The Current

Great Music Lives Here ®
Listener-Supported Music
Donate Now
Prince The Story of 1999

Prince: The Story of 1999, Episode 4: Let's Work

Prince: The Story of 1999
Prince: The Story of 1999Courtesy of The Prince Estate
  Play Now [34:16]

December 10, 2019

Prince: The Story of 1999 is a four-part audio documentary series brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records. Listen Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Central, and read a written version, below. The series is also available as a podcast on multiple platforms.

Audio: [Live version of "Controversy - Live at Masonic Hall, Detroit, MI, 11/30/1982 - Late Show" from 1999 (Super Deluxe Edition). Clip begins with pitched-down "Don't worry, I won't hurt you. I only want you to have some fun," as the audience screams. An explosion sounds, and the kick drum of "Controversy" begins.]

VO: This is Prince: The Story of 1999, brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records. I'm Andrea Swensson. I'm an author and a radio host living in Minneapolis.

Previously on Prince: The Story of 1999, we spent a lot of time talking about Prince in the studio. But what I want to do now is talk about Prince: the live performer. If you have ever had a chance to watch Prince perform live, whether in person or maybe with that incredible Super Bowl halftime show, or his guitar solo at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you know he was an unparalleled live performer. And my mind just goes to all of these moments that I got to have, watching him play at venues here in Minneapolis. And especially out at Paisley Park.

There was one night — in, actually, somewhat recent years, it was back in 2015 — when Prince actually invited Madonna out to Paisley Park to see him perform. And I got the chance to see Madonna watching Prince. She was seated at the edge of the stage, looking up at him as he played this monstrous guitar solo. And her mouth was literally hanging open in awe. And I just had this moment where I thought, "If even Madonna, who has seen so much in her career and done so much in her career, is just mesmerized and awestruck at Prince — that is a powerful, powerful performer."

["Controversy - Live at Masonic Hall, Detroit, MI, 11/30/1982 - Late Show" fades out]

So we're going to get into that, because so far, we've been talking about some of the early moments that tested Prince's resolve and propelled him to take his work to the next level. And now we're gonna ride alongside Prince and his band as they hit the road on the historic 1999 Tour, which is referred to amongst fans as the Triple Threat Tour. Between the fall of 1982 and the spring of 1983, Prince, Vanity 6, and the Time would perform over 90 shows, criss-crossing the United States. And by the end of it, Prince was a household name.

Brenda Bennett: Oh, my gosh. That tour was fun, fun, fun, fun.

VO: That's Brenda Bennett of Vanity 6. The 1999 Tour kicked off on November 11, 1982. And leading up to that, all three projects on the line-up put out new albums. Prince tapped his openers to stir up excitement.

Brenda Bennett: Prince wasn't doing any kind of interviews or promotional stuff for his music at that time, and we were out doing promo tours, doing videos, doing photo sessions, television appearances — we were not only promoting ourself, but we were promoting the boss as well. We did some of it with the guys from Time, so we were out there for Prince promoting the music and trying to generate the excitement for the 1999 Tour. They couldn't wait to see Prince and Vanity 6 and The Time.

[Audio: Tour Demo track (Lady Cab Driver/I Wanna Be Your Lover/Little Red Corvette)]

VO: Back home, Prince and his band were putting in 12-hour days running through the new material. They set up shop at the Armory in downtown Minneapolis to get used to the new stage set-up and to film the videos for "1999," "Automatic," and "Let's Pretend We're Married." Prince's ideas for the flow of the show were changing all the time, and he would cut demos of his ideas for medleys of songs and then pass out to the band. We get to hear one now! This is a tour demo that's included in the 1999 Super Deluxe reissue, and it features a medley of Prince playing "Lady Cab Driver," "I Wanna Be Your Lover," and "Little Red Corvette."

[Audio: Tour Demo track swells, fades out.]

VO: As Bobby Z recalls, those tour rehearsals could be grueling — but they paid off.

Bobby Z: He meticulously worked so hard on stuff. Back then, you just couldn't believe the hours and the effort that went into it. And rehearsal — I tell the story of rehearsal so grinding and so long, but when you got in front of 20, 30, 40, 80 thousand people, you're glad you had it. It's like a professional sports routine. Catching a fly ball is routine, but catching ten million of them will make sure that you catch that one.

