Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 6: Pop Goes The Music

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Prince, The Story of Sign O' The Times
Prince, The Story of Sign O' The Times (courtesy the Prince Estate)
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Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 6
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Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times is an audio documentary series brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records. Listen Thursdays at 8 p.m. Central, and read a written version below. The series is also available as a podcast on multiple platforms.

Audio: "Play in the Sunshine"

VO: This is Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, brought to you by The Current in collaboration with the Prince Estate, Paisley Park, and Warner Records.

Hello! I'm Andrea Swensson. Before we get into this week's episode, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that we are now on the sixth of eight episodes in this series about the making of Prince's magnum opus Sign O' The Times, and we are just now getting to the part of the story where Prince assembles his new live band, releases the album, and dazzles audiences all across Europe with his Sign O' The Times Tour.

It took five episodes to reach this point because of how prolific Prince was in the studio in the period leading up to Sign O' The Times — as we've discussed, he recorded enough material in this era to fill several albums. There was also so much happening in his life. By the end of 1986, Prince had dissolved the Revolution, and he and his fiancée, Susannah Melvoin, had broken up for the last time.

Audio: "Wally"

This is the second version of a song called "Wally" that Prince wrote at the end of December 1986 about the changes he was experiencing that winter. The first version was even more personal; after recording it, Prince demanded that his engineer Susan Rogers erase the tape. This second version, recorded on December 30, 1986, has remained in Prince's vault until now.

Audio: "Wally" (continues)

VO: It's important to remember just how quickly Prince was moving in this time. His breakup with Susannah and the recording of "Wally" happened just days after Prince had recorded his final song to be included on Sign O' The Times, "U Got the Look." Once he got the song "Wally" out of his system, Prince immediately turned his attention toward gathering all of his new band members together for the first time. Their first rehearsals happened just after New Year's Day 1987.

Audio: "Hot Thing"

Cat Glover: Hi, guys. This is Cat Glover, former dancer with Prince — protégé and all that. Hi.

VO: Cat Glover first met Prince through her friend Devin DeVasquez, a singer and a Playboy model. Cat and Devin competed on Star Search together, where Cat advanced to the final round using her signature dance move, the "Cat Skat."

Cat Glover: We had never been formally introduced until the club Voilà, when Devin took everyone to the club. So that's how that all started. And Prince said to me, "I want to ask you a question."

I said, "Sure."

He said, "Will you dance with me when a good song comes on?"

And I said, "Sure."

And so we get on the dance floor and Prince started dancing. I was doing my little thing, but I didn't want to show him that I could really dance because some guys will just run off the dance floor. So then he started doing little gestures, I started doing little gestures. I start following what he does, and I think it clicked in his mind: "Hmm…"

Audio: "Hot Thing"

Cat Glover: Steven Fargnoli, Devin DeVasquez — all these guys are sitting there — and I'm jacking my body, thinking of Franky Knuckles and Prince started looking. And then about three songs I sat down. He whispered to Steven, "She's mine." Prince asked me to go to his house and pick up this dress. OK. Picked up the dress. Calls me and says you have a flight. I want you to bring the dress to Minneapolis. Weird. And I went, "OK, taking the dress." So I go to his house; I get the dress; he flies me to Minneapolis and I had no idea what he was doing. Come to find out, that dress originally was for Susannah Melvoin. And she's very short, and I'm very tall, so the dress was really tiny — yeah, too tiny. So they had to sew some shorts in it. I'm 5'8" and Susannah's probably 5'3". All the ladies are small except Jill and I. Yeah, so I tried on the dress, came to Minneapolis; all of a sudden, I see photographers and they dressed me like Prince. I didn't know what was going on.

VO: So many of Prince's collaborators have a similar story. Their entrance into Prince's world happens suddenly and mysteriously. Sometimes, you're getting your picture taken for an album cover before you've even met your bandmates. That's Cat on the cover of the single "Sign O' The Times," holding a heart in front of her face on the front of the seven-inch, and playing Prince's peach Cloud guitar on the back.

Cat Glover: They just dressed me, gave me his guitar, and Prince said, "Play something."

