Prince had many women in his life — friends, lovers, collaborators, band members, recording engineers, managers, publicists, sometimes combinations. And they were often the ones who were closest to him.
In advance of the “Originals” compilation album — available today as a Tidal exclusive, which features Prince’s original versions of his compositions that were made famous by other artists, such as “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “Manic Monday” and “The Glamorous Life” — three key women in his life spoke at length with Variety: Singer/ songwriters Susannah Melvoin (who was also engaged to Prince and worked with him from 1984 through 1988) and Jill Jones (who dated him in the early ‘80s and sang with him from 1980 through 1993), and recording engineer Peggy McCreary, who worked with him from 1981 through 1986. These conversations were ostensibly about the album but wandered into many other topics; each had a unique view of Prince as an artist and as a person, although many of their observations are similar.
Each are strong personalities in their own right: Melvoin, the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy, has worked with Madonna, Roger Waters, Wendy & Lisa and more recently a revived incarnation of the Prince-mentored group The Family, which originally released “Nothing Compares 2 U” in 1985; she is also working on a children’s book and animation project around “Starfish and Coffee,” the 1987 song she co-wrote with Prince. Jones, the step-niece of Motown founder Berry Gordy, toured with Prince, sang on countless recordings, appeared in the “1999” video and “Purple Rain” film and released what many fans feel is the best Prince-protégé album with her self-titled 1987 debut, but has left the music industry. McCreary worked on dozens of albums including ones by Elton John, the Eagles, Earth Wind & Fire, Dan Fogelberg, Ry Cooder and many others.
“Originals” is first available today, on what would have been Prince’s 61st birthday, and will stream exclusively for two weeks on Tidal before its wide release on June 21 on Warner Records, which will follow with deluxe and vinyl editions on July 19. The songs on the 15-track album, all but one of which are previously unreleased, range from tunes he wrote specifically for other artists — particularly the ones for which he was usually an uncredited producer and songwriter, such as The Time, Sheila E., Vanity 6 (which evolved into Apollonia 6) and others — to ones he’d written for himself but never found a place for. See more details on the album here; Variety will publish its review on the date of the wide release.
In the meantime, fans can dig into the intimate and far-reaching observations from Melvoin, Jones and McCreary below, which have been edited for length and clarity. For more, see last year’s birthday tribute — stories from friends and collaborators about Prince’s pranks and wicked sense of humor — and Variety‘s deep archive of articles on him.
McCreary: I think he liked working with women because … you couldn’t have an ego with him. You just created for him, and I think some male egos might have had a problem with that. He wanted things a certain way, and if you did it differently he got upset.
Melvoin: I met Prince when I was 19 years old. Wendy and [Revolution keyboardist Lisa Coleman] and I grew up together and lived together for years. I was working as Geffen Records’ receptionist, right out of high school, and I went up to him at a Warner Bros. party. He was with Vanity — that’s a long story in itself. Shortly after that, Wendy got the gig [as guitarist in the Revolution], and Prince started coming out to L.A. to record. Wendy and Lisa would pick him up at the airport and he’d hang out at this tiny house in West Hollywood we were living in. I had been doing session work and my father got me an audition with Quincy Jones — who was at the peak of his success with Michael Jackson at the time — for this vocal group. I went into the studio and recorded an Aretha song, and I got the gig. One day Wendy and Lisa said “We have to play Prince the demo!” and I was like please don’t — I was with Quincy and it was a really big gig, especially for someone my age. But they played it for him and within hours he said, “You wanna come on tour with us?” “Yes!” So I called Quincy and told him, and he was like “Of course you should do it!” He was so generous and gave me his blessing. And from then on I was with Prince, but working in the background.
McCreary: When I started working with him, it was just a fluke: I was available the weekend that Hollywood Sound called and said, “Our board went down, do you have an engineer and room?” Our receptionist said, “She can’t work alone on a weekend” — there was no staff, it was real deserted. I asked why and she said “He writes really dirty songs!” But he was very respectful, very polite, very quiet — in fact I finally got in his face, “You’ve gotta talk to me! I can’t work like this, you can’t just mumble at me.” I thought “This guy will never work with me again,” but he requested me for “1999.”
Above: Susannah Melvoin (Photo: Steve Parke)
Melvoin: He made it very clear what he wanted from you. His songs to him were like his kids, and anyone he wrote a song for was sort of like a foster parent — he would never just give you a song that he didn’t feel was right for you. It was a big decision. He wouldn’t hand out his music to just anybody.
