough to be called on stage with him and go to some of his legendary parties. He was such an incredible person that he would reach out to younger artist and share his world and wisdom. I’ll be forever grateful that I had those moments with him.”

“Prince would reach out to younger artists and share his world and wisdom… I’ll be forever grateful that I had those moments with him”
– Eve

In later years, the commercial performance of Prince’s albums started to decline but his reputation as a live performer skyrocketed. He was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, but the night is mostly remembered for something he did during a tribute to fellow inductee George Harrison. The clip of his performance alongside Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Steve Winwood has gone viral several times over and has been viewed over 70 million times on YouTube, but if you’ve somehow still never seen Prince’s breathtaking solo during ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, well, you’re in for a treat.

I’m delighted when Morris Hayes, former keyboardist and musical director for the New Power Generation, tells me that Prince enjoyed that performance just as much as we all did. “He told me: ‘You know what I did? I went easy on them in rehearsal’,” remembers Hayes. “He said: ‘I didn’t do nothing. Then when the show came I turned the gas on and Tom Petty got hot!’ You can see it when Prince lays down on the crowd, Tom’s face is like: ‘Why, you little bastard! You show off!’ It was so funny.”

One of the most famous moments in the clip happens right at the end. Prince finishes playing, takes his guitar off and launches it skyward. He struts off stage. The guitar never comes down. At least that’s how it appears. The trick, Hayes reveals, was pulled off with the help of Prince’s trusty guitar tech Takumi Suetsugu. “Takumi’s thing was: when Prince gets done playing, I don’t care how high or how far he throws that guitar, you better catch it,” says Hayes. “He never missed. It was crazy. He did it at so many shows. It didn’t matter what angle it was coming at, Takumi had practiced how to catch that thing so he didn’t kill himself or break the guitar. If he’d dropped it coming from that kind of altitude it would’ve shattered into pieces.”

“Prince told me: ‘You know what I did? I went easy on them in rehearsal. I didn’t do nothing. Then when the show came I turned the gas on and Tom Petty got hot!'”
– Morris Hayes, New Power Generation, on that legendary Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame performance

Prince’s live shows were the stuff of legend, and he prided himself on his spontaneity. In 2007 he played 21 nights at London’s O2 Arena and would then nip over to the indigO2 nightclub for an aftershow. Khadia Handon, who now sings with her own band Soul Rising, had been singing backing vocals for support act Mya before she found herself watching Prince play his second show of the night. “I was behind the curtain watching him perform,” she remembers. “He came back and was like: ‘Are you ready to go on stage?’ It was me and Mya’s other backup singer Gigi. He was like: ‘Are you ready? I want you guys to sing with me.’ We were just like: ‘Uh… yeah?’ He said: ‘Ok, we’re gonna do this song, this song, this song…’ He named five songs really fast. We rehearsed right there because he only had a couple of minutes before he had to go back onstage. Then he went: ‘Ok, let’s go.’ Boom. Next minute I was onstage with him. I’ve never felt such a rush.”

“Prince gave us two minutes to prepare to sing five songs with him… I’ve never felt such a rush”
Khadia Handon, singer

Prince’s death at the age of 57, on 21 April 2016, was as shocking as David Bowie’s had been just three months earlier. Together they seemed to mark the end of an era, yet there are a multitude of plans afoot to continue Prince’s legacy. He once told an interviewer he disliked the idea of hologram tours, saying: “that whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon.”

Despite that, as part of Celebration 2019, members of his old touring band regrouped at The Armory in Minneapolis to perform with him again – not as a hologram but simply with old concert footage on a huge screen. I have to say, it’s hard to resist enjoying it. The dearly beloved Prince faithful clearly think it’s worth doing, hanging on his every note. Just as with the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame clip, the best thing is being reminded of what a great time he always seemed to be having on stage. Is there any greater pleasure than Prince announcing what he’s about to do? During ‘You’ve Got The Look’ he suddenly declares: “I’m going to play my guitar!” and then he does. Excellent.

Prince’s former bandmates onstage after performing as part of Celebration 2019. The Prince Estate/Steve Parke

Whether or not ‘Prince in Concert on the Big Screen’ becomes a touring concern, this year will be a busy one for the Prince Estate. On October 29 his unfinished memoir ‘The Beautiful Ones’ will be published, and there have already been a series of reissues including ‘Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic’ and its remix companion ‘Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic’.

On June 7 a ‘new’ album will be released to mark what would have been Prince’s 61st birthday. ‘Originals’ features Prince’s recordings of songs he wrote for other people – most prominently hits like ‘Manic Monday’ and ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. Trevor Guy, the Estate’s Creative Director, explains the idea for the album: “Everybody knows Prince as a rock star at the front of the stage, but a lot of people don’t realise how involved he was as a writer, producer and architect for other bands. It peels back the curtain a bit on that stuff.”

Guy adds that there’s still a lot more material to be heard from Prince’s famous Vault of unreleased recordings. “It will continue to happen in a way that’s done with care, consideration and a real creative intention,” he says. “There’s no official comment on what’s going on beyond ‘Originals’, but the Vault is a real thing and there’s untold sums of music that have never been released and never heard, so there will for sure be plans with respect to how to get that out.”

“The Vault is a real thing and there’s untold sums of music that have never been released and never heard”
Trevor Guy, Creative Director of The Prince Estate

Still, no matter how much more music or footage of Prince is released, it’s hard to imagine that tension between his otherwordliness and his everyday humanity ever being truly resolved. He was just a guy from Minneapolis, even if he seemed to come from another planet. “We used to play ping pong and watch basketball games,” remembers Guy. “He was always extraordinary, that goes without saying, but he was a person too.”

A person, a virtuoso, a show-off, a genius, a Minnesotan, a garage sale host: you could call Prince a lot of things, just never, ever ask him not to wear his G-string onstage.

‘Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic’ and its 2001 remix ‘Rave In2 the Joy Fantastic’ are the latest titles in The Prince Estate and Sony Legacy’s ongoing, definitive catalogue project, available here