“Prince was like nobody I had ever worked with before,” says one of his longtime recording engineers, Peggy McCreary. “He never explained anything to me. You never knew who a song was for until somebody got called in to sing on it.”
McCreary, whose credits also include monolithic albums like Van Halen’s self-titled debut and Toto’s IV, worked with the artist from 1982 to 1987, the peak of his fame. You would think she would have known him well, but she says getting close to him was an impossible task.
“Everybody asks, ‘Well, did he talk to you?’” she says. “Yeah, sometimes. But it wasn’t a normal thing. There was no ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ with him.”
He worked alone much of the time, and she’d have to oversee endless overdubs while he leaped from drums to bass to guitar, acting as a one-man band. He could sometimes be cruel, such as the time he tied bandanas around his forehead and knees and kept her nose to the grindstone because he was in a bad mood, or the time he made her come in on her birthday against her wishes to record an as-yet-unreleased rockabilly song called “You’re All I Want” that he gave her as a gift at the end. Or he could be compassionate, such as when he finally ended an 18-hour session so she could sleep — something he didn’t seem to do much himself.
Once, after ending a session at 6 a.m., he called her four hours later and asked her to come in. “I got up, not happy, got in there and he came in and showed me the lyrics to a song we’d been working on,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I told you if I dreamed another verse, I was coming in.’ And I went, ‘Oh, my God. You dream your songs?’ And he went, ‘Sometimes I do.’”
The song was “Manic Monday.” He cut it in February 1984 with himself on lead vocals and Apollonia 6’s Jill Jones and Brenda Bennett singing backup. It came out in December 1985 as a recording by the Bangles and soared to Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100. At the time the song was a hit, he was only 27 years old and had just become a pop legend thanks to the previous year’s Purple Rain.
Still, he maintained his privacy. “To this day, a lot of people who know the Bangles and that song don’t even connect it to Prince,” the band’s frontwoman, Susanna Hoffs, says. “I’m always struck by that because I thought everyone knew [it was by him]. But he used the name ‘Christopher’ instead of his own. There’s a tremendous generosity in that.”
“He never took credit,” McCreary says. “He didn’t want people to know that he was doing everything. I always thought that was interesting.”
Now a recently released compilation album reveals some of the secrets of how he operated during that pivotal time. Originals contains demo recordings he cut for his protégées and friends — Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, the Time, Sheila E. — songs he offered up to unexpected stars like Kenny Rogers and the odd rough masterpiece (his original “Manic Monday” and “Nothing Compares 2 U”).
The Prince Estate compiled the record as a means to end the artist’s contract with streaming service Tidal, by giving it an exclusive window. (Originals is now available widely.) “There’s not a better way to settle a dispute,” says the Estate’s entertainment advisor, Troy Carter, who worked with Tidal’s Jay-Z on the comp. What they ended up creating was an intimate look into Prince’s private creative process, an examination of his psyche and how he built characters and personae for the singers he worked with.
Susannah Melvoin, Prince’s onetime fiancée and a member of the band the Family says that he looked at his songs as his children, so the ones he offered to other artists had a special meaning to him. “It was like he was fostering out his children to other families to adopt,” she says. “He was like his own musical social worker. This was like, ‘I’m giving you me.’” (At the same time, though, Melvoin also says Prince knew that songwriting was a business and likely gave Kenny Rogers “You’re My Love” while thinking, “Yeah, let’s get some of that big country-music money.”)
In some ways, Prince wrote songs for others simply because he needed a challenge. “He once told me that if you ever want to write a hit song, just act as if you’re writing for five-year-olds,” says Jill Jones, who met Prince in 1980 on the Dirty Mind tour. They hit it off musically and romantically, and she went on to sing on hits like “1999,” backups for Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6, and on her own self-titled solo album, which features several Prince-penned songs. “I asked him if he really could write hits if he wanted to, and he said, ‘Yeah, I just get bored with that.’”
Jones, whose lilting “Baby, You’re a Trip” appears on Originals, remembers Prince becoming bemused with the music business in the early Eighties. Warner Bros. had given him his own imprint, Paisley Park, to develop. But at one point, he realized that he was putting too much attention on the label and that he should leverage himself as a songwriter and compose tunes for people outside of his circle.
