Prince's Epic 'Purple Rain' Tour: An Oral History

High-tech effects, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen cameos, Olympic-level choreography – members of the Revolution look back on their shining moment

Members of the Revolution look back on Prince's massive, awe-inspiring 'Purple Rain' tour in our exclusive oral history. Credit: Liu Heung Shing/AP

On July 27th, 1984, Prince and the Revolution were confronted with their first hint of how their lives were about to change when they attended the Hollywood premiere of Prince's first movie, Purple Rain. "That night at Grauman's Chinese Theatre was insane," recalls keyboardist Lisa Coleman. "We thought were just making what would be kind of a cult film. I'd stood in line at that theater to see Alien the first day it came out. And now there I was, arriving in a limo. Limousine, red carpet – none of us had ever done anything like that before. We felt more like rebels, and suddenly we're all fancy, like movie stars."

That night would only be the start of one of the most momentous years in Prince's life. The film was an immediate cultural touchstone, grossing $7.7 million in its opening weekend (a commanding figure at the time) and eventually grossing 10 times that amount. Four months later, at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Prince and the Revolution launched the Purple Rain tour. The 98-show trek, which continued through April 1985, was groundbreaking in many ways: It introduced Prince's most elaborate sets and a new guitarist (Wendy Melvoin), and the crowd hysteria and occasional cameos from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Madonna confirmed Prince's place as pop's most commanding star of the moment.

In the confines of those tightly structured shows, Prince reveled in special effects and over-the-top staging – doing splits or somersaults, playing his famous ejaculating guitar (using Ivory Liquid, of course) or pretending to talk to the Lord during the "Purple Rain" B side "God." Yet the tour impacted on him in ways he and the Revolution never expected. In time for the upcoming deluxe reissue of the Purple Rain album – with accompanying bonus audio and video material – and the tour's inclusion on Rolling Stone's 50 Greatest Concerts of the Last 50 Years list, RS spoke with the Revolution and the band's unofficial member, lighting director LeRoy Bennett, about those momentous five months and their aftermath.

I. Preparations

Wendy Melvoin (guitarist): I remember being conscious that the Purple Rain tour was the biggest thing he had ever done [during planning stages]. I kept seeing sketches of plans and Prince would buzz in and out of the rooms. We were all being fitted for clothes that were being made. I was standing on one of those pill boxes, and there are about five people doing the measurements on me. It was like Queen Victoria being dressed for a gathering. At one point, one of them tried to do an inseam on my pant leg, and I felt really oddly like, "Fuck this – I'm not entitled to this. Why is this happening?"

Prince walked in and asked me to come outside so he could talk to me. Apparently he had been watching what was going on and he took me outside and goes, "You have to allow this to happen. You have to allow them to do what it is that they do. That's why they're here. And don't feel bad about it." At that very moment, I realized, "OK. There's something else happening here, and I just have to let this happen." I didn't want to get in the way of how he was trying to represent himself. And that was a big, big a-ha! moment for me. I sat back and saw this thing unfold.

LeRoy Bennett (lighting director): The theatrics started to become more and more evident. Controversy had a little bit and the 1999 tour had a bit more theatrics in it. But the Purple Rain tour was a major step in technology for us. Once you've seen a laser beam for five minutes, you're done with it. So what we were doing was pushing the lasers and different things through fiber optics. We had dry-ice fog, but we used liquid nitrogen a lot. For "When Doves Cry," we'd have jets that shot horizontally across the stage. It almost looked like ghosts that flew across, met in the middle of the stage and dissipated. Other [lights] came up from the back like these huge fountains. We wanted the show to be more of an immersive experience. We wanted to portray the emotions of the songs and create interesting environments.

Melvoin: As far as signing a non-disclosure, like "You're not allowed to do drugs," I had heard his crew had to do something like that, but we as a band didn't have to. But he didn't like it when you drank in public and someone took a picture of it. He would get really buzzed if you had a picture taken with a beer because it's like, "I don't want children to think they can be badass only with a beer in their hand!" I understood it. I got it. There was a little bit of a weirdness, but I understood it was a business he was trying to run, and I respected it.

