Prince's genius, through the Revolution's ears: "He took the best bits of Beethoven, the Beatles and James Brown"

Salon talks to Bobby Z and Doctor Fink about reactivating the band that electrified "Purple Rain" and going on tour

Published April 24, 2017 10:59PM (EDT)

Prince And The Revolution   (Larry Williams)
Prince And The Revolution (Larry Williams)

Prince performed with many musicians during his career, but some of his most successful, creative work emerged when he was playing with the Revolution. That band not only functioned as his live collaborators — various players also contributed to Prince's records, including blockbusters such as 1982's "1999" and 1984's "Purple Rain." The Purple One could absolutely do it all — sing, perform, arrange, compose, produce — but the Revolution provided a red-hot funk and soul backdrop that made his vision a reality.

In the wake of Prince's death, the "Purple Rain"-era lineup of the group — guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardist-pianist Lisa Coleman, bassist BrownMark, drummer Bobby Z and keyboardist Doctor Fink — reunited for several gigs at legendary Minneapolis club First Avenue. Buoyed by the positive response, the Revolution is hitting the road for a U.S. tour, which kicked off with a gig at Paisley Park last Friday, the first anniversary of Prince's death.

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Bobby Z and Doctor Fink (real name: Matt) hopped on a conference call with Salon one recent afternoon to talk about the reunion, Prince's genius and keeping his legacy alive.

How are you guys going through and choosing what to play?

Bobby Z: Obviously, you know, Prince and the Revolution are kind of most known for "Purple Rain," "Around the World in a Day" and "Parade," so that’s quite a bit of songs. And then, of course, Matt and I go back all of the way to the very first albums. So the songbook is pretty extensive, and Prince had no shortage of amazing songs. It’s pretty easy to pick a set that everybody kind of expects, plus some fun deeper cuts to play.

Doctor Fink: We’re going to try to have a lot of songs, from the very beginning, all of the way through that time frame. Nothing's off of the table as far as song choices, [although] so far we haven't chosen anything from the first two albums.

There’s so much to choose from. Obviously, you could do three hours easy — if not more — as Prince used to do.

Bobby Z: He certainly was quite the leader of all of those songs. So there’s obviously some songs with him not here that just belong to the ages and [are] untouchable. But there’s a lot of great stuff: “Raspberry Beret,” “Pop Life” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” I mean the songs that the audience wants to sing out. People need to participate because we want them to, too. We’re all healing together here. It’s just kind of an unbelievable experience, with him not being here — a profound loss.

I watched some of the videos from the First Avenue shows you guys did in 2016, and that’s exactly what it felt like. Obviously, you guys are onstage, but the barrier between audience and musician maybe wasn’t as pronounced as it might be for some other shows. Everyone is looking to the music for solace.

Bobby Z: We were nervous. I mean there was a whole different feeling. The energy with him not there was really different.

Fink: Yeah, we’re still getting our sea legs, as they say, coming back and doing this. Because we really only reunited a couple of other times before last September, and those were staggered events with long periods of time in between. Now we’re starting to really put it together, and it’s coming together well. It’s going to be a lot of good stuff, a lot of fun with everybody, celebrating the music. That’s the important thing for everybody.

What prompted you guys to decide that you were going to do these dates this year?

Bobby Z: We got together right after Prince died and, like Matt said, we’d kind of bounced a couple of times before, a couple of charity events. We never lost touch and, you know, Matt and I never lost touch with Prince. He lived here in Minneapolis, and we’d go out there. Once you’re in a band, you’re always in a band.

The thing about the Revolution is [that it has] six strong personalities, and Prince was definitely the leader, but he was one of them. You stop playing together, but the band doesn’t really break up. You have children together, which would be the albums. So the thought of playing together once he passed — it kind of felt natural for us.

But like Matt just said, the mechanics of doing this touring situation — there’s been a lot more moving parts. We had to build a crew and support system around us, which we feel good about. But it’s different than with him [as] captain of the ship, definitely.

Touring, too, is so different now, 30 years later. It’s such a different beast.

Fink: We were kind of talking to Prince a few years ago about this, maybe getting together. He was very open to it. He was already beginning to think about it.

Bobby Z: You knew he had already kind of thought about it, the way he talked to us. It never left his mind. I mean look: He got asked all the time, too. You know, "What about playing with the Revolution?" He got sick of that.

The same thing kind of happened to John Lennon, you know. It’s like [with] the Beatles; [Lennon] wanted to move on. It was always hard for Prince, but for the rest of us, including the band, those three albums and the Revolution — it was a really incredible experience. Hopefully, the fans will still appreciate us in that way. We still have the same love for them. So we’re eager to do this, to show everybody that we’re still here. But Prince is gone for all of us, too.

