Prince: The Story of Sign O' The Times, Episode 8: Can I Play With U?

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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 8
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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.

Prince: Live at Paisley Park Intro "There's a lot of things I could say about '87, pro and con. Mostly pro. But I'm not a speechmaker, so I'll do what I do best. Thank you very much, happy new year."

Audio: "Sign O' The Times" opening guitar work and beat

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.

VO: Welcome to the eighth and final episode of this season! I'm Andrea Swensson; I'm an author and radio host in Minneapolis, and it has been a total honor to ride along on this journey with you as we've taken a deep dive into the making of Prince's iconic album, Sign O' The Times, and all of the vault material that's included on the new, expanded reissue of this album.

For our final episode, we're going to dig into the story behind the video footage that's just been released. In addition to the 63 previously unreleased audio tracks on the Sign O' The Times reissue, fans now have the opportunity to watch the full, remastered, re-edited footage of Prince and his Sign O' The Times band performing at his newly opened complex, Paisley Park. It was on New Year's Eve, 1987. It was the final time Prince would perform the Sign O' The Times Tour stage show before completely shifting his focus to Lovesexy, and it included a fleeting, historic collaboration with the jazz legend Miles Davis in the encore — the only time that the two influential performers ever shared a stage.

Before we hear from Prince's collaborators about that historic night, I wanted to check in with someone who had a hand in reviving this long-lost concert footage and preparing it to be released.

Duane Tudahl: My name is Duane Tudahl and I'm the senior researcher for the Prince estate archives and author of Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions.

VO: Duane works alongside vault archivist Michael Howe on cataloguing Prince's recorded works for the estate.

Andrea Swensson: So is part of your job just sitting in the vault like shrieking with joy at discoveries?

Duane Tudahl: I don't think there's a day I go into the vault that I don't feel such a privilege and honor and respect. And to see the full concert? Well, that's something that hasn't been seen before. I had a lot of people saying, "Probably the first half is just gonna be the audio because I don't think they have video for it." And we did. We found so much great footage of things that we didn't even know — shots of him — because that's what you want to see. You want to see Prince. You want to see him singing. You want to see him happy; you want to see him smiling; you want to see him goofing off with somebody; you want to see his hands playing. That, to me, is probably the coolest thing about this collection.

Prince: "Delirious" Live at Paisley Park

Duane Tudahl: The video for the concert is really something that's historically amazing. It's his first full show at Paisley Park. Now, he had recorded the concert there for the Sign 'O' the Times movie. But that was more a reenactment of that tour. This is the first show he did where he was actually performing for an audience. His mom and dad are in the audience and the critics are in the audience. Jon Bream is in the audience. And it's New Year's Eve, and Miles Davis is there! I mean this doesn't happen very often where you have all these things coming together. He's ending the year with the last Sign 'O' the Times show he'll ever play.

Andrea Swensson: Yeah. That was the first thing I put on when I got all the material.

Duane Tudahl: What'd you think?

Andrea Swensson: Like you said, to see so much detail, and to see a little glimpse into Paisley Park, his shiny new toy that he was showing off to the community — it's just — I've always been fascinated by that.

Duane Tudahl: Paisley Park had just opened up — literally opened up on September 11 of that year and this is him showing it off. This is him saying, "Look at my new toy, look at what I've got, and I wanna give you a little glimpse of where I've made my Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory. This is where I'm making the chocolate."

Audio: "Adore" (Live at Paisley Park, Dec. 31, 1987)

VO: The New Year's Eve 1987 gala at Paisley Park was a benefit for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless. Tickets were $200 per person, and according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "about 400 people dined on a buffet of roast beef, salmon, torte Milanaise, various salads and a stunning array of desserts," and the black-tie audience mingled in a soundstage decorated with peach, purple, and silver balloons.

Karen Krattinger: It was fantastic.

VO: This is Karen Krattinger, who was the general manager of Prince's business PRN Productions, and was Prince's executive assistant. Everyone in Prince's world calls her K2.

