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The Current Rewind

Aug. 3, 1983: The birth of "Purple Rain"

The Current Rewind
The Current RewindKaitlyn Bryan | MPR
  Play Now [24:06]

Most casual Prince fans know Purple Rain was partially filmed at First Avenue. But did you know the title song is a live recording, taped at First Ave a few months before filming started? In this episode, we meet Prince and the Revolution at a benefit show for Minnesota Dance Theatre, where they debuted "Purple Rain" in support of dance and community.

This is the fourth episode of The Current Rewind's "10 Pivotal Days at First Avenue" season. Catch up below.

• April 3, 1970 (The day it all began)
• Nov. 28-29, 1979 (The days that told the future)
• Sept. 27, 1982 (Bad Brains/Sweet Taste of Afrika/Hüsker Dü)
• Aug. 3, 1983 (The birth of "Purple Rain")
• Oct. 22, 1990 (Sonic Youth/Cows/Babes in Toyland)
• March 4, 1991 (Ice Cube/WC and the MAAD Circle)
• Nov. 2, 2004 (The day the doors closed)
• Aug. 12, 2015 (The day the sky fell)
• April 21, 2016 (The day the streets turned purple)

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Culture Heritage Fund.

Transcript of The Current Rewind season 2, episode 4: "Aug. 3, 1983"

["Purple Rain" chords, but trembly and slowed-down. After several seconds, the music snaps into the original version, and we hear the lyrics, "I never meant to cause you any sorrow/ I never meant to cause you any pain."]

Mark Wheat VO: After three episodes and 13 years of First Avenue's history, we've arrived at the song. The song that evokes an artist, a movie, and to some, a period of mourning: "Purple Rain."

["Purple rain, purple rain" fades into "Hive Sound" by Icetep]

Mark Wheat VO: [over theme] I'm Mark Wheat. This is The Current Rewind, the show putting music's unsung stories on the map. For our second season, we're exploring the history of First Avenue, the downtown Minneapolis venue that has become one of the Twin Cities' – and the country's – greatest clubs.

Most casual Prince fans know that scenes from the 1984 movie Purple Rain were filmed at First Avenue. The version of "Purple Rain" that you hear in the movie and the soundtrack was recorded live at First Avenue, but not at the same time the movie was filmed. Just a few months before the cameras rolled, Prince hadn't yet written the song. He first performed it on August 3, 1983 at First Avenue, during a benefit show for the Minnesota Dance Theatre. He had the show recorded, and when we listen to "Purple Rain" today, we're hearing him and the Revolution play it live for the very first time. In this episode, we'll explore the story of that song and that amazingly unique one-off performance, along with Prince's relationship to Minnesota Dance Theatre – a tale that captures Prince's ethos as a musician and a community member.

So far this season, guest hosts have lent their voices to each episode of Rewind. But by this point, the coronavirus pandemic has complicated our production. So we here at The Current will step in to host a few episodes, including this one, which I was quite fond of from the beginning. It takes place when I had just moved to the United States, for good, in 1983.

[rewind noise]

Mark Wheat VO: The early 1980s were a transition moment in Minnesota music. Artists from two different local scenes were breaking out. On the indie rock side, the Replacements and Hüsker Dü were stirring up mosh pits all across the country. And Prince had just become a national star through the success of his fifth album, 1999.

David Z: I mean, it was exciting, because Prince was our local star, and he had the beginning of success before this. I mean, he did do Dirty Mind.

Mark Wheat VO: This is David Z, Prince's longtime producer – and brother of The Revolution drummer Bobby Z.

David Z: So I mean, he wasn't a nobody, but he wasn't internationally famous at all. It was kind of a local thing, and we were all happy because we always wanted somebody from Minneapolis to make it.

Mark Wheat VO: And before the world knew Prince's music – along with his slides, splits, spins and pelvic thrusts, he studied ballet with Minnesota Dance Theatre.

[audio of a Minnesota Dance Theatre rehearsal]

Mark Wheat VO: Renowned choreographer Loyce Houlton founded Minnesota Dance Theatre in 1962. They still teach classical and contemporary dance, and over the last 50 years, they've presented one of the best-attended performances of The Nutcracker in the country. In the '70s, the theater participated in Minneapolis Public Schools' Urban Arts Program, which Prince joined as a high school student. After Loyce's passing in 1995, her daughter Lise Houlton took over as artistic director.

Lise Houlton: My mother and Wally Kennedy were developing this program in the Twin Cities for those us of who didn't fit in the traditional academic life. That's how my mother met Prince, through the urban arts program. And I think that she saw immediately that he had a special spark, that there was something – she used to talk about the combination of this insatiable appetite and this sadness that came together in some sort of combustion of energy, and I think because she had a similar quality that they had this common ground.

Mark Wheat VO: You can catch the dance moves he mastered in Minnesota in some of his music videos.