Matt Fink (keyboardist): Very few bands – pop bands, which I suppose you could say we were at that time – were doing coordinated dance moves while they were on their instruments. Keyboard players like myself, you didn't really see them doing choreographed moves with the bands. But Prince wanted the whole band moving.

Mark Brown (a.k.a. BrownMark, bassist): I grew up in a time period where I would go see Cameo and the whole band was always moving. I was always asked to help with the choreography [for Prince], and so, when we would build the shows, I was kind of responsible for all of the movement. I had to figure out a way, with this different type of music, to create movement that was simple and where you could still play your instrument effectively. It was a challenge because not everybody was used to dancing and playing.

Lisa Coleman (keyboardist): We would just have to bend our bodies or shake our heads. Sometimes it got kind of rough too because I was wearing high heels and playing keyboards. It ruined my back for the rest of my life.

Fink: We were at Rudolphs Bar-B-Que [in Minneapolis] one late night and I remember Prince saying to me, "Do you think it would be cool if Bobby was standing up playing drums?" And I said, "How does a drummer stand up?" He wanted so badly for Bobby to stand up and play drums. But it worked because we had the drum machine running and Bobby was playing percussion and cymbals against the drum machine.

Bobby Z. (a.k.a. Robert Rivkin, drummer): No drummers had been required to do choreography. That was just the Prince world. We'd practice in front of a mirror. Looking at yourself was hard. He made us all look graceful, like in a ballet, because you don't want to be a dork.

Melvoin: We had two weeks of productions rehearsals, I think in St. Paul, right before the tour started. I remember the first day we went in for full-on production, and that was astonishing to see it. That's when I realized it, "Holy shit, this is massive. We're in a stadium right now in production rehearsals." I know it doesn't sound like much right now, but back then it was like, "Oh, my God."

Bennett: We spent more time in rehearsal than we had ever done before. It was almost like we did a tour of Minneapolis because we kept changing venues once a week, or once a week and half.

Bobby Z.: It was all about how he entered the stage. At various shows it was, "OK, now you have the gymnasium and the catwalk." The biggest thing they had were the elevators under the stage for "Let's Go Crazy." There was a mannequin for when he would appear and disappear. There were all these cool magic tricks to get Prince on and off stage.

Brown: For the "When Doves Cry" scene, you had this stage prop of the claw-foot tub up on a hydraulic lift behind Bobby that was way up high. The first time they tried using the tub, which was very lightweight and made out of fiberglass, Prince got into it and they had not nailed it down into the platform. That thing went right over backwards once he got in it. He took quite a tumble. He just lay there while they checked him out, and fortunately he just had some good bruising. Things got called that day while they figured out what needed to be changed on that one. That was a scary moment.

Bennett: My heart stopped. He didn't really fall that far, like four feet. But it shook him up a little bit. He walked off the stage, got in his car – which he always parked next to the stage in the arena – and took off. That was the end of rehearsals for the day. The carpenters changed the lyrics to "this is the sound when tubs fly."

Melvoin: If Prince was doing any kind of bad behavior – if he was mean or just straight-up wrong about something he said he was straight-up right about – he always said something bad would happen to him. The way I remember that moment is that he had gotten into a fight with his manager. Prince was in a super-cranky mood and he was practicing his move with the bathtub and the bathtub fell. He was so freaked by it that he was super nice and kind [laughs]. Very humble.

Fink: The soundchecks were always three hours long. I would have a boom box on stage – everybody usually did – and we'd record those soundchecks because afterwards you'd want to listen to it in the dressing room to refresh your memory as to what we just learned, because it had to be played that night. That's the way I could get through it and remember it.

Melvoin: Our soundchecks would start at like 2 in the afternoon and we'd play until 5. Each person would have to keep running out to get hair and makeup done. We wouldn't leave to go back to the hotel after soundcheck. We had to stay there. The show would go on at 8.

Brown: Before the show, we'd all huddle up and pray. He'd point to you or tell you to lead if you had a bad day or a good day. He would speak when he had something to say. It was a meaningful ritual. You felt like you needed protection. The crowds were so loud and it was so crazy that we needed each other because that was the only thing you had – each other for support.

Fink: It was non-denominational. If someone was sick at home you'd talk about that. You just said whatever you had to say. It was a critical moment, especially when he spoke. He really said a lot of profound wisdom during those circles. He would reveal a little bit more of himself in those moments.