[Audio: "Let's Work - Live at Masonic Hall, Detroit, MI, 11/30/1982 - Late Show"]

Tom Marzullo: Hi, I'm Tom Marzullo, and I was the production manager for Prince, beginning with Controversy through the end of Purple Rain. He was always very focused on what the performance was, and making sure that everybody was hitting the notes and making the steps and doing all the things that they rehearsed over and over and over again. The most fun part by far was when the house lights went down and the energy that came from the audience and the treat that they were about to receive feels very much like you are giving someone a major gift; that emotion of that moment to me is probably the very best part.

[Audio: Live song "Do Me, Baby"]

VO: This is a live recording of Prince and his band performing "Do Me, Baby" in Detroit on November 30, 1982 — it was their fifth of six shows in Detroit on the 1999 Tour. A recording of that entire live performance is included in the expanded editions of the 1999 reissue, along with a DVD of another live set in Houston — and as vault archivist Michael Howe told me, special care was taken to make sure these recordings sounded as true as possible to the real experience of attending the 1999 Tour.

Michael Howe: The live thing is of particular consequence to me because Prince was such a compelling, sort of a peerless live performer, that we thought it essential to include audio and video of the tour. And there are a decent amount of board mixes that — of pretty good quality that have circulated — escaped into the collectors' marketplace, including at least one of the Detroit shows. There were six — five or six Detroit shows on the tour — two per day for three days, and the early version on the first day has circulated, which is a board mix, but the second, the midnight show, which is the one that we decided to release on the box set, had never circulated before, and we had multi-track recordings for it, so it sort of checked two boxes. We wanted to present something obviously that had never emerged, and we wanted to present it in the most complete way and with the most integrity possible. So we took it right from the 2" multi-track masters and we had David Z mix it — who was very much in Prince's orbit at the time and was at the venue and captured the audio and remembers how the room sounded and the general spirit of the performance, and mixed it as if we were standing there in November of 1982. But it's a pretty great — unsurprisingly a pretty great performance, and Detroit historically had been, and was for the rest of Prince's career, a particularly effusive audience for him. I think he really was able to shine, and there's a lot of love coming from the stage and back to him. I think you can hear it in the recording.

[Audio: "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" (live in Detroit)]

VO: Each night, Prince and his band would live their performances twice: the first time when they performed them on stage, and then again when they watched video of their set with Prince, all piled together on the bus or in a hotel room around a VCR. It's an experience that keyboard player Dr. Fink still remembers clearly.

Matt Fink: Yeah, the tour bus right after the show, we watched the show with him for either critiquing or praise.

Andrea Swensson: So if you screwed up you knew you'd have to watch it later?

Matt Fink: Oh, yeah. Yup. So if there was a mistake that was definitely noticeable, and he'd turn to look at you, I'd just kinda turn my head and go, "Who was that? I don't know. That wasn't me." I'd joke with him and mess with him. Yeah, it was funny.

Andrea Swensson: Wow. No pressure.

Matt Fink: But then if he did a clinker I'd say, "I just heard you do something too."

Andrea Swensson: So Prince made mistakes?

Matt Fink: Oh, sure, once in a while, but very rarely. Very rarely. He was one of those artists that, when he sang live, he was just impeccable. So you didn't hear flat or sharp notes or missed lyrics or anything like that — pretty rare, but there was an occasional flub, sure, just like he's human.

Roy Bennett: Prince was a perfectionist, and he wanted everything to be everything — done to that level. So we would spend a lot of time building a show, playing a show, reviewing the show.

VO: That's LeRoy Bennett, Prince's longtime lighting and production designer. The neon, alluring look of the 1999 Tour was primarily dreamed up by Roy, who is now an industry leader in live concert design — his most recent clients include Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, and the Grammys. Prince's bandmates say he was basically an extension of the band, moving in time with the music to create evocative light shows. He was also a close friend of Prince's in this era.

Roy Bennett: what I was doing at that period — and I did that up until '94 — I actually operated the lights on every show that he did in those 14 years. And what that means is that I'm manually pushing buttons or faders or whatever, trying to emotionally portray or evoke the emotion of the music in a visual way. Sometimes it was with the rhythm. Sometimes it was kinda through the emotional side of the music and fading, and I never wanted to be mechanical about how I operated. I was very in tune with the music and I was an extension of — a visual extension of what was going on.

Andrea Swensson: Yeah. Do you think it helped that you felt connected to Prince, that you had that personal connection with him, and that you could kinda move in step with him as he's moving around the stage, and as the band is moving?

