Year In Music 2016

The Revolution Remembers Their Last Moments With Prince -- and the First Time They Heard 'Purple Rain'

“Purple Rain” -- Digital Song Sales (2 weeks)

Prince worked with many, many musicians over the course of his 40-odd-year career. But there was only one Revolution. 

The five core members of the band -- drummer Bobby Z (Robert Rivkin), keyboardists Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman, bassist Brownmark (Mark Brown) and guitarist Wendy Melvoin -- rode right alongside him on his meteoric rise to fame in the early '80s, creating a deep familial bond that, while always subject to the leader's notorious demands and caprices, endured long after they parted company in 1986. 

The Revolution evolved gradually over several years, with all of the members joining during (or shortly after) their teens. Minneapolis native Z first met Prince in 1976, a few months before the 18-year-old boy wonder signed his deal with Warner Bros. Z's friend Fink joined before the band's concert debut in January 1979. Coleman replaced keyboardist Gayle Chapman the following year; Brown took over for bassist Andre Cymone the next. Even the band's name took years to emerge, first appearing -- written backwards -- on the cover of the 1999 album. Finally, Melvoin -- Coleman's childhood friend (their fathers were L.A. session musicians) and then-girlfriend -- replaced guitarist Dez Dickerson in mid-1983. While Sly & the Family Stone seems the most obvious reference, as Z puts it, "Prince's dream of a Fleetwood Mac-style band came true."

The new lineup made its debut on August 3rd, 1983 at Minneapolis' First Avenue -- the band's clubhouse and itself a co-star in the Purple Rain film. It was, to put it mildly, an auspicious debut: The concert was professionally recorded and three songs from it -- "I Would Die 4 U," "Baby I'm a Star" and "Purple Rain" -- would appear on an album and film that went on to win three Grammys and an Oscar, influence a generation of musicians, and make Prince and the entire band superstars. 

The glory years didn't last long. Although the group worked relentlessly as it navigated the rapids of mid-1980s stardom, it released just two more albums -- Around the World in a Day and Parade -- before Prince officially dissolved the Revolution after the Parade tour wrapped in Japan on Sept. 9, 1986. The musicians went on to solo careers, production work, film and TV music (Wendy and Lisa won an Emmy in 2010 for their work on Nurse Jackie) and performed with Prince on occasion, but the full Revolution never played with him again -- even though they left a guitar onstage for him at their 2012 reunion concert to celebrate Z's recovery from a near-fatal heart attack. 

In the days following Prince’s death from an accidental drug overdose on April 21, the surge in interest, tributes and sales of his music was, except for the death of Michael Jackson, unprecedented -- not only because of his vast influence and popularity, but also because of how fiercely he guarded the rights to his music. With his songs legally available for streaming only on Tidal, album and track sales skyrocketed: Prince albums occupied the top two spots on the Billboard 200 dated May 7 (The Very Best of Prince at No. 1 and Purple Rain at No. 2), and the song “Purple Rain” topped four charts that week. Last month, Purple Rain's 2016 chart success even earned it an American Music Award, some 32 years after its release. 

Seven months after Prince’s death -- and the day after the American Music Awards -- Billboard got on the phone with the five core members of the Revolution to remember the song, the album, the film, and the incredible artist with whom they shared so much. 

How did it feel to have Purple Rain honored at the American Music Awards, 32 years later?

Wendy Melvoin: It was really bittersweet, to be honest with you. It feels beautiful that it happened and bittersweet at the same time because our man is not here. 

Matt: We agree with Wendy, all of us, on that. 

Bobby Z: We've known Tyka [Nelson, Prince's only full sibling, who accepted the American Music Award] for decades, and "Family is family" is what we said to each other last night. I think it was [the AMAs'] way of paying tribute to Prince, and for us it's a testament to the record we made. 

What made this band so special? 

