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In the summer of 1983, Wendy Melvoin was just 19 years old. She’d flown halfway across the country from Los Angeles for her first professional gig as a guitar player, joining her girlfriend Lisa Coleman in the band where Lisa had been playing keyboards. Almost from the moment she landed, Wendy was thrown into the grueling rehearsals that were taking place in a warehouse in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, right where West Lake Street meets Highway 7.
Rehearsals in the warehouse involved learning dozens of songs, with many of them being created or rearranged on the spot; it was weeks and months of rigorous practice before Wendy was deemed ready to play with the band.
Her debut gig was a fundraiser for a local dance troupe, the Minnesota Dance Theater Company. The temperature on the night of the show was as sweltering as one might expect in early August. The six members of the band made their way over to First Avenue, the evening’s venue, to charge their way through a dozen songs over the course of 70 minutes.
The band challenged the audience with a setlist where half the songs were brand-new, premiering more than 45 minutes of material that no one had ever heard. After almost an hour, Wendy began the penultimate song of the set. A few slow chords, heavily chorused, served to introduce the audience to a new, unfamiliar ballad. For the first ten seconds of the song, the only sound heard was Wendy’s guitar ringing out.
Ten months later, on June 25th 1984, the world got its first listen to those broad, mournful chords as the title track of a brand new album: Purple Rain.
A few weeks later, Wendy and Lisa were back in their home state of California, joining their boss Prince, who was having a very auspicious visit to Los Angeles. On August 20, less than three weeks after the charity gig, Prince had been asked to come onstage at a James Brown concert, at the behest of Michael Jackson, who had been singing with Brown onstage. It was the only time the three men would occupy a stage together, and seemed an almost-explicit anointing of Prince by both the funk legend and the man who was then enjoying the height of Thriller’s success.
But despite the recognition, Prince and the Revolution were focused on their work. A few days after the James Brown show, Wendy and Lisa conducted a string section to record a string and piano accompaniment for Purple Rain that Lisa and Prince had arranged. In addition to Lisa adding a much more expressive piano part, there was a three-piece string section which included Lisa’s brother David Coleman on cello. It’s this string part that we can hear rising so dramatically behind the first chorus in the song.
The full version of this orchestral accompaniment track is over ten minutes, matching the original length of the song and then continuing into a more complex coda. But by the time these sessions in Hollywood were done, both the new orchestration and Purple Rain itself would be shorter, to better focus on the purpose for which they were created.
Though Wendy Melvoin’s first gig with the Revolution happened in August of 1983, Mark Brown’s first gig with the band was on October 9, 1981, under conditions that were far more hostile than the friendly hometown environs of First Avenue in Minneapolis.
Prince was booked to open for the Rolling Stones for their headlining shows at the LA Memorial Coliseum. Brand new bass player Mark Brown, now rechristened as BrownMark by Prince, had a trial by fire as he joined the band in their opening slot for the Stones. The legendarily ill-fated opening gig ended when Prince and his band were pelted with objects by the crowd while being booed offstage. Prince hastily beat a retreat back to Minnesota, only begrudgingly being convinced to return for the second show, where the reception from the audience was even worse.
But amidst the brutal rejection from the Stones’ audience, Prince must certainly have noticed that fellow opening act J. Geils did not get booed offstage. And with good reason — the band’s single Centerfold had just been released two weeks before the Stones show, and would top the charts not long after in February 1982. On the heels of this hit, the band would release Freeze Frame, which was nearly as successful and got to #4 on the Billboard Top 100. Even more striking, the song’s b-side, Flamethrower, went top 20 on the soul charts. The band had an unlikely appeal to both black and white audiences, crossing over in a mirror image of what Prince was striving for.
Though the idea of “blue states” and “red states” wouldn’t catch on for another two decades, it’s an appropriate framework for Purple Rain’s goals; The song was designed as a perfect amalgamation of red and blue tastes. Much has been made of Prince’s pioneering role in bridging white and black music, of bringing together funk and soul audiences with more conventional rock fans. But little has been said about exactly how he achieved this effect.
Prince simply made use of one of the most potent and consistent techniques of his career: careful appropriation of popular trends in pop music, filtered through his unique sound.
Traditional evaluations of Purple Rain’s songs have tended to describe it as a particularly original creation, given that it includes such distinctively Prince-ly works as When Doves Cry and Darling Nikki (both of which he wrote and performed entirely by himself). But Prince was always watching closely to see what was popular around him, and he put those observations to use in creating the album.
