×

Prince’s Path to ‘Sign O’ the Times,’ Told by His Musicians, His Fiancee and His Longtime Engineer

Prince 1987
© The Prince Estate | Photographer: Jeff Katz

The starmaking “Purple Rain” may have been Prince’s most commercially successful album, but if fans have to pick a favorite, for many it’s “Sign O’ the Times,” his sprawling, wildly diverse 1987 double album that combines R&B, pop, rock, ballads, gospels across its 80 minutes in a dazzling display of his creativity and imagination.

Yet the album was created amid dramatic personal and professional turmoil — and by the end of the year, when Prince had finished the touring behind the album and was well into his next project, he’d parted ways with the Revolution, the band that rode with him to stardom and became stars in their own right; his fiancée, Susannah Melvoin (twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy); and Susan Rogers, his tireless recording engineer of the previous four years. He’d formed a new group, incorporating several members from the backing band of Sheila E., who postponed her successful, Prince-mentored career as a solo artist to become his fulltime drummer. The new band changed Prince’s sound: It became funkier, jazzier and less rock-oriented, but no less potent. However, it is worth noting that a large percentage of “Sign O’ the Times” was originally recorded with the Revolution — keyboardist Lisa Coleman, guitarist Wendy Melvoin, drummer Bobby Z, bassist Brownmark and keyboardist Matt Fink — although that is not fully reflected in the original album’s credits.

On Friday, Prince’s estate releases a sprawling deluxe edition of “Sign O’ the Times,” including dozens of previously unreleased songs and alternate versions, along with two full concerts that find the new band in full flight — including a DVD of special New Year’s Eve 1987 show, featuring special guest Miles Davis, at Prince’s Paisley Park compound (and which premieres on YouTube tonight, Thursday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m. ET).

Below, Variety speaks with keyboardist-producer Matt Fink, who’d played with Prince since 1979 and was the sole member of the Revolution to remain with him; then-new bassist Levi Seacer Jr., who currently performs with the NPG and recently completed an album with singer Lenny Williams; and Rogers, who is now not only a professor of music production and engineering at Berklee School of Music but also earned a doctoral degree in experimental psychology from McGill University in 2010 — which provided her with some remarkable insights into Prince’s vast creativity and workaholic tendencies. Also included are quotes from our 2019 interview with Susannah Melvoin.

Susan Rogers: Studying psychology helped me understand the experience of working with Prince a lot better. There are a couple of circuits in the brain that are known to be involved in abstract thought and creativity, and for highly creative people, those circuits are a little bit broken. The circuits, which are called the precuneus, function like a gate: They open when we think of a new idea, and because creativity is hard work, the gate slams shut so that we can move from the art stage to the craft stage and actually create that idea, which is a more familiar process.

But for folks who are highly creative, the gate stays open, so the ideas just keep coming and coming and coming — and they have no choice but to get right to it, because craft is always on the heels of art. That helped me to understand why Prince didn’t get any sleep. We’d finish a 24-hour session, he’d leave the room, turn around, come back and ask for fresh [recording] tape. He once said, “I can’t sleep — these [ideas] just keep coming.” That’s not to say everything Prince did was great, but a lot of it was.

Highly creative folks are often socially isolated — they’re very rare birds and they’re lonely because they are so driven. High creativity has a lot in common with schizophrenia.

Susannah 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 wasn’t purposely rude, but there was never smalltalk, ever, ever. He just didn’t have that.

Matt Fink: He never really talked to me directly about what was going on in his head — pretty much ever (laughing), except when he made the decision to do the “Purple Rain” movie. Then he took me aside personally to tell me the plan, asked what my thoughts were and all that. But when it came to any given tour or album, it was just like, “Here’s the record! You know a couple of these songs, go learn ‘em.”

Rogers: We did see the changes coming, a little bit. When I began working with him on “Purple Rain” it was not 100 percent clear that this 25-year-old genius was going to become a superstar. But by the time [1986’s] “Parade” came out, he was older, his work had begun to take on a seriousness, and he had to live up to the reputation he had just forged for himself. So there was more pressure, and that pressure continued to grow for “Sign O’ the Times” because of internal and external changes: He was approaching 30, the music world was changing, the political world was changing, Prince’s band was changing, and his long term relationship with Susannah was coming to a sad and inevitable end. So this isn’t a boy showing off — this is a man telling us who he is. And all of those forces were in play during “Sign O’ the Times.”

Fink: It was a complete shock: I got a call from Bobby saying that he and Wendy and Lisa had been let go, but he thought I would be offered the option to stay. So Prince called me and said, “I would understand if you wanted to leave too. But I don’t necessarily want you to leave, so I’m gonna give you the choice” — it was kinda like a test, “Are you loyal to me or the other bandmembers?” I had no reason to leave, as disappointed as I was that he was disbanding the group. I did my best to convince him not to, but he wouldn’t really go into detail about any of it. There were some underlying issues between him and Wendy that I wasn’t really privy to, and Bobby said it was more about him wanting to work with Sheila.