Melvoin: I used to think of it more as like tandem sky divers. We'd form that circle and say, "Just get us through this and make it run smoothly for him." It became superstitious and it bothered me to some degree. But I appreciated the tradition, and I think everybody relied on it.

Coleman: Sometimes he would say weird things like, "This might be the last time we play," or "I might break up the band," or give us strange motivations like that just to go out onstage and kill it.

II. The Tour Begins

Coleman: When we got to Detroit [for the first show], suddenly we had bodyguards. "What? Bodyguards?!" Wendy and I had one and so did the guys. I remember getting to the hotel and guys carrying our bags, and the whole feeling was like, "Uh-oh. This is different."

Fink: I think there were 105 people out there with us. Twelve buses. It was a massive undertaking. I knew, "Wow, we're in the real big time now."

Melvoin: In 1984, '85, that was the beginning of massive stadium shows. Def Leppard would always be two venues ahead of us, and Bruce Springsteen was doing Born in the U.S.A at the same time. We were all following each other in these huge caravans.

Coleman: [The first show in Detroit] was one of the loudest things I've ever heard. It's like when sports teams come out onto the field. We were hitting the stage and it's as if we were coming out from the locker room, you know? People were screaming and hanging over the rails and reaching for us. They knew our names, more than ever because of the film. We all kind glanced at each other like, "Holy shit!"

Bennett: The hair stood up on my arms. It still does thinking about it. It was just insane because none of us had experienced anything like that before. Suddenly we were elevated to a much higher level than we ever anticipated and it was a bit overwhelming. You had to really fight hard to concentrate on what you were supposed to do during the show, because you couldn't believe what was going on.

Melvoin: When they turned the lights off and you'd stand by the side of the stage and hear, "Ladies and gentlemen …," it was deafening. To this day, I have never heard anything like that. It was so loud that my ears became distorted at one point.

Brown: It was hard to hear yourself onstage. The audience would settle down after the first couple songs, but still ... I had a huge bass rig. And even with all of that equipment, I would only hear it if I walked back by the bass amp. You'd feel the beat, but there were moments where you could get lost.

Fink: The loudest white noise possible.

Bennett: There were times where I couldn't hear myself talking to the spotlight operators and they were having a hard time hearing me. It was crazy.

Bobby Z: Then Prince would rile them back up. He'd shake his ass or do a costume change or something, and people would go nuts again.

Coleman: The fun part was watching him, because a lot of things didn't happen unless he gave us visual cues. It was like a game watching him run around the stage, and he would do a slight move of his hand, which would cue a riff or something. You'd have to watch pretty darn closely. Every once in a while, to cue the end of a song, he'd throw a hankie into the air, and when the hankie hit the ground, that's when we would stop. So you had to be able to see the ground, and if you're backed up on a riser behind keyboards and cymbals, sometimes it was hard to see, like, "Oh no! The hankie disappeared!"

Bennett: He would do hand signals for certain musical turnarounds, so you would have to watch for all that. He liked to mess around. Every once in a while, he would just do the signal in front of his chest, so the band could see it and I couldn't. He would just do it to be funny.

Coleman: He'd say "Body Heat." Bobby would hit the snare drum once and then we'd have to go to "Body Heat." Then he'd stop that by saying, "'Rumble' in E." So we had all these different things, little modular funky things that we could put together that he could call out like we were his jukebox or drum machine that he could play. It was like a live computer.

"It was literally the Olympics. We were like synchronized swimmers." –Wendy Melvoin

Bobby Z: The crowd could feel it was tight and spontaneous, but it also had some train wrecks. Ninety-nine percent of the time it was a miracle.

Melvoin: I had boots on, tons of jewelry, and my instrument and I had to sing and do choreography. It was literally the Olympics. We were like synchronized swimmers. If someone screwed up that thing, there's not even a bronze medal. You're just off the team. This was high stakes.

Bobby Z.: At our Syracuse show, he called out "sway from side to side," and the entire Revolution moved like a piston in an engine back and forth.

Coleman: We were wearing all these big ... what do you call it? These regal New Romantics clothes? It was hot. I'd go up onstage wearing a cape on top of a dress, and I would just take off stuff during the show. Shed as much as I could. It was hot onstage with all those ruffles.