Little wonder then that Let’s Go Crazy, written just a year later, would incorporate the same staccato organ stabs and driving beat as Freeze Frame (heard quite clearly in the full-length version of Let’s Go Crazy), substituting Prince’s trademark Linn drums for the more conventional sounds of the Geils song, and replacing the “freeze frame!” shout with a similarly percussive “oh no, let’s go!” refrain.
Similarly, in rehearsals from the summer of 1983, we hear Prince referencing what he heard at Paradise Garage, the legendary NYC nightclub. In 1983, that would certainly have included Laid Back’s White Horse, which topped the dance charts that year. Prince‘s creation myth for his song Erotic City was that it was recorded after he and Sheila E. attended a P-Funk concert together and were inspired to stay up all night making the song. And while there may be elements of truth to that story, it’s obvious that he also wanted to create a pastiche of a hit song that was doing well in the clubs.
Laid Back was, of course, a white group (they were from Denmark, a homeland as white as Prince’s) succeeding in a very black genre, synth-driven dance music. It’s little wonder that Erotic City would try to mirror that success, and perhaps inevitable that the song ended up as the b-side to Let’s Go Crazy. Both of Prince’s songs ended up being bigger hits than the earlier works that informed their creation.
But though it’s established that Prince would seek out references as inspiration for his concerted effort at crossing over, who could provide sufficient inspiration for the anthemic title track that his upcoming movie required?
For this, we can again look both to the acts Prince was seeing on the road and what was hitting on the charts in the summer of 1983. During the tour for the 1999 album, which had only ended a few months prior, Prince had been playing in many of the same venues as Bob Seger. Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink explained the appeal to a circumspect Prince: “It’s like country-rock, it’s white music. You should write a ballad like Bob Seger writes and you’ll cross right over.” In perhaps his least Prince-sounding quote ever, Prince mentioned Seger when both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, “We are both midwesterners and Seger had a lot of influence on me at the start of my career; he certainly influenced my writing.”
It’s not just Seger that was influencing Prince to move into rock balladry. Chick Huntsberry (the giant Santa Claus seen at the James Brown concert above) who was then Prince’s bodyguard and was becoming close to Prince, had been encouraging him to move in the direction of the country-inflected pop ballads that were then all over the charts. Tour manager Alan Leeds recalls Huntsberry’s reaction after first hearing Purple Rain, “He said, ‘Wait until you hear the song he did last night. It’s gonna be bigger than Willie Nelson.’.” Indeed, the guitar solos and even Prince’s vocal inflections of rehearsal versions of Purple Rain show far more of a country-rock influence than the final version. Amusingly, not long after this piece was originally published, in an interview with Miles Marshall Lewis in Ebony magazine, Prince explicitly objected to the idea that Seger had been part of shaping his work in this era, implicitly tying the concept to the odious legacy of Black artists' creativity being attributed to white artists' influence.
Stevie Nicks, no stranger to country-informed rock ballads, has also attested that Prince sent her a demo of Purple Rain while he was still in the early stages of creating the song, either for her to write lyrics for or to use as her own song. They certainly knew each other at the time (Prince had contributed synths to “Stand Back” earlier in 1983), but it seems likely that he was refining the song for his own use rather than offering it to her.
Then there is one may perhaps be one of the clearest antecedents to Purple Rain. Just four months before that August concert where Purple Rain was debuted, Journey released Faithfully, which despite only peaking at #12 on the Billboard charts was recognized as a signature anthem for the band right from its debut. It was reaching its peak airplay in the summer of 1983, just as Prince was creating Purple Rain in the warehouse rehearsals with the Revolution. Though Faithfully is anchored by its opening piano riffs rather than a guitar, it’s not difficult at all to hear echoes of the structure and progression Jonathan Cain wrote for Journey in the final version Purple Rain.
The debt owed to Cain may even have been acknowledged by Prince. In a hard to find Swedish interview in early 2012, Cain claims that Prince asked if it was okay that Purple Rain makes use of the same chords as Faithfully, with Cain demurring that the songs were sufficiently different.
All of this evidence makes it clear that Prince was deliberately scouring as many different sources and influences as possible to design a rocking guitar anthem with maximum mainstream appeal. That goal is never more obvious than in the two key events that happen at 1:50 into Purple Rain.
It is at this point we hear Prince’s guitar enter the song for the first time. Until that point, he had only been contributing vocals. From that point on, Prince’s guitar only increases in importance and centrality to the song, cementing its place as a rock song architected explicitly to appeal across racial boundaries.