Lise Houlton: In the ballet world there's a step that's challenging and that we all have to do, and it's called an entrechat six, and it's where you do three beats in the air. You jump up, you do three beats and you land. Prince could do an entrechat six, and you learn that in a ballet class. That's not an instinctive move, because you do it with turnout, which is unnatural to the human body. He did tour en l'airs, where you jump in the air. Tour en l'airs. He did pirouettes with excellent placement, and that was combined with his jazz aesthetic and already his own personal grind.

Mark Wheat VO: A few years after Prince graduated, Minnesota Dance Theatre needed financial help, and Loyce decided to get back in touch. As the Star Tribune reported at the time, she found out where Prince was staying in town and stood outside, waiting to ask if he could do a benefit show.

Lise Houlton: But that was her style. If she believed in somebody, if she wanted to have a connection with an extraordinary talent, she did that sort of thing. That was her reputation as being a little bit crazy. But I think once again, that's where Prince and my mother saw their connection.

Mark Wheat VO: Prince said yes, and First Avenue hosted the concert. Right after Prince played "Little Red Corvette," his biggest hit to date, Loyce Houlton took the mic to thank him for his support.

It was guitarist Wendy Melvoin's first time on stage with Prince – and therefore, the first time the Revolution's classic line-up performed together, even though they weren't billed as such. Along with Prince and Wendy, there was drummer Bobby Z, bassist Brown Mark, keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink, aka Dr. Fink. It was also the night Prince recorded "Baby I'm A Star," "I Would Die 4 U," and "Purple Rain" – right there at First Avenue, live.

David Z: And you'll see that there's not very much added or changed to the original performance, especially with the song "Purple Rain."

Mark Wheat VO: It was normal for Prince to have David record his performances, so no one expected anything unusual to happen.

David Z: Nobody really knew there was a movie coming out. We just thought it was gonna be a live record, or whatever.

Mark Wheat VO: And as Dr. Fink recalls, it wasn't the most comfortable environment.

Matt Fink: We all knew it was a hot, muggy summer night and that First Avenue would be packed, and it would be very uncomfortable for older people to be standing in there. And we were right, 'cause we were all drenched with sweat within two minutes of taking the stage, because that's how hot it was in there. The air conditioning wasn't keeping up. It was back when people smoked cigarettes in clubs. So not only did you have [Dr. Fink laughs] all the heat and humidity and bodies and cigarette smoke, but it was just very difficult to be comfortable.

Mark Wheat VO: According to First Avenue's records, about 1200 people bought tickets to the show. On an average night in 1983, a Mainroom show would run about five bucks, but tickets to this benefit were $25 – the equivalent of about $60 today. Including staff and an extensive guest list, about 1,500 people were in the club that night. First Avenue manager Steve McClellan was just trying not to overpack the place.

Steve McClellan: I had to go and tell people, except for the really important VIP list, it's not good for you tonight. Because my goal was to keep my list under 100, Prince's was supposed to be under 100, Minnesota Dance Theatre was supposed to be under 100. That night that all went blowin' in the wind. The guest lists poured in, and that's why that night, everybody says, "Well, why didn't you watch the show?" I remember between having to get the numbers together – because I thought I would have to pay the Minnesota Dance Theatre that night, so I had to get all my costs together. Because it was a $25 ticket. We'd never done a $25 ticket before. And so I knew that the money was gonna be big.

Mark Wheat VO: When we had Steve and veteran doorperson Richard Luka in for an interview, we asked Richard what he was up to that night.

Richard Luka: I was at the back door, and I could see everything from behind. "Why isn't he playing anything familiar here? What the hell's this stuff?" And but then there also this people going in and out through the garage to this truck that was out there. Turns out they were recording everything. Nobody knew that there was gonna be a movie within a year or so of that. None of us knew. That's why when you come back to a night like that – well, you know, it had sort of a cultural impact further down the line. But when you're in those moments you don't know that. So it's like, "This jerk just wants to get inside right now." No. You're Prince's cousin. Aren't we all. No, you can't come in. And we're dealing with things on an interpersonal level like that, whereas up there they're doing this thing that's gonna be here, and then it's gonna go out all over the world later.

Steve McClellan: I do remember hearing "When Doves Cry" the first time. There were certain times when I was able to stand and go, "Oh, pretty good." But, you know, life goes on.

Mark Wheat VO: Maybe Steve and Richard didn't get to experience the full show, but Prince fan Heidi Vader couldn't tear herself away.

Heidi Vader: It was so hot, so hot and so crowded.

Mark Wheat VO: When the band played "Purple Rain," the crowd didn't know what to make of it.

