Alan Leeds Tells The Full Story Of Prince & Miles Davis + Gives Us A Peek In The Vault
Man Next To The Man: Prince & Alan Leeds In A Paparazzi Shot ca. 1990
Alan Leeds, for a good chunk of Prince's most productive years, was the man next to the man. Having served as Prince's tour manager from 1983 through the 1990 Nude tour (in between stints for James Brown, Maxwell and D'Angelo), by 1989 he had been named President of Prince's label Paisley Park Records and can easily be considered among Prince's closest, most consistent and enduring collaborators. As such, he holds, for the purposes or Prince obsessives like ourselves, the keys to The Vault. Not the one where the master tapes are stored, but rather the treasure-house of Prince knowledge and oral history, a decade and more of insights, stories and secrets that we can only hope will be bound in a personal memoirs, Prince reader or some other compendium. For the moment, we are honored for the occasional opportunity to be the man next to the man (Questlove) next to the man (Alan) next to the man (Prince Rogers Nelson) who touched so many lives through music. In what may be our favorite #PrinceDay exclusive interview yet, Mr. Leeds graciously gave us that opportunity again, sharing the full (we told you there was more!) story of Prince's meeting and rocky collaborative history with jazz giant Miles Davis, Prince's kinder, gentler side towards those he worked with closely and, yes, his view of how The Vault--the one with the master tapes--ought to be handled most respectfully and productively. Read on, if you're a Prince fan, we guarantee you won't be able to stop reading this one!
Okayplayer: You’ve already spoken movingly about your reaction to Prince's passing, and expressed that D'Angelo's tribute on the Tonight Show helped you achieve some sort of closure--but This loss has affected so many Okayplayers and fans in such a deep way. I've heard friend after friend say "it feels like I've lost a family member." Why do you think this is? Why did Prince touch us in this way?
Alan Leeds: I have to confess that I’m a wee bit surprised at the degree of International grief. I suppose I simply never thought about what might happen. Prince seemed immortal, the concept of losing him never entered my mind. Obviously his impact went beyond music and lyrics – it was cultural. Purple Rain made so many things “okay”... 1) The rare pop band led by a black man. 2) Girls in a major band (I know, Sly did it first but Sly was an anomaly in the ‘70s. Prince made it seem normal). 3) A club (First Ave.) where blacks and whites, gays and straights, partied together, sharing the same musical, fashion and social values without being preachy about it. It was there before everyone’s eyes, without any question or highlighting of the fact. It just WAS – was the way it naturally was supposed to be.
OKP: It strikes me that something about Family is a recurring theme in his music, that he used music as a way to connect and connect with people himself--would you agree?
AL: Obviously Prince used music as his connection with people, assembling a family of musicians and crew and an extended family of fans. This was a young man with abandonment issues, stemming from his parents and a dysfunctional family atmosphere. He was black in a city with, then, a small black population of little visibility or influence. He was 5’2”, athletically and artistically gifted--but hardly the macho figure that young girls usually favored. I don’t need a degree in psychology to recognize how his upbringing shaped him.
OKP: I wonder if you could also speak to the connection btwn D’Angelo and Prince. One of the questions Prince's loss leaves us with is: who else of his caliber do we have left? He is in so many ways incomparable but D'Angelo certainly seems to be determined to carry on the larger tradition of musicality that Prince embodied so effortlessly--and D is certainly one of the only people who could have paid him meaningful tribute with a performance like we saw on The Tonight Show.
AL: I think you said it best in your question. D may not share Prince’s manic drive, Prince’s need for attention, but he is a musical peer in his own way. The world has only begun to discover the wide scope of D’Angelo’s skills as a songwriter, musician and performer. In a sense it may be healthier that D’Angelo does not share Prince’s need of acceptance but it does make for a smaller catalogue. Like his entire generation of artists (of all genres), D’Angelo grew up listening to Prince, who was unavoidably the most influential artist of his time.
OKP: I've always treasure your story about Prince meeting Miles Davis--which you regaled Ahmir and assembled Okayplayers with backstage at the Prince Carnegie Hall tribute--would you be willing to share that with us in a more complete form with us, what they connected over or had in common?