Just as important is what we don’t hear. Elided in this transition is an entire minute of the original recording, removed during the same sessions when the string accompaniment was added. This editing serves to erase an entire original verse from the song.
All summer long, Prince had been toying with the lyrics to this lost verse, never quite resolving them into a coherent form, but consistently including them as part of the song. The night of the definitive performance, they were vague, if passionately delivered:
Honey I don’t want your money, no no no.
I don’t even think I want your love.
If I wanted either one, baby, I would take me some money and buy it.
I want the heavy stuff. I want the purple rain. I want the purple rain.
In rehearsals to that point, Prince would often sharpen the final line into “I want the heavy stuff… I want to see what you’re made of.” But, in addition to the contradiction contained in the lyrics (“I don’t want your money… I would take me some money and buy it.”), the message of this verse contradicted the song’s role in the narrative of the film.
And so, the verse was cut, affirming that Prince was doing whatever he could to construct a song which could serve as a signature song not just for an album, or for a film, but for a career. While the Purple Rain album was full of abbreviated edits of songs that he would later perform in their full versions during live performances, that wasn’t the case with this missing stanza. After the Hollywood sessions where these edits were made, Prince would never again perform these lyrics as part of Purple Rain.
During the weeks of rehearsal of the Purple Rain material, the band’s sound had been captured almost every day on a simple 24-track recorder that served as the destination for the many cables snaking around the warehouse. The mix for those recordings was managed on a console that was balanced on a few road cases. These machines were usually staffed by David Leonard and David Rivkin. Rivkin was brother to Robert Rivkin, better known as Bobby Z in his role as drummer for the Revolution.
There were new combinations of gear being rigged up for the band on an ongoing basis. Prince’s signature sound to that point had been due in no small part to his use of many of the earliest drum machines, and the show relied on drum machines that didn’t yet allow for the advanced digital controls that bands rely on today. So Prince’s tech Don Batts was forced to hack those primitive drum machines to allow Bobby Z to control a wider range of instruments live on stage.
That same kind of seat-of-the-pants recording technology was used to capture the First Avenue show. The charity show was being recorded thanks to the last-minute addition of a mobile recording truck, brought in from the Record Plant in New York at Prince’s behest. (The Time’s performances of Jungle Love and The Bird later that fall, recorded under the same conditions, would be used as the basis for their hit singles and album in 1984 as well. Five major pop hits were recorded live in one truck in less than three months.)
When Prince created When Doves Cry for the album seven months later, he was famously able to remove the bass line from the song in the studio because he had cleanly recorded all the tracks at Sunset Sound’s studios in Hollywood. By contrast, recording conditions for the tracks used on Purple Rain were rife with all the imperfections of a live show.
At 2:45 into Purple Rain, the precarious recording conditions become particularly obvious, when feedback from Prince’s guitar starts to seep into the track. Obviously, given the screeching solo that is to follow, some amount of feedback was necessary and desirable. But nothing attests to the truly electric nature of the song’s creation better than the unexpected feedback that pops up throughout the second half of the song.
While Prince and the Revolution had been carefully rehearsing Purple Rain all summer, adjusting each detail of how the song was structured and played, Prince’s nearly-unequalled ability to spontaneously take a live performance to the next level was certainly on display that August night.
Exemplifying this ability is the repeated lilting motif that Prince begins playing on his guitar at 4:40 in the song. For all the countless times they’d practiced the song, even earlier on the same day as the First Avenue performance, Prince had never played this riff during Purple Rain before. In the original live show, it’s clear that Prince realizes he’s found something magical, returning again and again to this brief riff, not just on guitar but even singing it himself during the final fade of the song.
Just as striking is how this little riff shows the care and self-criticism that went into making the song Purple Rain. Like any brilliant 25-year-old guy who’s thought of something clever, Prince’s tendency when he thought of this little gem was to overdo it. In the unedited version of the song, Prince keeps playing the riff for almost another minute, pacing around the stage trying to will the audience into responding to it.
But during those same sessions where the strings were added to the song, Prince ruthlessly chopped down a riff he clearly loves, keeping just enough to serve as a stirring melodic hook for his guitar solo, and leading the song to its soaring vocal climax.
At any Prince concert after 1983, the highlight was typically the audience’s singalong to the descending falsetto line that crowns Prince’s guitar solo. But the origins of that signature line are a little more obscure.
