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The Revolution's Bobby Z. On Prince: 'Very Bold. Very Courageous. Fearless.'

Ron Harris

From 1983 until 1986 The Revolution accompanied Prince on three ground-breaking albums, starting with the multiplatinum Purple Rain (1984) and ending with 1986's Parade, a record that served as the soundtrack to the film Under The Cherry Moon.

The group featured drummer Bobby Z. and keyboardist Matt "Dr." Fink, who'd been with Prince for close to a decade by the time The Revolution's initial run came to an end. Joining them were bassist Brown Mark, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman.

There were a few temporary reunions for The Revolution between 1986 and 2016, but Prince's death in 2016 brought the band together once more. The group will headline Wichita's Riverfest on Saturday, June 9, focusing primarily on material the outfit recorded in the span of three short years.

Interview Highlights

Jedd Beaudoin: You met Prince pretty early on in his career. You worked on scoring industrial films together?

Bobby Z: Chris Moon, who did the original Prince demo, had a studio. He was a photographer. Back then, slides with music was the way that corporations developed presentations, before there was PowerPoint or any of these things. That was how people did it. We were doing some sessions for that and also I was rehearsing at Moon Sound in the back room when Prince was making his demo in Studio A. So the planets all aligned.

Obviously he was not this multi-platinum musician yet but there must have been that talent there from the beginning. Did you have an immediate awareness of it?

I did. I had an immediate awareness of it. It was visual and audio and all the senses. I felt what everybody feels now when they hear the music. I don't know why everybody didn't see it. But of course he refined his image, which became a huge part of his ability to attract people. Music alone is one thing, there's a lot of great musicians but he became so much more than that.

I'm struck by listening to the lyrics to so many of the songs, even the pre-Revolutions stuff, where he's singing about things that needed to be said at the time, "Annie Christian" or "Ronnie Talk To Russia." But I don't know that they were necessarily being said widely. So, in that way I think of him as this really interesting figure to talk about some of those things.

Very bold. Very courageous. Fearless. You look back on it now and of course this music is iconic. But at the time, yeah, The Lord's Prayer in "Controversy"? There were many, many situations where he was pushing the envelope in a way that I don't think anybody did since The Beatles.

Tell me a little bit about the decision to form The Revolution, which is a band that is multicultural at a time when there was still a lot of segregation within the music industry.

There was some models. Sly and The Family Stone, of course. Andy Newmark, great drummer, white drummer, became a friend of mine. There were some groups that were doing it. Certainly Mother's Finest was a super heavy funk rock band, no white people in that. There was models of the sound and the image. But of course The Revolution was completed by two women, Wendy and Lisa, which resembles the Fleetwood Mac model. Prince was a huge fan of that band. There was pieces of this and that.

Rock and roll is made up of pieces of the past and built from that. The Revolution was a model but became unique on its own, I believe because of the film in a lot of ways. It was a unique situation. It was the utopian multicultural people he was talking about in "Paisley Park" and "Uptown" and "Controversy." It was a multi-cultural world for him and it was male/female for him. That's what we represented.

How much of that reflect the world around you in Minneapolis at that time? Or was he trying to create something where he said, "I've had these experiences that don't necessarily reflect this world and I want to show you it's possible"?

He really came out of nowhere in Minneapolis. There was a tremendous New Wave scene but the African-American community in Minneapolis was rather on the smaller side and had some clubs, The Nacirema, which is America spelled backwards. There was a few places like The Flame. There was some great bands in the ‘70s here, Purple Haze was one. There was a lot of amazing music out of the north side that Prince was in the middle of. But he really, on the pop-rock side, came out of nowhere. First Avenue, once he plant the flag there, he never gave it up.

Credit Nancy Bundt

1999 comes out and it's a double studio album in the early 1980s and this becomes successful. At what point does he say, "I'm going to do a movie"? And what's your reaction? "What do you mean, a movie?" or do you say, "Right on, of course. It makes sense"?

After Dirty Mind and the infamous being booed off the stage with the Rolling Stones, there's a gap when he kind of reinvented the wheel. Then there's 1999. When you see the shining purple trench coat in "1999" and those videos, those ‘80s super bright white lighting party videos, "Little Red Corvette," etc., the confidence is there. I think the germ of the idea was started that early with making videos. He had his eye on the prize to use the visual medium in whatever form. It became Purple Rain but he wasn't going to let any medium go: Fashion, music, video, he was just all about all of it.

You were there for the Rolling Stones gig. Tell me a little bit about that. On one hand is there a sense of pride, for lack of a better term in a way because it's a confrontation, you're getting attention. Or was it really awful?

It's funny because we just played the Super Bowl, outside here, last February. It was minus six or something ridiculous. It reminded me of the Rolling Stones in a way. It wasn't just playing an instrument in a concert. It was a feat. It was literally an accomplishment to survive it. That's what the Rolling Stones thing was, it was really just an accomplishment to survive it.

It was a crowd that really didn't quite understand him yet and artist who thought maybe the Rolling Stones' audience would get him a little earlier. I'm sure they all do now. Stones fans are probably big Prince fans. Everybody's a Prince fan. It was just a cross-section of timing, society, what he was wearing, which was basically the Dirty Mind stage wear: Bikini briefs, leg warmers, high heels and a trench coat. He was courageous and brave and thought he could win over 80,000 people at the L.A. Coliseum at two o' clock in the afternoon.