Z: What we call the "movie band" -- the band you’re talking to right now -- these are the people who were committed. The guys in the early days [Cymone and Dickerson] made it very clear to Prince that they had solo careers. Prince was frustrated by that, and it wasn't until Wendy joined -- until his dream of a Fleetwood Mac-style band came true -- that it really became the band he wanted it to be. That first time Wendy jammed with us at soundcheck on “Controversy” … It’s like when you’d hear the Beatles talking about when they found Ringo. You just knew that was the future, and Purple Rain is the testament to that. I think The Revolution was the last band Prince was really in -- he was the bandleader after that. 

But wasn't he always a tough bandleader? There’s a moment in the Prince and the Revolution Live 1985 video where Prince says “Gimme one!” (Bamp!) “Gimme two!” (Bamp! Bamp!) “Gimme 35!” and then leaves the stage while you're all pounding away. 

Z: [Laughing] That was a discipline thing. It wasn’t cruel, it was strictly almost a military-style discipline. If you watch that segment, we’re a well-oiled machine -- and that ["Gimme 35"] is a gag. But it required pretty serious concentration because he was so spontaneous. He would do stuff like that to us all the time! What was the biggest number? 

Matt Fink: I think it was 50-something. 

Z: He also had specific hand signals that would mean to play a certain horn lick or cue or lead line, so we’d have to watch for that special cue. Like “Alright, I’m going to shake my hand like this,” and “I’m going to do this signal,” and we’d be in the middle of a groove and then we’d go into a whole spiel for three or four bars. 

Brownmark: He would take a handkerchief and drop it and we had to hit right on the beat and stop [when it hit the floor]. It was crazy. 

Would he ever trip himself up doing that? 

Mark: No, he would never screw up. That dude was well-rehearsed! He just lived and breathed music. I remember once we went to Disney World, the whole band [except him]. He looked at me and said, “Tourist!” And I said, “Man, you don’t have any fun. You just think and breathe music.” He said, “‘Cause that’s what I am.” That was the end of it -- he would not go with us. 

Being in the Revolution seems like it was a full-time job. Did you have time off? 

Mark: At the end of tours, yeah, there would be some time. These guys [Z and Fink], they’d do the gig and then go about their business, but Prince had a lot more influence on me, I think. I was always trying to be like him, so I would wear a lot of my clothing outside to the grocery store or whatever. I got into it, I tried to copy him. 

Z: We became these characters, kind of 24/7 -- mainly because of him, he lived and breathed it so much, but it kind of seeped into our blood, too. You create images but we fit into our roles naturally: in the movie, those jokes and our mannerisms are just who we really are. [The filmmakers] studied us.

Mark: But then there were also the phone calls at three in the morning. We’d be at home sleeping really good and all of a sudden “RING!” If you didn’t answer the phone, you were gonna get it the next day.

Wendy: I got such a phobia when the phone would ring past three in the morning. I’d be like “Oh my god, I don’t wanna answer it” because it meant you’d have to be on a plane in three hours. Or he’d call you and say “What are you doing?” “I’m sleeping.” “Well I’m cutting [music], you’re missing.”

Matt: Then he’d hang up on you.

The music changed so much in such a short time -- was it gradual or would he just walk in one day and say "Forget all that, now we're doing this"

Lisa Coleman: It depended on the project, but it was a little bit of both. If he saw something was working or something inspired him -- whether it was a person or something somebody wore or something somebody played -- he would follow that trail, and then things would follow really quickly. Nothing was ever really gradual, even though we would sometimes work on things for a really long time. 

Wendy: I always saw it as, Prince kept his eye 10 years ahead of wherever we were all at. While there was always a plan, it could turn into something else at any moment. 

Mark: The hairstyles always tipped off the change. [Laughter] At least in all the years that I knew him. When the hairstyle changed, you knew something was coming -- and then the clothes changed. 

When the music took a psychedelic turn after Purple Rain, were the influences coming from you?

Z: He'd never really heard The Beatles until Matt and I played him Sgt. Pepper, so the answer is yeah. And Wendy and Lisa took him to a jazz place. 

