Next Out of Prince’s Vaults: The Hits He Gave Away

Questlove, the drummer for the Roots who has a side career as a D.J. specializing in Prince tracks, is eagerly awaiting the arrival of “Originals,” a collection of 15 demos “the Purple One” made for songs that he gave away to other artists — fascinating rough drafts of genius for a supremely polished musician. But he admitted to having mixed feelings.

He’s pleased that there’s more material in Prince’s vaults than he realized, but sad that one day it’ll be depleted. He’s delighted that people will appreciate the genius of Prince — who died at 57 from an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2016 — anew, but disappointed that it reduces the impact of his own collection of bootlegs. (He can’t blow people’s minds the same way now when he plays Prince’s demo version of “The Glamorous Life,” Sheila E.’s 1984 hit single.)

“I fall really deep in the Prince collector pool, maybe abyss level,” Questlove said in a recent interview. “I’m elated to see what’s under the hood.”

Susannah Melvoin, a singer for the Family, the group that first released “Nothing Compares 2 U,” said Prince’s songs numbered in the thousands and he was consumed with finding the right homes for them. “These songs are like his children — he would say that very often,” she said. “He was the ultimate social worker.”

After they finished the track, Prince visited the band in the studio, and although Hoffs found him “semi-inscrutable,” she said he seemed surprised and pleased that the band had Banglesized his composition. “Manic Monday” became the Bangles’ first pop hit, going all the way to No. 2 — kept from the top only by Prince’s own “Kiss.” Hoffs never saw her benefactor again: “It makes me sad that I never got an opportunity to thank him.”

Most of the songs on “Originals” were written with a specific artist in mind, often a woman. Melvoin was a romantic and creative partner for Prince in this era (and the twin sister of Wendy Melvoin, the guitarist in his band the Revolution). “He has a musical clairvoyance, this ability to project himself into you, as if he were another aspect of your artistic self,” she said, speaking of him in the present tense.

Jill Jones, also musically and romantically involved with Prince during these years, described that skill as a double-edged sword: “On some level that could be great, and on another level it could be disturbing, a little claustrophobic.” As she summarized it: “He thought he could be a better woman than you could.”

To better get in the heads of his collaborators, Prince asked them to keep journals that he could mine for lyrics. Jones already kept a journal — she hid it from Prince, but he found it and busted the lock. “He was a snoop,” she said, and laughed. “I snooped in his too.”

The song he wrote as a result of that bedroom espionage was “Baby, You’re a Trip.” “I was a little taken aback by the lyrics,” Jones said. “This girl, she was so desperate and submissive. I thought I was a lot tougher.”

Listening to these tracks, Questlove said he heard Prince tapping into “his machismo, what we would now call toxic masculinity”; expressing his vulnerability (which Questlove preferred to think of as his humanity rather than his femininity); and “trying to navigate his way to pop stardom and the top of the mountain.”

Questlove added, “Most humans have a duplicitous side — is ‘triplicitous’ a term? Prince is basically three people.”

“Originals” can also be seen through the lens of Prince’s intense productivity and studio culture. “He got pleasure out of his own ability to create in an instant,” Melvoin said. “The endorphin came from allowing the spigot to be constantly running.” That meant he was supremely focused in the studio. “If you weren’t doing what he was doing, it didn’t mean anything to him. Catch up. You’re just trying to chase him,” Melvoin said. She repeated his mantra: “I’m cutting, what are you doing?”

His collaborators got used to late-night phone calls, sometimes summoning them to work at 3 a.m. “Before cellphones, somehow he found us,” Jones said. “You’d go straight to the studio.” That was how she ended up singing backing vocals for “1999” in her pajamas.

Jones said that sessions with Prince could last three days without sleep: “Lots of coffee. He drank coffee too, with a little bit of powdered creamer.” He would also reliably have a bag of Doritos. “He’d crunch really fast and chew really fast, but his hands were so delicate when he’d reach into the bag,” Jones said.

Prince’s studio was emphatically not a party scene, and not occupied by people who couldn’t contribute musically. “If you lacked the talent or the ability, he would shame you out of the studio,” Melvoin remembered. “He could pick up the bass or guitar and say, ‘This is what I need played’ — although almost never would you end up playing those instruments for him.” Almost every note on “Originals” was played by Prince himself — and in some cases, his demo appears to be identical to the released single, except for the vocals.

“You didn’t really know Prince unless you had been in the studio with him,” Jones said. “Those were the best years: living, breathing, eating music.”

Jones and Prince worked on “Baby, You’re a Trip” in the summer of 1982. “Sometimes he had a beat in mind, but this was piano-based,” she said. The track was intended for a Jones album, but got shelved when the “Purple Rain” movie and album geared up, and didn’t come out until five years later, in 1987, on an album that didn’t chart.

“By the time we released the song, the times had changed,” Jones said. “Any time you’re speaking about sex, Prince was always going to rule on edginess, but when you’re talking about emotion and what a woman’s feelings are, we got a little dated.” She ruefully saw how Prince’s proclivity for emotionally vulnerable sex kittens fell out of step with the sassy self-empowerment of women hitmakers like Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul.

Even though the original version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” similarly languished in obscurity on the Family’s 1985 debut album, the song endured: Five years later, Sinead O’Connor’s version topped the charts.

“It was most unusual for him to give you a track that was incredibly personal to him,” Melvoin said. Prince had finished writing the song the night before they recorded it at Sunset Sound. It was inspired both by issues in his relationship with Melvoin and the absence of his personal assistant, Sandy Scipioni, who was taking time off because of the death of her father.

“I had left, and Sandy had left,” Melvoin said. “He was so sensitive to longing and need, if you were his lover and he loved you and you weren’t there, it would compel him to go into the studio because that was the only way he could service those emotions.”

Melvoin didn’t save any physical memorabilia from her time with Prince — but she has the song. “He wasn’t a guy who would pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, don’t go to L.A., I’m going to miss you,’” she said. “He would write ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.’”

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