Purple Rain stands as the commercial crowning achievement of Prince’s super-voluminous, decades-long discography. Selling over 25 million copies, the album ruled Billboard’s number one spot for 24 straight weeks; the film (starring Prince & the Revolution with protégés Morris Day and Apollonia) featuring its music grossed over $72 million, winning an Oscar for Best Original Song Score; its Top 10 singles included the career-defining “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Purple Rain.” And from November 1984 to April 1985, the Purple Rain Tour blazed through North America, cementing the then 26-year-old Prince’s new position as an undisputed pop superstar.
At the epicenter of the purple rainstorm, rehearsed with the discipline of a James Brown band, stood the Revolution: guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardists Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink, bassist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z. Initially released on videotape back in 1985, Prince and the Revolution: Live brought the power of the Purple Rain Tour live show into the Stranger Things-era living rooms of anyone with a state-of-the-art VCR. Now rescanned, restored and color-corrected—with remixed and remastered audio—Prince and the Revolution: Live wows the world once again on Blu-ray, along with (for the first time) vinyl and CD live albums.
Ex-Revolution muses Wendy & Lisa—a formidable musical duo in their own right (give “Waterfall,” Fruit at the Bottom or Eroica a quick listen)—chop it up with EBONY about Prince & the Revolution’s legendary performance at Syracuse, New York’s Carrier Dome that fateful March 30, 1985 and their relationship with the brilliant musical artist Prince.
EBONY: Questlove tweeted that at least 18 other Purple Rain Tour stops trump Prince and the Revolution: Live. Do you remember an even better show than that Syracuse performance?
Wendy Melvoin: Syracuse is funny because Syracuse was the night before the tour ended. It was the last city before the end. Prince was kinda done with wanting to perform Purple Rain anymore, so we weren’t gonna go to the European territories or take it worldwide. He was tired. He wanted to get onto Around the World in a Day. All these other projects were already done; we were ready to move on to the next thing, and he was tired of performing the movie every night.
We knew Syracuse was gonna be televised worldwide. We couldn’t make any mistakes; we couldn’t stretch things out. In Atlanta, there was much more room to spread out a jam or switch this or that [without] walls of confinement that would dictate TV’s time. Syracuse had its own little stress monster on our shoulders.
But when Lisa and I saw the Syracuse show again after many years, we looked at each other going, “God, we were a great band! We were incredible, wow!” We weren’t super-muso people; it wasn’t about that though. It was about what we were as a unit together. We were a band, and it just felt powerful and beautiful. I don’t really have a favorite [tour stop]. Although San Francisco was pretty damn good, and so was Detroit.
Lisa Coleman: It’s hard to say. Syracuse was a thing we did for a particular reason that was kind of unusual for us. It was like: “OK, we’re gonna do this thing and let’s make it special.” We had a long soundcheck working out details about the show that we would do that night. But I’m sure that other shows in secondary markets were better, more fun and crazy: Greensboro; New Orleans.
Melvoin: Performing Purple Rain at Gallaudet, the deaf college, was incredible because the audience was profoundly deaf. The room we performed in set up all the subwoofers and bass amplifiers underneath the floor so the kids could feel beat and rhythm. Some of them obviously could hear a certain range and stuff. Not everybody was profoundly deaf. But we had about 20 sign language people stationed in the room with spotlights on them so that the kids could see, and they signed the entire show while we were performing! They were insane for it; they loved it! That was a beautiful experience.
How relieved or disappointed were you that the Purple Rain Tour didn’t go international?
Coleman: I think we were restless. We were relieved in a way. We were working right alongside Prince doing all these other things, and I think we were ready [to stop] as well; though, I remember being kinda disappointed. Like, “it would be great to see more of the world and do these things.” But as for the growth of the band and the growth of Prince, it was time to do the next thing.
In rehearsals, was there any mention of the Jacksons’ Victory Tour or Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. Tour going on that year?
Melvoin: I hear what you’re saying, but as far as my experience goes, there was not one word mentioned about anybody [other than an] order to try to kick their ass. Prince was incredibly competitive. So, there was no “Talking Heads just put out their Stop Making Sense movie, let’s figure out what’s cool about that.” All that stuff was going on at the same time, [but] there was no mention of it. Maybe sometimes a mention about Michael Jackson, but only because Prince didn’t really like his music. He appreciated some of it, but he wasn’t really a fan of Michael Jackson. So, there would be little snide comments here and there about the “Bad” song or something like that. But other than that, no.
What’s your favorite post-Revolution Prince album?
Melvoin: I thought Musicology was fantastic, I thought that was a great record. There was so much material out there, and there was always a great two or three tracks that were so funky, so ridiculously off the charts. But he, to me, kind of turned more into sort of a preacher in a way. And on a personal level, I might not have had as much of a connection to that. I was much more private about that kind of stuff, I didn’t really relate as much to it. So, it might’ve distanced me a little bit personally. Not in a bad way—I just didn’t feel the same connection to what he was saying. Musically, I always got it. But when he started talking about certain subjects that I just didn’t have any experience with, I was probably a bit more distanced from it than I would’ve been if I had been more connected to what he was saying.
Do you have a story about performing “Reflection” with Prince on The Tavis Smiley Show in 2004?
Melvoin: That was an interesting time. We were very close at that point. I went to meet with [Prince] the night before the taping, and he said, “I have this song on acoustic.” He sat down and started playing it to me, and I just decided to reharmonize what he was playing, to kind of open up the chords more. I open tuned the guitar and played what he was playing with open tunings. It made for this magical sound that came out of the hotel room. He was just electrified by it and so moved by it.
When we got to the Tavis Smiley set, he was very serious. He didn’t have his rock star persona on at the time. It was a much more serious tone because he was sitting down and talking with Tavis. But then he was singing this song that didn’t have many airs about it. It didn’t have the kind of story that would feel salacious, contrived, put on or seductive. He was talking about his past, and I just remember the connection we had playing together doing that Tavis Smiley thing. I could just feel him. It was a beautiful moment.
Had it been years since you’d spoken?
Melvoin: No, we’d always spoke. The only time we didn’t really speak was the last year and a half of his life, where he just kinda dropped off the face of the planet. So, no one really talked much to him. We always talked about how we wanted to do a Prince & Wendy & Lisa project. It just never happened.
On Wendy & Lisa albums, did you struggle with referencing Prince vs. ignoring the past altogether?
Melvoin: It was such a funny time. We were all communicating to each other through our songs. We were upset that [Prince] disbanded [the Revolution]. We understood why he wanted to move on, and there’s nothing we can do about that. But we were heartbroken because we felt like we were gonna go to another level. After Sign o’ the Times, Dream Factory, Roadhouse Garden and all these projects, it just felt like me and Lisa and him could go even further artistically. I think he was just like, “You know what? I just ain’t feelin’ it.”
Some of our songs became kind of like these conversations to him. It’s funny you should say that, because I listen to it like everybody that was let go of did basically the same thing—everybody communicated through their songs. Prince was really a proud guy, really prideful, and he didn’t wanna let you know that he knew that you were speaking to him. But he would do things like...
Coleman: There was like a screen [at a 1992 Prince & the New Power Generation concert] and it said, “Wendy & Lisa phone home.”
Melvoin: Right, so he would do things like that to us. Over the years, he’d say these little things that would get back to us. “Let’s repair,” “let’s do this again.” And we tried a bazillion times to get him back to do something, but it just never happened.