Fink: Hopefully, while we’re on tour, once certain songs are out from the vault — I don’t know what they’re going to do, but there is some Revolution material in there, that we may play a few songs of once we get going. That’s a good possibility. That way we can hopefully introduce something new as well, that hasn’t been heard before.

Bands evolve. You guys obviously played with him for so many years, and the bandmates you played with evolved. And Prince evolved, too. A song takes on new meaning or 20 years later something sounds different. That’s the beauty of music, and that was so much of the beauty of Prince’s music, too.

Fink: Yes, very true. He was always taking the songs and arrangements to a different level as time went on. I mean if you go through the whole history of his touring years, the arrangements evolved constantly. It was amazing. And [the] different groups of people who were playing it also had a different feel as well, which lends interesting [things to the] situation.

You guys were some of Prince's earliest bandmates. What struck you most about his evolution as a musician during the time that you spent playing with him?

Bobby Z: For me, since I’m kind of the first one that really met him, [it] struck me as a person and a musician; I mean I think the musicianship was what sucked us all in. I remember playing Matt the demo tape. On one listen in the car, he’s like, “You gotta get me into this thing.” So the music was there.

As he learned more about the business and performing live and recording, he just mastered one thing after another, all the way up to a movie. But as bandleader, you know, that is where he learned how to be the most powerful. Right, Matt? I mean, he was a circus master. [Laughs.]

Fink: Yeah, absolutely.

Bobby Z: We were jumping through hoops; that’s for sure.

Fink: He was the James Brown of his day with the . . .

Bobby Z: Cab Calloway, James Brown, you know, Little Richard, everybody from all history, kind of. He took the best bits of Beethoven and the Beatles and James Brown. He was able to ride that edge of uniqueness, and [it was] so brilliant the way everything was presented to you every day. You were just kind of shocked. Everything was so effortless to him, all of the keyboard parts or . . . You know, he knew it in his head; you were just wrong. You didn’t have time to work it out because he was in a hurry to get it done in his head. He heard it in his head.

Fink: I know you may have seen the movie "Amadeus" when that came out, and they showed Amadeus writing down his orchestral parts as he heard them in his head. He was just putting pen to paper without even playing anything.

Prince could walk into a studio and play full, difficult parts in one take that were just streaming from his soul, you know, his mind. It was an incredible thing to watch. He got to that level. I just don’t know too many people that obtain that really.

Bobby Z: He’s right. “Streaming” is the word. Those albums were streamed out of his mind with very little thought or effort. They were just performed or he told you what to play. It was incredible to participate.

So, you know, our role in "Purple Rain" is to fight to get our ideas in there. And they’re in there: You know, Matt’s piano part on “Purple Rain” — or the whole song “Purple Rain” is the Revolution — or the stop on “Computer Blue” was a snare drum part. You had to get your little ideas in there.

And if he liked it, you felt like a million bucks because it worked in this amazing soup of music that he was creating. It’s unbelievable that we were witnesses to that. And it’s hard to speak of it in layman’s terms, but Matt and I saw supernatural music magic.

The way you describe it, there almost are no words.

Bobby Z: There are no words. Man, every day. I mean, it was just like every day. Like, they talk about that Rock & Roll Hall of Fame guitar solo.

[Editor's note: Prince famously performed George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at his 2004 induction.]

When Matt and I saw that, that was just a Tuesday. That’s just a normal day at work, you know?

Every time I see that Hall of Fame guitar solo, it’s more mind-blowing. That’s what I mean about music taking on new significance: Every time I see it, it gets more incredible.

Bobby Z: See, that’s the thing. So we’re sitting there every day and it’s just coming out of him.

Fink: It’s spontaneous.

Bobby Z: You’re just trying to soak it all in, but everything is a classic solo during rehearsals. He’s spitting out one solo after another. He nails one on the record, but he had 20, 30 others that were maybe better.

From your era, which Prince songs do you think are underrated?

Fink: Underrated? Wow. Well, I mean, of course you had the singles off of every record and hits and all that, but what are the underrated ones? You know, you hear fans talking about the material that was never really put out as singles, and they love it. They love everything. The issue is that you can’t have every song be a single, even though there may be more that are deserving of being a single. But, boy.

“Lady Cab Driver” on "1999" is a very brilliant song, one of my favorites, but it was never really a single because it was such a long track on the album and you would have had to do an edit on it to make it radio[-friendly]. Even though some radio people probably played it at some point, it was never really truly released as a single. So in a sense, you could say it was an underrated album track that never reached the status. But the fans love that one. There’s a lot of songs like that — they’re all over the place in his catalog. It’s just one of many.

Bobby Z: For me, it’s the song that got me off the first album, “My Love Is Forever.”

Fink: Oh yeah, that’s a great song.

Bobby Z: That’s the demo that got me. That guitar solo at the end is when I realized that he was special. Something was going on because when he did that, it’s just so simple. And he’s in his falsetto. You’ve got to remember, he wouldn’t come out of that falsetto. He was in that falsetto. He didn’t like his low voice. “Just As Long As We’re Together” — he uses it. But the rest of that album is in his falsetto. He wasn’t sure of his low voice, and it took him a while to be confident.