“I think he did that to create more of a return on his investment and more revenue streams,” Jones says. “Everything was all in this one basket in a corner [with the record label]. So he started to become more business-savvy. I think some of his choices may have suffered a little, but they had to be done. Like, ‘Jill, you can’t have “Sugar Walls.” We’re going to give it to Sheena Easton because she’s going to go in competition against Madonna.’ I found that song to be such a bizarre fit for Sheena Easton. It just was never convincing to me.”
But regardless of whether he was writing songs for other people for financial gain, this was also a period where Prince was especially creative. McCreary remembers that Prince would often finish recording a song, top to bottom, in a day or two max. “We’d just do it straight through,” she says. “That’s just the way he worked. Totally different than anybody I’d worked with before. He was so prolific. He just had so much music coming out of him at all times.”
His Purple Rain co-star, Apollonia Kotero, recalls that whenever inspiration struck, he just had to roll with it. “He actually called my voicemail at my West Hollywood apartment one afternoon,” she says. “I got home, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s Prince.’ And he started humming the melody of ‘When Doves Cry.’ And I thought to myself, ‘What?’ And then I hear his voice, ‘Don’t erase it.’ Click. The next thing I know, I swear he must’ve picked my locks, because he was standing right behind me. I looked over my shoulder at my apartment, and he was getting my tape. You know how people say that he floats, or he appears? I remember it scared the shit out of me, because he was already there, taking my tape. And I didn’t even have enough time to make a copy.”
When the singers he gave songs to in the Eighties reflect now on how he would give away certain tunes, they see it as an act of generosity. Melvoin was especially moved when she first heard “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The version on Originals is a ballad with heavy-metal guitar and Prince’s aching voice, lamenting a breakup. “It felt like it was a gift,” she says. At the time, she was a member of the Family, which recorded the song in 1985, half a decade before Sinéad O’Connor made it a global Number One hit. But the song chronicled a fragile time in his relationship with Melvoin, so it was especially poignant for her. “It is something that was clearly defined by the inner world of Prince, and he was giving that to us to sing, and he was giving it to me to do the background vocals,” she says. “I was emotionally moved by it, and I was honored. I wanted to do it right.”
Prince wrote the song at a time when Melvoin had left for Los Angeles. At the same time, the artist’s assistant, Sandy Scipioni, also left him to tend to a death in her family. “He was very, very, very upset,” Melvoin recalls. “He asked Susan Rogers, who was his engineer for many years, ‘Roll tape. I’ve got to write.’ And he went in and wrote this song. It was an indication of his yearning and wanting. I had left, and he didn’t, so yeah … ” Her thought trails off.
Sometimes the singers didn’t always appreciate being considered Prince’s muses. Jones remembers being taken aback by “Baby, You’re a Trip.” The version on Originals is a smooth R&B number that’s a bit more stripped-back than Jones’ version; when she recorded it, though, she matched his melodies right down to the closing cadenza. She used to tease him by calling him “Mr. Svengali” because of the way he would create personae for the singers he wrote for. “I always used to kid him about that, like, ‘Don’t Svengali me today,’” she says. “When I heard the song I said, ‘Oh, my God. This is how either he sees me or how he wants to see me.’”
The stanza that shocked her most goes, “I know what people think/They think I’m a starstruck little fool/Baby, you could be flat broke/I’d still be crazy for you.” “I know he had at one point borrowed some of my journals and snooped through things in my house and had little bits of information, but I didn’t know he would make me the ‘starstruck little fool.’ Those lyrics were a lot. But he did take a lot about my persona into account, and I thought that was kind of sweet, but a little hard to look at.” She remembers telling him, “That ego of yours is too much,” but went ahead and sung it anyway.
“I wasn’t starstruck,” she says. “When I first met him, I told him I was mad because our stage was too small.”
Kotero, however, was happy for Prince to cast her in the role of his choosing. She was already a model and an actress when she entered Prince’s orbit as a replacement for the overtly provocative singer Vanity in Purple Rain. She discovered her character fully formed in the pages of the movie script, and she embraced it. When she answers the phone for Rolling Stone, she jokes that she is “the contemporary sex shooter,” referring to the sultry, synthy song “Sex Shooter,” which she sang in the movie; the song is also featured on Originals. The music on Prince’s demo is nearly identical to the one she recorded; it just has a thinner sounding synths and Prince singing about being a sex slave in a falsetto.