Wendy: He didn’t want musicians at the time who knew the fake book [essentially Cliffs Notes for musicians], you know what I mean? The people he ended up playing with later in his life were shredders who could play f---ing rings around me, but that’s not what this band was. We were quirky and odd, and each one of us had our own weird abilities and strengths, and it turned into a band. And on records like Dream Factory and Crystal Ball and Roadhouse Garden [unreleased albums featuring material from 1985-86, some of which emerged on Sign O’ the Times and a 1998 compilation also called Crystal Ball], which are in the vault, you can hear we did not rest in any comfortable place. Even if things turned out to sound kind of bad, it was an attempt to try and stretch. 

What was your favorite incarnation of the band?

Wendy: I think the most exciting time was everything from Purple Rain to the recording of Sign O’ the Times [1984-86]. Those were pivotal records and it was like the best university you could have gone to. 

Mark: My favorite time period was 1999 -- that was when I found myself. When I joined the band [in 1981], I was used to playing in bars in South Minneapolis for 35 people, all drunk -- and I went from that to [opening for the] Rolling Stones. [Mark's debut with the band was the infamous 1981 concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where Prince opened for the Stones and was booed and pelted with garbage.] He changed my whole look -- and I lost my identity. But when I finally found my place, where I fit, in the Revolution, it was the 1999 tour. I remember, we were in Rockford, Illinois, and that was the turning point for me. 

Do you remember when you first heard “Purple Rain”?

Z: I have the tape. 

Wendy: My recollection of it, guys, is it was toward the end of rehearsals when we were getting ready to film, and he came in with sort of a rough idea of “Purple Rain,” but it was just the chords from the verse and a little bit of the verse melody -- there wasn’t any real chorus yet. He gave us those chords and it felt a little clunky at first, but then Lisa started playing [keyboard] strings --

Z: And Matt did the "neee-neee nee-nee" part.

Wendy: And I played those opening chords where I stretch the inversions and sort of re-harmonized the chord progression, which became the opening of the song. 

Z: I’ll never forget, Prince’s bodyguard Big Chick [Huntsberry] walked in and went, “Man, that’s a country song.” It really… it’s the most Prince let people into his world, ever. “Purple Rain” is the ultimate combination of the six of us. 

How so?

Wendy: He came in with just an idea -- it wasn’t a [finished demo] where he'd played all the instruments and be like “Here’s your part, here’s your part.” He just went, “I have this idea, what you got?” We spent a day and that’s what we came up with. 

There’s a bootleg floating around of just the piano and the strings of the song, and in the coda -- the "whoo-oo-oo" part at the end of the song -- the counter-melodies are fascinating: the strings, guitars, keyboards and bass are playing different but complementary parts. How did that all weave together?

Wendy: You just described what we are as a band. 

Matt: We have a chemistry. The band was jamming that day on the chordal progressions. We all contributed our own parts to that song. 

Z: And he just let us go. Then we did it at First Avenue -- and that’s the [album] take. It was the guts, the glory, everything. It was 10,000 degrees in there on an August night and we just went for it. 

Did he ever say what the song is actually about?

Wendy: Prince never talked about what any song was about. It never came out of his mouth: “Ladies and gentlemen, this next song is about my mother” or whatever. He never suggested it, never talked that way to a friend. It was all weird parables, and you just took it for what it was. 

Lisa: The funny thing is, the “lost” third verse that he took out, when you listen to it you don’t understand what the song is about, but you understand that that verse doesn’t fit. 

Z: He was just kind of doodling on that verse. But there was always a post-apocalyptic vision to his world, and “Purple Rain” is obviously … he’s talking about God and his favorite themes, and purple became his color and that was the moment it became his whole world. We’ll be talking about what his lyrics meant forever and we don’t know -- we didn’t ask him. 

Wendy: And he wouldn’t have told you. 

How many songs were actually considered for the album that didn’t make it?

Wendy: Maybe 30? 

Z: I think there was debate whether it was going to be a [more conventional] soundtrack to the film -- which included The Time and Apollonia 6 songs -- but he said, “No, I want it to be Prince and the Revolution.” He kept “Take Me With U,” which of course is a duet that he created for Apollonia's scene, but we did it live all the time. So it’s not really a soundtrack; it’s a Prince and The Revolution record that happened to be for a movie. 

