For a decade, Alan Leeds was arguably as close to Prince as any other person: The late artist’s former tour manager, president of Paisley Park Records, friend and confidante was by the musician’s side for nearly every moment of his professional life between 1983 and 1993. Leeds, who worked for James Brown in the late Sixties and early Seventies and has since gone on to manage the likes of Maxwell and D’Angelo, first joined Prince’s team during the 1999 tour, witnessed the heights of his fame circa Purple Rain and even battled with the icon over his acrimonious relationship with his record label, Warner Bros.
Beyond the fame and the drama, however, the pair were two men who came to understand and trust one another. “I never really got a chance to say thank you to him,” says Leeds, who only one day after learning his friend had passed away at age 57 spent an hour discussing his time with Prince in a conversation with Rolling Stone. “The opportunities and things I was exposed to and learned by being part of his world for those 10 years, you couldn’t buy it.”
What do remember about your first interaction with Prince? You were hired during the middle of the 1999 tour leaving your post as a tour manager for Kiss.
I’d been on the road for a couple of weeks, and his then-manager Steven Fargnoli as well as this bodyguard/personal assistant “Big Chick” Huntsberry had both warned me not to get too comfortable or feel too casual with Prince: “Let him get to know you. Let him get used to you being around,” and so on. I wasn’t really used to that because most of the artists I worked with were very proactive, aggressive personalities; the idea of tiptoeing around somebody was kind of new. I heeded their advice and just thought, “Just wait, once he gets used to you, it’ll be OK.”
I was introduced to him for the first time by his manager; Prince just kind of shook my hand and nodded. Two or three weeks into the tour, after a show, I was downstairs in a hotel bar with most of the band sitting at a big round table drinking beers. And we look up, and Prince and Chick walk in. And the interesting thing is, everybody else in the band froze. There was this kind of tension like, “Oh, my God. He’s here.” And I wasn’t familiar enough with the dynamic yet to understand the apprehension that they had – whether they were afraid he was going to snap out about the show or pick on them about this or that. I didn’t have any reason to know that. It just seemed weird to me. Now that Prince was there, it was like this cold awkward silence.
Anyway, as luck would have it, the one vacant seat at the table was next to me. And Chick and Prince walk in that direction, and Prince sits down in that seat and I start to get up to offer my seat to Chick. And he of course waves it off and goes in the background and motions for me to sit back down. I was like “Somebody’s got to break this silence.” Then finally Prince did. He just looked at me, turned in my direction and he said in his little crazy voice, “Tell me some James Brown stories.” No political niceties, no greeting. Nothing. Just “tell me some James Brown stories.” I rope-a-doped and thought of a couple real quick and thought, “At least we’ll have some conversation at this table. “Everybody else at the table exhaled. At any rate, long story short that was the first casual pleasant conversation that we had.
When you came on board, his management was trying to get him a movie deal and the Purple Rain film was in the works.
That’s exactly when I jumped in. I wasn’t really privy to the management efforts to get it done yet. I’m not even sure that happened until after the 1999 tour ended. But what I do remember was Prince had a famous notebook that he was supposedly doing some writing in. I never really was close enough at that stage to know if he was writing songs or lyrics or what he was doing. It turns out he was working on ideas for the film.
What was the vibe like on the set of Purple Rain? Did people anticipate it being a solid film?
Not really [laughs]. Most of the crew was pretty blasé. They weren’t Hollywood lifers in the film business. Most of them had resumes with a lot of B movies. And remember too: This was just at the cusp of the point where film and video and the music business began to seriously integrate. Today’s artists think of the two industries as one and the same, but in those days there was the film business and there was the music business and never the twain shall meet. So the film people were like “Who are these rock & roll kids? How did they get the right to make a movie?” I think that was kind of the attitude with 75 percent of the crew. They didn’t believe in the project. They didn’t know who we were. A lot of them weren’t really even familiar with Prince because he had barely crossed over. He’d toured behind 1999, but that just made him the new kid on the block on the pop charts. It certainly hadn’t established him as this amazing iconic performer that he became.
I love that Prince had the foresight to make the film.