Matt Fink, famously rechristened “Dr. Fink” in his role in the Revolution after the surgical scrubs that became his sartorial signature, had been in Prince’s bands from the earliest days. Indeed, Fink’s place in the band was deeply rooted in many ways—the warehouse where the band was rehearsing that summer was just half a mile from the high school he had attended only a few years prior.
It was during the sessions in that warehouse that Fink had first added a descending piano line to the coda of the song. Even as late as a few days before the First Avenue performance, this was merely a striking countermelody adding drama to the end of the guitar solo in the song.
But by the day of August 3rd, when the band was performing its final rehearsal preparation, Prince had realized the power of Fink’s melody. In practice just hours before the public show, the melody became a soaring vocal hook, evolving in the final performance into perhaps the most affecting part of the song, expressing all of the emotions too powerful for Prince to capture in a lyric. Like Journey’s earlier Faithfully, or U2’s later 80s anthems, it also provided a perfect stadium-ready sing-along line, again telegraphing Prince’s ambitions for the song while remaining true to the artistic intent of the piece.
Purple Rain is a particularly unusual song for the length of its instrumental coda. Before it fades to a series of striking and unexpected chords performed by the string ensemble, it has one last great hook, a simple piano motif performed by Lisa Coleman.
Given Prince’s legendarily controlling tendencies over his intellectual property, it is perhaps no surprise that the song Purple Rain has almost never been substantially sampled by other pop artists.
But clearly some songwriters consider the tinkling piano at the end of the song to be up for grabs, perhaps because it’s not one of the more obviously recognizable parts of the song. As a result, that piano melody has unexpectedly become the part of the song which lives on in pop radio. Alicia Keys made it the very first thing we hear in her 2007 single, Like You’ll Never See Me Again.
Similarly, Mariah Carey’s first single in 2014, You’re Mine (Eternal) opens with those same notes. Both songs have a pleading, even regretful tone that leaves no doubt their songwriters were making use of the motif to explicitly evoke the emotional context created by Coleman’s work in 1983. Both artists have also covered Prince’s songs from this era, with Keys covering the 1982 b-side How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore early in her career and Carey including her version of Purple Rain’s The Beautiful Ones on a 1997 release.
As Purple Rain fades to an end, the last thing we hear is the audience’s applause. While parts of the track had additional applause dubbed in to cover for the original audience’s subdued reaction to the then-new song, it seems clear this final applause is the actual response that Purple Rain inspired at its debut.
Just over a month after the Purple Rain album was released, the film Purple Rain debuted on July 27, 1984. Later that summer, Prince would simultaneously have the number one film, album, and single in the United States. On September 26, 1984, the song Purple Rain itself was released as a single, reaching number two on the pop charts, kept from the top spot by Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and going gold with over 500,000 copies of the single sold. The Purple Rain soundtrack album has sold over 20 million copies in the last 30 years.
Though Prince had half a dozen singles that did better on the charts than Purple Rain, the song obviously became Prince’s signature work. It has taken different forms over the years; At an intimate show at his Paisley Park studio in 2002, he did a one-off piano rendition that omitted the famous guitar solo. In his later years, he even let guitarist Donna Grantis solo on the song. Prince trotted out Purple Rain to open the Grammy awards with Beyonce. And the song was the extraordinary emotional climax to Prince's triumph when he gave the Super Bowl its greatest halftime performance ever, complete with a marching band. In his last concert, his final song was a plaintive piano rendition of Purple Rain that began slowly, almost mournfully, then veered into a medley of a few of his other best-loved ballads before returning for a soaring, sing-along finale accompanied by every person in the audience.
Like the album it completes, Purple Rain has remained provocative and affecting. The song has aged well over the last three decades, especially extraordinary given that Prince was only 25 when he composed it.
There’s been a lot of speculation over the years about what inspired the song’s title, which despite its obvious allusion to Hendrix, was always fairly mysterious. But it seems one literal inspiration may have been part of the script of the movie Purple Rain itself. One vignette that was filmed during production, just a few months after the song was recorded, was a love scene between Prince and the movie’s female lead Apollonia. The scene, taking place in a barn, appears in glimpses during the video for When Doves Cry. The climax featured a rainstorm, with the sunlight filtering through the storm to illuminate the two lovers, bathing them in purple light.
By the final cut of the film, that scene had been edited from Purple Rain. It had been deemed unnecessary.
[This piece has been edited and updated in September 2016, January 2017, April 2018, and February 2021 to reflect Prince’s passing, to update song links and illustrations, to add additional context that has become available, and to reformat presentation.]