Purple Jewels: 11 Things We Learned From Alan Leeds' Questlove Supreme Interview
With its fifth installment, Questlove and the Questlove Supreme team landed their holy grail of music nerdom: none other than Alan Leeds. Though he was born in Jackson Heights, Queens, Leeds is likely best known for his work in Pittsburgh, where he met James Brown, and Minneapolis, where he worked with Prince and even served as second-in-command of The Purple One’s Paisley Park Records imprint.
He tour managed them both during their respective “genius periods” (Brown: ’69-’74, Prince: ’83-’93) and has gone on to work with the likes of Chris Rock, Maxwell and most recently, D’Angelo. But what you’ll come to learn of Leeds in the three hours of candid chat, rock & roll road stories and general geeking out that Questo, Phonte, Brainchild and the crew have facilitated here is that Leeds steers with his heart, relies on his intuition and is the quintessential “get it done” type dude. Also, the whole “right time at the right place” thing is a very, very real premise and Leeds may be its single greatest benefactor.
Honestly, the show’s so rich with ridiculous tales that some of are pretty hard to believe. But if you know anything about Alan Leeds, you know his paycheck has almost always relied on his ability to be forthright with his clients…and he hasn’t missed a payment since the early seventies. So here’s a little break down of what transpired. But first, some ground rules for any aspiring tour managers out there: do all things well, be painfully observant, live for the tour and don’t talk shit about former clients.
1. Little Richard turned him out
Not only was “Tutti Fruiti” the first record he every bought with his own money, but he had to ask his mother for an advance on his allowance just to buy it.
2. Leeds fell in love with Live at The Apollo — like everyone else
His extended family may have had some ties to the industry, but when it came to James Brown, Leeds’ first moment of awe came with the acquisition of 1963’s full-throttle and action-packed, Live At The Apollo, joining a good chunk of the American public in bearing witness to the Brown-ification of r&b.
3. James Brown Once Fired Leeds For Getting Sick
Leeds finally met James in 1965, peppering him with questions. They hit it off, and things quickly took a turn towards business. Now, James wasn’t exactly an “easy-going” guy. He had a ship to run, comprising some of the best musicians and minds on the planet. He demanded excellence and almost always got it. But when Leeds came down with something, The Godfather did not take it well, firing him for three weeks. Meanwhile, when James was the one to fall ill, Leeds had to cancel a show, only to put it back in the books the same day, once James decided he’d play the show anyway. You had to be iron-tough to rock with the hardest working man in show business.
4. Working with James Brown Prepped Leeds For Almost Anything
Leeds would go on to leave Brown’s management team in 1974 AKA “The Mustache Period” AKA “The Payback Era.” It was a few years after Brown had reinvented his groove with a young Bootsy and Catfish Collins, five years total under the wing of The Godfather, where he’d be everything from Publicity Director to occasional counselor/therapist. But if he took anything with him, it was resilience and a keen ability to get the lay of the land in a hurry. Perfect preparation for his next big gig: Prince.
5. There Was A Lot of Tension Between Prince & The Time
Leeds first met Prince on the 1999 tour where, against his better sensibilities, he signed on as Prince’s third or fourth tour manager of that run alone. Tensions were already high upon arrival. What he didn’t expect was for that to bleed into the relationships between P and his supporting groups, The Time and Vanity 6. That tour was preceded by the departure of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who infamously missed a flight back from Atlanta after sneaking away to work on an extracurricular record (only extracurricular to Prince, of course.) So yeah, things were shaky. But it didn’t help that the sort of competition-by-design scheme that Prince had cooked up was beginning to backfire on him, with The Time becoming a ferocious live show unto themselves. Leeds put it right:
“Can’t fuck with a 10-minute vamp of ‘Cool’.”
6. Nobody Believed That Prince Would Make A Movie
Even while he was seemingly having one of his biggest years, members of Purple Army were not convinced of the whole Purple Rain thing. Not that they thought for a moment that Prince (or themselves by extension) might be incapable, but lots of moving parts, tight schedules and an unrealistic production deadline had them doubting that such an elaborate, multi-tiered spectacle could be pulled off feasibly. Well, it was possible and–according to Leeds–Prince kept everyone sharp by booking dancing and acting lessons multiple times per week, as well as hosting rehearsals. And Leeds was the one working out the schedules for all 19 of those characters.
7. Being in Prince’s Band Was A 24/7 Commitment
The purple work ethic was not to be fucked with. Most folks knew this before they ever stepped into the room with him. Leeds describes that regiment in great detail; how Prince would pop up from the basement after six hours with a new track and insist on immediately rehearsing it with the band. Those rehearsals were frequent and sometimes last 3-5 hours, with Prince often holding people there to jam well into the night after rehearsals. Sometimes people wanted to leave, but no matter the family obligation, malignant or benign, they always stuck around. If not, it was their ass.
8. Paisley Park Records Was Kind Of A Failure:
On paper, a purple imprint seems like a dream-come-true type situation for someone as profoundly prolific as Prince. But according to its VP (Leeds) that’s not exactly the way it went down. Many collaborations were promised, few actually manifested, and the label was often used as a means of half-assed fulfillment on Prince’s own music nerd fantasies, or even just helping out an idol like George Clinton, who by 1985 couldn’t catch a deal for the life of him. It didn’t help that Prince was often under the impression that his artists were not prioritized by Warner Bros. But from Leeds’ perspective, WB just didn’t see anything cutting-edge in Minneapolis anymore.
9. Prince Was Bewildered by Hip-hop
Prince’s relationship with hip-hop was always an embattled one. Frankly, he didn’t know what to with it, even as one the culture’s earliest and most unsung innovators. At the turn of the decade, MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were sitting pretty atop the charts, which confused and bewildered The Purple One. How could so many years of honing your craft sell less than folks that couldn’t sing and couldn’t play? This baffled Prince and led to the strangest, least intuitive turns of his career: letting Carmen Electra rap over what is essentially “Adore.”
10. Right Place/Right Time Is The Only Place To Be
Leeds’ life may be the world’s greatest testament to all the clichés about making your own luck. Not only did he happen to get on The Godfather’s good-side upon first introduction, but he never chased a client after his time with Brown. He moved to NYC for a month and a half during a rough patch with Brown and winds up managing Kool & The Gang for a bit. Comes back to the Brown camp with a new title and a steady paycheck. He fall backasswards into a gig with KISS (mostly cutting fruit and making sure that Gene Simmons keeps his lies straight between women.) Gets the call to join His Royal Badassness in Minneapolis, gets introduced to Chris Rock (another future client) by Nelson George at a Lovesexy stop. As you can see, the man’s ability to jump from one great to the next has less to do with luck than good intuition, but being at the right place at the right time certainly seems to help.
11. Leeds Has A Reel of Artists Leaving Him Ridiculous Voicemails
Running around the world you pick up all kinds of tokens of your travels. But perhaps the single greatest souvenir of a life in music is not what he snagged in his journey, but what artists have left on his answering machine. According to Questo, Leeds has in his possession a super-cut of voicemails left by the likes of George Clinton, Prince, James Brown and D’Angelo, just to name a few. His only regret was not having the message where Miles Davis famously advised Leeds to “tell that little purple motherfucker to call me.” Priceless.
Top Career Moments:
-Being there for the recording of “Sex Machine” in Nashville with Bootsy and the new band; the reinvention of James Brown.
-Purple Rain — ’cause duh.
– Voodoo tour, but only when Chris Rock asks.