Prince: The Story of 1999 bonus feature: LeRoy Bennett, 'Prince was beyond anybody'

Production and Lighting designer LeRoy Bennett
LeRoy Bennett is a lighting and stage designer who began his career working with Prince. Since then, he's worked with such artists as Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, and on the Grammy Awards. (courtesy the artist)
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LeRoy Bennett: 'Prince was beyond anybody'
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While making the doc series Prince: The Story of 1999, I called up LeRoy Bennett. Roy is a lighting and stage designer whose work started with Prince around the Dirty Mind and Controversy era. He designed so many of those iconic looks from Prince's early tours — like 1999, like Purple Rain and Sign O' the Times — and he's gone on to become a legend in the live-concert industry. His current clients include Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, and he has worked for performers appearing during telecasts of the Grammy Awards.

You can listen to our complete conversation using the audio player above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

ROY BENNETT: My name is LeRoy Bennett. I was Prince's production designer, ligtning designer, kind of co-creative director with him for his tours from 1980 to '94.

ANDREA SWENSSON: Wow! That's a long time.

Fourteen years, yes.

It's a long time for a lot of people to work with Prince, I think.

Yeah. In Prince years, it's probably closer to 40 or 50! (laughs)

He reinvented himself at least eight times in that span. (laughter)

So, I would love to pick up with any of your experience around the Controversy tour era, because that's kind of when this box set begins. Could you, you know, describe for me a little bit of, you know, what it was like on that tour, and The Time was an opener, so Prince had already started kind of spawning these side projects. But what was he like as an artist in that period?

When I first started, it was a little bit awkward at first. Once we got over the first five-day hump of working with him, Prince and I established a very close relationship — working relationship, and we spent a lot of time talking about creatively how we were going to approach our shows, and Controversy tour was the first time that I actually designed a stage set for him. The first time I worked with him on the Dirty Mind, it was — something was in existence already, so at that point I was just the lighting designer. So Controversy was the first time I actually approached designing a stage set.

We spent a lot of time of what we envisioned — what we were trying to portray in a live sense, and I came up with the idea of Venetian blinds for the set, because for me they were very provocative. Because I've always been one of these — as a designer — where I don't like to be obvious is what I'm trying to portray, but some — it's more of an emotion and an abstract thing, so people can take out of it whatever they want. So that was, for me at that time — Venetian blinds made you feel like you were in a bedroom. And so that was the initial thought on that particular design.

Prince in the famous purple trench coat
Prince in the famous purple trench coat in a promo photo for 1999; the set design includes the use of Venetian blinds. (Allen Beaulieu / Courtesy Warner Records)

Yeah. And then that kind of went up a notch with the 1999 tour, right?

Yes. Well, 1999 — we kept the same stage set, but what I did was I augmented it by automating the blinds so they could move, and also the original Venetian blinds were kind of a matte grey, where on 1999 I put a mirror on the bottom side that would reflect all the floor lights, and kind of — because we didn't have moving lights that time, it was just a way for me to — and I didn't even know moving lights were coming down the pike — but it was for me a way to be able to automate and shift the visual onstage, because we also didn't have any LED screens or any video or anything. So it was giving some kind of movement to the stage set in a very basic way.

Yeah. I was talking to Bobby Z recently, and he said that he really saw you as kind of an additional member of the live band because you were so active in literally cueing the lights with your hands to go in time with his drums, and I was wondering if you could just explain to me a little bit, as someone that doesn't know a lot about lighting and stage design, like what were you actually doing during the shows?

Well, for me, music is a very visual thing to me. I feel it and I see it. My job at that point was a very natural thing for me to do. I never wanted to be on the stage; I came from a very musical family, and they could all perform onstage. I realized at a very early age that was not the thing I wanted to do. I have severe stage fright. I've kind of gotten a little bit better since those times, but what I was doing at that period — and I did that for — 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 through the emotional side of the music and fading.

I never wanted to be mechanical about how I operated. I was very in tune with the music and I was an extension — a visual extension — of what was going on.

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

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.

So he would send you little hand signals?

He had hand signals onstage.

What were some of them?

Well, there were just certain things that he would — 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 going to be consistent, and so you had to be on your toes all the time.

Wow. I'm picturing like a softball coach or something, like, "OK, in this one…"

Yep, basically!

Interesting. Tell me a little bit about the review process that was developed by Prince, of having the shows videotaped and then giving feedback each night.