In Let's Go Crazy, Alan Light’s history of Purple Rain, engineer Susan Rogers says throughout the process of making the album and film -- which was an incredibly ambitious blueprint for stardom -- there was this faith and confidence that it was going to be a big success. Did it feel that way to you? 

Wendy: There were a couple times where we all looked at each other and went, “Holy shit, this is really happening?"

Matt: We were all pretty green. We’d never been in any movies. 

Wendy: For me, it was really more about how many people ended up being in Minneapolis all of a sudden: Like, there is a production office right next door with a million people who have nothing to do with the band, and Prince keeps going in there and having these meetings.

Matt: That whole summer leading up to filming we had acting class and dance class. 

Lisa: We had jazz-dance class and ballet class with The Time.

“Ballet class with The Time” sounds like a Chappelle's Show skit. [Laughter]

Lisa: It was insane.

Wendy: You should have seen [towering Time drummer] Jellybean Johnson trying to do a grand jete across a wood floor. It was hysterical -- and, mind you, they had their trench coats on!

Z: We were impressed by Prince's acting. We would go to dailies [rushes of the previous day's shooting] and see the way he just turned it on -- we knew something was going on. He was in it for real, and it made us do it.

Wendy: What made it easy was the fact that when Prince walked into a room, you knew he was a massive, massive star. You knew. And I knew it was gonna end up being legendary. All you had to do was look at him. 

(Interview continues below.)

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images
Prince and the Revolution at the 1985 American Music Awards on Jan. 28, 1985. 

In concerts Prince always challenged the audience -- you’d play “Little Red Corvette” or "DMSR" for 45 seconds but a song like "Possessed," which hardly anyone in the audience would know, for eight minutes. Was it difficult to be a part of that challenge, which people didn't always like? 

Lisa: Not at all, it felt good! I think we all felt like there was so much momentum, I think we were a little bit crazy, or just confident. 

Wendy: When we were in a room together, playing “Possessed” for 20 minutes straight was normal. We would jam on a four-bar progression for three hours and not move -- it would be the weirdest meditation, it was like we became one instrument. Playing 45 seconds of a pop song was actually more challenging because that was in such strict song form. 

Mark: To this day I've never, ever witnessed a band that could jam like us. We would hit these pockets of grooves that were so sick even James Brown would pass out. That’s how bad they were! I remember starting at 10 in the morning and at 4 in the afternoon we'd be on the same groove.

With his fierce desire for control over his music and likeness and intellectual property, in many ways Prince was as ahead of his time in business as he was musically -- and as misunderstood and sometimes intentionally difficult. Do you ever think that, especially over the last 20 years, he became so focused on business that his music suffered? 

Z: It was always about control and the more he got into the business, the more he had to pay attention to other things.

Wendy: I think the older Prince got, he actually started liking other things, and I think his love for business became just as important to him as his love for music. I think it was just another… it’s like, I love photography as well as being a musician, I think that business was that for him as well. He had a knack for it and he knew to think outside the box, just like with his music.

Z: Absolutely. He first started to sell albums online in the '90s before anybody even dreamed of doing it. There was brilliant innovation but he couldn’t keep up with himself. He’s the only one in the world he could compete with.

So here's the bummer question: When is the last time you each saw him?

Wendy: Probably six months before he died. He was calling to find out how my sister was [Susannah, Wendy's twin and Prince's former girlfriend], and he wanted to get her phone number. It was a very normal conversation.

Z: Matt and I saw him two summers ago in person and I talked to him -- texting -- in April before he died. It was after the plane went down. [In the early hours of April 15, six days before his death, Prince became unresponsive returning from his last-ever concert, and the plane made an emergency landing in Illinois so he could be rushed to the hospital.] I said, “You okay?” Prince said, “I’m okay, everything’s fine. Come on out, I’m having a party Saturday night.” I said, “I’m not coming, but glad you’re okay.”