Heidi Vader: The song seemed to go on forever. So the audience was – you know – listening. They were paying attention, but nobody was freaking out and excited. And it was nothing like the movie, and nobody had all their costumes on, like in the movie. [Heidi laughs]

Mark Wheat VO: According to Dr. Fink, Prince and his band had just started practicing "Purple Rain" a couple of weeks before the show.

Matt Fink: Prince didn't write that one 'til the very end, which is more about like mid-to-late July of '83. He brought that song to the group. He hadn't finished the lyrics. He hadn't finished the melody. All he had was the chord structure and he came to us and said, "Ok, let's try this; let's just start jamming on this chord progression I've got for this song." And then we all coalesced into what you hear live. And even at that live show, he improvised his guitar solo somewhat.

[about 10 seconds of the "Purple Rain" guitar solo]

Matt Fink: He wasn't playing it exactly like he did it every time at rehearsal. Nor was I playing my piano parts exactly the same at rehearsal that evening. It just did what it did.

Mark Wheat VO: Kevin Cole, a former First Avenue DJ who now hosts the afternoon show at KEXP in Seattle, remembers there being cameras that night.

Kevin Cole: At that point in time, we were experimenting with filming sessions, or, filming performances at the club, that we would then give to the band. So there's footage floating around out there of that very first performance from a different perspective.

[cheers from the live bootleg fade up]

Kevin Cole: One of the cameras is to the left of the stage and above the stage, looking down, kinda right where Prince was playing from. And it's remarkable, but you're also seeing the audience. People are just stunned watching that song.

Mark Wheat VO: In fact, the crowd was so quiet, David Z had to tweak the recording.

David Z: When it came time for the movie, I cheated and put a crowd from the Minnesota Vikings in the audience track.

Mark Wheat VO: Because technology at the time couldn't record wireless bass well, Prince added in some bass overdubs. Heidi remembers the song being long because it was. Prince cut five minutes and still ended up with a nine-minute song. David Z recorded the show in a truck from the New York-based Record Plant, which was considered the best in the industry at the time.

Meanwhile, director Albert Magnoli was working with Prince on the early stages of a movie, which didn't have a name yet. He and Prince had gone through about a hundred songs that could go into the movie, but Magnoli felt they were still missing a piece.

Al Magnoli: Interestingly enough, there was no "Purple Rain" in that 100 songs.

Mark Wheat VO: During a recent trip to Minnesota, he elaborated in an interview with The Current host Jill Riley.

Al Magnoli: So I went to him, after I lined up what I thought was the storyline and lined up the songs...and said, we're missing the song – that catalyst, in all of this journey – that song that releases you finally to become the person you should become. And he said, ok, I got another song to write.

Mark Wheat VO: The director came to town to scout out locations for the movie and hear new songs from the band that night. When he heard "Purple Rain," he knew it was the one song he needed. Our producer Jackie Renzetti called him up and asked him why "Purple Rain" worked.

Al Magnoli: Well, it had the right pacing and it had the right lyric content. It had the right soulfulness and emotion. And it wasn't like anything he had done before. To me, it was a unique sounding piece, and that's what I was looking for. He obviously knew he had that song when I said we didn't have the song. So he didn't immediately say, "Oh, I've got a song that would fit the bill." He didn't say that. He performed it, not realizing that I would approach and then say that could be the song. I said, "What's it called," and he says, "'Purple Rain,'" and then there's a pause, and he says, "Could we call the movie Purple Rain?" and I go, "Yes."

Mark Wheat VO: By the end of the night, Prince had raised $23,000 for Minnesota Dance Theatre. That's the equivalent of about $60,000 today. Although Prince would go on to perform dozens of philanthropic acts – giving to music education and coding programs; buying houses for his band members; and paying medical bills for loved ones – few of them would be so public.

David Z: He would give money to people without trying to use it as publicity. Nothing! And then he would do charity, but in his own way of the true meaning of charity, which is not get all these people recognizing you for it. He just did it and didn't want the recognition. He just wanted to do a good thing and pay it back.

Mark Wheat VO: Our producer, Cecilia Johnson, asked The Current host and Prince expert Andrea Swensson to put his giving in perspective.

Andrea Swensson: Prince was raised in a really pivotal time just in history, during the civil rights movement and during the political uprising that was happening in North Minneapolis in the 1960s. His mother was a social worker. He was also partly raised by Bernadette Anderson, who was a huge community figure. [She] worked at the YWCA and was just really admired as a leader.

I mean, Prince's philanthropy goes back to the very beginning of his career. I remember his bandmates telling me stories of, even on their first couple of tours, they would squeeze in shows to play at community centers or play for the Deaf or do something out of their way to give back to the community. It was clearly something that Prince really valued. And that went all the way up until the end of his life, when he was funding projects like Yes We Code, and sending money to Baltimore, and honoring Freddie Gray in his music. He just had that spirit in him. I think it really goes back to coming up in North Minneapolis and being so involved in the community there and being raised by community leaders like Bernadette Anderson and like his mother, Mattie Shaw. It was just part of who he was.

