On Prince, the Perfectionist

From the Super Bowl to obscure awards shows, the Purple One always aimed for greatness.


By Alan Light

It was the biggest performance of Prince’s career. It wasn’t just the sold-out crowd of 75,000 at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium for Super Bowl XLI in 2007 — it was the 93.2 million viewers on CBS, which made the game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears the fifth-most-watched program in U.S. television history (in fact, during Prince’s halftime performance, the audience reportedly peaked at 140 million).

He was following such global superstars as U2, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones in this slot at America’s premier sporting event. He and his band, the NPG (New Power Generation), had been working out their 12-minute set for months: first, representatives from the NFL came to see them jam at the house he was renting in Los Angeles to get a sense of what they might put together; then they rehearsed and refined their performance for weeks back at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota; and finally, they did the mandatory run-throughs on the field at the stadium, filming a complete dress rehearsal two days before the game in case a technical emergency prevented the actual live halftime broadcast.

And, of course, it was pouring rain.

So what did Prince do, in the Dolphin Stadium dressing room, just moments before taking the stage? Not only did he change the arrangements the band would play, he also changed the actual line-up of the band.

“We took the horn section with us, and he decided on the spot not to use the horns,” Morris Hayes, the NPG’s keyboard player and musical director, recently told me. “They were there, dressed and ready, and he said no. They were like, ‘You have got to be kidding me!’ They were hot as fish grease!”

“But he just made that edit. ‘I like the stage clean, there are three horn players —sorry, guys, we’re going to go horn-less today, thank you for coming.’ It was a work in progress. You really didn’t know what it was going to be until you hit the stage. And the harder the situation was, the more he shined.”

Just think for a minute about what was involved in that last-minute revision. It indicates an aesthetic decision, a sense that there was something different Prince wanted to hear at that moment and how he was always thinking about exactly what music he wanted to make. But it also illustrates how impeccably rehearsed, how perfectly prepared, he and his band had to be to accommodate such major, spontaneous change. (The results, as always, spoke for themselves: That appearance is widely acknowledged as the greatest halftime show in Super Bowl history, and became one of the defining performances of his career following his death in 2016.)

But this is the side of Prince that sometimes gets overlooked, lost in the mythology of his astonishing musical genius — his unwavering discipline and laser-focused work ethic. It was one thing that he could play anything he dreamed up, on every instrument, but it was something else that he insisted on obsessive practice, drilling himself and those around him to be able to deliver a flawless rendition of the sound in his head.

“He would’ve been a great general in the army,” his long-time engineer Susan Rogers once said to me. “He has this extraordinary self-confidence, coupled with extraordinary self-discipline and tempered by a really clear self-critical eye.”

I was fortunate enough to witness this incredible devotion to creating music first-hand the times I joined Prince on the road for interviews over the years. While his pure, sheer talent — as a singer, instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, performer, bandleader — was always beyond compare, I have also never seen an artist work harder.

A regular day on tour involved a three-hour soundcheck, a two-hour show in front of a sold-out arena, and then an after-show at a local club. (“The after-shows are where you get loose,” he said. “It’s that high-diving that gets you going.”) This might, of course, be preceded or followed by time in a recording or video studio, and also by constant review of the footage from that night’s concert.

He held to this level of dedication even for the most meaningless performances. I was with him in Monte Carlo in 1994 for an appearance on the World Music Awards (one of the oddest events I have ever witnessed, with honorees ranging from Whitney Houston and Ray Charles to Kenny G and Michael Bolton), where he was obligated to lip-synch through a version of his current hit, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”

He hated lip-synching, but did as he was instructed — and still, the first thing he did when he came off-stage was ask for a videotape, wondering how one dance step looked, concerned that he had reversed two words and rendered the lip-synch imperfect. Even here, he was simply incapable of just walking through it.

“Anything Prince did, he did it 110%,” said Morris Hayes, who played with Prince off-and-on for 20 years, making him the longest-tenured sideman. “He wanted it perfect, he wanted it right. He was a consummate workaholic, always trying to raise the bar for himself and for us.”

This constant outpouring of music was what initially led to Prince’s disputes with his record labels, which in many ways overshadowed his creativity for years. As he explained it to me during the phase when he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, his label maintained that it could handle only one album per year from him, while he was recording the equivalent of at least three or four every year. By the time one album made its way for release, he had finished another one. By the time he went on tour to promote the first album, he was already done with a third.

One way Prince handled this endless creative flow was to invent other entities to record his work. Soon after his debut album, For You, came out in 1978, he put together the group that he would name The Time to represent the more purely funky side of his writing. Vanity 6 (later Apollonia 6) was assembled as the raunchier, female expression of his sensibility. Other side projects — The Family, Madhous— followed, as well as writing and producing for other artists, such as Sheila E. and Jill Jones. Other songs, which sometimes started life intended for one of these in-house affiliates, found their way to outside acts (the Bangles, Martika) he felt fit the material. Prince’s demos for 15 of these songs make up the new Originals collection, coming out on June 7 on TIDAL.

