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When Prince Debuted ‘Purple Rain’ At First Avenue: The Full Story
Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

When Prince Debuted ‘Purple Rain’ At First Avenue: The Full Story

During a benefit concert held at Minneapolis’ First Avenue, on 3 August 1983, Prince debuted many of his career-making ‘Purple Rain’ songs.


Many musicians are tremendous live performers. And many of those have staged tours or concerts that are now recognised as turning points in their careers. But only a select few have performed a single show that has truly changed the world. Dylan “going electric” at Newport Folk Festival, 1965, is one. David Bowie “retiring” Ziggy Stardust live on stage in 1973 is another. And then there’s Prince’s benefit show at Minneapolis’ First Avenue, on 3 August 1983. Not only did it mark the public debut of many yet-to-be-released songs from the Purple Rain album – in the first-ever performance by the band that would soon be known worldwide as The Revolution – it also provided a crucial reference point for much of the Purple Rain movie itself. Some of that night’s recordings would even end up on the soundtrack album, taking their place among the best Prince songs of all time.

As far as pop culture is concerned, history-making moments rarely come bigger than this. Here, then, is the full story behind Prince’s Purple Rain debut, at First Avenue, Minneapolis, on 3 August 1983.

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The backstory: “He was constantly on output”

In May 1983, Prince began preparations for his most ambitious undertaking yet. Barely a month had passed since he’d wrapped the tour for his landmark fourth album, 1999, and yet he had already set up base in a former pet-food warehouse in Minneapolis’ St Louis Park, recording new music and running his band through rehearsals for a project that would encompass not only an album, but also a feature film, and a further two albums that Prince would record and oversee completion of for his side-project bands – and silver-screen co-stars – The Time and Vanity 6.

“He was constantly on output,” Susan Rogers told this author for the book Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. Joining Prince’s entourage in August, Rogers, who would be one of Prince’s key sound engineers from the Purple Rain era through to Sign O’ The Times, was immediately tasked with setting up recording equipment in the warehouse, where she would tape the jams, new ideas and fully fledged performances that Prince would whittle down into the songs that appeared in the Purple Rain movie and on its companion album. Rarely pausing for breaks, let alone sleep, Prince was making a relentless bid to place himself at the head of the best 80s musicians.

The rehearsals: “We were a bunch of goofballs going into a dance class with trench coats on”

Purple Rain’s opening song, Let’s Go Crazy, was done “top to bottom” this way, Rogers said, Prince giving his band the basic structure and allowing them to come up with their own parts. “He loved that,” Rogers recalled. “He would spend so much time with his band, pulling their ideas. He was a great bandleader.”

After group sessions, Prince would continue to record at his own home studio, laying down more songs – The Beautiful Ones, Computer Blue – while playing everything himself, beginning with the drums, then adding bass and other instruments as required, until the song was ready for his vocals. “No headphones. He’s playing the breaks and the fills. He’s playing the whole thing!” Rodgers marvelled. “It’s so frickin’ awesome. He was a young man in the full bloom of his artistry and his success… And it wasn’t uncommon for him at four or five o’clock in the morning to put up fresh tape and go around again.”

Filling whatever hours were left in the day, Prince’s band, plus the members of The Time and Vanity 6, were called to attend acting and dance classes at the warehouse, as a teacher from the local Minnesota Dance Theater gave everyone a crash course in the essentials, ahead of filming Purple Rain in November. “It could have been a movie in itself,” Lisa Coleman, Prince’s keyboardist, said in Lives Of The Musicians: Prince. “We were a bunch of goofballs going into a dance class with trench coats on and jumping through the air.”

Continuing at a gruelling pace throughout the spring and early summer, the hard work would begin to reap rewards when Prince staged a fundraising concert in Minneapolis. Billed as “A special benefit for the MN Dance Theater”, the show, booked for 3 August 1983, would be held at First Avenue, a local venue where DJs spun funk tunes on Thursday nights, and where Prince – who would often attend as a punter letting off steam on the dancefloor – often brought newly recorded songs to trial run on unsuspecting crowds. Soon to become an indelible part of Prince’s story, the venue was the perfect place for him to debut not only some of his new music, but also his new-look band, which included a fresh-faced guitarist who was about to undergo trial by fire.