Melvoin: One of the things that Prince would tell us before going on tour, especially at the beginning of Purple Rain, was, "If you feel yourself rushing and playing too fast, cut your body's heart rhythm in half and move your body in half-time, and you will play behind the beat." We were religious about it.

Coleman: Prince wanted always be as good as the film. He didn't want anyone ever to go, "Oh, that's the band from the movie? Eww, they're not as good." That was one of his worst fears.

Brown: We used to get fined if we made mistakes, and I got to a point where I would stop playing bass notes in certain types of segues and start this rumbling on the bass. Prince loved that crap. And it saved me from a lot of fines.

Coleman: If you missed a cue or played an extra horn punch or something, that was $500. He would withhold your money. It never happened to me. I'm lucky. Actually, I'm good at faking it. He never knew when I made a mistake.

Melvoin: He threatened to take your paycheck away, and a couple times he tried, but we all laughed at him and said, "No, that's not going to happen." It was this warning, this threat, and he was really happy to go ahead and make the threat because it would make you get your shit together if you had made a mistake.

"If you missed a cue or played an extra horn punch or something, that was $500. He would withhold your money." –Lisa Coleman 

III. The Intensity

Coleman: When we were at the Superdome in New Orleans, it was, what, 90,000 people? We knew it was big because it sounded big, and then Prince said, "LeRoy, turn on the house lights!" And we turn on the house lights and it was scary. Prince was like, "Noooo! Turn them off, turn them off!" It was too much. It was an ocean of people.

Melvoin: I loved when we turned the lights on during "Take Me with You" and we could actually see the audience. We would turn on the stadium lights full blast – fluorescent, horrible lighting – and we could see everybody in the audience and we all became one and sang "Take Me With You." You see every seat filled. You look to your left and you see everybody. You look to your right. It was incredible, and they all sang it. It was really beautiful.

Bennett: It must have been scary to them because they had no idea there were that many people. I'm sure the first time they saw that, they shit themselves [laughs].

Brown: We were literally the hardest-working band in show business. I would feel sorry when he would invite people to play with us onstage, because they didn't understand that type of dedication. When people would sit in with us, they didn't even know what to do. I don't care how seasoned a musician they were.

Bobby Z: Everybody came in the band's room, like Springsteen and Madonna [during a multi-show run at the Forum in Los Angeles in February 1985]. We had an open-door policy and got to meet a lot of fun people. Onstage, they always thought it was exciting. But onstage with Prince it was always a game.

Coleman: It became a take-no-prisoners situation, like, "Yeah, let's just go out there and conquer the world." And all the people that were supposed to be the competition were just like saying, "Wow!" to Prince. And again, he wanted to soak that up. He wanted to experience it firsthand, so that was a good way to do it.

Melvoin: Unfortunately he would kind of screw with people, especially big famous artists who would come up. If he sensed they were a little bit lost, he'd try and expose that: grab a guitar and do a blistering solo in their face. There was a certain amount of, like, straight-up competitive humiliation. But he thrived on that, like, "I know I'm great."

Coleman: With Bruce, I remember Prince being a bit of an imp and trying to throw him off. He was giving us his secret hand signals while Bruce was trying to play a guitar solo. There was a little cat and mouse going on. I never knew if Bruce knew Prince was doing that because there was a bit of giggling, but we knew and were like, "No, don't do that, it's so mean!"

Fink: Prince was reveling in it. It was his goal to tower over everybody in a lot of ways. He loved it. With Madonna, they were flirting and playing.

Coleman: I have to admit I'm such a dork. I didn't know who Madonna was. This girl came onto the stage and I was like, "Who's that?" I thought he just pulled some girl up on the stage. I didn't know what was going on until I was in the bathroom after the show.

Melvoin: Madonna came backstage and was in our dressing room, mine and Lisa's, and wanted to use the bathroom. It was this true girl moment. We were each in our stalls peeing at the same time and she goes, "You guys are such badasses!" That was my first introduction to Madonna.

Coleman: We always had jams [during the encores]. "Baby I'm a Star" was notorious. "Purple Rain" could be 30 minutes long. We could stretch things out.