Roy Bennett: Uh, yeah. It was very important that I did have that connection. I'm always moved by music, but I had that connection with him. It was elevated even more. I had to pay a lot of attention to his movement onstage and his little hand signals and things so I could understand where we were at all times.

Andrea Swensson: He would send you little hand signals?

Roy Bennett: There were certain turnarounds in the music, or hits or whatever, that he would signal the band with. There were certain things that he would hold fingers up, make a fist or whatever. They all meant something, because he would improvise at times throughout the show in certain songs. It was never a given that it was gonna be consistent, and so you had to be on your toes all the time.

Lisa Coleman: Prince just like — he could like make the band, you know, okay no, play dead — okay, roll over — okay — you know, like — so it was like one of those kind of songs, where — and then he'd do like crazy like horn punch gags, like we were like circus dogs and he was — make us do little — jump through the hoop — okay, go.

VO: Prince wasn't just thinking about perfecting his own set — he was also closely monitoring the opening sets by his two proteges. The Time actually played during both of those opening sets, as drummer Jellybean Johnson told me.

Jellybean Johnson: I was doing double duty because the Time was Vanity 6's band in concert. So that was a trip every night too. We'd be behind a curtain. Nobody knew it was us. I'll tell you a little funny thing about that. When we first started doing it, we wore disguises.

Andrea Swensson: Really? Like what?

Jellybean Johnson: Yeah. Jimmy was like in a preacher's robe. I had on like sunglasses and a beret, and Jesse had on a beard. It was so crazy, man. We did that the first few gigs, but Prince finally figured — no, I put these guys behind — so he got a fishnet curtain, and we would be behind it and Vanity 6 would be in front of it.

VO: In addition to watching from the wings as the Time and Vanity 6 played, Prince would sometimes jump in and add instrumentation himself — from behind the curtain, so no one but the band would know.

Jellybean Johnson: I loved that because it would be so nasty when he — he would come out — he'd be back there playing with us, you know, and he'd be in the band with us. And him and Jesse — the guitars would be just killin'. Like I'd be just have this big grin on my face when I'm playing because it was so funky and nasty, you know, and people had no idea what was going on back, because they look at the band, they're seeing a pink curtain and these three girls, you know. And that's all they're seeing. They ain't seeing us, you know, and we're just going at it back there. So it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that part of it.

Andrea Swensson: There's just something so incredible to me about — that he had so much music in him that even though he had his own full set coming up he just couldn't help himself.

Jellybean Johnson: He couldn't. He couldn't help himself. I watched him sometimes. He'd be onstage and he'd just be making faces at me, and I'm like — and so I knew it was only a matter of time he was gonna grab his guitar or have one of the techs bring him a guitar, and he started playing with us. He didn't do it all the time but he did it a lot.

VO: There was a fierce rivalry between Prince and the Time that extended back to the musicians' beginnings playing battle-of-the-bands showcases against one another in North Minneapolis. But as Prince's keyboard player Lisa Coleman remembers, there was a sense of camaraderie, too.

Lisa Coleman: We would go to truck stops in the middle of the country, you know, where there's nothing, and then out would walk — just imagine — the Time, the Revolution, Vanity 6, all walking into a truck stop in middle America, wanting a fried egg sandwich, and these truck drivers are going, "What the hell is this?" I'm so glad we all had that time together, because, you know, it was, it was a triple threat. We were feeling so strong, and just young and cocky.

[Audio: "Uptown" Live in Detroit or Houston]

VO: About halfway through the tour, something massive happened: "Little Red Corvette" became a Top 10 hit. "1999" and "Delirious" also climbed the charts, and the album sales started skyrocketing. This was the moment Prince had been striving for five albums, and especially since that disastrous experience he had opening for the Rolling Stones. I keep thinking about how Lisa Coleman said that he looked out at the crowd at the L.A. Coliseum in that moment and realized that these were the people he was going to have to win over to be the great artist he wanted to be. By the spring of 1983, 1999 had sold four million copies and Prince became one of the first black artists ever to be played on MTV.

Jellybean Johnson: We'd come to those concerts, and what used to be a mostly — at least 50% black or maybe more sometime — now it was like 75%, 80% white, and I knew Prince could see that. I knew he could sense that, you know, because that's what he was trying to do.

[Audio: "DMSR" live in Detroit; Prince says, "All the white people clap your hands"]

VO: In making 1999, Prince had been explicit about his desire to reach a broader audience. Dez Dickerson remembers having many conversations with Prince about this.