Mark: About a year ago. He was just calling to say hi.

He did that?

Mark: Mm-hm. He used to call me all the time and if my kids answered he would use some weird name. 

Wendy: When I had my son he said "What should I call him?" and then he said, [exaggerated accent], “Just have him call me Uncle Pree-yunce!” [Laughter

Mark: He used to always call, though, sometimes at two, three in the morning. I would just miss it and hear it click, but I knew it was him. I would just know automatically. Nobody else would call me that late ...

Lisa: And not leave a message.

Mark: He loved us, we were his family. I was supposed to be in the NPG [one of Prince's post-Revolution bands], he talked to me about that group. But it was never going to be the same as the Revolution and I kindly declined. Once you’re in a group like The Revolution, it’s very hard to go and start playing with someone else. The other bands that he played with … I mean, he loved everybody he played with but we were family. 

Wendy: A couple years ago I did a couple of gigs with him and when I went into the studio where he had that band set up, those guys had [sheet music]! There was no "let’s run through this, let’s try that." I was like, "Wow, this is so different." 

Mark: I was friends with some of the guys that played in the [later] bands and they would say, "Man, I’m getting sick and tired of him comparing us to the Revolution: 'Brownmark didn’t play bass like that, Brownmark does it like this,' or 'Bobby didn’t play like that, Bobby kept the pocket.'" He would always reference us with all his previous bands.

Z: I'd hear that too. He was so proud of us. He would introduce me like he was introducing a star or something: "This is Bobby Z." He called us "Mount Rushmore."

It's crazy that he died of an overdose, not just because he was famously a teetotaler, but because drugs were pretty much a firing offense in the band, right?

Wendy: Yes. Well … 

Z: Yes and no. We all lived our own lives. Playing badly was a firing offense! [Laughter] I don’t think he paid attention to what we were doing --

Wendy: But when I joined the band I smoked cigarettes and he was like "Uh-uh, not having it, you have to stop" and I did. And when we were rehearsing for the Purple Rain tour -- I think it was my guitar tech was a cigarette smoker, and even though he didn’t smoke in the arena, he went to test Prince’s mic and just said "Check one-two" into it -- and [later] Prince could smell the cigarette on his microphone. That guy was fired immediately.

But cigarettes were a big part of Lisa’s image, right? 

Z: It was a shtick. [Laughter]

Wendy [teasing]: Lisa got away with everything because she was the only one who could play piano better than him. I’ll tell you what it was about Lisa: Prince could play every one of our instruments and pretty much try and kick your ass and do something remarkable that would make you say [to him], "Well, yes, you actually did that amazingly well." But when he’d try and do what Lisa does, it actually sounded bad, because he knew that was a part of himself internally that he didn’t have access to; Lisa had access emotionally to a side of his musicianship that I think he continually tried to reach. He was able to achieve that vocally when he’d push a vocal or when he almost sounded like he was crying, or later when he became a virtuoso guitar player -- over the years, that’s where he shined better than anybody, no one could play like him. But with Lisa, he knew he didn’t have that specific je ne sais quoi. Guys, you know what I mean?

Z: She had a… she captivated him in a way that no one else did.

Lisa [somewhat stunned]: Wow, I think I have to go now. Oh my God!

Z: Anyway, back to the original question: Where were we when we heard? 

Wendy: Wonderful things and horrific things usually happen at the same time with me -- I call it high-contrast living -- and Prince’s death was not an exception. I was on the phone with NBC producers, being hired to be the musical director for Maya Rudolph and Martin Short’s show, and I’m in my backyard like "This is going to be great!" And then Bobby’s text came and it just said "He's gone.” The producers were in the middle of saying something and I just said "Stop, I have to go." "What’s the matter?" "Prince is dead.” I just ... I can’t tell you the physical pain I felt hearing it -- and then trying to keep my shit together because I knew the first thing I wanted to do was get to the band. "Where’s Bobby, where’s Matt, where’s Lisa, where’s Mark? Where are they?" I tried calling every one of them, that was the first thing I did.