Forming The Revolution: “She’s funky as hell, plus she can play like Joni Mitchell”

Dez Dickerson had been part of the group since the release of Prince’s self-titled second album, and he remained Prince’s guitar foil through the Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999 eras – even being trusted to come up with the evocative guitar solo on Prince’s hit song Little Red Corvette. Yet by the time work began on Purple Rain, Dickerson was ready to strike out on his own. Happy to support his friend, Prince would give Dickerson’s band, The Modernaires, a cameo in the movie, during which they, too, appeared on the First Avenue stage, playing Dickerson’s original song (I Want 2 B A) Modernaire.

Prince didn’t need to look far to find Dickerson’s replacement. Just out of high school, 19-year-old Wendy Melvoin, a childhood friend and, at the time, girlfriend of Lisa Coleman, had been travelling with Coleman on the 1999 Tour. After Prince heard Melvoin playing guitar in Coleman’s hotel room he asked her to sit in on soundchecks whenever Dickerson was absent. “All of a sudden, this little girl comes in and she’s funky as hell, plus she can play like Joni Mitchell,” Coleman told this author of Melvoin’s appeal. Realising Melvoin could be a female Keith Richards to his Mick Jagger, Prince, Coleman remembers, “was just like, ‘I’ve got my answer.’”

Yet despite months of rehearsal, when it came time to making her stage debut as part of what would soon be christened The Revolution, Melvoin was a self-confessed “nervous wreck”. “I was well prepared musically,” she recalled in an oral history compiled for the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Jon Bream and Chris Riemenschneider, in 2004. “But I felt like I had to fill Dez’s shoes. People would be looking at me, ‘Who’s this young white chick that replaced this cool crazy-looking Black guy on guitar?”

In the event, Melvoin needn’t have worried.

The First Avenue concert: “It was super intense and dark and sweaty”

“We were so well rehearsed that any opening-night jitters melted away after the first song was played,” Prince’s keyboardist Matt “Dr” Fink asserted years later. Soon to be heard blaring from cars, homes and clubs, the churchy organ sound that opens Purple Rain was the first thing the sell-out crowd at Minneapolis’ First Avenue club heard on 3 August 1983, ringing out in the darkness until Prince introduced his new music and his new band, lifting the curtain on a whole new era with the words “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life”.

Perfectly coiffured, wearing a high-necked shirt under a metallic jacket, Prince ripped power chords out of his famed Hohner guitar, delivering the previously unheard Let’s Go Crazy as if it were already the stadium anthem it would soon become. With Melvoin sidling up to him in a white lacy minidress for the barrage of riffs that close the song, it was clear that much of the choreography that would be immortalised in the Purple Rain film was already in place in Prince’s live show.

Barely giving the Minneapolis faithful time to breathe, the Dirty Mind album favourite When You Were offered a reminder of Prince’s homegrown punk-funk days, before he paid homage to his longtime influence Joni Mitchell, with his first-ever live performance of A Case Of You, the Blue album standout that would make appearances in Prince’s setlists right through to his final tour, Piano & A Microphone. The remainder of the First Avenue set consisted of nothing but new songs – including the sensual ballad Electric Intercourse, whose studio version wouldn’t be released until 2017, when it featured on the expanded deluxe edition of Purple Rain – intercut with 1999 album highlights (Delirious, Automatic, Little Red Corvette, D.M.S.R.) to give the reported 1,200 audience members something familiar to hold onto as Prince blazed through his set.

Not that fans weren’t gripped by the full display of Prince’s funk-rock prowess on Computer Blue, or the back-to-back adrenaline rushes of I Would Die 4 U and Baby I’m A Star, the performances of which Prince deemed so good their recordings were included on the Purple Rain album, with minimal overdubs. As Matt Fink later noted, his contributions to Baby I’m A Star would become part of Prince lore as soon as Purple Rain opened in cinemas the following summer: “I came up with that solo live at the First Avenue gig,” he told Vibe magazine in 2014. “Baby I’m A Star sounds like this big grinding orchestra with all these cool interludes and that James Brown energy. And hearing Prince [shout out] my name on the song meant a lot to me. He was basically saying, ‘Here’s my go-to guy… The Doctor!’”