He'd record every show, and then after the show, there was the show again in his suite, in his hotel room, where we'd all — the band and myself — would all sit up there and go through the entire show. And Prince was a perfectionist, and he wanted everything -- everything — done to that level. So we would spend a lot of time building a show, playing a show, reviewing the show.

Wow, that's pretty intense. I mean, if you mess up, you know that you're going to have to live with that later.

You'd get called out, absolutely.

Something I've been thinking about a lot is — you say Prince is a perfectionist, but then I'm hearing all these stories of him in the studio where he's basically working so fast, he doesn't have time for perfection. I think it was Susan Rogers once told me it was like he was a volcano erupting and she was just trying to run around and get pots and pans to catch the lava as it came out. So I'm wondering how would you explain that? Like he always had all these new ideas and was always moving forward, but then he did have this level of excellence that he expected out of everybody.

Well, I think, creatively, when he's in the studio he was a volcano. He believed that whatever came out was what's supposed to be. Live-wise was a different situation. Because he had already gone through the process of blasting out whatever he was trying to do in the studio. Once that was established, then he would hone it in. I always felt that he was better live than he was on an album.

Why do you say that? Because it was more refined?

It was more refined. There was a lot more power to it. There was a lot more emotion to it, and it got deeper because he had time to digest what it was.

That makes sense. Interesting.

I know that you had a front row seat to watching Vanity 6 form, and actually I got a chance to talk to Brenda [Bennett], and she was telling me some of her early memories of joining you on the Controversy tour, and I didn't realize one of her roles at first was to actually operate the video camera, which was pretty fascinating. But what do you recall about watching — Prince already had The Time, but then, now he's got this new group, Vanity 6. What did you think about it as you were watching that come together?

Well, I was sitting in his dressing room one night just before a show, and Brenda was in there, because not only did she do the — operate the video camera, it was like because she was with me on tour, she just had jobs to keep herself busy, and she also took care of the wardrobe. So she was in the dressing room while Prince and I were sitting and talking, and he was talking about this girl group at the time. They didn't actually have a name. But he just said, "I wanna put a girl group together," and Brenda is behind me, and he turns around and looks at her and points and says, "You're gonna be one of the girls."

So he knew she could sing, and I think a lot of that was the reason why he chose her. He was also very much into including people that were close to him and around him in building these projects. At one point, he even asked me to do one. I said, "Absolutely not! I'm not gonna do that. I do a completely different job for you, so thanks, but no thanks."

What was it going to be?

It was — he wanted to make me a pop star.

Oh, wow. That's amazing.

Yeah. I guess he thought that I had it in me, but it's like I made it very clear that that wasn't the case.

It really does seem, though, that he — well, I've heard multiple people say he watched that movie The Idolmaker, and that that kind of started this new era of maybe I could be this manager/Svengali kind of figure. But it really does seem like he was just like, "Maybe it could be you," "Maybe it could be you."

Totally.

That's interesting.

That's exactly how he was, and I had no ambition for that, and I'm glad I didn't do it because I'm happy with what I do.

How would describe the circle of people that are starting to form around Prince? Brenda described it as like the purple family, but it does seem like he really — once you were in the fold, you were kind of part of this inner circle of his creative life.

Oh yeah. It was a family. I had an awesome relationship with The Time as well as The Revolution, and they were family to me, and, you know, Vanity 6 became another level of it. Vanity was a very interesting person. But, you know, Brenda and Susan, they were — obviously Brenda because she was my wife at the time — we were all very close, and it was like a factory, and we were always doing something. If I wasn't working with Prince, and The Time were going out and doing shows, I was out with the guys. It was always something going on.

Was it really competitive between The Time and Prince, or was it more for show that they played up that element of their dynamic?

Oh, no, it wasn't a show. It was for real! He created a monster and then couldn't deal with it. It was a lot of tension on the 1999 tour between the two bands, because Prince would — The Time were amazing. They were a full-on, in-your-face funk band, and they rocked it every single night. He would watch them from the side of the stage, and he could watch the reactions of the crowd, and it was wind him up. There was a good side to it and a very bad side to it.

There were a couple of times when there was — well, there was one in particular I remember, I think we were in Detroit; I can't remember. And there was a major egg fight where The Revolution basically started throwing eggs at The Time. Well, they tied up Jesse Johnson at one point and started pelting him with eggs. I mean, he freaked out. It was — it got ugly.

Tied him up?

Yeah.

How do you tie up Jesse Johnson?

Well, if there's enough people. It might've been Chick was around at the time — the bodyguard — and I think it might've been him that actually made that happen, because he was a big guy.

Wow.