Karen Krattinger: That whole event, it was spectacular. It went off incredibly well.

VO: Karen's day-to-day list of duties during this era was dizzying—

Karen Krattinger: Number one, Madonna. "e=4"; I don't know if that meant four tickets for Prince or what…

VO: This is her reading just one half of one page of the notebook where she would furiously scribble down Prince's requests to her in 1987.

Karen Krattinger: I needed Japan gold albums for Eric, Miko, Blistan, Brooks, Wally, Susan Rogers and Jeff Mason. I needed a letter for somebody named — Beckler? I don't remember who that was. I needed MMA tapes, which was Minnesota Music Awards of course. Screens in floor; big TV for Prince's room. Susan Rogers' expenses — limelight. Look video to his sister, Sharon; flowers to Sheila; "have a nice day."

Andrea Swensson: So you were the one sending the flowers.

Karen Krattinger: Oh, I did a little bit of everything.

VO: As the fancy New Year's Eve party at Paisley Park approached, it was Karen who made sure all the little details fell into place. It's worth noting that while Prince would later turn Paisley Park into a vegetarian, alcohol-free venue, that wasn't the situation in the '80s.

Karen Krattinger: Bunch of arbitrary notes — Bernadette, Jill, Lisa and Wendy, Joni. Those must be people we were inviting in. Liquor - five cases plus something white wine, two cases of blush, eight-and-a-half cases of Michelob Light, five-and-a-half cases of Mick, six Bacardis, two Tanquerays, 11 Absoluts … I mean just crazy notes. Glitter — "space glitter" — I don't know what "space glitter" referred to.

You know the staff, we were a machine, and with the cooperation of the town of Chanhassen, which was so small at that time; I mean, Paisley Park was a big deal to the town of Chanhassen, and they were just so wonderful in making sure everything was taken care of on their end. There's so many things that we were just too busy working to really enjoy, but I think a lot of us did have an opportunity to enjoy that, because once everything was in place and it was going on, we all were really kind of enjoying ourselves and being guests for a minute, so it was good.

Cubby Colby: Could I have been wearing a tuxedo?

Andrea Swensson: Oh, I hope so!

Cubby Colby: I have a tuxedo. They bought the crew tuxedos.

VO: This is Rob Colby, who everyone calls Cubby. He was Prince's front-of-house engineer.

Cubby Colby: All the hype and all about Miles Davis and this mysterious… You know, I just knew I needed to have a mic for a trumpet. So I had a mic ready on a stand, or I had a clip-on microphone if that's what he wanted — it was a lot of fun. It didn't feel like work. It was just a great place to have a New Year's Eve celebration was there at Paisley Park.

Audio: "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" (Live at Paisley Park, Dec. 31, 1987)

VO: Although the attendees didn't know about it ahead of time, there was a buzz among Prince's crew that Miles Davis had been invited to attend the party and might make an appearance onstage. Prince and Miles had been circling each other for months, talking about possible collaborations.

Alan Leeds: Of course, Prince was familiar with Miles Davis's classic recordings.

VO: This is Prince's longtime tour manager Alan Leeds. Alan's brother, Eric, was also in Prince's camp as his saxophonist.

Alan Leeds:I think Eric actually turned him on to some of it; maybe Wendy and Lisa because the three of them independently around post-Purple Rain were giving him records of things that he wasn't really familiar with. He was probing. That was the period of vast curiosity on his part. The iconic appeal of Miles was something that really was attractive to Prince. And it so happened that I developed a relationship with Miles's tour director, Gordon Meltzer, and Gordon and I arranged for Miles and Prince to meet. And their first meeting was actually in an airport in LAX where we both just happened to be getting off different flights in the same terminal and bumped into each other in baggage claim.

Andrea Swensson: Wow.