McCreary: He was unlike anybody I’d ever worked with. Usually, back then, you’d bring the band in, cut the basic tracks, then do overdubs for weeks or months and then mix for weeks or months. But Prince started a song and usually finished it [in one session] — we might revisit it the next day, but rarely. And he was prolific: We would be finishing up a song and he would just stop and you’d think he was taking a break, but then he’d start playing the piano, then move to the drums, and sure enough: “Put up some clean tape.” So I’d pull the faders down and start patching like crazy and start EQ-ing as he’s getting the groove — “Peggy, hurry up!” — and all of a sudden we were into another song. You had to be ready for anything at any time.
Jones: On [“Originals”], I worked on “Manic Monday,” “Baby You’re a Trip,” “100 MPH,” and on “The Glamorous Life” I ghosted underneath the whole song — that’s me and Prince singing. When he and I sang into the same microphone, it was similar because my tone was always really close to his — I was really good at mimicking people, and in some cases they’re going to have a difficult time figuring out who was who because we shared a mic. I’m sure a lot people don’t even know that I or Susannah sang on their records — he’d call one of us in late at night to add a neutral filler that added some high octaves. He should have told them, because people got attitudes later, and I wanted to be like Mariah Carey in “Glitter” and turn around and start singing [to prove it was her]. But I was sworn to secrecy — they thought they had done it.
Melvoin: It’s just me and him on [the “Originals” version of] “Nothing Compares 2 U.” He had a personal assistant named Sandy Ciprioni who’d had a death in the family and had to leave, and he and I were having some problems and I was not there. I think he was feeling a sense of real loss and struggle, and the song was his way of talking about it. I got a call from [engineer Susan Rogers], who said he had just recorded this heartbreaking song and he wanted me to do the vocal with him. What I heard is exactly what you’re hearing [on “Originals”], minus my vocals. The beauty of the song is almost the silence in it — it’s all about his vocal and the empty spaces in the song. It was so extraordinary for him to offer it to me and the band. He could easily have kept it for himself and had a huge hit with it — I knew it wasn’t easy for him to give it up. It was like, “I’m giving you a part of myself.”
Jones: He never wanted to deliver what he could deliver — this is someone who told me, “If you want to write a hit song, write it as if you’re writing to a five year-old.” He said It was boring for him. When he had written “Kiss” and was gonna give it to [Revolution offshoot band] Mazarati, I was there when he decided not to — he put on the Jamie Starr voice and said “They ain’t havin’ this song!” [In its place, he gave them “100 MPH.”] Because he knew, everybody knew [it was a hit]. It was very sing-songy.
McCreary: The [song on “Originals”] that is really special to me is “Manic Monday.” We had worked really late the night before, till 5 or 6 a.m., and he said we’d start again at 6 p.m. So I go home and fall into bed and get a call at like 10 a.m. saying he wants to be in at noon. Are you kidding me? So I drag myself in, not real happy, and he comes struttin’ in, flashes some lyrics in front of my face and said, “I said if I dreamed another verse I was coming in.” I said, “You dream your songs?” “Sometimes!”
Melvoin: Prince wasn’t a great communicator — but when he would record, that was him communicating. I almost feel in some ways that he had Aspberger syndrome, he had this extraordinary ability to focus and also to open up his unconscious mind, to connect to that dream state that Freud and Jung talked about that’s so deep that many of us can’t [access] it. He had that ability, and I don’t even think he knew that he had it; it might be under the spectrum of autism. He wasn’t purposely rude, but there was never smalltalk, ever, ever. He just didn’t have that.
McCreary: There was never a hello or goodbye. Sometimes I’d come in and they’d say “he’s gone” — he’d packed everything up and gone to Minneapolis. He was very spontaneous and he wasn’t communicative. I couldn’t get a title of a song. One time he was playing and I said “Prince, Prince, stop — the record company and the studio need a title” and he said, “What’s your middle name?” “Colleen.” “Okay, it’s called ‘Colleen.’”
Above: Jill Jones (Photo: Katherine Copeland Anderson)
Jones: The song he gave to Sheena Easton, [1984’s “Sugar Walls”] never really fit her. I think she only got it because he was annoyed at Madonna and wanted to dust her off! Prince could be a little bitchy sometimes, like a girl. Don’t get me wrong, I loved him to death, but you had to know he was super, super competitive.
McCreary: He came in one night and said “What do you drink?” and I said “Remy Martin, why?” And he said “Order a bottle of Remy Martin a bottle of Asti Spumanti.” I I never let my guard down in the studio — you did not f— up around him, it was devastating if you did — so I said, “No, Prince, I don’t wanna drink.” “Order it!” So we had a couple of drinks and he went to the piano and started playing and we cut this song that I thought was so beautiful — he kept the beat on the pedal of the piano and he had such a gorgeous vocal range, I just loved listening to him sing. I never heard him hit a sour note, never, ever, ever. I remember being buzzed and thinking “Is this song really as good as I think it is?” And I didn’t hear it again until years later when I found it on a CD of Prince’s B-sides — and it was “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” It’s such a great song. The long version is gonna come out soon, we faded it out.