Matt: I received a phone call from a friend who knew people at the Chanhassen police station, and he actually got the news from them and let me know before the media made the announcement. I felt like I went out of my body. It was horrible, I felt like that for the next two days. It was the most surreal, awful thing.

Mark: I had just woken up. My friend used to be Prince’s security so he still has ties to everybody at Paisley, so he called me within seconds when the police showed up. "Mark, I’m gonna call you right back, but I just want to tell you there was a fatality at Paisley, we don’t know who it is, but something’s wrong." And he called me back [chokes up] ... 

Lisa: It's okay, Mark. 

Mark: I'm sorry about that. He said, "He’s gone, Mark. He's gone. They found him in the elevator." I think I cried for two days straight and I couldn’t stop. He was like my big brother, he was my big brother and he was the first person to ever die that hit me like that. That man -- from right when I got out of high school, he taught me everything, everything that I know, everything that I became. My groups, my Motown ventures -- everything that I did was because of him. He taught me every step of the way. He was hard, he was rough -- but you know what? It was love. He wanted us to succeed. He wanted every one of us to succeed. So when he passed, it broke me down. We were an extension … we all carry a part of his personality in our humor, in everything that we are. We were fused together, and that’s what made it so hard. When I would watch other people get on television and talk about him, I’d just get angry --

Wendy: Same. 

Mark: Because you can tell when something’s real and when something’s just [someone seizing] an opportunity. That man deserved a lot better than what he got, in my opinion. He just deserved so much better.

Matt: That’s typical of the media and the tabloid crap out there, it’s awful and this is our society, unfortunately.

Mark: To say he was a drug addict and all that kind of stuff, it just pissed me off. He was hurting, he was in pain [from hip surgery], he was in pain. He made a couple of mistakes, like any of us. 

Wendy: Bobby, where were you when you left me that text?

Z: So, I started to follow his Twitter page [Prince would often post from the 3rd Eye Girl account] because his tweets were hilarious in the beginning. I made a habit of … I had to know where he was every day -- like Mark said, it’s ingrained in us. We see a movie and we think of him; we see somebody in a stupid shirt, "He’d laugh at that shirt"; we read a book that’s good, we'd say "He'd love that book." Anyway, I was following his Twitter page and then there was this strange hashtag, #PaisleyPark, that I saw way before the news -- it was like "Ambulance called to Paisley Park"; somebody had a police scanner. I came downstairs and told my wife, and then it didn’t take long until the local news went berserk. And then the headline was "Prince dead" and it made absolutely no sense -- it was like it wasn’t English. "That’s impossible." I thought he was gonna outlive us all, he was gonna be 91 on a barstool ripping that guitar. And all I could do was reach out to the band because that’s our family, The Revolution was his family. We were speechless -- it’s kind of like real grief is silent, so like Mark is saying, people that start talking immediately and jumping up and performing -- where’s the grief? Where’s the grief?

Wendy: That’s why we were quiet this whole time because it was totally disrespectful to go out and start talking about him when we needed to feel the loss. Prince would’ve wanted us to feel that loss.

Z: Jem, my kids are playing shortly -- ironically, at First Avenue -- so I’m gonna have to wrap this up pretty quick.

You've all been so generous with your time, thank you. Does anyone else have anything they'd like to say? 

Wendy: What was healing at the time of his death was that we reached out for each other. We met at my house in Los Angeles and sat together in my backyard and cried and talked about him.

Lisa: Having gone through this whole conversation just now, and the fact that the American Music Awards chose Purple Rain, it seems proof of what we’re saying: that something special happened. And sadly, with his passing, it came back again.

Mark: And I think the real Prince fans feel the way we feel, and that’s why I think there’s this surge of fans wanting to see us perform. And we want to share it with the world, that is our goal. 

Speaking of which, what can you say about performing at Celebration 2017, the tribute concert at Paisley Park in April?  

Z: We're thrilled and honored -- there's no place we'd rather be. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.