Alan Leeds: And they ended up going out into Miles's limousine and talking for what was probably — seemed like an hour — it was probably 20 minutes — but not long after that Prince invited Miles to Minneapolis. And Miles kept putting it off because he was busy, and they talked about working together and around that same time Miles had left Columbia Records after thirty-some years and had signed with Warner Bros, which of course was the label Prince was on. So now even the label was encouraging the idea of you guys should get together and do something for Miles's first Warner Bros album. Miles wanted Prince to actually produce him. Not necessarily a whole album; maybe a track or two — whatever the party called for; if it worked, you kept going. But his idea was like, "Look it: I will come in the studio, and you tell me what to do."

He just looked at me like I'm crazy, and he says, "Nobody has the right to produce Miles Davis. What would I feel like?" And what he was basically saying is, "I don't want anybody trying to produce me, so why would Miles Davis want somebody to produce him?" He couldn't grasp the concept that Miles would actually want him to do that.

Audio: "Can I Play With U?"

Alan Leeds: So the result is it never happened. And "Can I Play With U?" is, contrary to all these rumors, is the only track that they actually both played on with the purpose of working together but from afar. Prince did the track, sent it to Miles, he went in the studio with a couple of his own musicians, put his trumpet on; I think his keyboard player made a few changes or added some parts. I mean, it was pretty complicated because the tape kept going back and forth, but they were never in the studio together; never, ever.

Audio: "Can I Play With U?" (continues)

Alan Leeds: Now they had gotten to know each other well and Miles had a gig in Minneapolis, and he flew into town a day early at Prince's invite. He was playing the Orpheum, and he came into town and I picked him up at the airport, and we went straight to the warehouse where Prince and the band were rehearsing.

Audio: "Can I Play With U?" (continues)

Atlanta Bliss: So I heard Miles was coming in. So I made a point to be there that day.

VO: Here's trumpet player Atlanta Bliss.

Atlanta Bliss: So I was sitting at the door in the warehouse on like a barstool. And behind me walks Miles Davis, so I didn't see him coming in. Of course, he walks right beside me and he looks up at Prince and Prince is playing a drum track. He's recording a drum track and, it's in the warehouse, so there's a bunch of people milling around and Miles goes up and Prince stops for a minute, and he goes up and shakes his hand, and Prince says, "Well, hang on a second. Let me finish this track." So OK. Well, Miles comes over and he sits right beside me, and this is incredible. What a moment in my life. Miles Davis is sitting next to me. He puts out his hand to me and shake my hand and he says, "My name is Miles Davis." I said, "Well, I'm Atlanta Bliss. I'm Prince's trumpet player." And Miles says, "I like what you played on that last record." Like, Miles Davis liked what I played on the last record! I said, "What record was it? I'm gonna play it again; if it was something good, it was something that you thought you showed me how to play, being my mentor." I didn't go that far in the conversation, but I gave him the respect.

Alan Leeds: He stood and listened; kibbitzed a while. Prince stopped the rehearsal, asked Miles if he wanted to jam; Miles said no, and they ended up shooting pool for a little while and the ended up going off to Prince's house where he had a dinner catered and his father, John Nelson — God rest his soul — Sheila and Eric were the invited guests at this famous dinner. And only Eric should tell you about the dinner.

Eric Leeds: Well, first of all, just as a preface: There's probably no single musician that is more significant for my aspirations as a musician as Miles Davis.

VO: This is Eric Leeds.

Eric Leeds: There's little about Miles Davis's music that I didn't know. I mean, right up here in my record collection I have just about every recording that Miles Davis ever made in his entire career, including dozens and dozens and dozens of private bootleg recordings! My brother and I are collectors, as are many other people. So Prince was not deep into Miles, but certain albums of Miles's that he liked and he liked a lot. And I also was aware of the fact that Miles had expressed in interviews at that time that he considered Prince to be perhaps one of the most significant artists in any kind of music at that time. I remember one specific occasion where I had read a comment of Miles's about Prince, and I made sure that Prince knew, because in the back of my mind there was something — "Wow, what if some day these two guys actually got together to do something?" And my agenda for myself was very clear. If that was going to happen, I was going to make damn well sure I was in the middle of it by hook or crook. They were going to have to physically remove me from whatever space they were going to be in.