Andrea Swensson: Do you think it's fair to say that he was trying to reach a whiter audience than he had previously?

Dez Dickerson: Open secret. And it wasn't about neglecting or devaluing our existing fan base. It was about never wanting to be limited. It was about never wanting to be marginalized. If you look at the population as a whole, our fan base should look like the population as a whole and not a small portion of it. So that literally was — it's like they have a pitch count sometimes in baseball. We had the white people count. X number of minutes before show time, the road manager or one of the managers would come in if they were out with us on that show: "Hey, audience is about 75% white." And then that number kept going up. We got to the place where it was like, "The audience is over 90% white." Again, it was just one of those things where we didn't want to be marginalized. We wanted our audience to look like the Western world.

Lisa Coleman: We should just have music stations, not black music stations. It's still a problem, and it'll always — I mean, maybe it won't always be, but there's a little bit of that no matter where you go all the time, and I'm proud that we broke some rules and changed some things in our early days, you know.

Matt Fink: Oh, boy. That was an exciting time because at that point, I'd been in the group since late '78, and here was are, it's '82, so four years of just really balls-to-the-wall hard work, rehearsing and touring and doing all that stuff, and it was all beginning to pay off, which was great because that was our goal — to make ourselves as popular as possible and please and entertain people. So yeah, exciting. he had really come into his own as an entertainer and really learned the ropes by then, and the confidence was there, and his show prowess was amazing. He could just control the audience so well and give them what they wanted. And of course I just remember that the women in the audience went crazy for him. Lots of screaming. It was like the Beatles.

[Audio: "Little Red Corvette" (Live in Detroit): "This one's for all the fast girls in the house"]

Dez Dickerson: He knew how to work it by then. He knew how to push every button. The thing that comes to mind most is it was on this tour and with this record that we kind of had — it wasn't just the breakthrough, but what that experience was like kind of from our side of the table, was full on experiencing what it's like to be a band with across-the-board radio, and at that time MTV success. That was like a whole other went from being largely, I don't want to say unknown in your own hometown, to not being able to walk down the street in your own home town. I mean literally kids camped out in front of my house — I've been chased down the streets of Minneapolis, literally like the Monkees or something — chased and having to get police assistance. So it was with this tour and this record and this song in particular — all of that came together, and all of a sudden that whole dream of being rock stars and what it was going to be like, it was like okay this is what's it's like. This is actually right here — this is what it's like.

VO: 37 years have passed since 1999 was released, and the legacy of the album and this pivotal time in Prince's career endures. For many artists working today, 1999 was their first exposure to Prince, and it introduced them to new possibilities regarding race, gender, sexual expression, and a new boundary-less, genre-fluid way of making music that feels very relevant in 2019.

Brittany Howard: You know I remember being really little — dad — Prince, etc. — Prince is the baddest - nobody can do it like Prince.

VO: That's Brittany Howard, a solo artist and frontwoman of the band Alabama Shakes. I got a chance to see Alabama Shakes play at Paisley Park once, and Prince was so moved by their performance — he came out during their song "Gimme All Your Love" and played an earth-shattering guitar solo.

Brittany Howard: I'm so glad you were there to witness that because when I tell people that they don't believe me. I'll never forget that day...Paisley Park, etc, rules, are we gonna meet Prince, smaller than I thought, really cool and funny, quiet, solo with "Gimme All Your Love," and then he was gone in the blink of an eye, jumped off stage, called me later, I'm gonna e-mail you. Prince is gonna e-mail me?! Every day I checked my e-mail. He's in every part of creation that I do just because...every part of what I do and why I want to hear it.

VO: Another artist who has clearly been inspired by Prince is the actor, comedian, and musician Fred Armisen, who starred in the recurring "Prince Show" sketch on Saturday Night Live alongside fellow Prince superfan Maya Rudolph. Fred first fell in love with Prince through the video for "1999" after coming up in the punk scene.

Fred Armisen: I was so staunch in, like, what was cool. This is punk. Nothing will ever change. This is the ultimate in cool. And then when I saw this "1999" video, it was on TV, and it really turned my idea upside down of what cool is, because I just remember it was so vivid — all those like sort of red, purple — I think there was some pink in there too, but just sort of bright colors. And that song — and like everything about it just really threw back at me what I thought was cool.

I don't think any of my friends really got any of his records, so it was just me buying album after album, and the first time I saw him was on the Parade Tour. I saw him on that one, and missed the Purple Rain Tour, but Prince really became my favorite artist, and I really just became a fanatic. I soaked up every lyric, every little drumbeat, everything about him.

