Prince Collaborators Share Stories About the Songs He Gave to Others on 'Originals'

Susannah Melvoin
Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Susannah Melvoin poses next to a photo of Prince at Warner Music Group in Los Angeles on May 31, 2019.

As Prince's legacy remains a subject of courtroom litigation, a trio of the maestro's closest confidants have banded together to ensure his catalog and mythical vault are traversed properly.

"We are trying to protect what he did when he was really feeling his independence from his real-life family," explains Jill Jones, one of the guitarist's most trusted creative partners during the height of the Paisley Park era. "He was really making it and setting an example. So hopefully the estate understands their place in it and keeps it in context with the decision making, because they might not know everything about what was happening in his life around that time."

Jones linked up with him in 1982 when he opened up for Teena Marie (whose manager was Jones' mom) and appeared on every album he made through Graffiti Bridge. Her eponymous solo album, released in 1987, has long been considered the best non-Prince album to come out on the Paisley Park label.

"Prince was big on Andy Warhol; he had books on him and The Factory," Jones explains. "He was really aware of the way Louis B. Mayer ran MGM, all of that. And that's exactly what it was like at Paisley Park. Everyone had a role, and I was like this innocent, gullible, sweet, unconditional love chick who would always be there no matter what; the real trusting, wide-eyed innocent. And if Prince saw you one way, he could take it really hard if you changed on him. He didn't handle it very well if you grew up—it would blow his mind a little, because he only wanted to see you from his perspective. And I was a little bit of a feminist at that point, because I would question why I was singing a man's song about me. I still have a problem with men writing songs for women. When it gets honed into an image, that's when it gets really freaky."

The singer's debut was one of the many projects the Artist masterminded behind the scenes for the imprint, a practice which serves as the impetus of Originals, a 15-track collection of Prince's own takes on some of the most well-known songs he gave to other acts, including The Time, Sheila E., late '80s/early '90s teen pop sensation Martika and Kenny Rogers.

For Jones, whose song "Baby, You're A Trip" is featured in this collection, reconnecting with this music is bittersweet given her romantic ties to the guitarist. But after decades of being an all-but-forgotten catalyst for this most creative part of Prince's career, she takes great pride in providing some direction and clarity to a once rudderless situation.

"I was speaking with Apollonia just the other day," Jones explains. "And we were laughing because each person has their own Polaroid, something framed in their mind about Prince, and each frame is so important. I really think it's like this thread, and maybe over time—I don't know if any of us will be alive by then—but somebody will be able to do a really cool mixed media project and connect all the dots to his multi-verse. It will be fascinating."

Veteran studio engineer Peggy McCreary, who worked on such classic albums as Little Feat's Waiting for Columbus and the first Van Halen LP before spending five years as Prince's go-to studio sage, was also recruited to bring a sense of gravitas to the Originals project, having engineered pretty much every one of the sessions featured on the LP.

"I watched him evolve in real time," McCreary tells Billboard. "On Controversy, he was a great musician and thought he had good ideas, but he was a bit immature with his songwriting. Then 1999 came along and it was like a lightbulb had flashed on. You couldn't really react to his music with him in the room. But if I were to listen to it later I'd be like, 'Oh my God, this is incredible.' I always thought I'd be on Prince albums for decades, because we cut so much that went into the Vault. I didn't know what we were working on at any given time. Getting the title of a song pulled out from him for the label or the studio was like pulling teeth. I would wind up making up titles, just so the record company had something they could write down on an invoice. But I would ask him, 'Prince, what's the title of this song?' Then he would stare at me for a long time, and he asked, 'What's your middle name?' I said it was Colleen and he'd go, 'Put down Colleen' and walks out. Getting him to communicate for the business I had to do was hard. He didn't communicate with me what he was doing or who it was for or anything."

McCreary tells Billboard her favorite original on this collection is the song Prince originally had written for Apollonia before giving it to the Bangles after falling in love with the L.A. jangle pop group upon hearing their 1984 hit "Hero Takes The Fall," which led to nearly 35 years of rumors about a romantic connection between the Artist and Bangles frontwoman Susanna Hoffs. However, according to the bassist herself, much of the electricity between them stemmed from an unwavering respect he not only harbored for Hoffs but the rest of the band. And when Prince would sneak away to meet up with Susanna, it turns out it was to jam -- not jump into bed.

"There was a time when the Bangles were invited to hang out with Prince," Hoffs explains. "And we met him at Sunset Sound, where he was recording in Los Angeles. This was long after 'Manic Monday' had come out. And he really just wanted to play music with us. So we went in there, and he had all the gear set up in the studio in the main recording room. You know what the really crazy thing was? He wanted to play Bangles songs, and he knew them all. We pretty much ran down our setlist from the show, and he knew everything. Honestly, it was mind-blowing. He was a real, true fan of what we did. He'd also just appear at our shows and ask to jump on stage and play 'Hero Takes the Fall' with us. You can find footage of us playing 'Manic Monday' together online. And it's a funny thing about that time we played together at Sunset Sound. Musicians, no matter how big, they just like to play music. That's what me and my friends do; we don't care if it's on stage or in somebody's living room. We just do it because it's fun. And that night with Prince was just for fun. He wanted to play Bangles songs. He invited us. We showed up and played until 3am with Prince. He was a true musician, and insanely brilliant songwriter. And he loved other musicians. It was his thing, and he loved giving away songs. A lot of people, to this day, are shocked to learn he wrote 'Manic Monday.'"

One of Prince's best-known ballads, however, does have a romantic genesis. "Nothing Compares 2 U" was originally written for The Family, a group formed by the guitarist himself as a vehicle for his girlfriend at the time, Susannah Melvoin, whose twin sister Wendy was a key member of The Revolution, and then transformed by Sinead O'Connor into the biggest hit of her career and a No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 smash. For Melvoin herself, the ballad still harbors an intensely personal connotation as Prince had written it partially about her.

"For me, of all the songs on this record, that's the one which felt most like a true Prince single," Melvoin tells Billboard with regards to the original version of "Nothing Compares 2 U" on Originals. "That vocal, I heard him sing like that for his records and retreat into himself to find the voice he needed to discover the song and discover its meaning. And when I got it, because we were in a relationship at the time, it really felt like the two of us were communicating with one another. I was just blown away that he was offering this song to us, because it seemed to personal to him. And you're solidly hearing me sing to him in the background vocals. I got to sing to him, and I felt the same energy coming at me. It's a beautiful song, but one I never imagined he would give away to anybody."

As Originals enjoys its first week in record shops and department stores like Target, who is offering an exclusive limited edition of the album with a bonus remix of "Nothing Compares 2 U," his collaborators hope this collection will cut through the mythos behind the musician to reveal the true depth of his songwriting method beyond the scandals and innuendo swirling around this period of his illustrious career.

"I hope this record can be heard in a way that makes people realize he had something special in a way nobody saw before," proclaims Melvoin. "There's a lot of us who'll never achieve rock stardom; just on the grounds that most of us don't have the whole package—the amalgamation of star quality, musical genius, emotional intelligence and expert ability. We might have one or two of those, but not all of it together. Prince alone had an abundance of all of it, and a lot of all of it (laughs). That was his gift; to be able to write and record at the pace he did, and he did it until the day he died. And this is a great record that shows us his remarkable, undeniable gift. It's like a musical clairvoyance he had in his ability to set himself apart from his own musical needs as a rock star and completely embody the person he was writing for, and he gives you a part of himself from which you can grow on your own."