VO: The dinner Eric attended with Prince, Miles and Sheila E. was at Prince's Galpin Boulevard home in Chanhassen.

Eric Leeds: It's one of those nights where I really wish that I had had a small personal recording device hidden in my jacket. Someday I may write an essay about that conversation. Miles Davis was one of the funniest people you could ever know. The fascinating thing I will say about it is that you had these two super egos in Miles and Prince. It had this inordinate amount of mutual admiration and respect for each other on a really deep creative musical — you know, there was really things that they looked at each other that they saw themselves. They identified with each other in that manner. Neither one of them was going to give it up to the other. So their relationship and their conversations was always like this dance of the two of them around each other, and if you could look inside their minds, I'm convinced that inside Prince's head he's looking at Miles and saying, "Yeah, you're Miles Davis and you're everything maybe that I could hope to aspire to as an artist, but you're old and I'm the new kid on the block so get the hell out of the way." And I'm looking at Miles and I'm thinking he's looking at Prince and said, "Yeah, you're the next kid on the block, but I'm Miles Davis. Without me, there is no you." It was absolutely hilarious to be around the two of them.

VO: The day of the New Year's Eve show, Prince started cluing in his band on what might transpire that night on the Paisley Park stage. Here's Levi Seacer.

Levi Seacer: Before the concert we didn't really know what was going on. Every now and then Prince would be like, "Yeah, I got a surprise for you all." And after a while we'd say, "It's going to be this or this or this." Nobody expected Miles Davis. So, you know, we're at rehearsal and like, "Whoa, wow, I wonder when he's going to tell us what's going on." Because we were just kind of sitting around, and I'm like doodling on the piano and my spider sense — I said, "Somebody's sitting next to me who I don't know." I turned, and it was Miles Davis. So you have to imagine that. So he's been an icon to every musician on the planet in one way or the other. And he's right next to me and he's talking to me like we been knowing each other 30 years: "Did you know there are no bad keys on the piano? There are no bad notes; did you know that?" And he's using some other colorful words that I can't say right now. And I'm like, "I didn't know that, Miles," and he says, "Keep playing." So he's playing this solo, but to me it sounds a little out of key but he said, "Wait, don't make that face. It's not out of key! I know what I'm doing." I said, "Of course you know what you're doing." And then he was explaining to me how nothing is wrong in music; it just depends on if you let the audience know it. (laughs) He said sometimes he'll play a note that's so irritating to people, he'll play it until they like it. And I'm like, "Oh my god, right?" And then he taught me a few other things, and I'm like, "Well, thank you, sir," and he's like, "Yeah, yeah, I'll see you later onstage." Oh, I'm like, "Oh my god, we're gonna play with Miles Davis." So they needed a deer-in-the-headlights sticker for that show, because if you look really hard, which I'm going to be looking for, our eyes were big, like — we're playing our parts and we're like, "I cannot believe this is happening right now."

Matt Fink: I can't wait to see that again, too, because I haven't seen that in years.

VO: This is Dr. Fink.

Matt Fink: I mean, come on! Who wouldn't want to jam with Miles Davis? I look at it as being along for a big ride with him because, you know, you're just there. You're the side man. You're the guy. We all are. We're around this prolific guy, and then here comes Miles Davis, who was like one of the greatest jazz guys out there. So it was like, "Oh my gosh, it's a meeting of the minds; we're gonna witness this!" You know, just that in itself was a treat. I get a back seat to this, and then I'm going to be asked to actually jam with this guy. Somebody pinch me!

Audio: "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night" (medley)

Atlanta Bliss: I've seen the video and everyone tells me that when he walked up onstage that the smile of my face is like edge-to-edge, you know? (laughs)

Audio: "It's Gonna Be A Beautiful Night" (medley) feat. Miles Davis

Cat Glover: I remember when Miles came onstage, I was like, "This is the best night of my life." To see Miles Davis and to see Prince and the whole band, we were so happy.