Sign O' the Times remains one of my favorite albums to this day. What an album. Sign O' the Times really affected me. Lovesexy really affected me, and then going into the '90s I just kept buying his records. it's almost like we had an agreement. Wherever you wanna go, I will go with you.

Andrea Swensson: Aw.

Fred Armisen: I just loved him all the way through, and his music still affects me, and now, now that I get to do stuff on TV, I even — I respect all his moves even more. I'm like, that is such a smart thing to do — to change his name. I understand so much more now.

VO: As Prince's popularity grew, he also began to claim his status as a revered, once-in-a-generation artist — one who was just as respected by the musicians who inspired him as the ones he would go on to inspire in his own career. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Nile Rodgers, who broke down barriers of his own with the R&B-pop group Chic and produced hits for David Bowie, Madonna, and Daft Punk, recalls first admiring Prince's work in the 1999 era.

Nile Rodgers: I mean, it's one of those records that's sort of know, the Beatles White Album, um, Michael Jackson Thriller. It's one of those kinds of records where there's the world before 1999, and then there's the world after 1999. At least that's the way I see it because he became such a superstar after that. It was almost something you couldn't believe. It was almost meteoric, his rise.

Prince made such an impression on the world that it was one of those magical forces that was undeniable. I can think of so many of my great friends who were, like, big superstars, that just the mention of Prince would like sort of, like, drive them into a frenzy because he was so damned good. And God knows, my friendship with Prince, of course — I mean, it was just — it was pretty legendary and wonderful. Our level of respect for each other was so enormously high.

We would discuss music and philosophy on a sort of very high plane, if you will, because he was a very spiritual person and I was a very scientific person. So I would say at odds, but everything was always interesting to us, like our — my point of view was interesting to him, and his point of view was super interesting to himself, and he couldn't wait to tell it to me, so — and we had amazing conversations. We would talk for hours and hours and hours.

As much as I loved his music, you can — I mean — just think of the special moments that he's given me in my life. Not only did he come out onstage with us at the Essence Festival; not only am I the only person that I believe he's ever interviewed for a magazine; but when we released our last Chic album on Warner Bros. that was a total flop, the only promotion we got was Prince doing the song, and if you look at that video, check that video out. He's holding our Chic CD.

VO: In so many ways, 1999 set the stage for all that was about to come for Prince. His first feature-length film, number one hits, Grammys...only a few months would pass between the final date of the 1999 Tour and that fateful night when Prince and his band would record their new song "Purple Rain" at their hometown club First Ave and make rock history.

Bobby Z: He became a leader in 1999. He went from a caterpillar to a butterfly in that one purple trench coat that we talk about, and he became the international superstar that was able to convince Warner Bros. Pictures and a bunch of people that he was a bankable star and a real personality. and the iconic look of the photos, the album cover, the tidbit puzzle of the Revolution backwards, it's all there. It's all a setup for what's to come. It's a real honor to be a part of that. That thing is just — it's a monster. It's a monster.

[Audio: "1999"]

Credits: Prince: The Story of 1999 is produced by The Current and supported by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. This story was hosted and produced by Andrea Swensson, produced and edited by Anna Weggel, mixed by Corey Schreppel, with script editing from Jay Gabler, and production support from Brett Baldwin, Cecilia Johnson, Jim McGuinn, David Safar, and Derrick Stevens.

Thanks to the Prince Estate and Warner Records for their collaboration and support. Go to for all of the remastered, expanded, and Super Deluxe Editions of 1999.

If you haven't subscribed yet, search for Prince: The Story of 1999 on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening to Prince: The Story of 1999 from The Current.

[Audio: "1999" Live "Thank you very much, goodnight."]

'1999' Giveaway

Use this form to enter for a chance to win a CD or LP version of the Deluxe Reissue of Prince's '1999' between 8 a.m. Central on Tuesday, December 3, 2019 and 11:59 p.m. Central on Tuesday, December 10, 2019.

Five (5) winners will receive one (1) 2CD copy the Deluxe Edition of Prince '1999.' One (1) winner will win the 4 LP LP Deluxe edition Prince's '1999.' Four (4) back up names will be drawn. Winners will be notified via email.

Prize retail value, CD: $16.99; LP $67.99

We will contact the winner on Wednesday, December 11, 2019. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. Central on Friday, December 14, 2019.

This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2019 Official Giveaway Rules.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.