Audio: Guitar work in "Sign O' The Times"

Cat Glover: I had no idea that was his vision — to put me on the cover, because a lot of people say we look alike, like our features and our body; however, that heart — this is why I'm upset. Tell me if you wouldn't be upset? You're in a photo shoot for two hours. You have to continue to hold this heart and take the pictures over and over again. Guess what? If I had known when they put it on the album it was just going to be black, I would've told them, "Give me a black cardboard." But no, they give me a 100-pound mirror. That's why you see my muscles. It was so heavy I was shaking! Yes! So Prince's dad called me up. He said, "Cat, I'm gonna ask you something."

I said, "Sure, Mr. Nelson."

"Please, please tell me that's you on the cover."

I said, "Mr. Nelson that's me."

He said, "Thank God because I thought my son lost his mind this time."

Audio: "Housequake" (Live) (group chanting)

VO: Cat Glover was one of several new members who were brought into the fold that winter. There was also a sizable contingent of the new band that had been recruited from the Bay Area — including Prince's protégé Sheila E. and her bandmates Miko Weaver, Boni Boyer and Levi Seacer, Jr.

Levi Seacer: I mean, I have to thank Sheila for a lot of things. I always say Prince is my musical father, and so she would be my musical mother.

VO: That's Levi Seacer, Jr., who played guitar in Sheila E.'s group and would end up playing bass for Prince.

Levi Seacer: Prince was very hands-on with all of his groups, so he would fly out to the Bay Area. So I spent a lot of time with him before I actually got in his band. And sure enough, a year later, I got a call from his secretary, and she goes, "Hold on!" That's how they do it. And the secretary just calls you; there's no, like, "Is your name Levi?"; none of that stuff. "Hold on a second; somebody wants to talk to you."

He said, "Levi, you wanna be in my band?"

I'm like, "Yes."

He said, "But I need you on bass guitar, because you're gonna take Mark Brown's place, and we can talk about you going on guitar later, but right now I need you on bass."

And I said, "Of course."

He said, "Rehearsal is Monday," and it was Friday then.

Andrea Swensson: Hunh. What do you think it was about Sheila and this whole Bay Area band that Prince was drawn to at this time, like, how would you describe musically what you were bringing to the table?

Levi Seacer: If you listen to Prince on guitar, he's influenced by a lot of people, but he has a heavy Carlos Santana influence, you know? He's got the Jimi Hendrix too, but if you listen to Sly Stone, you hear that; and of course, James Brown. And so that whole Bay Area sound was in him just like it was in me. So I think when we connected, he could hear some of that. And I was wondering how he got our sound from the Bay Area in Minneapolis. (laughs) So I think that's what the connection was, yeah.

VO: The rest of the band was made up of musicians from the expanded lineup of The Revolution that had performed with Prince on the Parade Tour, including the dancers Wally Safford and Greg Brooks, horn players Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss, and Prince's longtime keyboardist Matt Fink, who we all know as Dr. Fink.

Matt Fink: Sheila was on the road with us with her band on Purple Rain tour, and some of those people were around; like, if we were playing Oakland or San Francisco all her crew would come. So I was a little bit familiar with them but, yeah that was really interesting — whole different chemistry coming in.

Andrea Swensson: Yeah. What do you remember about some of those early rehearsals with the new members and kind of feeling out this new band?

Matt Fink: Well, I thought they were just great, technically; great players, like The Revolution too, and capable of handling anything Prince could throw at them, you know? 'Course I missed my old bandmates. I was still very in mourning — I'm like in mourning. Seriously! It was bad. But I had to, as they say, "Buck up, kid! Get your ass out there and play the music!" OK, so that's what I did. What can I say?

Audio: "Promise to Be True"

VO: In early 1987, Paisley Park was still under construction and Prince was mostly working out of a nearby warehouse.

Cat Glover: Most of the work we did for Sign 'O' the Times was done at the warehouse. That cover of the whole band? That's at the warehouse.

Levi Seacer: That was a fun place. I really liked that.