Yeah, but it was an ugly scene. And it was eggs everywhere. It was ugly.

Wow. Do you think in a way that kind of fueled Prince, though, like — because he wanted to be better than them, right? He wanted to be the headliner and kind of come out and show them up.

Yeah, but, I mean the thing — it was The Time and Prince. The music was very different, even though it was his music. He was more pop and rock with a bit of funk in it. They were full-on funk.

Right. So I am curious to know if you recall the audience kind of changing as the 1999 tour rolled out when the album came out, but it wasn't really until that next spring that the singles were breaking into the top 10 and Prince was on MTV and becoming more of like this mainstream star. Did you notice like a change in the dynamic as that was happening?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, it was becoming more white. There were people influenced by his fashion — men and women. So they were — it became more of a branding of who he was, not just musically in live performance-wise, but also in his fashion sense. And so that was interesting to watch happen.

Like people would literally dress like him?

Well, they would — maybe not fully, but there were things — elements — about what he would wear, like his trench coat or whatever. And also the trench coat evolved from what it was in the Dirty Mind days where it was more punk, where it became a little bit more glam. And you could see all that starting to evolve, even in the audience's dress sense.

And then also, when the girls — Vanity 6 — in their lingerie, women would show up in their lingerie.

Oh wow. Interesting.

Yep.

Wow. So, have you gotten a chance to dig into these live recordings that are in the box set yet? There's two shows. One is the live recording of December 2, 1982, in Detroit — it's incredible to think about. There were six shows in Detroit on the 1999 tour, and this was I think the fifth of six. And then there's later that month, December 29th '82, there's actually the video of Houston. So I was just curious if you had any memories specific to either of those performances? I know people have talked a lot about Prince's connection to Detroit, that there was just like a really big fan base for him there. Any memories that come back, thinking about those?

Detroit will always stand out in my mind as far as a place that he was a hero in. I mean, he was a hero in a lot of places, but Detroit was a huge fan city. I would say he was accepted there first, before anyplace else. They all — they were big supporters of him. There was a DJ and I blanked him out, but he was—

Oh, the Electrifying Mojo?

Yeah! He was awesome. I mean, his musical sense and — it was very different. I mean totally — he got Prince. He was into electronic music at the time. He was into R&B, funk, punk, everything. Those were all the things that Prince was about, and Mojo was a big DJ in Detroit, and so it obviously helped expose Prince to the Detroit audience. I forgot that we did that many shows on 1999 in Detroit, but we also — we started the Purple Rain tour in Detroit. So it was — that was our town.

Yeah, that's cool.

I mean, for me to remember the shows exactly city-to-city, that's a tough one.

Yeah. I can't even imagine what your memories must be like. Well, one thing that's kind of cute about the Houston show is it's the first show back after Christmas, and Prince actually says a couple of times, "Merry Christmas Houston." I thought that was kind of sweet.

He had his cute moments.

Yes. Well, another thing that's cool, listening to the live recordings, is that you get to hear — the songs obviously get drawn out into these jams, and then Prince had so much interaction with the audience — there's like moments where there's call and response kind of moments, and he's kind of egging people on, and at one point I think he says like, "Where are all my nasty people at?" and everyone's screaming. But could you just describe from your vantage point what was it like watching Prince interact with the crowd?

You know, Prince wasn't just a musician/artist/songwriter — whatever. He was an incredible entertainer. He knew how to move an audience. He knew how to play with their heads and their emotions. I learned a lot from him.

A lot of what we did was — and it's affected my career and how I approach things — is that people always want what they can't have, and he knew that. I mean that's how he lived his life. I mean, that's why he didn't do a lot of interviews. He knew how to be a rock star/pop star.

And there were things that — and I was always of the same mindset, because of the people I idolized at that time. It was like I only knew enough to continually be drawn to them, but I didn't know everything.

And we would do things where — we started the shows off where he was a silhouette. It was never like you seen him immediately. It was like a slow reveal. So it was like two openings. You — people are screaming because they can see him, kind of, but then when they actually saw his face it went up to another level on the next song. So it was like he understood dynamics. A lot of it probably stemmed from the sexual side of him. He was very aware of all of that and how human beings are. So it was fun to work with him that way.

Man, I wish I could go back in time! I wanna be there!
Well, I loved what you had told me before about kind of your experience becoming a de facto Chanhassen resident and spending a lot of time out at the Lake Reilly house. Can you just talk a little bit about your memories of being in Chanhassen with Prince? What was that like?