The Stones didn't go on until seven at night, so you know that these people, either the acid's kicking in at two or whatever's happening at two but they want the Stones. As soon as they hear, "Hello," the roar of the crowd, they weren't ready for Prince and maybe Prince wasn't ready for them in some ways. It was a debacle, a physical hurling of objects, which is not something you sign up for when you become a musician.

There is this rapid evolution that's going on. You have Purple Rain and then Around The World In A Day. I remember the distance between them wasn't far on the calendar but it was musically. It was such a shock to me in a way. I heard the second side to Around The World In A Day first. It was this sense of, "Wow! How did we get from there to there?" You're seeing this from the inside. How aware are you that this evolution is so quickly?

Put it this way: Around The World In A Day was in the can before we went on the road for Purple Rain. It shows you that even his brilliant ideas he would just steamroll them one after the other. He was already done and bored with Purple Rain in a way and on to Around The World In A Day before he even set foot on the tour and he became more and more accelerated as time went on, even his own ideas, his brilliant ideas, the next one that he had was better than the last. Let's move on.

You gotta tour and he got stuck there. He was an amazing performer and did an amazing job. I think it was 105 shows on Purple Rain. It probably could have gone on another 105 but he was anxious to get on to the next phase, which was Around The World In A Day.

As a musician this must have been somewhat exciting to be presented with material that covered a range of styles and sounds and moods.

Absolutely. As a drummer I used to love to substitute in Minneapolis. I'd wait for a drummer to get sick and go play a wedding. I was very young, still in high school. The versatility it taught you … You'd be doing a polka one night and R&B the next. Prince as we know could write in any style in any way, any shape, any form. The versatility of rock, funk, having a little jazz.

We also loved to rock on the ‘50s. We used to do songs like "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window." Jerry Lee Lewis stuff. He had classic roots but musically he had a palette that was in incredible. Musically his abilities were all over the place to write and play these instruments in tremendous ways in various styles.

You mentioned the performance side of this and I've heard over the years that it was very important if you were in The Revolution to be doing something all the time. This wasn't a band where you could just stand on stage and stare at your shoes.

There's a famous story when he was rehearsing The Time. Jimmy Jam was playing this very complicated keyboard part and, for some reason, Prince noticed that Jimmy's left or right hand was idle for eight bars or something. Prince looked up and said, "What are you doing with the other hand? Get him a keyboard!" They put another keyboard up to make sure that other hand was busy for that musical passage. If you had four limbs, they better be working.

He definitely believed in the visual element. We rehearsed with video, we practiced in front of mirrors. It does change the way you approach even hitting a snare drum. You're seeing it and you're reminded of it. He was a case study of himself. He would master his own moves with hard work and by watching himself constantly. And that reflected back on us. People seem to revere these performances of Prince and The Revolution and we all know he never stopped being an amazing performer. That's basically the drive he instilled in everybody.

The band continued with the Parade album but that was sort of the end of the line for The Revolution in that period. It's interesting because you were talking earlier about being booed off the stage with the Rolling Stones. By the time this record comes around you can hear the sound of The Revolution being mimicked by other artists, even ones that were more established when you first appeared on the scene. Was that ever strange?

Yeah, at one point I talked to Bruce Springsteen and Max Weinberg about the Linn drum machine. I didn't know it at the time but they were doing "Dancing In The Dark" and they were interested in it. At the end of the day, through the magic of production, they got a kind of machine sound out of Max. He plays a great track.

Everybody was dabbling in the technology he was dabbling in. Yeah, he created a whole genre and people started imitating and going crazy to get that magic in a bottle that he was creating. But it's hard to write songs like that. He was a master songwriter so that made them match the sounds perfectly, which is hard to imitate.

Credit Courtesy photo

Once The Revolution was over did you keep up and keep track because this was a guy who'd been a friend for so long?

When The Revolution was done that was a long journey for me, from the very beginning to Parade and the tour. Having a relationship was always important. How could you not be in awe and be curious about what he was doing? Reciprocally he'd invite me out and I'd check out the New Power Generation I saw the whole filming of Sign O' The Times. We had such as history of growing up and what we had been through together and helping to put this band together. I was so proud of what he became. It was mindboggling and still is, to be honest with you.

You were around when he and Andre Cymone were still playing together. You played with the two of them. What was the chemistry like between them?

I was definitely asking similar questions myself. Those two were super competitive, super talented. Equals. I definitely was just kind of quiet and knew that those two were moving on from all the amazing stuff that had come before: Champagne with Morris Day, Flyte Time. What Prince chose to do, going out of Minneapolis and to the world. This was it. I was the third man there and I knew it.

Musically, it was an incredible experience. Andre's an incredible bass player. These jams that we did are historic, for young kids. It was always the three of us but Andre made it very clear that he was going to have his own career. So did Dez Dickerson (who played guitar in the band from 1979-83). It was the core four and then Matt Fink was someone I brought in. I knew Matt was happy with the job, still is happy with the job.

The original front line was Andre, Dez and Prince. I'm really proud to say that I played behind the greatest front line in rock history, those guys in the beginning. That was, of course, until The Revolution with Wendy and Mark. Another amazing front line.

But that first band with Andre was always not permanent. There was a tension but we were a formidable force. We really did a good job putting that first band together, basically pioneering this thing, being on The Mayflower, making it go. I'll always respect Andre for that. He made his choices, he's had a great career and he's a great friend because the three of us were alone in the desert. There wasn't a lot of people around cheering us on at that point. We definitely felt like pioneers.

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.