Nobody better understand that merging of video and music than he did. Well, I shouldn’t say nobody: obviously Madonna did and Michael [Jackson] did and so on. But he was amongst the first. A couple of years later, after Paisley Park was built – I don’t know what my title was at the time ’cause I was his off-road tour manager also; I worked for him 24/7, and I had an office at Paisley Park. So there was a day when he called up to my office. This was a typical Paisley Park day: He’d come in like 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning with a notebook, go to his office and maybe at one o’clock, he’d go downstairs to the recording studio and begin work. It wasn’t like everybody who would go into the studio for two months and make an album: He recorded every day whether it was for a specific project or not. It was just what he did. He went downstairs to the studio, disappeared for a couple of hours, and then about 5 or 6 o’clock he calls up to my office and he said with this kind of cocky voice, “Want to come down and hear something?” Well, yes, of course I did. I come down to the studio and he’s playing some track, and I wish to hell I could remember what song it was. It may have been a song that made an album; it may have been a song that’s never been released. Whatever it was, it was dope. Just an amazingly funky track. And he knew my personal taste leaned towards the funk stuff so he always called me to hear those songs. He’s playing this song at peak volume to the point where you can barely hear each other, and I said to him, “This is what you did today?!” This was a song that was fully developed and damn-near final-mixed with all the parts on it. He said, “Yeah, this is what I wrote last night at home and brought down today.” I just shook my head. “You did all this today?” Then about 30 seconds later, he starts hollering in my ear the video concept for it. He already had a complete concept – all but the storyboards made out for what the music video would be for this particular song. My jaw dropped. I’d been around him for several years by that point, but I was still astounded at just the rapidity with which he could develop all this stuff at once. I said to him, “You mean, you’ve already got a video concept?” And he said to me: “Alan, you don’t understand. That’s why I wanted to play this for you because you’re old school and you don’t understand. Kids today don’t hear music the way you do. They have to see it.”
When you were in the eye of the hurricane, so to speak, could you, or even Prince for that matter, grasp how monumental Purple Rain was for his career?
Yeah. But it took a minute to digest. Because I really couldn’t liken it to maybe anything other than the Beatles. And not to compare the two because they obviously were much different phenomenons, but nothing in my experience, not even James Brown at his peak, could rival the kind of public clamor that was going on. It was clear that there were Prince fans that had been there for awhile, but there were also Purple Rain fans. There were people who knew every word of dialogue in the movie. There were fans of each member in the band that knew exactly how they dressed and would come to the concerts dressed like Wendy or dressed like Bobby Z.
I’ll tell you when it really struck: I think the third city we played was D.C., and coincidentally we were staying in the Watergate Hotel of all places. He decided that he needed to get his hair done. And what he would do is have his personal hair stylist find a salon in whatever city we were in and rent out the salon. And when I say “rent out,” I mean basically close it down. Nobody else was in there. We’d ask the proprietors and the other stylists to leave the building, secure it and even put up newspapers on the windows if you had to and then privately do Prince’s hair in this facility. And we’d pay them whatever it took to make them willing to do this. Sometimes it was just an autograph and a couple free tickets because the guys would love to say Prince was there. So I guess his stylist found a hair salon in Georgetown; I didn’t go with him. I was just in the hotel minding my own business doing whatever. And the next thing I knew there’s breaking news on the local TV channel that there was everything short of a street riot in Georgetown: They had closed down Wisconsin Avenue because somebody had spotted Prince getting out of a car and going into this building that housed the salon and basically had shut down Wisconsin Avenue. People had come out of the stores, fans had heard about it on radio and got in their cars and drove there or walked there or whatever. That was the point where I said, “OK, this is out of hand.”
Around 1985 Prince threatened to stop performing live; he even said after his next album he was going to stop making music videos. Did management believe him at the time?
I didn’t buy it for a minute. First of all, I knew too much about all the music he was making in the studio, and I knew him well enough by then that him making music meant sooner or later there was going to be an album. And secondly, he was so driven that I couldn’t even fathom him not getting onstage to play the new music. I can’t speak for him to say why he announced he was going to quit other than to just get some attention and be as unexpected as he thought it was necessary to be, but the reality was he was sick of Purple Rain. He was sick of the show. We’d been on the road for eight or nine months doing the same show. Purple Rain was a blessing and a curse because the show was so scripted that you couldn’t really vary it from night to night. You couldn’t change the set list because the tour was by definition representative of the performance scenes in the film, which meant that the light cues, the production, everything was written in stone. And the fans would have none of it; they expected it to be verbatim. So it wasn’t the kind of tour where you could ad-lib and change the set list.