Eric Leeds: And while Miles is playing, Prince turned around to the band and threw up his arm to give us one of the signals for the band to hit one of these cues, and no one paid him any attention. It was probably a good thing that nobody did it, because it could've been like a musical train wreck otherwise. But everybody in that band — all we were doing, particularly me and Matt Blistan, you know — all we're doing is looking at Miles and we're laughing because we said, "That's Miles Davis." You understand we're standing on the stage: "That's Miles Davis." And Prince threw up this cue and just after the thought everyone's kind of looking and says, "What?" And Prince got mad. I mean, that was not a reaction — no reaction at all was not exactly what Prince was expecting. And I remember him yelling loud enough that we could hear him over everything that was going onstage, and basically all he said — like, "Hey!" — as if to say, "I'm still paying y'all."

Audio: music continues; Prince is heard yelling "Hey!"

Eric Leeds: I think the band was in hysterics by that point, because we were just like looking at Prince — "Oh, oh, OK fine, let's do that — now can you move out of the way? That's Miles Davis."

Audio: more music, band starts responding with hits

Alan Leeds: What I remember most was Prince basically trying to sabotage him by cuing the band to do all these different impromptu hits and breakdowns that Prince would always do in his jams, but he would be behind Miles and he'd be cuing the band to do these things, and Miles would have no clue because he's not — he's not seeing — you know, Miles was enough of a musician that if he had been watching Prince, he would've expected something like that and rolled with it. But I suspect Prince just intended for Miles to just continue to play through it, but you can where Prince would suddenly cue these stops and breaks and hits, and you can just see Miles is flustered like, "What the hell are you doing?" and Prince is loving it because he had a history of enjoying making it difficult for people who would sit in with him; I mean, particularly in Europe, but on the Purple Rain tour as well. It wasn't unusual to look up and see Ron Wood or Sting and Clapton, who all had a run of coming out on a Prince jam at the end of his show and getting sabotaged. And I'll never forget the time Springsteen came out. Prince would do the same thing to all these guys. He would cue all these things that the band knew, but they didn't know, and would just totally throw them and he loved doing it. And I remember walking him to the dressing room after the one and only time Springsteen sat in, and I could barely hear Prince in my ear because of the crowd noise, but he looked at me — he leaned in my ear, stopped walking for a minute, which was unusual — and leaned in my ear and said, "I told you Springsteen can't play guitar!" You know, it was like, "OK, OK." And of course, that aspect of him didn't change over the years to with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — the famous George Harrison tribute, where Prince just came out and chewed everybody up, threw his guitar in the air and ran off, you know? Everybody else is taking bows and pledging allegiance to George Harrison and his kid who's onstage, and Prince just comes out and wipes the place and disappears, and I'm just like. "OK, nothing's changed."

Prince: "Mr. Miles Davis! Thank you."

Cat Glover: That was like the best until Prince said, "Hey, Miles, isn't it past your bedtime?"

VO: This is Cat Glover.

Cat Glover: And I went, "No you didn't." So I'm like laughing, going, "Oh you're so cold."

Eric Leeds: That moment when Miles sat in with us on that gig for that five or 10 minutes that he was up onstage with us is — and I can say this probably with a degree of certainty that is somewhere between 98% and 99% correct — it is the only time that Miles and Prince were ever in the space together making music in a space.

VO: In the video footage of the concert, the cameras occasionally pan the audience, who are dressed to the nines in tuxedos and glittery gowns. At one point, the camera lingers briefly on the front row, where Prince's father, John Nelson, and mother, Mattie Shaw Baker, are smiling as they watch the show.