Audio: "Promise to Be True" (continues)

Levi Seacer: That space, it was just one word: open. And I mean not — it was literally space — but it was also literally open as far as creativity; like, you felt like anything's on the table; we can try anything. If he didn't like it he'd just say, "Uh-uh, uh-uh, that's not sexy; we're not doing that." And I'm like OK. Everything had to be sexy or not, OK? Just so you know. But it was open. I mean, we might be doing a rehearsal; his dad would pop in; he would go play some pool while we were playing, and then when we'd have lunch he'd play piano for us. It was great; it was great. His mom would come down sometimes. Bonnie Raitt was hanging out with us. So she'd come, and she'd watch our rehearsal, and we didn't know she was coming and Prince was like, "Hey, you wanna sit in with us?" I'm like, "We're getting to play with Bonnie Raitt?" She's like, "Oh, I'd love to!" You didn't know what to expect.

Audio: "I Need a Man"

VO: This is a song Prince wrote for Bonnie Raitt in January 1987, when she and Prince were thinking of collaborating on a project.

Levi Seacer: I haven't had any kind of environment like that since. And I knew that at the time. I said, "You know what? I better take this in, because it's never gonna be like this again."

VO: One of the first things his new band members learned at those rehearsals was how hard Prince worked his band — and how seriously he took his craft.

Levi Seacer: I knew there was a certain level of work, but I didn't know how organized he was, you know, so when I got to Minneapolis the first day of being in his band, he said, "Hey, listen. Thanks for coming guys, but let me tell you something about me. I laugh and I joke and stuff. I'm very serious about this, so if you don't wanna have conflict with me, I need you to do one of two things: So if you're not a genius, I need you to make notes, extensive notes, on all of the things that I give you. Or make a recording so that you can study it later, because it's gonna be a lot of stuff, and after you guys rehearse with me, I have my own rehearsal separate from you," which I had never heard of that from an artist. But he wanted us to play at a level that we were not used to playing at. As far as the work it was like — it reminded me of Berry Gordy when he talked about how he ran Hitsville, you know; it was a machine…

Cat Glover: I remember I was very nervous looking around at all these people, and the rehearsals were crucial. But Prince didn't know how strong I was. I mean, like, I can go all night long. I could just - "Come on! You wanna test me?" - I was a dancer. It was like aerobics to me.

Levi Seacer: Cat was a surprise for all of us. Very few people have the energy that Prince has. She's the only one that I think might've had a little more (laughs). It might be possible. But when you watch the two of them dancing together it's just — it's like nuclear, OK? Even at rehearsal, just dancing hard like it was a show. And so he couldn't watch that and not want to move. I call her "Orange Energy." You know? That was our color then with the orange. But she was orange, like pure orange energy.

VO: Prince had also found a foil in Boni Boyer, a powerhouse vocalist who brought gospel and soul elements to the band's sound — and kept Prince on his toes at rehearsals.

Matt Fink: Yeah, she was a ball of fire, Boni. She was a gregarious soul and very funny, very talented at keyboards and vocals and everything else. She was a lot of fun to be around.

Levi Seacer: Boni. Oh, man, um… First of all, she was incredibly talented. She was very in-the-moment about her playing and singing; like, you would never get the same thing, you know, because she was like, "I'm feeling it this way today," so she'd sing it this way or she'd play something that way. That's a big transition just to go from the Bay Area to Prince's band. And she did it without missing a beat. That's what I liked about her. Boni had some outrageous jokes that I'd have to grab your ears. But it was cool, it was cool. Prince liked her a lot, yeah.

Audio: "Forever in My Life" (featuring live Boni Boyer vocals)

Alan Leeds: Boni Boyer — God rest her soul — was a wonderful keyboard player, a great background singer.

VO: This is Prince's longtime tour manager, Alan Leeds. He oversaw the Sign O' The Times tour.

Alan Leeds: She had a completely different style, brought a different kind of flavor to the band. But one thing was equally attractive — and as far as the guitar, Miko Weaver is an amazing rhythm guitarist. Needless to say, no Prince band is looking for a guitar soloist, so the idea that having a solid rhythm guitar player was what was most important, and Miko more than filled the bill. Once people heard this band and realized what it was, albeit significantly different than The Revolution, you couldn't be angry because it did — like any Prince band, it's going to be rehearsed into the ground. Nobody's going to make mistakes.

VO: At the same time that the band was refining its sound, it was also developing its look. Even Dr. Fink got a new, sleeker set of medical scrubs.

Matt Fink: I went to a more '60s Dr. Kildare vibe, which is exactly how I put it to Prince's wardrobe gal. I said I want to look like Dr. Kildare. He was my hero in the '60s. I wanted to be just like him.