His solution to that was to start doing lengthy encores where he could basically play what he wanted to play. It got to the point where we were just building in the cost of overtime in the venues into the budgets of the shows. Because by halfway through the year, we were spending thousands and thousand of dollars in overtime fees every night because the shows would go on till 12:30 in the morning with these long, long encores. So I knew this wasn’t the guy who was going to sit home. He had to go out and play this music.
Something from that time period that in hindsight is ludicrous is how big of a deal people made over the sexual nature of his lyrics, particularly Tipper Gore and “Darling Nikki.”
Very much so. It’s just a comment on the times and the fact that the culture was changing. Even a so-called liberal like Tipper Gore, the wife of Al Gore, found it reprehensible. It just shows you how much the culture has changed. And I suppose you could make the argument that he was part of making that change happen. There were times when he would laugh it off, but there were times when I’m sure it annoyed the hell out of him.
Of course there was a lot of attention placed around his decision not to participate in “We Are the World.” What do you remember about the situation?
We begged him that night not to go out. He loved going out on the town in L.A. There was a club called Carlos and Charlie’s on Sunset that was the hang at the time. It was the right place to be for the Prince crowd: Eddie Murphy hung out there; Jim Brown hung out there. We would all go there: Prince and the band, all the guys in the entourage; it was our hang in L.A.. He didn’t want to do “We Are the World” simply because if you look at Prince through the years, he’s not a joiner; he does things by himself in his own unique way. It wasn’t that he didn’t sympathize with the movement; he gave them a song. But he just wasn’t the type to go mix with everybody else. It just wasn’t in his nature to do that.
He would invite people to jam with him, but I defy you to tell me where he went and jammed with somebody else. Very few occasions. If he did, it was somebody he knew personally and really liked. And remember too that the press had really built up this Michael [Jackson]-Prince rivalry. And the fact that Michael was there with Quincy [Jones] running the show kind of made him feel like “I’ll be there in defense. I’ll be on the bench. I’ll be the B team.” I feel quite confident that that was part of his reluctance to be part of it.
At any rate, we said, “OK, if you’re not going to go to the studio everybody else on the planet is going to be [at], then for God’s sake don’t go out. Don’t hit the streets because it won’t look right.” And some of us even stayed in his hotel suite hanging out after the awards that night in hopes that he would just party in his room. We did that until one or 1:30 in the morning. And when we were finally convinced he was in for the night, we left. I went back to my room with my wife Gwen, and fellas in the band went back to their rooms. Then at about three o’clock in the morning, the phone rang and it was Big Chick, his bodyguard, and he said, “Buddy, you better get up because one of our guys is in jail.” I’m like “What?” And of course the story has been well-documented that he did in fact go out and the press mobbed him and somebody threw an elbow at a photographer who had got a little too ambitious, and that bodyguard got locked up and we bailed him out the next day. It of course did exactly what we feared: It hit the press, and you had two stories. You had the whole music industry doing something good for the benefit of mankind and the adjacent story was Prince’s bodyguard getting locked up for allegedly punching a photographer at a nightclub at the same time. So it wasn’t a good look. But it didn’t represent how he felt about the situation whatsoever.
Shortly after the Hit n Run-Parade Tour tour he disbanded his group, the Revolution. Obviously that hit people hard. What do you recall about what went into him making that decision?
It was a period where he was growing tremendously as a musician. And part of that was because he had kind of opened his doors to Wendy [Melvin] and Lisa [Coleman], to Sheila E. and to a degree my brother [Eric Leeds], all of whom had different interest in music that Prince wasn’t familiar with. My brother was a huge jazz fan, so was Sheila – she had her background in jazz and Latin music; she had played with Herbie Hancock and George Duke on tour before she even knew Prince. Eric had been a jazzhead since he was a kid in our bedrooms. And they were exposing Prince to all kinds of music that he wasn’t familiar with. And he was loving the hell out of it.
As he grew as a musician, all of that stuff began to influence the music he wrote, the music he wanted to perform, how he arranged it and so on. As a result he needed a wider variety of musicians. The original Revolution basically were musicians that had had very little experience performing professionally. All of them, at that point their résumés consisted of just Prince. That was pretty much it. He wanted to surround himself with a wider variety of musicians who could just bring different things to the table. I just saw it as a very normal kind of growth in him that was rich and rewarding to everybody: to the musicians, to his music and to the fans eventually.
The unfortunate thing for those who fell in love with Purple Rain is that that particular specific unit no longer was adequate for what he wanted to do. He had to expand it and in some cases make some changes. So were there feelings hurt and some disillusionment? Of course. But again, I said it before: There were Prince fans and there were Purple Rain fans. Purple Rain fans may not have bought another Prince record in their life.
