Prince's Performance Perfectionism
Prince's road managers paint a picture of a musician obsessed with getting his shows right — no matter what. "He was only as demanding on people as he was on himself."
Throughout Prince's career, it was gospel among his touring entourage that when he asked for something — an unheard-of lighting cue, an impromptu 2 a.m. video shoot, a special sound mix — "no" was definitely not an option.
"He always demanded the best," Patrick Whalen, Prince's former production manager, told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday. "He never settled."
When Whalen first starting working for Prince in Minneapolis in 1994 lighting his shows, he innocently told him that an effect he'd requested wasn't possible. Whalen was wholly unprepared for Prince's response.
"He looked me in the eye and said: 'So what you're telling me is that in the one second it took for you to say 'no,' you left your body and exhausted every possibility?'" Whalen waited for perhaps another second before stammering, "I'll get back to you." And found a way to make the effect work. For weeks afterward, whenever Whalen tried to ask Prince a question, no matter how trivial, Prince would snap, 'No.'"
"He used to do stuff like that all the time," said Whalen. "It was embarrassing, but he really made me a better person in the music industry. He gave me my whole work ethic."
Prince took many pages from the James Brown playbook, chief among them keeping his band on an extremely tight leash. While Brown was infamous for fining musicians for bum notes and pulling surprise rehearsals after gigs that he felt weren't up to his standards, Prince eclipsed even "The Hardest Working Man in Show Business" when it came to the demands he placed on the musicians and crew who traveled with him.
Charlie Hernandez, production manager on Prince's New Power Generation Tour in 1993, sketched a typical day in Paris:
— Sound check — 3:30 p.m. Full band, cue to cue, until the building firmly insisted on opening the doors at 6:30.
— Show: 8:30-ish till very often close to midnight.
— Load back line [amplifers, etc.] into small truck, go to club/cabaret that has been advanced, set up, wait. He arrives, plays until ... usually the police would show up at 5 a.m. or so.
— 5 a.m.-11 a.m. Band and boss go to a recording studio that's on hold and ready for the entire time we are in Paris. Record sketches and ideas from the after-show.
— Repeat/repeat/repeat for the entire run and in every city."
"He'd play for two and a half hours, take a 45-minute break, then play at a club until 6 in the morning and do it all over again, day after day," marveled Whalen, who toured with Prince for eight years. "The guy was the ultimate entertainment machine."
After his grueling concerts, Prince would happily woodshed in any venue, of any provenance, particularly one that was beyond the reach of municipal curfew.
Following the 1988 MTV Music Awards, Prince played the Reseda Country Club in the suburbs of Los Angeles from 2 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. It was the first time Nelly Neben, who booked the gig, had seen him perform. Glimpsing him backstage, Neben was struck that, "Here is this man, very petite. But he carried himself like he was six feet tall."
Steve Rennie, a former L.A. concert promoter, was similarly impressed during Prince's four-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum at the height of the mania for Purple Rain.
"I remember watching Prince and his whole gang walking through the long tunnel from the dressing room to the stage and thinking how, even with his heels, he was this tiny guy," Rennie recalled Friday. "And when the lights went off and the show started, that little guy turned into a freaking giant on the stage."
So demanding was Prince that his former road personnel liken their travels with him to tours of duty in the military which, if you survived, granted you entry into an elite corps.
"You really earned your wings," said Whalen, who said he was "devastated" when he heard Prince had died. "You really weren't anybody until you got fired by him." (And, Whalen noted, were usually rehired the next day.)
"All who worked for him were far better at their gig afterwards," added Hernandez. "He was a swirling purple column of pure energy and talent."
— Additional reporting by Saffana Hijaz