Karen Krattinger: I would imagine standing there with his parents — now his dad had been there. I don't recall if his mom had been there before or not. But his dad came with him the first time he came to see what I had done with all the furniture, and I'm peeking out one of those little windows upstairs watching them walk around and look at everything. So John had definitely been there, and I'm sure John had been in the studios with him and maybe even done some recording in there already. But I don't recall Mattie having been there prior, so for her to see that and for him to see his mom realizing what he had actually done — I don't have any children, but I can imagine the pride that both of his parents felt for a long time. Huge accomplishment.

Audio: "Purple Rain/Auld Lang Syne"

Levi Seacer: Oh, man. Yeah, it was just — it's just thousands of moments like that, but I mean that was obviously one of the big ones, yeah. You know that movie Troy? There's a line — it's my favorite line — at the end, the guy who was just under Troy, he said he was proud that he had lived in the day of Achilles. So I often say that. I say, "I'm just lucky that I lived in the time of Prince," because it's just not going to be another one.

Cat Glover: I love Prince. He's always shown me so much respect. He took me under his wing. He took such good care of me on tour. He trusted in everything I said — the moods, what I wanted to do — he would sit next to me and go, "So what do you think right here, Cat? And what do you think right there?"

Alan Leeds: For me, the biggest memory about Sign 'O' the Times, is like, "OK, this guy is a whole lot of things, but one of them is he's a master songwriter." And particularly for those of us who were aware of how many amazing songs never made the albums — back to The Dream Factory, Camille, Crystal Ball and all these different gestations of albums that preceded what Sign 'O' the Times became, and those of us who had heard things like "Room With No Light" and — God forbid — "Power Fantastic," which is one of my favorite Prince recordings to this day. For those of us who heard those songs, we were like, "Oh my god, how can you not release that stuff?" Now, this deluxe edition with this trove of unreleased material, it inflates how amazing Sign 'O' the Times is when you listen to all of these incredible songs — these were rejects! I mean, these were songs that anybody else, it would've been the lead track on their album. If anybody ever had a doubt about how important Prince was as a songwriter/recording artist, to think that this material — what's in the box set — was all produced in a period of a couple, couple-and-a-half years is just beyond imagination.

Levi Seacer: That's the beauty of recording things, because you can always come back and say, "I hear it different now."

Prince: "One more, one more? Louder?"

Levi Seacer: So I think that's going to be what's going to happen with this, too. There's going to be a new audience for Sign 'O' the Times, and then it's going to take them a while to let it sink in, and then they going have their reaction to this, like, "Oh my god, I didn't realize what I was listening to." In the spiritual world, there's no time. There's a couple of songs — oh, "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" — I didn't realize that that was written a long time ago. I didn't know that.

Prince: "Last one, come on."

Levi Seacer: I did not know that. I thought he had wrote that maybe a year before I got in the band. I'm like, "Oh my god." He's got this other version of "Forever in My Life, and I'm like, "Wow." So that just shows you, you know, like I say, in the spiritual world there's no timestamp, which is cool.

Duane Tudahl: Sign 'O' the Times is an amazing project, but I can only imagine what he would've written this year. And that's the saddest thing of all, is Sign O' the Times might've been one of those things we looked back and said yeah, that was a nice appetizer for what he would do in 2020. And the sad thing is there is no way of knowing, so what we have is the ability this year to use his statements and his thoughts and his music to reflect on where we are, and that's what we have right now. We don't have him talking new, but we have him talking stuff that's new to us, and I think that's pretty powerful.

Prince: singing "Auld Lang Syne"

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. And a special thank you to everyone who participated in this 8-episode series about this transformative era: Susannah Melvoin, Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Susan Rogers, Eric Leeds, Matt Blistan, Matt Fink, Mark Brown, Lenny Waronker, Duane Tudahl, Daphne Brooks, Levi Seacer Jr., Coke Johnson, Cat Glover, Alan Leeds, Jeff Katz, Karen Krattinger, LeRoy Bennett, Cubby Colby, jooZt Mattheij, Pascal Comvalius, Roald Bakker, Patrick Jordens, Fred Armisen, and Maya Rudolph.

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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