Recording Purple Rain: “There was something special in the energy”

Another solo created on the spot at First Avenue that night was the one Prince unleashed during the 13-minute performance of the song Purple Rain. Now regarded as one of the best guitar solos in history, it would heighten the emotional conclusion of the Purple Rain album after Prince decided that, with a few edits (including cutting an unwanted verse), this was yet another performance that could not be bettered. Picked to close an already strong new record, it cemented Purple Rain’s place among the best Prince albums.

As in the film, and night after night on the subsequent Purple Rain Tour, Wendy Melvoin, the newcomer, was given the spotlight for the song’s intro, her shimmering Rickenbacker sound creating a heart-stopping moment, before Prince returned to the stage to deliver the performance of a lifetime. Recalling the atmosphere in the room as Prince captured his signature song for posterity, Lisa Coleman said, in Lives Of The Musicians: Prince, “It was super intense and dark and sweaty. There was something special in the energy.” First Avenue was “packed to the rafters”, Prince’s then tour manager, Alan Leeds, later observed, and the venue’s owner, Steve McClellan, was concerned the fire brigade would close it down as a safety hazard.

One crowd member was filmmaker Albert Magnoli, who’d been hired to direct Purple Rain. With shooting scheduled to start in just a few months, he’d wanted to assess First Avenue’s suitability as a location, and to see what ideas he could take from Prince’s show and incorporate into the film – including deciding what song the movie would be named after. When Purple Rain hit him as one of the best power ballads he’d ever heard, Magnoli knew there could be no other option. “I was looking at everything, and then he started playing that song, and I stopped and went, ‘Whoa,’” the director told Prince archivist Duane Tudahl, for the book Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions 1983 And 1984. “He finished playing, and I said, ‘That’s the song.’ “He himself hadn’t even thought of it.” When Magnoli broached the idea with Prince, the response was: “Can we call the movie Purple Rain?” “And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s the name of the movie,’” Magnoli affirmed.

The legacy: “A lot of tourists started coming. That was kind of weird”

Before performing Purple Rain for the first time ever, Minneapolis Dance Theater’s artistic director, Loyce Houlton, came on stage to present Prince with a flower and give him a grateful hug. Having led his band through countless hours of rehearsal over the preceding months, her organisation, described in a Minneapolis Star Tribune report as “financially beleaguered”, had been a vital part of Prince’s preparations for the Purple Rain movie. With an asking price of $25 a ticket, Prince’s benefit show had raised $23,000 for the company. “We don’t have a Prince in Minnesota,” Houlton declared proudly. “We have a king!”

After closing the night’s show with an exhilarating D.M.S.R., Prince – now in his Dirty Mind-era bikini briefs and stockings, plus round shades, fedora and a thigh-length blazer, calling out changes with a James Brown-like command that underscored how tight his precision-drilled new band was – left the stage. Briefly stopping by the recording truck that had been parked outside the venue all night, he asked for the verdict: “It sounded great,” said David “Z” Rivkin – brother of Prince’s then drummer, Bobby “Z” Rivkin – who, along with engineer David Leonard, had been huddled inside the mobile facility, on loan from New York City’s famed Record Plant Studios, recording every last note of Prince’s performance.

In just 73 minutes, Prince had nailed three key songs from his forthcoming record, and road-tested a further two – over half of what would become Purple Rain. The following spring, he would include, as a last-minute addition, what’s still hailed as one of the best 80s songs, When Doves Cry, and the album would be complete. By the summer, the record would be in stores, the movie would be in cinemas, and Prince’s face would be on the front of every magazine that mattered. “He took it in really deeply,” Lisa Coleman told this author of Prince’s response to the fame and adulation that arrived almost overnight, turning him into one of the most influential musicians on the planet.

Thanks its own role in Purple Rain, First Avenue, too, became globally known – a place of pilgrimage in Minneapolis’ music scene, and an indelible part of the Prince legend. Reflecting on its importance to him, Prince, who could no longer attend Thursday’s funk nights anonymously, told Rolling Stone in 1985, “When the film first came out, a lot of tourists started coming. That was kind of weird, to be in the club and get a lot of, ‘Oh! There he is!’ It felt a little strange. I’d be in there thinking, Wow, this is sure different than it used to be.”

After premiering his Purple Rain material on 3 August 1983, there was no way things could have ever been the same again.

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