The writing: “I was amazed at how beautiful it was”
After checking out his pop rivals The Jacksons on their Victory Tour – jetting out to see the siblings perform at Cowboy Stadium in Dallas, Texas, on 14 July – Prince returned to his recording base of Flying Cloud Drive Warehouse, in Eden Prairie, just outside Minneapolis, to continue work on The Family’s album. Coming out of him so effortlessly it was like “a sneeze”, as Susan Rogers put it, the lyrics to Nothing Compares 2 U were written in under an hour, after which Prince tracked the majority of the song in just one recording session with Rogers at the warehouse.
“I was amazed at how beautiful it was,” Rogers told Uptown magazine ten years later. “He took his notebook and he went off to the bedroom, wrote the lyrics very quickly, came back out and sang it, and I was very impressed with it.”
The inspiration: “It’s not like he said: ‘Babe, I wrote this song for you’”
In his posthumously published memoir, The Beautiful Ones, Prince revealed the childhood experiences that would inspire such songs as Nothing Compares 2 U. Describing the “late-night calls and pleas” his mother would make to his father after their separation, and how he and his sister, Tyka, were recruited to ask their dad to come back home, Prince reflected, “I think that’s why I can write such good breakup songs, like Nothing Compares 2 U. I ain’t heard no breakup song like I can write… I have that knowledge.”
Now regarded as one of the best breakup songs of all time, Nothing Compares 2 U came to embrace a range of losses. As well as drawing from his own family troubles, Prince infused the song with some of his feelings about his relationship with Susanah Melvoin. Yet though Melvoin has conceded that Prince “maybe” wrote the song about her, and that “it felt personal” at a time when they were “going through our own thing”, she herself has remained circumspect about claiming Nothing Compares 2 U for herself, telling Charles Waring, of SoulAndJazzAndFunk.com, “It’s not like he said: ‘Babe, I wrote this song for you.’”
Speaking to Rock & Soul magazine shortly after the release of The Family’s album, Jerome Benton, Melvoin’s bandmate in the group, felt that Prince had actually written the song for him, after Benton had broken off an engagement with a girl who wanted him to quit music and move out to Los Angeles. “I was hurting when we broke up,” Benton said, adding that he “used to go to Prince with all my problems, so Prince wrote Nothing Compares 2 U about the way I felt”.
Susan Rogers, however, traced some of Nothing Compares 2 U’s lyrics to an altogether different kind of bereavement. “It’s not a pained, ‘Help me, baby,’ track,” she told The Guardian in 2018, explaining that the emotive lyric “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the back yard/All died when you went away” was a reference to neither Melvoin nor Benton, but to Prince’s long-time housekeeper, Sandy Scipioni, who’d had to leave Prince’s employ when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. “It would have been Sandy who planted those flowers” at Prince’s home, Rogers revealed, before clarifying that “there was no romantic relationship” between the two. To Uptown magazine, she elaborated, “He never used to get very close to his employees, but I know he must have been feeling something for her… I think that he was missing her.”
The Family’s version: “I thought about a girl called Julie, who broke my heart in high school”
Having recorded his guide vocals over a sparse synth soundbed taken at a funereal pace, Prince called upon The Family’s saxophonist, Eric Leeds, to add a solo he initially requested in the style of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band member Clarence Clemons (“I gave him an Eric Leeds solo, and he dug it,” Leeds later told Uptown). When it came time for Susannah Melvoin and Paul Peterson to record their final vocals, both singers knew they had to bring their A-game.
Soon to be seen singing backing vocals on the Purple Rain Tour, and to make her presence felt – as both singer and inspiration – on Prince’s Parade and Sign O’ The Times albums, Melvoin had yet to take the spotlight on any of Prince’s songs. “Usually, my vocals were designed around what he needed me to do,” she told The LAist’s culture show The Frame in 2019, around the release of the Originals compilation album, which featured Prince’s guide version of Nothing Compares 2 U. “And as a background vocalist, you learn to be part of the band – you don’t stand out,” she continued. “This particular song was the first time I really use my voice on a track.”