In the ensuing years, he worked on a variety of side projects, from Dream Factory to Camille and Crystal Ball. He wanted his next album be a three-disc set but ended up succumbing to Warner Bros.’ demands for a two-disc set that became Sign O’ the Times. Do you feel that started his acrimonious relationship with the label?
Absolutely. It was the first major bump in the road with them. He did want it to be a three-record set, and as you mentioned, the gestation was Dream Factory – for one reason or another, he decided that wasn’t the right thing – and there was Crystal Ball, there was Camille, and it all kind of morphed together into what became Sign O’ the Times. He went to war with Warners over that; that was a case where he lost the war.
Remember you’re coming behind Parade and Around the World in a Day, neither of which approached the numbers that Purple Rain had done. So everybody is trying to figure out how to recapture that magic carpet. And corporate record companies being what they are are saying, “Hey, we did 13 million units last year. Let’s do that again.” And how do we do that again? We make those kinds of records instead instead of these artsy, esoteric brilliant records [laughs]. It’s the old adage: Forget being brilliant; just write me a hit. Sign O’ the Times, of course, had hits. And probably more hits than it produced because I think the strategy of the single choices and releases wasn’t what it could have been. But that’s a whole other subject. But yeah, they definitely bumped heads over that issue, and it set the table for the gradual diminishing relationship.
He toured Europe behind Sign O’ the Times but then famously decided not to take the show Stateside. I imagine him and management butted heads over that decision.
We of course wanted him to take the show to the States. Obviously. And just as obviously he was determined not to. For whatever reason he had already tired of that show and that music. And I think the failure of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” as a single had an influence on that decision that he made. Contrary to public belief, it wasn’t like we didn’t argue with him. It wasn’t like management didn’t stand up and at least take a crack at changing his mind and bring evidence and theories and so on. There were situations where he did change his mind based on opinions and ideas that others brought to the table. But that wasn’t one of them. I think he was caught up in competing with Purple Rain. He was just fearful that somehow this tour wouldn’t live up to it.
What do you recall from the Black Album era? He famously scrapped the project citing an epiphany of having an evil feeling about the material.
There was an epiphany involved. There’s no question. The record was on the loading docks ready to ship. I don’t think he ever looked at The Black Album as one of his albums. I think he looked at it as an offshoot. Like a side project. Almost in the same way he looked at the Madhouse albums, for example, which was his way of making a jazz instrumental album. And much like The Time was his way of doing a purely R&B and funk album, these were alter-egos for him. This was a guy who didn’t want to be categorized, didn’t want to be stuck in the R&B ghetto.
The Black Album was at a time where there was talk in the black community that he had sold out post-Purple Rain. There were some black music fans that thought he wasn’t being black enough because some of his hits like “I Never Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” was pretty much straight-up rock & roll. He wasn’t really making R&B records to satisfy the black audience or black radio. It was also the beginning of the real rise of hip-hop to commercial success. Hip-hop was stretching its boundaries and going mainstream. I vividly remember a moment sitting in the studio one night. There was a Billboard magazine laying there and he pointed to it and said, “Do you know what it feels like to spend your life learning a craft and see somebody like Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer who can’t sing or play a lick have a Number One record and we’re struggling to get on the Top 10?” He totally didn’t get it.
I can agree that if you want to pick on hip-hop, those are the ones to pick on, as opposed to say Public Enemy or other people that are incredible. But he didn’t get Eric B and Rakim either. This was a guy from Minneapolis. He didn’t grow up in the Bronx. He didn’t really get that. It was like, “You’re just talking. You’re a poet and maybe you write some interesting poetry but you’re not a musician. You’re a fucking DJ.” I was looking at The Black Album as his answer to that; that was his way of answering those people who said, “You ain’t funky no more.” It’s like, “Motherfuckers, I can do this in my sleep!” And then he had the so-called epiphany and thought better of it. And his explanation was simply, “It’s an angry album. I made it for the wrong reasons.” And you know what? Taken at face value, he was right.
In the coming years, his divide with his record label only increased. Would he openly discuss his disdain for Warner Bros.?