Bennett: We used to do a running bet with the crew on how long "Purple Rain" was going to be. Every night. I'm not a betting man, so I never got involved, but in the production office, there was a board where people would place their bets on the time. It was usually extended between 20 to 25 minutes. You could win a couple hundred bucks.

Coleman: During that time, Prince was very positive and didn't want to miss what it meant to the world. He would read every magazine, whatever press. He wanted to see it all, good or bad. And then he wanted to affect it in a positive way, and he started doing more philanthropic things. We started playing at schools or doing food drives.

"We used to do a running bet with the crew on how long 'Purple Rain' was going to be." –LeRoy Bennett

Melvoin: On that tour we'd be onstage for hours and then of course we'd end up doing another show afterwards or we'd do a show during the day somewhere else. It was full on every night until the last show. I remember we went to Gallaudet, the school for the deaf [in Washington, D.C.] and did the entire show in their auditorium, and it was incredible. There were huge monitors on the floor in the audience so the kids could feel the bottom end. I remember at least 25 signers in the audience who were watching us and signing all the words to every song. The kids loved it. And then they broke it down and we went to the stadium and played another show that night.

Fink: By the end of it, we were changing some arrangements. Prince still put us through mental gymnastics every day. He'd make a new transition between certain songs and you had to remember it. It was like a game to him. But Prince cut the tour short. Around the World in a Day was on his mind and backstage we were already looking at album covers for that.

Brown: During soundchecks, we recorded "4 the Tears in Your Eyes." "The Ladder." All kinds of stuff.

IV. The Aftermath

Coleman: By the end of the tour, he was done with [Purple Rain]. He just burned fast and hard. If you look at the concert footage, he was killing his body. It was really, really hard work and to do it for six months was plenty for him. He was starting to get excited about other things. He was ready to move on.

Bennett: Prior to that tour, we were all very close, but then it started to separate out so that he was very isolated from us towards the end of the tour. I think he anticipated the fame to a certain level, but not what that was. It sounds good in theory until it actually happens. I can't say it frightened him, but it definitely threw him off. He was just withdrawing. I used to spend a ton of time with him back in Minneapolis over at his house and doing things with him like going to movies. That all started to go away and disappear at a certain degree during that tour. It eventually got to the point where it was us and him. And it started to suck.

Coleman: At first it was just one bus for the whole band. Then the boys had a bus, and Wendy and I had a bus. And Prince had his own bus.

Melvoin: From Purple Rain through Sign 'O' the Times were his strongest mental and physical times. He wasn't beaten down by any of it. It gave him incredible strength. There was a certain sort of naïveté about him during that time where he wasn't second-guessing himself. He handled it really beautifully and wasn't a frivolous little boy at all. He knew what his responsibility was, and he felt great about it. I don't know how strong that feeling was for him in his later years. He handled it great at the time, but I'm sure that ultimately what it did to him is whittle away at a certain kind of deep self-esteem about himself. How could anybody reconcile that kind of power and success without it screwing with you deeply?

Coleman [on Prince not participating in "We Are the World" near the end of the tour]: It was the night of the Grammys – we'd done so well and everything was so positive. He just messed up big. I didn't get why he wouldn't be involved in that. I can't really speak to that, honestly, because I didn't really understand his thinking on it then. I think he just saw a whole bunch of pop stars getting together to "do good," and I think he thought that was kind of bullshit, in a way.

But if you weren't going to go there, then just don't be seen. He was out [that night] and his bodyguard punched somebody or something. When the bad press came out it was like, "Don't talk about it. … Nobody mention that." So ridiculous! I thought it was most unfortunate. It was totally the opposite of what he preached.

Bennett: That whole period was so magical. You could just feel the energy of his stardom just skyrocketing. He could've continued to write major hits like all the songs on Purple Rain. I think it just became too easy. It wasn't pushing him and challenging himself, because he constantly challenged himself. He did that with all of us, too. He pushed me to be more than I thought I could be. He would see who you are, what he saw you could do, and most of the time beyond what you believed you could do. And he would just push you there.

Brown: The confidence level that Prince created in all of us – you did anything. You did whatever to win the game.

Melvoin: It was thrilling. It was this roller-coaster feeling: "Woo, God, it's scary, but I love it!" It felt like the world had opened up and we were going ahead and being allowed to make our dreams come true on that tour. 

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