“I first heard the recording with Prince’s vocal,” she says. “I still have the cassette. I just thought the song was wild. It sounded sexy. I remember thinking, ‘Why would you remove your vocals?’ I knew it was for Vanity, but I was a huge fan of [Vanity 6’s] ‘Nasty Girl.’ I used to dance to that in clubs here in L.A. So it was exciting. I was like, ‘Wow, what the hell does a “sex shooter” mean?’”
She’s quick to say that she and Prince never dated but that they became close friends while making Purple Rain. She felt comfortable enough with him to tell him that instead of leaving voicemails of his songs on her answering machine, he could instead get a voice-activated tape recorder like she’d heard Stevie Wonder used. “He just gave me this dirty look,” she says. They’d sometimes pull “vicious pranks” on each other, and he would steal her outfits. “I had to stash my clothes, cosmetics and perfumes, because he’d rip me off,” she says. “He didn’t even ask to borrow them. The next thing I knew, I’d see him onstage, and I’m like, ‘So that’s where my gloves went.’”
He and Purple Rain’s director and screenplay cowriter, Al Magnoli, also gave her clear direction for who the Apollonia character was. “It was a complete opposite, night and day, from Vanity,” she says. “I knew I wouldn’t be stepping into these high boots; I wanted to step into stilettos and give it more of a sensual perspective, more mystery. When we were rehearsing the dance movements, Prince would come in and say, ‘Make sure you toss your hair, swish it around.’”
When the song came out, the record said the track was written by Apollonia 6. “I was like, ‘Well, what does that mean?’” she recalls asking. “He just rolled his eyes and walked away like he always did. I was just, ‘Oh, OK.’” Now, she’s happy for her association with Prince and that song. “It will be my epitaph,” she says. “‘Here lies Apollonia Kotero, Sex Shooter Extraordinaire.’”
Another song Prince wrote with Apollonia 6 in mind was “Manic Monday.” The Originals take has dreamier synths than the Bangles hit, as well as a more psychedelic bridge that plays up the female backup singers’ operatic vocals. It was supposed to be on the Apollonia 6 album, which came out in October 1984, and Kotero had even cut a version of the song with Prince. “I wanted to put steel guitar on it,” she remembers, “because for me it always sounded country and western.” But he ended up taking it off the track list. The Bangles’ version came out a year and a half later. Kotero says she can take partial credit for that switch.
“I was friends with Susanna Hoffs, so I gave Prince the tape of the Bangles’ ‘Hero Takes a Fall,’” she says. “I said, ‘These girls, they’re amazing. They sound like the Beatles. You’ve got to do something with them.’ He says, ‘What about “Manic Monday”?’ I said, ‘Let them take it. They’re amazing.’”
“Wow, I must thank her,” Hoffs says when she hears that story today. “She’s such a warm human. That’s so nice to know that.”
Hoffs remembers Prince becoming enamored with the Bangles’ “Hero Takes a Fall” and eventually joining them onstage and played a guitar solo on the song at one of their concerts. Later, he got word to them that he had a song for them. Hoffs went to the studio he was at to hear it, hoping they’d meet, but instead found a cassette with “Manic Monday” on it waiting for her with no Prince to be seen. (She recently found and digitized the tape, which also listed another track, “Jealous Girl,” but she couldn’t find when she listened to it.) “We listened to ‘Manic Monday,’ and it was an instant fit,” Hoffs recalls. “The minute I started singing it, I was like, ‘Oh, this is such an incredible song.’”
What strikes her about the song now is how broad its subject matter is. “It’s so relatable,” she says. “It’s the story of just facing Mondays, one after the other, each week, knowing you have to go to work. He really tapped into something. It’s a really universal theme.”
When they cut the track, they ditched his instrumentation and built it from the ground up, making it a Bangles recording, and they were relieved when Prince said he liked it. They stayed in touch and Prince continued to join them onstage when he could. Hoffs fondly remembers a gig at San Francisco’s Warfield and a jam at Sunset Sound studio that went until three in the morning. “He just wanted to play Bangles songs,” she recalls. “And he knew them all.”