Andrea Swensson: Well, that must've been fun to have a wardrobe person that could whip up whatever you wanted.

Matt Fink: We were spoiled! We were all spoiled by then.

Audio: "Strange Relationship" (1987 Shep Pettibone mix)

VO: All of the photographs that have become synonymous with the look of Sign O' The Times, from the album artwork to the tour merchandise, were captured by Jeff Katz, who had become Prince's primary photographer in this era. Prince and Jeff started working together on a shoot for The Family in 1985, and Jeff took the iconic black-and-white portrait of Prince that appeared on the cover of Parade. Jeff's first time visiting Minnesota was the cover shoot for Sign O' The Times at Prince's rehearsal warehouse.

Jeff Katz: I got a phone call: "Can you come photograph Prince?" No explanation of anything, and I go to the warehouse and he's got the Sign 'O' the Time outfits; everybody does, and you know — he has these iconic symbols — and they're all on the floor and they're all over the place and Sheila was playing drums, and Matt Fink was on piano, and then there were some new players and it was really like this wild Fellini film where things would happen and I would photograph it and more people would come in and then less people would come in, and we'd be on the stage and we'd be here and we'd be there and then — and then it even got to the point where he wanted something more than what was happening there, like visually, and it happened to be a Sunday, and the only thing open, was the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre was putting on a production of Guys and Dolls, so that background is actually the Guys and Dolls backdrop that the dinner theater was doing.

Audio: "Take the "A" Train (live)

Jeff Katz: Karen Krattinger, who worked here, she went out and she found that and she procured that and she assured them nothing would happen and brought it here, and that became like the most iconic element of it.

Karen Krattinger: I ran down with several of the guys to the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, and they showed me a few backdrops, and I said, "That one! That one will work." And we loaded it up and got it back to the soundstage and hung it, and it was — started throwing the band gear around and whatever other little decorations, and it turned out great. It was a big scramble, but things with Prince often were a big scramble. But he had such an amazing group of people working with him that, you know what? Pat myself on the back as being part of that. We always pulled it off. It was something.

VO: As Jeff recalls, even the image on the cover of Sign O' The Times came out of a moment of pure, spontaneous creativity.

Jeff Katz: After like a whole two-day process, he sits down on a box right in front of my lens, and I go, "You know this isn't in focus." He goes, "Just shoot." I said, "Well, it's going to be a very long exposure; it's really dark; I haven't lighted," and it was like 16 seconds, like one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand. So he does it, and he's all out of focus and I go, "Here." He goes, "I love it." And then when he got all the film back, he went right back to that picture where he's out of focus. He said, "Go to Warner Bros and tell them this is the cover." And they thought I was kidding too. I mean, that's what he did. It was something so not-what-you-would-expect, and I just love it.

VO: There was a lot of excitement coursing through the group as they prepared for the Sign O' The Times Tour, but there was a nervousness, too — especially as they prepared to make their live debut at First Avenue, the venue Prince and The Revolution had made famous.

Levi Seacer: Oh, boy, did I feel it. Remember I told you Prince said, "You're gonna be in my band"? I'm like, "Yeah," so I flew out Saturday. So I got a couple of days before Monday. So I said, "Well, let me see the town." So I go out to First Avenue, and when I go in there I'm looking around and I'm like, "Oh, is that Jesse Johnson?" I said, "No, that's just a guy dressed like him. Is that Vanity?" I mean the whole — it was like Halloween! It was like paisley purple Halloween every day so I go to the bar — I don't drink — but I said, "I'll have a Shirley Temple." So I'm sitting there and everybody, all the guys, they're mad. All the musicians. And I'm like - I said, "I better listen in on this, you know" — they're upset because Prince like went outside of his town to get musicians who grew up with him who felt like, "OK, you're disbanding The Revolution. I don't understand why I don't get a shot or try at it, and you'd even listen and you bypassed us and got some strangers? They better be good."

So — after hearing about 30 or 40 minutes, I mean the whole — everybody was talking about: "Wonder what the new band is like?" I just put my hand up and left — I left the bar, and I went back and I said, "Oh, boy, we got it coming." I'm like, "You know what? So what we need to do is do the best that we can, and kind of ease the tensions a little bit because we don't want to have that kind of thing going on in the town."

