"I started collecting when I was 9 or 10," says Mathieu Bitton, Lenny Kravitz's photographer who also happens to be (arguably) the world's most avid Prince memorabilia collector. "I had to have every print and every pressing from every country." Bitton's scrounging and decades-long persistence paid off, however, when the budding art director was tapped to design Prince's Ultimate Prince CD box set (photos ahead). Since then, Bitton has collected countless of rare and one-of-a-kind Prince-related items, from a pair of blue heels (he won't tell us how he got them, just that "they're from someone special") to a rare "The Next Birthday" record (to celebrate Prince's own birthday), complete with yellow panties and matching vinyl. Bitton shared with Billboard, exclusively and in his own words, his massive and all-encompassing collection.
The Black Album
This is a real copy from 1987, and I got it at Monster Melodies in Paris. December '87 he calls me and says, "My Prince rep just left, and I have a few Black albums that were supposed to be destroyed. Do you want it?" I told him to hold it for me because I'd be in the next day to get it. That day I took gold coins from my Bar Mitzvah and traded them in for cash. The next morning, I went to the record store and bought the Black album. It cost 100,000 francs, which was around $1,800. I was 14 years old.
Purple Rain Prototype as a tri-fold softpak CD (never released)
This was the Warner Bros. "B" prototype. From what I hear, there were three different configurations made. I met an ex-Warner Bros. employee back in the late '80s who would give me things everyone else threw out, and I bought this one from him around 1988. This format was used for Prince’s 1985 release Around the World in a Day.
“For you” 1977 WB test Pressing LP
This is a personal favorite as it's the only official Prince item dated 1977, the year before this album was released. I was so lucky to find this at a record convention for peanuts. The guy obviously had no idea what this was. I’ve found several holy grail items like this, by pure chance.
Signed print From 1989's 'Batman' by photographer Jeff Katz
I used to hang around the WB offices in Burbank before I ever did work for them. One very lucky day in 1990, I was visiting a friend near there when my WB contact told me Prince was in the building for his next album and film Graffiti Bridge. I rushed over there and in very fateful timing, Prince, dressed in a very Princely yellow suit, was about to walk out. I said hello, having previously met him in Paris, him obviously not remembering me but being polite. I asked if he could sign something for me knowing he didn’t do that and wouldn’t do it, but his meetings must have gone really well because he was in a great mood and had someone hand him this photo and signed it for me and said, “Don’t sell it now!”
'The Undertaker,' an unreleased 1993 blues power trio album
Prince planned to put this out under the symbol moniker to be included as a bonus CD in an issue of Guitar World magazine, but the release was blocked by Warner Bros. even though copies had already been manufactured. All existing copies were coated with a plastic covering rendering them unplayable and were trashed. This is a surviving copy I got as a birthday present from a high-up WB executive a few years after the canceled release, and it includes a great version of The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman."
Prince-owned shoes from the Golden Globes party in L.A.
A very special gift from a special friend. That’s all I can say about that. But these are not the only pair of shoes in my collection -- Lenny [Kravitz] gave me a pair of James Brown's black suede and silver cowboy boots.
"Gett Off (Damn Near 10m)" special one-sided birthday 12” (June 7, 1991)
Not only is this a rare item with a cover drawn by Prince, but I love that I still have it in the original envelope with the FedEx label addressed to me by Gilbert Davison, who was Prince’s EVP. My first name is misspelled, but I was not about to complain. Gilbert started out as Prince’s security guard and was always so nice and generous to me. I did anti-piracy work with him for Paisley Park.
"The Next Birthday" 12” (1992)
You can sometimes find the promo-only yellow vinyl on eBay once in a while, but I’ve never seen another one with the panties, greeting card and Aunt Esther (Sanford & Son) mask/fan. Also sent to me by Gilbert on the occasion of Prince’s 34th birthday. I love that Prince celebrated his own birthday by making presents, or rare records, to send off to special people in his life.
Handwritten set list from the China Club surprise show in Hollywood, June 3, 1991
Prince wrote out this set list right before the show and had his tech tape it to his mic stand. I was in the front row and straight-up snatched it at the end of “Gett Off.” I was told by one of his co-workers that having it written in all-caps was rarer than his usual ones. Who knows? I also love that it’s on WB stationery.
"Strange Tales From the Rain” - 2xLP Japan-only promotional gatefold LP
This is an extremely rare and very limited release made for Japanese radio. It includes all the tracks from Purple Rain, the songs by Apollonia 6 and The Time that were not on the original soundtrack, as well as Prince's greatest hits and Sheila E.’s "The Glamorous Life.” When I was collecting Prince records, I found the best dealers in all the countries I collected albums from, and this has always been a very sought-after item. There was a second release titled “His Majesty’s Pop Life” for the following album Around the World in a Day. I got both of them -- as well as the Japan-promo-only "Prince Syndicate” 45, which included Christmas messages from Prince and released artists -- in Japanese. I remember feeling like I struck gold. Collecting records and posters has always been half the fun of traveling for me.
"Strange Tales From The Rain” - 2xLP Japan-only promotional Poster
This is the promo poster for the very limited Japanese release.
'Ultimate Prince' advance master CDs for original unreleased track list
This includes “Erotic City” 12”, “Purple Medley,” "7" (Acoustic Version) and ”Sexy Mutha,” none of which were featured on the final release, by Prince’s request. This is a very personal one for me, as it is one-of-a-kind. I collaborated with Prince fan Geoffrey Dicker on the track selection and was so blessed to be entrusted with art direction and design for the release. I got these copies since I designed the labels and they were the only samples. I have other variations of the CD labels, but these are absolutely the rarest. This project was a dream come true and although I initially disagreed with removing the tracks, when Prince explained his choices to me in the small private room at the Zanzibar club in Santa Monica, Calif., I completely understood his stance due to his evolving spiritual beliefs. Everyone at WB backed his decisions. No one argued it. It was his music and he should be proud of any release bearing his name. The release was also pushed back six months so as not to compete with his 3121 album. It’s bittersweet to see this album in the top five on the charts today. I am still very proud of this project. I also was told he was impressed with the final printing and packaging.