Absolutely! He was frustrated with its inability to absorb new material. You have to understand, that was at a stage when he was probably at his most prolific – the mid-to-late Eighties. He was recording a song a day. It was insane the amount of material. He produced music so quickly, he almost looked at it like a newspaper. ‘If I can make the records this fast, my fans should be able to receive it as fast. If this song sits around too long, that’s what it’s going to be – yesterday’s news. So I gotta get this record out now. How do I do that?’
I remember a conversation we had in his office at Paisley where his frustration had really reached a boiling point. And this was after I had come off the road: In 1990 I had left the road from the touring part of his business to take over Paisley Park Records, a joint venture with Warner Bros. Part of his disillusionment with Warner Bros. was also over the lack of success of the Paisley Park label. We were having a conversation and that led to him talking about his frustration about getting his own material out. This was in the very early days of the influx of the Internet’s significance – we’re talking 1990, maybe 1991, maybe ’92. And he said to me, “Look, you’re running the label. Let’s have our own label. In fact, let’s do telemarketing. Let’s go on TV like [Ron] Popeil, like he sells the peelers, and we’ll put albums out there and we’ll sell them that way.” And I looked at him and I said, “Do you realize we have contracts with Warner Bros.? We can’t do that, Prince. They can put a cease-and-desist, stop us immediately. You’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars that you won’t get back. Then there will be legal fees. It’s no-win.” Of course, his argument was “I won’t put my name on the record. Can’t you do this?” And I said, “Physically, I could do it. But I’m the president of Paisley Park Records, a joint venture. Half my salary is paid by Warners. They can lock me up.”
With a straight face, he looked at me and he said, “OK, we’re going to call it Gwen Records” – that’s my wife’s name. “She’s the president. My name isn’t on the record as the writer or performer and it’s her label.” God’s honest truth. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Obviously in hindsight he was ahead of his time because basically he already had the instincts and the concept of direct marketing, of leaking a song to the Internet, of doing the equivalent of online singles that you can’t buy in the store. He hadn’t quite figured it out yet, but he saw it all coming.
Did the failure of Paisley Park Records and you simultaneously working for both Prince and Warner Brothers prompt you to stop working with him?
He was quick to point that out. “Oh, you’re with them now.” And I said, “No, I’m with winning. I’m with whatever works for us. It’s a joint venture. When you went into it, it was based on the presumption that you would write and produce some hits for this label which, let’s be honest, you really haven’t done It’s nice you signed Mavis Staples and George Clinton.” It was the wrong place at the wrong time and maybe the wrong records, but those were admirable gestures. But Warners wasn’t looking to Paisley Park to sign over-the-hill R&B acts. That’s disrespectful to Mavis and George, but it wasn’t their time for a renaissance. And the new artists that he was signing and those records that he did do weren’t A-level material. They weren’t his best stuff. He was giving me his B-level stuff to his girlfriends who were making records. It was an absolute no-win. And that’s what led me to the point where I was like, “Yo, Prince, this just isn’t going to work. It can only work if we make the changes and not the changes you want to make. So I’d rather continue to be your friend and go back to do something I could feel good about doing because this is a no-win situation.”
After you stopped working for Prince, what was your relationship like with him? When did you last speak with him?
It’s been probably two or three years since I spoke to him. He reached out once about D’Angelo. Before Black Messiah dropped, D’Angelo had announced his first comeback gigs in 2012, and Prince reached out to see how D was doing and would we be interested in opening some shows for him, which never really happened. But I think that’s the last time I actually spoke to him. I would run into him on the road periodically. He would come to Maxwell’s shows or D’Angelo shows or stuff that I was doing. And he did call me back for a couple of projects. I left in ’92, and I want to say in ’93 or ’94, he called me back to put together a Japanese tour. But he’s not the type to pick up the phone and call you and say, “Hey, how’s the wife? Want to go to a ballgame?” That’s not Prince.
I think about all the things I want to say to him. And it’s funny because I’ve been saying to my wife the last couple of years, “You know, I’d really like to run into Prince. We haven’t had a conversation in a long time.” More than anything, I miss sitting and talking to him about music. It was almost like I wanted some closure in our relationship. I never got that opportunity. So in a sense this is it. These were 10 of the greatest years of my life. I can arguably say that much of my career since is a result of that. My brother said to me yesterday when we heard the news, and I know exactly what he means: “People like Prince aren’t meant to grow old.” It’s the same thing with Michael Jackson. Maybe he’s right. Maybe guys like Prince and Michael really are just vessels for some kind of higher calling and were just put here to bring some kind of happiness and joy to the planet that the mere mortals can’t generate.