As Prince became more ambitious and his priorities changed, he ended up losing touch with a lot of his early-Eighties inner circle. Kotero wanted to continue her acting career and refused to move to Minneapolis, where he was setting up a home studio. He took so long building his Paisley Park studio that McCreary and her husband at the time bought a house in L.A. instead of moving to Minneapolis. (She was happy to hear later, though, that the only mixing board that was still working at Paisley Park was the one she helped design for him.) Melvoin and he ended their relationship, and similarly Jones wanted to “not be in a relationship with him so much anymore” and distanced herself.
“It was in the time around when he made Graffiti Bridge,” Jones says, referring to the infamous 1990 flop sequel to Purple Rain. “There was a really weird energy. Our relationship had just become really dysfunctional and toxic. I had been traveling all over the world, living in London and Paris and I came back a totally new girl. And all the music was, like, New Jack Swing, which was cool or whatever for Bell Biv DeVoe, but I couldn’t see it for Prince. I just wasn’t convinced to be there. It just wasn’t going to work.”
At the time, she was working on a new album for him and even made a video for “Boom Boom.” But she knew it was over. “I asked to be let go and he wouldn’t let me leave,” she says. “So I went away and met somebody, got married and had a baby and waited until the contract expired.”
Despite the lack of success for Graffiti Bridge, which Kotero turned down because she said the script was “poop,” Prince continued to make hits for himself and others. Tevin Campbell, who appeared in Graffiti Bridge, scored his first hit in 1990 with “Round and Round,” which Prince wrote; the demo is not on Originals. And he penned a Top 10 single for adult-contemporary singer Martika, “Love … Thy Will Be Done,” a demo for which does appear on Originals. It’s the only Nineties song to make the cut, mostly because it was one that Jay-Z, who owns Tidal, insisted make the cut. Carter says Prince’s version here, which sounds almost identical to Martika’s, save Prince’s falsetto, is one of his favorites even though it was difficult to locate. “That was a needle in a haystack,” he says. “We didn’t think we were going to be able to find the version, but we pulled it off.”
In later years, Prince would continue to write songs for his protégées and give the occasional tune to a superstar. He wrote an album’s worth of songs for Mavis Staples, which became 1993’s The Voice, and penned “With This Tear” for Celine Dion that same year. He also contributed songs or cowrote tracks on releases by Paula Abdul, Joe Cocker, George Clinton, and Janelle Monáe, among others, up through his 2016 death. (Carter says the estate hasn’t decided yet on future volume of Originals, instead wanting to gauge the reaction to this one.)
In the year or so leading up to his passing, Prince seemed nostalgic. When Vanity died in February 2016, he eulogized her at one of his Piano & a Microphone concerts, explaining that she had inspired Purple Rain’s “The Beautiful Ones.” It was unusual, but it showed how he was starting to come full circle with some of the recordings he’d made nearly 40 years ago.
“I remember him saying, ‘I’m not a reminiscent kind of guy. I don’t talk of the past, and I don’t reflect,’” Melvoin says. “But I knew him well and I felt he was incredibly self-reflective. Towards the end, he was communicating with the audience more, telling stories about his past and connecting the dots. He was letting people know why he wrote certain song and who they were about. He was becoming more and more self-reflective, and that could’ve been based on the physical pain he was in. It’s when you’re in so much fucking pain that you’re like, ‘I don’t know how much more of this I can take,’ and you start thinking about mortality and life. He probably had a lot of that going on.”
Kotero recalls hearing from Prince around the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain and finding that he was not only in a reflective mood, wanting to celebrate what they had made, but had an eye toward working together again. She even remembers the exact date they reconnected: June 28th, 2014. “He wanted to do a sequel; he wanted to do more Apollonia 6 music,” she says. “There’s a house album, dance music, in the vault that he said he had ready for me. He asked if I wanted to get with the other girls again, and I was like, ‘Let’s do this.’ He had plans and for, like, two years, he was just burning up my phone and sending emails. He’d call at three in the morning, ‘What are you doing?’ I go, ‘What the hell do you think I’m doing? I’m sleeping.’ But he had his creative juices at four or five in the morning.” Prince told her he also had solo music for her outside of the Apollonia 6 stuff. “I felt like Charlie Bucket,” she says, referring to the boy who finds Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.