It was very different for me. Growing up in Rhode Island and living near the ocean, being in the middle of America and not having the ocean anymore was a little strange to me, a little alien. But there were the lakes — not the same thing as the ocean - but there were lakes.

And it was kind of surreal because Chanhassen was like farmland at that point, and so it was kind of rural. And being in that environment with somebody like Prince was really interesting as far as how I absorbed life out there. I mean, growing up in Rhode Island there was a lot of Italians there, so I understood Italian food. That did not exist, and it was like — it was weird. At that point in Minneapolis, food was terrible! I mean, for me; for them, they were used to it, so it felt more like junk food heaven than actual real food. So that affected me.

But the time I spent in the house with him, when we actually grew close to each other and established a bond, where he would call me over and it would be just he and I in the house doing things — you know, talking about different music and different artists and influences, and where he wanted to go musically and with the shows. It was kind of a creative bonding, an emotional bonding. I don't know if I said this last time, but we spent a few times watching David Lynch's movie, Eraserhead together, just the two of us. I didn't think it was surreal as — looking back on it — the way I look at it now, it was a very surreal experience, because it's a bizarre movie. It's engaging but disturbing at the same time.

Right!

Because it doesn't really tell a story. It's just — it's more emotional — abstract emotion, and that really influenced me in a way that it started me to realize that you never want to be obvious about what you're trying to say. You give enough headroom for people to decide what it is.

I don't know if he was actually doing that on purpose, or it just happened to work out that that's what that movie meant to the both of us, and that bonding that way. It was — you know, he even got me into the studio sometimes just doing some background noises and whatever. It wasn't noise for me, but it was like, he included me in some of the recording of songs and things, but it was more about me screaming, and he would use that sound for something or whatever.

OK, so can we hear your scream on a song?

No. No. I don't think so! Or maybe. I have no idea. I didn't search for it.

Wow. That's funny because a couple people have told me that they would be at the house and he would say like, "Can you come in here and hold this note down while I do this other thing," and they would just like stand there and hold the keyboard and—

Oh yeah, there was a lot of that.

That's funny.

I'm sure — I know when I did that stuff it wasn't like "Oh, I gotta hear it." It didn't faze me. It was fun, but I was more — my head was in a different space than that.

Sure. Yeah. Something that I've been thinking about with 1999 the album, and the song too, is that it's really one of the first moments that other people are credited on a Prince record and are singing on a Prince record. You know, even "1999" starting with not Prince's voice; you hear Jill Jones and Lisa and Dez, and it's interesting to me to think about was this a time in his life where maybe he realized he did need more people to help him do what he was going to do?

Yeah, I believe so. But these are the people he was close to. It was his family. It was also kind of like his labyrinth of things that he could draw from. We were the ingredients that happened to be sitting on the shelf close by.

"You're going in the pot."

Yep! "You're going in the pot, buddy."

I like that. Well, is there anything I haven't asked you about that comes to mind as we're getting ready for this big 1999 box set to come out and all this stuff?

Looking back at all those years — I mean, it really was my formative years — and I was so deep into it, that I didn't realize the magnitude of what it was. He and I were making this stuff together as far as live shows go, and he was my friend, but also my boss, and I didn't know any better. It was hard for me to see how — I knew he was amazing and an incredible artist, but I didn't realize how much until I started working with other artists. It was, for me, I started at the top, and after working with him, everybody else was much easier.

But it was funny because I'd always compare other artists to him, and I'd think, I mean, they're OK. They're good and I like what they're doing, but they're not at his level. And I'm sure if I — If I would've never said that to any of those artists that I've worked with — but I'm sure that they would agree. They did what they did really well, because I've worked with a lot of incredible artists over the years, but he was the musician's musician. He was beyond anybody. And still. He's influenced so many people over the years.

Yeah.

So I was blessed that I started my life and this career with him.

That's amazing. Yeah, it really does seem like the more I learn about him, the more incredible it is to think of just how much he did and how quickly, and how just confident he was in his own vision. I think that's pretty rare.

Yeah. And he also — I've said this many times before — he pushed himself constantly, so he would push everybody else, because he pushed himself. But he also could see in you your capabilities.

Yeah.

He wouldn't push people that didn't have that ability. He pushed you knowing that you were giving all that you could. And I'm always so grateful for that.

Well, Roy, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me again. I just love listening to your memories. I can tell you just had such a sweet bond with Prince, so I really appreciate hearing them.

Any time.

Take care and have a good day.

All right, thank you. You too.

External Links

LeRoy Bennett - official site

Prince - official site

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