Rogers: On the day [in October 1986] they announced that the Revolution were splitting, we were at Sunset Sound working on “Housequake,” and I could tell there was something wrong. He was off — he was different, there was a silent wall that was basically saying, “Don’t even ask.” I followed his lead and we soldiered on, but I kept wondering, “When are you going to talk to us? When are you going to write the song that tells what I know you’re feeling?” And he did with that song “Wally” — but he erased it right after we recorded it, because he didn’t want people to know [what he’d said in the original lyrics]. He re-recorded it, but it didn’t have that the same attitude or perspective.

But “Housequake” is a hilarious, funky song.
Rogers: That’s another indicator of just how great a composer he was. [19th century German philosopher/poet] Friedrich Schiller talked about two poles in musical art, the sentimental and the naïve. The naïve is music coming from an untrained place, like people who have learned to play by ear, but as you learn you reach the point that he called the sentimental, meaning you can make music entirely from the neck up: You’re so talented and know your craft so well that you can write about all kinds of emotions without actually feeling them. Prince was so good that he could make music from the neck up, but sometimes he would dig deeper. That’s where we got songs like “Sign O’ the Times” and “The Cross” and “Adore” and “It” and “Forever in My Life” and “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” That’s where he would take that ride in the amusement park of his psyche and tell us a little bit about what that felt like.

Fink: Once the Revolution was behind him, it became much less of a … well, it always felt like a family, but it became much more strictly professional. We would socialize occasionally, but for the most part it was more of an employee-boss relationship. In the early years it was more of a friendship, where you could really confide in one another and talk more seriously, whereas later on there was less and less of that. He kinda separated himself and had a really small inner circle of people he would hang with.

Melvoin: We stayed together for six or eight months after the Revolution split. 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 I packed my stuff and went back to California.

A lot of spiritually themed songs were recorded during the sessions — had Prince become more religious?
Rogers: That happened later, when he became a Jehovah’s Witness. When I knew him, religion was always a theme, and in particular the paradox of the tension he felt between the two poles of love and lust: wanting love but needing lust. Often when he would do songs where he’d get really down and dirty lyrically, he’d follow them up with songs praising God. It always seemed to me that he was trying to atone and ask for redemption and say “I’m sorry!”

Susannah, you cowrote “Starfish and Coffee” with Prince — how did that come about?
Melvoin: I’ve known Cynthia Rose [the main character in 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 [Rogers] said, “Come on down.” She pressed play — and there was “Starfish and Coffee.” He left us there and I did the backing vocals.

Lazy loaded image
Prince Sign O’ the Times band © The Prince Estate | Photographer: Jeff Katz

Levi, how did you end up joining the “Sign O’ the Times” band?
Levi Seacer, Jr.: I had played in bands with Sheila around the Bay Area, but then she went on tour with Marvin Gaye [as a percussionist in 1982], and then hooked up with Prince and started her solo career. I didn’t see her for a couple of years, but she came back to the Bay looking for musicians, asked me to audition and I got the gig. While we were working on her [self-titled 1987 album], I was hanging out a lot with Prince and her at Sunset Sound and he would invite me to sessions where we did some work on a [jazz-ish] project called The Flesh: me, Sheila, Wendy, Lisa, [saxophonist] Eric Leeds and Prince, and we literally recorded for two days straight. That was kind of my apprenticeship with him.

A few months later we were on tour opening up for Lionel Richie, and on the last night Prince flew out because he wanted to talk with Sheila about being in his band — which we didn’t understand at the time because we just did that album, it was doing pretty good, we had some tour dates coming up. But he told me what the plan was, and about a week later I got a call from his secretary, and then I hear Prince saying (imitates him), “Levi, you wanna be in my band?” (laughing) “Yes sir, I want to be in your band.” “Rehearsal’s Monday, I’ll see you then.”

I knew Prince pretty well at that point, but on the first day, he tells the whole band, “Welcome to the band, but let me be straight with you: We’re gonna do two or three songs per day, and if you’re not a genius, write things down, because I hate repeating myself.” We rehearsed for about three months — and the very first day of the “Sign O’ the Times” tour, he changed at least 25 percent of what we had already learned! And then the next day he was like, “Good show last night. On song number three, take out the bridge; song number six, I wrote a new piece for that and it goes like this, ready?” It was like five or six big changes to the show and we had to play them that night — and he did that every day! And he could rearrange any of the songs on the spot. He had these cues — like if he moved his body or click his heels a certain way we’d go into a vamp or take out the bridge. Do you know how hard it is to watch his boots with all those lights flashing?

After awhile you got used to it, but it took a minute, man — it was hard enough just to play your part, sing and dance. When I watch our tapes now, I get nervous, thinking, “Am I gonna hit the part?” (laughing)

Rogers: When the tour reached the Netherlands, Prince decided he wanted to film and record the shows there, and I had just been mugged. Long story short, a man knocked on my hotel room door in Amsterdam pretending to be room service [and forced his way in]. I wasn’t harmed but he ended up being arrested and I had to go to the police station. So I walked into my hotel room after going to the police station and the phone rings and it’s Prince. I thought, “Oh, how sweet, he’s checking to see if I’m okay,” because his assistant had accompanied me to the police station.