The last time she saw Prince was at Vanity’s memorial in February 2016, and she feels she understands why he was maybe a bit more self-reflective then. “He was getting older,” she says. “I believe he was no longer a Jehovah’s Witness. He was not entertaining that anymore. He was looking at his mortality and he was righting all his wrongs. He talked to me about his celibacy. We talked a lot about our families, life, our parents and our marriages. We just really bonded.
“I gave him a little crown that I bought at Kensington Palace that had a ruby, a diamond, an emerald, and a sapphire in it, and I handed it to him at Paisley Park,” she continues. “I said, ‘I know we all call you Prince, but to me, you’re a king.’ And he gave me a kiss on my cheek. We both got choked up. He said, ‘I wrote a song about us,’ and it was beautiful. For me, it felt like a sequel. We never dated, but I looked at him differently. He serenaded me. He sang all of our songs, and it was just wonderful. He was very happy. He wanted to live. He was getting back his masters, and he was getting his finances. I’ve never seen him more happy.”
Two months later, Prince died of an accidental fentanyl overdose.
If Prince were alive, it’s doubtful he’d ever release a compilation like Originals; the songs are just so raw, especially when he’s singing lyrics he wrote for Vanity and Sheila E. But it’s also unlikely he would have known where to start.
It was the discovery of the artist’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” demo inspired Carter to look for more original versions of Prince’s songs. But it became a difficult prospect since Prince recorded on “every imaginable format you can think of,” from tape to digital. Moreover, as McCreary learned early on, Prince wasn’t good at keeping records. “Certain things may have a different label on it, or a song may have had a different title in the very beginning, so you have to listen through everything,” Carter says. “You have to listen to a lot before you find exactly what you may be looking for.”
Carter laughs when asked if his staff has listened to everything yet. “It’ll be a long time before we listen through everything,” he says. “He recorded pretty much all of his concerts. I don’t know how much we’ve gone though, but it’s a lot.”
He’s also tight-lipped about the estate’s plans. Originals and Prince’s upcoming unfinished memoir, due in the fall, are the two priorities right now. For most questions about the future, his answer is that they’re just not at that point yet or that he can’t talk about anything specific. (What are the holy grails you’re still looking for? “I cannot share that.”) That’s especially true when asked about the status of the albums by Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, Jill Jones, and Mazarati, all of which were Paisley Park releases that have gone out of print and are not available on streaming services. The fact that they’re unavailable seems especially glaring since the point of an album like Originals is to compare Prince’s own takes on the songs to the commercially released versions.
“We’re trying to work something out for the Apollonia 6 album to come out,” Kotero says. “We want to do it for the fans, and we want to do it for Prince.” But for now, Carter just says, “We haven’t gotten there yet.”
What he hopes Prince fans can take away from Originals is the way the artist would workshop his songs to perfection, and he uses Malcolm Gladwell’s oft-cited 10,000-hour rule as a barometer. “People talk about the 10,000 hours, but this is 100,000 hours and just every single day working on his craft,” Carter says. “While other people were out there doing endorsement deals and all these other things, his sole focus was always on the art. So you get a sneak peek into the process. It’s inspiring.”
Kotero is especially grateful for the hours she spent with Prince. “He could be a tyrant, and then he could be an absolute angel,” she says. “But he only wanted to get the best out of you.”
“When I looked at all the tracks [on Originals] in sequence, it’s ‘Sex Shooter,’ ‘Jungle Love,’ ‘Manic Monday’ … I was there for every single one of them,” Melvoin says. “I remember saying, ‘Is this going on the next record?’ And he’s like, ‘No, this is going for Sheila,’ or the Bangles. And I’d be like, ‘Oh, I can completely hear it.’ So as somebody who was there, seeing it in this sequence, I’m in utter awe of the ability. The creative lifeline that he had was otherworldly.”
“I always say that when God created Prince, he composed the most perfect song,” Kotero says. “And for me, it’s forever. You don’t mend this broken heart. It’s forever broken. He was part of my life, my family, my friend, and you don’t get over this. He’s just lost forever.”