Melvoin: Currently I’m working on a potential animated series with the Jim Henson Company based on “Starfish and Coffee.” I’ve known Cynthia Rose [the subject of the song] my whole life — she is an autistic musical savant. I had been telling Prince about her for years, and one day we were sitting at the kitchen table and Prince said “Can you write down the story of Cynthia Rose? Everything you remember.” So I sat down and started writing, handed him the piece of paper, he went downstairs and ten hours later Susan said, “Come on down.” She pressed play — and there was “Starfish and Coffee.” He left us there and I did the backing vocals.
McCreary: Sometimes he’d come in with a finished song; sometimes he’d have a cup of coffee and turn on the drum machine and start a song that way; sometimes he’d sit at the piano and write lyrics; sometimes he’d come in with lyrics; sometimes he’d dream them (laughs). You never knew.
Jones: Later on, I think there was more pressure, people wanted more. He was not really materialistic but he bought a Rolls Royce and we went for a ride in L.A. and I said “I feel like I’m in my parents’ car” and he said, “Yeah, kinda, right?” And I was like “Who told you to get this?” By 1989 the music was changing — Bell Biv Devoe and New Jack Swing were in, all these different people started getting in his ear, and I think he got thrown off base about how to stay relevant. All those people were bad for him and kissed his ass. It’s so sad — in my wildest dreams I never would have thought he would have fallen for [the trappings of fame] and be just like everybody else.
McCreary: As hard as it was to work with him, he was such a musical genius. I watched him develop from such a young age. He had such an understanding of music, it was just amazing to watch him. For hours he would just sit and play the piano, and it was so calming watching him, he played so beautifully. It was an honor and a privilege to work with him and know him [to the degree that] I did — but it was hard. It was really hard. There was never a “job well done” or a thank you or anything. I remember we had finished “1999” and a Time album and we were working on something else and I said, “Do you like my work?” And he just looked at me and said “You’re here, aren’t you?”
Melvoin: We stayed together for six or eight months after the Revolution split [in September of 1986]. He was very dependent on me at that time, but he was keeping me away from my sister and Lisa. We went back to Minneapolis, and the seclusion and isolation became way too much for me to bear. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was like the bird in a gilded cage — he would watch my phone calls. I think he really wanted me to himself, but my sister and I always have been each other’s complete family unit, and packed my stuff and went back to California.
Jones: After a while I couldn’t wait to get away. It got annoying to have a man telling me how to dress, and I have a thing about men giving women lyrics — like, what girl would say this? I got tired of being told what to do, especially as a woman, and he got very angry. A couple of labels tried to get me and he turned them down, he wouldn’t take their money [and let her out of her contract with his Paisley Park label]. I basically sat the contract out for three years — I got married and had a baby. He would call periodically and I’d have to sing on something because I had a contract, but it was definitely not that friendly.
McCreary: I didn’t burn any bridges or quit — one day they asked me to do a remote session and I said “I’m sorry but I’m pregnant.” The last time I saw him, my daughter was eight months old and he held her. I asked if I could take a picture and he said no.
Jones: The last time I saw him was in February, 2016 at Vanity’s funeral [Vanity, born Denise Matthews, died of kidney failure due to years of substance abuse]. He had a get-together after his show, he invited me and Apollonia and [Vanity/ Apollonia 6 members] Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie to the show. It had been 30 years or something since he and I really talked to each other in person, except for bits and pieces online. It was great, we were joking around like normal. I always thought that I replaced [Prince’s childhood friend and early bandmate] Andre Cymone in a weird way — not that they were lovers, but the kind of tense friendship, the sibling-esque kind of relationship. He was telling me all this stuff that was going on with him and I was saying we should get together more because we’re all getting a little long in the tooth to be mad at each other for all these years.
Melvoin: We were friends right up until his passing. We were going to work together two weeks before that horrible incident in Moline. [Shortly before his death, Prince passed out on a private plane en route from Atlanta — where he had just performed his final concert — to Minneapolis. The plane made an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois and he was rushed to a nearby hospital.] I got a call from him saying he wanted to write and go into the studio, and I was so… you can imagine how heartbroken I was, in so many ways, that he got … ah, I don’t wanna say any of that. But for years, Wendy and I would go to see him, go to his house. When you love somebody as deeply as we did, yes it’s complicated, but he would always pull me close, me and Wendy and Lisa. I remember going to see him in Vegas and we were talking about twins and he said “You remember my mom was a twin, right?” I’d completely forgotten.
McCreary: He was always Prince. His personality didn’t change from the first time I met him, when he was 23, until much later. When he became the mega mogul and got the bodyguards and the entourage, that attitude came with him, but he was always Prince.