And it all worked out! You know, after we played the first time and, you know, the musicians came up and they said, "Man, you know what, I was really hating on you guys, but you guys sound pretty good, man, and I think, you know, he picked the right people, and I'm looking forward to hearing all the new music." And I'm like, "Uh-oh! Touchdown."

Audio: "Paisley Park"

VO: At the same time that Prince was transforming his band, he was also inching closer to being able to use his new facilities, Paisley Park — a sprawling complex that was designed to include studios, rehearsal rooms, a massive production soundstage, offices, and a wardrobe department all under one roof. Prince couldn't wait to shift band rehearsals and recording sessions out of the warehouse and into his new space.

Levi Seacer: And he kept telling us about this big complex he was building, and I'm like, "Wow, it's bigger than this?" Because where we were at, it was pretty big, you know, and he's like, "Oh, no, you can't — this is like the Disneyland of studios, man."

Atlanta Bliss: The soundstage there — I was told, and you probably can — you could park a 747 in that thing.

VO: This is trumpet player Atlanta Bliss.

Atlanta Bliss: Instead of going to Los Angeles or going to New York for production rehearsals, OK, well, bands now, they come to Minneapolis. It's not the crazy atmosphere of L.A. or New York, and it's get down to business and you do your tour rehearsals and take care of it.

Eric Leeds: This was his dream, this complex.

VO: This is saxophonist Eric Leeds.

Eric Leeds: It was a white elephant since day one. There was absolutely no economic reason in the world why he should've ever built that place. And all of his business managers and his personal management were telling him, "Are you out of your mind?" From day one, he wanted it: his own private playground. I also think — and this is just speculation — but, you know, a lot has been talked about the fact that the Sign 'O' the Times tour was never played in the States. And instead of doing that, he did the concert film. I have a feeling that a part of his decision was that we were finishing up in Europe just about the time that Paisley was getting ready to open. I think a lot of that decision was based on his excitement to get into the building.

Cat Glover: It was so awesome. We were all excited, and I remember going into studio A. I remember Prince had a little dance room built for me. It was like hardwood floors and mirrors, and the bathrooms were down the hall. We had this rehearsal-area private space, and then the soundstage — ahhh! (Applauds) The studios! (Applauds) We had so much space. Paisley Park was my home. We used to play hide-and-seek. I was so mischievous, I would hide and go way to where the wardrobe is. I knew a private way to get on the roof, which no one did. I used to sneak on top of the roof, crawl onto the pyramid — you know, that pyramid? — and I remember Prince was looking for us to start recording and I'm looking down at everybody going (knocks) and I hear him going, "Where's Cat? Where is Cat? Where is Cat?" Cat was looking at them. Least to say, I got in trouble. It was fun, see, I was like the little tomboy girl. I was just curious about everything at Paisley Park; like, we used to roller skate in there, play basketball, play ping-pong. Wow! It was amazing.

Audio: "Sign O' The Times" (Live)

VO: Coming up next on Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times: The show stopping Sign O' The Times Tour embarks for dates across Europe. You'll hear from fans who were there — including Dutch fans who saw the show Prince and his band played in Utrecht, which is being released for the first time in the Super Deluxe Edition of Sign O' The Times.

jooZt Mattheij: I'm jooZt Mattheij. I am the editor of princevault.com … It was amazing. I was blown away by it. I really realized this is someone special that I should, you know, dedicate my life to almost, musically speaking. And in a way it also spoiled me for live acts now, you know? I don't really go anymore because I saw Prince live many, many times, and I don't care what acts you go to, it's not going to be as good as Prince! I'm sorry, but it's just not.

Credits

Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times is produced by The Current, supported by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, and created in collaboration with The Prince Estate and Warner Records and with their support. This story was written by Andrea Swensson; Anna Weggel is our producer. Thanks to Technical Director Corey Schreppel, Digital Producer Jay Gabler, Radio Production Director Derrick Stevens and Managing Director David Safar.

Thanks also to Trevor Guy, Giancarlo Sciama, Michael Howe and Duane Tudahl. To learn more about The Current, visit thecurrent.org. If you haven't subscribed yet, search for Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, to learn more about Prince, visit Prince.com.

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