AL: Prince obviously knew who Miles Davis was, but it wasn’t until my brother Eric [Leeds], Sheila E, Wendy and Lisa began sharing their records with him that Prince became familiar with the majority of Miles’ work. The more he knew about the stubborn innovator, the more Prince related to him. When Miles signed with Warner Brothers Records in the mid 1980’s, the label began dreaming of a collaboration. Miles was totally down, already a huge Prince fan, so communication started between camps, at first Davis’ road manager Gordon Meltzer and myself figuring out how to get them together. Meanwhile, Prince agreed to write a song for Miles’ WB debut album.
Their first face-to-face meeting was impromptu – at LAX. Both camps had coincidentally landed around the same time and as we walked through United baggage claim I spotted Miles outside standing curbside and pointed him out to Prince. We made a beeline towards them and they ended up sitting in Miles’ waiting limo, chatting for what seemed like forever. After that, Miles began calling Prince but he had to call me because Prince famously kept his number to himself. It wasn’t unusual to come home and find a voicemail on my phone:
“That legendary, raspy voice barking: 'Alan. Tell that little Purple Motherfucker to call me'.”
Socially, they began seeing each other occasionally. We went to Miles’ birthday party in New York one year, a party that fizzled because the guest of honor spent the evening huddled at our table with Prince and Larry Blackmon whose father used to train Miles in a New York boxing gym. It was a honor to be a “fly on the wall,” sitting next to Prince and across from Miles for a couple hysterical hours as they swapped road stories. A few months later Miles had a gig in Minneapolis and flew in a day early to visit a Prince rehearsal and then a private dinner at Prince’s house also attended by Eric, Sheila and Prince’s Dad John Nelson. A former jazz pianist, John struggled to relate to Miles and at one point asked him, “what ever happened to Lucky Thompson? I always wanted to play with Lucky Thompson.” With a puzzled look, Miles dryly responded, “why in the world would you wanna do that?” Then he turned towards Prince and said, “Now I know why you such a crazy little motherfucker.”
Their best known meet was a 1987 New Years Eve charity concert at Paisley Park at which Prince basically played his Sign O The Times tour set. Miles joined them on the encore, “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night” and, finally, the two giants shared a performance.
Prince finished “Can I Play With U” with Eric and Atlanta Bliss adding background horn licks and sent the track to Miles who overdubbed trumpet to the track. But Prince had second thoughts, convinced the song wasn’t good enough to document the coming together of two icons. Nor did it sonically fit with the rest of the album which was cut with a variety of veteran musicians such as Marcus Miller and George Duke. The much-bootlegged track was never officially released.
Miles and Prince do appear together on “Sticky Wicked”--a track from a Chaka Khan album--but their parts were recorded separately. Despite rumors to the contrary, Prince and Miles never recorded in a studio together. Countless efforts to make that happen failed, particularly once Davis’ health went into decline. Prince’s attitude was, “I don’t really feel comfortable producing a Miles Davis record. Who am I, or anyone, to tell Miles Davis what to do?” Of course, that’s EXACTLY what Miles wanted Prince to do! He wanted some of that Minneapolis funk that only Prince could supply. Eventually, Prince sent Miles several songs from the unreleased third Madhouse album. Miles re-recorded the tunes with his own band and performed them widely in his final years of touring. [Aside: the bootleg recordings that boast of Miles recording with Prince and his musicians do NOT actually include Miles. For example, the wonderful trumpet on “Power Fantastic” is actually Atlanta Bliss!]
I saw Miles in a Santa Monica hospital a week before he died. I begged Prince to do the same but he couldn’t take the idea of seeing his idol in poor health. When the Davis family organized a memorial in New York, they asked Prince to speak. Typically shy of such events, Prince instead wrote a passionate note asking me to read it in his place. I didn’t dare tell that to Meltzer, only saying that Prince had a note for someone to read. But Gordon called me back and suggested the same thing. I couldn’t say no but I was never so humbled (and scared). The other speakers included Herbie Hancock, Newport Jazz Festival producer George Wein, Max Roach, Bill Cosby, NYC Mayor David Dinkins and Rev. Jesse Jackson. The idea was that each speaker would introduce the next one. Hancock preceded me and my fate was to be the “warm up” for Rev. Jackson. Nobody in their right mind wants to speak on a program that featured Jackson! While I will NEVER be convinced that I, in any way, deserved to be on that stage with those giants, I can thank Prince for that opportunity, honor and memory.
