As former Paisley Park employee Scott LeGere saw for himself when he began working at the facility about a decade ago, nothing quite compared to the sight of Prince at work in his own studios, in his own building. “He’d be tracking drums in Studio A, horns in Studio B, and doing writing and preproduction with somebody else in Studio C,” says LeGere. “He’d just hop.”
When he was done making music for the day, Prince would sometimes release the results on record – or, just as likely, lose interest in what he’d done and relegate the tapes to floor-to-ceiling shelves inside his legendary vault. Tucked away in the basement of Paisley Park, the vault lived up to its name: Accessible by elevator, it was (and still is) a climate-controlled room hidden behind a steel door straight out a bank, complete with a time lock and large spinning handle. For an extra dash of mystique, only Prince had the combination, and many employees respected that decision. “At one point, I was holding tapes and he would beckon me to come in,” says LeGere. “I said, ‘Actually, sir, I’d rather not. That is your space and your work – I will simply hand these things to you.’ He seemed to appreciate that. I think that’s what quite a few other staff did.”
According to past Paisley Park employees, thousands of hours of unheard live and studio material – jams, random songs and entire albums – still reside in that locked room, along with a similar amount of performance footage. (LeGere recalls stepping into the “pre-vault” – a small, foyer-like room that lead to the archive – and finding the floor covered with tape reels, which meant the main vault was full a decade ago.) How many of those tapes have been adequately logged and catalogued remains a mystery; some employees don’t remember seeing much in the way of detailed lists. “Half the time I couldn’t find a song because it was so hard to find,” says engineer Ian Boxill, who worked with Prince during the second half of last decade. “I’d spend a half hour just going through tapes. Prince didn’t seem to have a reaction to it. I’d be like, ‘Wow, look at all this stuff,’ especially when I saw a lot of Batman tapes. For him, it was like going through old filing cabinets.”
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Now and then, Prince burrowed into that archive, releasing entire albums from it (The Black Album) or gathering tracks for later collections like Crystal Ball, Lotusflower and The Vault: Old Friends 4 Sale. What else in there is worth releasing? We asked Paisley veterans for their thoughts on the treasures that may lie among the mountains of tapes in the vault.
The Second Coming (1982): Live album from the fiery Controversy tour, taped during a homecoming show in March 1982 and capturing Prince and his band – including guitarist Dez Dickerson – romping through salacious early classics like “Jack U Off” and “Dirty Mind.”
“In a Large Room With No Light” (1986): Cut with Wendy and Lisa, Sheila E., guitarist Levi Seacer Jr. and other musicians, this ebullient, zigzagging track was to be included on the unrealized Dream Factory album with the Revolution. “It was a period when he was doing a lot of jazz-informed stuff – not jazz but you could tell he had been listening to it,” recalls former tour manager Alan Leeds. “It was a really interesting song.” Prince re-recorded the song himself in 2009, but the original remains in the vault.
The Flesh: Junk Music (1985-6): For several days, Prince jammed on freeform instrumentals with Sheila E., Wendy and Lisa, sax man Eric Leeds, and other players. “Prince was all over the studio, playing guitar, bass and drums,” recalls Leeds. “He would just call out a key and start playing, and sometime he would do impromptu scats. It was amazing, fun stuff.” Although Prince considered releasing the album incognito as the Flesh, with no band members listed, he changed his mind and shelved it in favor of other projects.
Miles Davis, “Can I Play With You” (1986): When Miles Davis was working on his 1986 album, Tutu, Prince sent him a tape of this unabashed party song, to which Davis added a trumpet part. It never made the album and Prince declined to give permission to include it on a later Davis compilation. “It was a logical extension of where Miles was in that Bitches Brew / Tribute to Jack Johnson period before he got into the music he did on Warner Brothers,” says former Warners A&R man Gregg Geller. (Davis also recorded the still-unreleased “Jailbait,” a song Prince sent to him but didn’t play on at all.)
The Undertaker (1993): Like the Flesh album, this was another attempt at an undercover band – this time a Hendrix-influenced trio of Prince, bassist Sonny Thompson and drummer Michael Bland. Recorded in one inspired day, the album included at least one cover (the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”) and Prince originals (“Dolphin,” “The Ride”) later re-recorded with other, larger bands. A film of the session was released in 1995.
Musicology tour live album (2004): Prince recorded and shot a Detroit stop on this return-to-form tour, which found him playing with a band (featuring Maceo Parker) and sitting down for solo acoustic versions of “Little Red Corvette,” “Cream” and other classics. Of the footage, says Boxill, “It was beautifully filmed with multiple cameras, the whole concert. It should be close, if not ready, to go.”
Boxill also says Prince made an entire 90-minute feature film based on 2006’s 3121 album, some of it filmed on the Paisley soundstage and some in Los Angeles: “It had actors and scenes, but it looked like an extra-long music video.” When Universal executives expressed indifference, the movie was shelved.