Cecilia Johnson:: So what else was going on in the early '80s when Prince was starting to have this huge rise, in terms of philanthropy or giving or like celebrity?

Andrea Swensson: Yeah, well there's "We Are The World," which was a huge moment culturally, as all of these stars came together to record this song. There was Live Aid. U2 coming up – that was something that they really preached, and I think it just became part of the pop music culture, that in order to be, like, a good citizen, that if you were successful, that you should use some of your power and your money to give back.

But also, Prince was very discreet about his generosity. He did not do it for his own name or reputation or personal brand. It was just something that he valued, and especially later on as he became more religious, explicitly, with converting to Jehovah's Witness, it was a huge part of his faith as well, that that was not something that you were supposed to advertise. That's not why you give. That's not why you give money or help people in the community. You do it because it's important and because you value it.

Mark Wheat VO: We might not ever really know who all Prince helped. But we know he donated to a lot of programs centered on youth and community. At the Circle of Discipline in South Minneapolis, Sankara Frazier wrote a letter to Prince asking for funding to help keep his community boxing program going. Prince ended up making multiple contributions over the years. Our producer Jackie visited Circle of Discipline to ask how Sankara felt when he got the checks.

Sankara Frazier: I wasn't surprised. I wasn't surprised. Prince helped a lot of people. He saw what we were doing, with all of the young people and our older people. We have – you know, the community comes in here. And he saw what we were doing, community-wise, we're putting a lot of people together, people that wouldn't be together, you know? This right here, the boxing, was something that they grew up around. He didn't box – as far as I know, he didn't didn't box – but they know the importance, and how it develops a lot of the youth into better people. Worthy cause. We're working with the community.

Mark Wheat VO: Sankara was part of Prince's community from a young age. As kids, he lived with Prince and André Cymone, one of Prince's best friends and earliest bandmates. Speaking with Jackie, Sankara used the phrase "behind the scenes" to describe Prince as a community member. But although his actions may have been discreet, they were full of love for his cities.

Sankara Frazier: Oh, Prince was, he was down for Minneapolis. He was down. All of the people that had opportunities and stuff that were with him, they got him here. You know, so he decided to put this on the map. That's why, you know, even making Purple Rain, he's putting Minnesota on the map. Yeah, I give him credit for that.

Mark Wheat VO: To Lise, Prince's support of Minnesota Dance Theatre has been about more than just the money.

Lise Houlton: He's continuing to have an impact on Minnesota Dance Theatre, because every time this subject is brought up, Minnesota Dance Theatre is right there in the story, and once again, for me, having been so surprised with this event that happened in the '80s when I was far away, to feel those repercussions still is such a gift.

Mark Wheat VO: His legacy continues to inspire community work, especially among his longtime fans. Heidi Vader, who saw the August '83 show, told Cecilia that she sensed a vacuum in the fan community after Prince's death. She wanted to unite people behind something healing. So in 2017, she started a music education program called Purple Playground. Each summer, Purple Playground runs a two-week music camp where young students write their own music and record it. They also hear from guest speakers about Prince's legacy and what it's like to be a professional musician.

[Purple Playground's song "Purple Playground" plays for several seconds]

Heidi Vader: They write, like, five or eight songs, and then we record them. And we put them out, and they're on our website. And we ended up with these inspiring songs about supporting each other and loving yourself and believing in yourself, and all this stuff. That's what we were hoping but we didn't know it would happen – you know. They come in, these kids who – a couple of them knew each other, but a lot of them don't know each other. And then they're, immediately, like within an hour, they're like "Let's do this," back and forth, and yeah. So some of the songs will make you cry.

["Purple Rain" "twinkling" arpeggios and cymbal washes from the end of the song, with cheers from the audience. Prince tells the crowd, "We love you very, very much. Good night!" "Hive Sound" by Icetep fades up and plays under the credits.]

Cecilia Johnson VO: And there you have it. Mark Wheat's final contribution to The Current and The Current Rewind.

This episode of The Current Rewind was hosted by Mark Wheat. It was produced by me, Cecilia Johnson, and Jackie Renzetti. Marisa Morseth is our research assistant, and Jay Gabler is our editor. Our theme music is "Hive Sound" by Icetep. This episode was mixed by Johnny Vince Evans. Thanks to Brett Baldwin, Rick Carlson, Shelby Sachs, and David Safar for additional support. If you liked this episode, check out the series Prince: Official Podcast, which is produced by The Current and the Prince Estate. It's available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and beyond.

We work really hard on all these music history podcasts, and if you'd like to give back or say thanks, we'd really appreciate reviews on Apple Podcasts or a donation via

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The Current Rewind is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It is a production of Minnesota Public Radio's The Current.