OKP: Amazing. Could we ask you to share another story about Prince, perhaps that showed a side of him others didn't get to see...what's the Prince that stays with you, so to speak?
AL: That’s the Prince I choose to remember. He knew how I adored Miles and his music. The nicest things he did for people were usually the quietest – he was very shy when confronted with emotional gratitude from those he cared about. When the LOVESEXY European tour schedule conflicted with my son Tristan’s annual Summer visit, Prince suggested that we bring the 14 year old on tour with us. Can you imagine a back-to-school “show and tell” where students tell the class how they spent their summers? “I toured European stadiums with Prince.” Yeah, right, Tristan. Sure you did. I think he had to bring his class the tour book with his Dad’s name to prove he wasn’t tripping. Then there was an expensive designer sweater that Prince once wore to an event while we were in Nice, France, shooting Under The Cherry Moon. [My wife] Gwen fell in love with it and complimented Prince. A few days later we were on set and Prince pulled Gwen aside and sent her on errand. “Go to my villa and look on the dresser for a box.” Thinking she was fetching something he needed Gwen did as instructed. What she found was the sweater, nicely wrapped with her name on the box. Then, in 1990 I had a medical issue that required surgery and a month or two of treatments. Basically two months away from work. There were no pesty, anxious “how’s he doin’” calls day after day. BUT there were full paychecks every Friday and NEVER a call asking, “when can he come back to work?” THAT is the Prince I
OKP: Looking back, which Prince tour was your personal favorite and why?
OKP: In some ways my favorite Prince tour was 1999 – the newness of joining and being accepted in a camp of wonderful people and the sense that Prince was on the cusp of turning into a major superstar. Obviously Purple Rain did exactly that and was easily the most exciting tour. The closest anyone could come to replicating the 60’s onset of The Beatles. But that experience was surreal, I still think it was a dream. Musically my faves were probably PARADE and SIGN O THE TIMES. Prince’s music was growing in many ways and the band was, perhaps, his best ever.
OKP: We've become mildly obsessed with the SOTT tour ourselves, partly because of the accompanying film, which never saw a wide release--could you tell us the backstory of the making of how that film came to be, and esp. how it fit into the tour and your planning around it?
AL: The filming of SOTT was not part of any original plan. The plan was to tour Europe and segway immediately into an extensive tour of the States. But for whatever reason (boredom?), near the end of Europe, Prince decided to film the show and release the film in place of continuing the tour Stateside. We shot a show in Holland and then shot it again on the soundstage at Paisley Park. The film is a mix of both shows.
OKP: Can we talk about The Vault? We understand you might be wary of weighing in prematurely...but as the main caretaker of James Brown's archival legacy, who also had such a long working relationship with Prince you seem uniquely qualified to speak to the handling of his unreleased body of work. In your opinion how should his musical archive be handled, and what do you think are the realistic or legal possibilities around it?
AL: Please share your view of my qualifications to mine the Prince vault with his family, who will be responsible for making that decision! [laughs] My experience with producing similar projects with James Brown’s archive has taught me that much of what is unissued is unissued for a reason. Prince has hundreds, if not thousands, of tapes full of unreleased material. I suspect much of it is unfinished and if it were up to me, nobody is going to make an album by finishing incomplete songs ala some of the posthumous Jimi Hendrix albums. No way. There are some intriguing jam-oriented projects that were aborted in the late 1980s – hours and hours of Prince jamming with Eric, Sheila, Wendy & Lisa, that could probably make a terrific album but one without anything resembling a hit “song."
But in this fantasy, my priority would be to produce remastered, deluxe editions of Prince’s classic albums. The CDs available are still the old, original CD masters. They could be tremendously improved sonically and could include chronologically relevant bonus tracks, non-LP singles “B” sides and perhaps a few choice unissued tracks. Secondly, I’d love to compile a series of “live” recordings, representing each of his major ‘80s/early ‘90s tours. Tons of shows have been bootlegged but many were professionally recorded and there are some incredible performances.
Alas, it appears the Estate is likely to be tied up in the courts for the seeable future. There’s no telling how that will shake down and how long (years perhaps) before anyone has the legal right to go in the vault and get busy.