Instead, it’s [deep Prince voice], “Susan.” “Yes Prince.” “We’re making a movie, we need a mobile [recording] truck,” blah blah blah. And then he ends the conversation by saying, “And this better be perfect, or heads will roll!” That was what it was like! It’s something I was familiar with and accustomed to and not disappointed by. It kinda serves to say: Here’s what matters. We’re all on this train that’s going really fast and if you’re on it, you’re on it and if you’re not, you’re not. I was okay with that.

Seacer: One time we were getting ready to go onstage and I said, “Hey, good luck tonight.” He looked at me and said, “Don’t ever say that to me.” “Oh, I’m sorry.” “No, let me explain: I don’t believe in luck. It’s not about luck. We’re gonna do a good show because we’re ready. That’s why I did all those intense rehearsals: so we’re always prepared. True funk soldiers, that’s us.

Fink: The tour could have been a lot longer and more successful, but for whatever reason, he and management made the decision to make the movie instead. They felt the album wasn’t doing as well as it should have been, due to not being promoted in a timely fashion before the tour started. There were some issues with that that were kinda brought on by Prince, and I’m not really 100 percent sure why that happened, but they cut the tour short — we were supposed to be in Europe for another month — and then of course they decided not to tour in the U.S., all of which was very disappointing for me personally, so I was bit miffed but everyone had their hands tied by Prince and his whims. That’s just the way it went.

Levi, what was it like playing with Miles Davis at that New Year’s Eve show?
Seacer: When we went to rehearsal we didn’t know that Miles was gonna be there. So we’re at Paisley, kinda sitting around. I’m just fooling around on the piano, and suddenly somebody sits next to me — I turn and it’s Miles Davis! I mean, he’s an icon of icons — just to be in the same room with him? Oh my God. He says, “Yeah, I’m Miles Davis, keep playin’!” He had a mouth like a sailor, so I won’t curse now but just imagine him saying, “Did you know that there’s no wrong notes on the piano? Did you know that??” He’s talking to me like we’ve been knowing each other for ten years. “Uh, I didn’t know that, sir!” And he’s like, “Let me show you, play this,” and he starts playing this really cool stuff on top of what I’m playing. “There, you see how it works? Now keep that lesson, I won’t charge you nothing for it, and I’ll see you onstage later.” “We’re playin’ with you tonight?” (laughter) I mean, how do you take all of that in? Prince was laughing, he was like “Yeah, we got the big dog here tonight!”

Susan, why did you and Prince stop working together? Did it just get to be too much?
Rogers: Yeah, it was headed in that direction, just like the breakup of the Revolution and his breakup with Susannah. It was becoming untenable; the happiness I had once experienced every single day was ebbing. I was out in L.A. doing post-production on the film and I met a guy, and for the first time in four years, I actually went on a date. It should have been no problem because Prince was in Minnesota, but it was a problem because he tried calling me — and for the first time in four years, he couldn’t reach me. He flew to L.A. and told me to meet him at the soundstage. He walked in, made a beeline for me, pointed to a little [recording booth] and said “You and me.” I still remember so much of it, because it was sad and yet it was inevitable. He said “Where were you last night?” and I said “I was out” and he said “I couldn’t reach you” and I said “I know.” And we just stopped, aware that the social contract we’d been living under was a temporary one — I could quit at any time and he could fire me at any time. And I was so good for all those years at not letting him know that I had needs — whatever he needed done was what I agreed to do, but this was a time where I was saying “I might want some life that doesn’t include you,” and he was acknowledging he couldn’t have that. And we both realized it was over. It didn’t end right then but it ended shortly after. It was the right time for us both.

Matt, you played with Prince longer than almost anyone. How did you end up leaving the band?
Fink: After the “Nude” tour in 1990 I had been hired by [Minneapolis-based] K-Tel Records to produce a project. At that point Prince wasn’t keeping me on retainer anymore — in the past, all year ‘round, whether we were touring or not, you were under salary. But I got a call, out of the blue, about a month and a half after the tour ended, and his secretary said we had an opportunity to do the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil. I said, “That sounds cool, but I’m in the middle of a project that just started, I signed a contract, is there any way we could compromise and find a way to make this work?” And I was gonna walk away from it, but I made a special request about something that I won’t go into. His secretary relayed the message and Prince refused that request, and that’s when I made the decision to say no to him for the first time in my life. Prince hired Tommy Elm [a.k.a. Tommy Barbarella] due to my lack of loyalty, so that was how that went down.

Seacer: Everything was moving so quick. Even “Sign O’ the Times,” as great as it is, we were so into our heads about getting our parts right and our steps right and recording and everything, we didn’t have time to take it in. So in the last few years I’ve been able to do that, and I can say — Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” that to me is what “Sign O’ the Times” is for Prince.

Rogers: Put on any Prince song, and try and get into his head and imagine yourself playing those instruments or singing those vocals in real time — and ask yourself, what in hell does it feel like to be able to think and play like that every day? Consider what a rare genius he was, and be appreciative that this world gives us people like that every now and then.

Seacer: I miss that dude. There’ll never be another him, I’m tellin’ you.