Where did this drive, bordering on mania, come from? What was it that led Prince to structure a life that allowed him to create anywhere, anytime — that was set up so that nothing interfered with him making music and no one was brought into his orbit unless he invited them in?

Maybe this question is best left for psychologists who study prodigies and geniuses, since there’s no real way to answer. But some of it must have roots in his musician father, John L. Nelson, by all accounts a unique and accomplished pianist who struggled to get past the small-time local level. “I named my son Prince,” Nelson once said, “because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.”

Regardless, descriptions of the young Prince focus on him spending all his free time at school practicing in the music room, and virtually moving into a Minneapolis recording studio when he was first given access to the space. By the time he was getting noticed as a teenager and talking about a record contract, he actually had the audacity — and the unshakable confidence — to turn down his first few offers because they didn’t grant him complete creative control.

Howard Bloom, Prince’s publicist in the ‘80s, described his mindset simply: Prince is what you get when “you want to make music more than you want to breathe, eat, sleep, or do anything else in life.”

By 1984, he had focused his sights on becoming the biggest artist in the world, and made the adjustments to his songwriting, his band, and his own image to deliver Purple Rain. Although no one around him could understand why a young, mid-level R&B act with a couple of hits demanded that he star in a Hollywood feature film, Prince’s vision was flawless, and he was the first person ever to have the No. 1 single, album and movie in America at the same time.

The Purple Rain project began with an appearance at his home base, the First Avenue club in Minneapolis, in August of 1983 — a show that can be considered as mythic, and as high-pressure, as the Super Bowl performance. It was the Revolution’s first time on stage with teenage Wendy Melvoin assuming the guitar slot from original member Dez Dickerson. The show marked the first time Prince played a brand-new song called “Purple Rain” in public and, unbelievably, that very performance is the one that we would hear in the movie and on the 13-million-selling soundtrack album.

Melvoin says that she and the band felt no additional anxiety about the First Avenue show, simply because they were so well rehearsed that they just had to hit their marks. “From eating and drinking to singing and playing and choreography, everything had a desperate importance, and nothing took priority over the other,” she told me. “Every moment that you were in Prince and the Revolution had to be like your last day on earth. So when we were doing that show, it seemed just as important as making it to rehearsal on time the day before.”

Not that this degree of discipline was always entertaining for the band itself. “Prince was such a structured boss, there was no real fun in it,” said Susannah Melvoin, Wendy’s twin sister and lead singer in The Family as well as one of his former girlfriends. “You might work the same groove for five hours non-stop, some three-bar thing over and over. It was like the army.” (If you look online, there is in fact rehearsal footage of the Revolution working on a single, short James Brown turnaround lick for hours.)

“How did he make us all fall under his spell?” she continued. “You got sucked in, and sometimes that was great and sometimes it was really crappy.”

Interestingly, Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder (in his pre-MTV News days) picked up on this element of Prince’s leadership in his review of Purple Rain. “The characters spend most of their time working,” he wrote back in 1984. “[R]arely has the work ethic been made to seem so cool.”

But the ultimate measure of his vision is that, as demonstrated at the Super Bowl, Prince knew that all of this preparation could turn too perfect, too robotic, which is why he would call audibles, switch things up, keep his musicians on their toes. “Every audience was an individual crowd,” said Morris Hayes. “Once he saw the situation on stage, he would change things. When the show kicks in, he’s thinking of everything he could possibly pull out.” After a show in Nashville in 2004, Prince said to me, “Whenever I include the audience, that’s when the show really takes off — I learned that from club dates.”

Like his fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan, Prince valued immediacy and surprise in his music, and wanted to constantly challenge himself and his players. Unlike Dylan, though, who thrives on sloppiness and a certain degree of chaos, Prince strove to create something permanent — to establish an environment in which his musicians were a total extension of himself, capable of seizing on challenges as a way to heighten the impact and the very possibilities of the music.

“He would show me all this crazy stuff he could do — play keyboards and a guitar solo at the same time — and I said, ‘I can’t do that!’ “ said Hayes. “And he said, ‘Morris, if you want to stay, I don’t do impossible. I don’t deal with “no.” Whatever you need to do, we figure out how to win.’

“Later, he came to my house and said, ‘I was hard on you because I want you to be great.’ He wanted us to be like him, who took what we did seriously and left a legacy. This is what’s important.”

In 2004, Prince spoke to me about his ultimate ambitions, with his music and beyond. “When you’re a young man, you think you’re the center of the universe,” he said. “Later you see you’re just part of it. The world is only going to get harder. Me and my crew, we love having conversations about music, but when we get deep, we talk about the future, about what we’re leaving for the kids.”

Engineer Susan Rogers compared Prince to Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and the other megastars he was often grouped with. “They all had producers and session musicians,” she said. “They all had the best players. Prince was one guy who was writing and arranging and producing, and he was competing with all of them on that level.

“The ‘Minneapolis Scene?’ This was a scene of one guy who created his own competition in order to be a scene. Who does that?”

Alan Light is the author of Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain.


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