Fink: Yeah, and it wasn’t really until what, about "Controversy," that he started doing more of his chest voice.

Bobby Z: Yeah, "Controversy" is when he started speaking to people. And people were shocked at the lower tones of his voice, that it was so powerful and connecting and sultry. Matt and I heard it every day all day long but, you know, people had only heard the falsetto on the records. So when he started to speak with authority, it freaked people out.

I’ve heard that was a frequent thing, that people were surprised that when they actually met him, he sounded so different than they were expecting.

Bobby Z: Yeah, the range was deep baritone all of the way up to basically soprano. He had it covered.

Fink: Yeah, and the ability to scream like a banshee like nobody else. He had the most incredible rock 'n' roll screams of any artist out there, too, on top of it. [Laughs.]

Bobby Z: “Darling Nikki” and “The Beautiful Ones,” I mean, those are shredding screams. And he did it night after night. Night after night!

Fink: Yeah, without really having any issue.

Which doesn’t happen to normal singers.

Fink: No, no.

Bobby Z: That was his thing. His ear. His pitch and his ear. His pitch — and his perfect timing. No matter what the setting — [even if] it was an echoing arena, he could always know where he was at. That was both good and bad if you got on the other side of that. But he was an impeccable musician.

Fink: Yeah, and the one thing that impressed me the most, too — one of the other things — was his ability to sing against himself in those incredible a cappella specialty pieces he would use, either at the beginning of an album, like the first album, or at the beginning of the show, he always had a special recording that he did, that he used at the beginning. It was incredible. It was like nobody else ever did. Nobody ever did that, where they sounded like a full choir singing, overdubbing their vocals like that. Very innovative.

Yeah, you have to have such a perfect ear for that. I don’t have that. I can tell you that much.

Fink: Being able to just have not only the exact timing and also the pitch to make it perfect. More than likely, a lot of those takes were single takes, too, on the overdubs. [Those] harmonies.

Bobby Z: More than likely. [Laughs.]

In the last year, there have just been so many amazing stories that have come out and been shared about Prince. Is there anything that’s really stood out to you as either being surprising or anything that you were like, "I had no idea!"

Bobby Z: [Pauses.] No. I’m so fortunate that I knew him basically my entire adult life. I never lost touch with him. I called him after the jet went down. Am I surprised that he ended the way he did? Absolutely. So the answer to the question is the ending. It’s just baffling and shocking to me, but we all have an ending, too, so. One can’t judge another one’s ending because none of us get out of here alive.

And none of us have any idea. You don’t necessarily know — tomorrow, something could happen.

Bobby Z: No, no. Minute by minute. We just don’t know, so to judge anything is wrong. I’m a fierce . . . I’m his lieutenant, was his lieutenant my whole life. And I’m a fierce defender [of the idea that nobody should judge] him in any way because perception was never what the reality was. He’s not here to explain.

When we were young running around as the Revolution, that’s the dream, and he certainly probably capitalized on youth, talent, energy and spirit more than anybody that’s ever tried it is what I really think. Than anybody that will try it for a long period. A master of the media itself called life. He just mastered life and you couldn’t believe that you were in the presence of it. I knew that right away, even though we were very unfamous together. [Laughs.]

When it started to happen, I didn't feel vindicated. I felt like, “You’re all late!” [Laughs.]

"Where have you been?"

Bobby Z: Where have you been? Absolutely!

Hindsight's always 20/20. But you look back, the charisma and the talent were just there. It was like a powder keg . . .

Bobby Z: Well, the early shows were rough. That’s what I’m saying. It takes a while for anybody, whether you’re a drummer or going to be the greatest rock star of all time to figure it out. Everybody’s got to start. What can you do? It didn’t take him long to polish into a shiny diamond, but it started out as coal. And that was just the way it goes.

Anything else you want to add?

Bobby Z: You know, it’s just kind of a new journey for both us and the audience. All we want to do is honor him in the best way we know how. Certainly I do. And that’s just playing his remarkable compositions.

When you get to hear songs like “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby, I’m a Star” live, no he’s not there. But just to hear the music that we did, and he composed and created, live is just something you can’t believe. We can’t believe we’re doing it. When you hear ["Let's Go Crazy"] in its original form, it’s very different and it’s powerful. We’re just excited to get out there and share the energy and love for him. That’s now our responsibility to carry on.

It’s a big responsibility.

Bobby Z: It is. It’s a very big responsibility. I feel it every day. It’s not like, “Oh, rock 'n' roll.” I feel a responsibility. And like I said, I was a soldier my whole life kind of to him. I definitely feel it. It’s not a burden, but it needs to be handled with kid gloves; that’s for sure.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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