Prince of the Jews

The Se­cret Jewish His­tory of the Artist For­merly Known as ‘The Pur­ple One’

Forward Magazine - - Arts & Culture - By Seth Ro­govoy

In 1993, at the height of his fame, af­ter sell­ing mil­lions of al­bums, col­lect­ing a clos­et­ful of Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy awards, and es­tab­lish­ing him­self as one of the all-time greats of rock ’n’ roll, Prince did an odd thing: He changed his name to an un­pro­nounce­able glyph.

Chang­ing one’s name, of course, has a long and ven­er­a­ble his­tory, go­ing back at least as far as bi­b­li­cal times, and of­ten re­flects in­ner or outer tur­moil, such as when Abram and Ja­cob be­came Abra­ham and Is­rael. In Prince’s case, re­plac­ing his name with what he called the “love sym­bol” — some­thing ap­prox­i­mat­ing a union of the sym­bols for male and fe­male, but not quite — was meant as a protest against the ex­ec­u­tives at his la­bel, Warner Records, with whom he was strug­gling for cre­ative and fi­nan­cial con­trol of his ca­reer. Imagine you were one of those record la­bel hon­chos — how in­fu­ri­at­ing it would be for your big­gest star and cash cow to refuse to al­low his record­ings to bear his name, or any name! Prince — or at this point, “the Artist For­merly Known as Prince” — even be­gan writ­ing the word “slave” on his cheek when­ever go­ing out in pub­lic.

For the man born Prince Rogers Nel­son, this was ul­ti­mately an act of self-eman­ci­pa­tion; in­deed, he ti­tled an al­bum “Eman­ci­pa­tion” in 1996. A year ear­lier, his off­shoot band, the New Power Gen­er­a­tion, re­leased an al­bum called “Ex­o­dus.” Also in 1996, Prince re­leased an al­bum called “Chaos and Dis­or­der,” a loose trans­la­tion of two key words in the se­cond verse of the Bi­ble — “the earth was tohu v’vohu” — prob­a­bly a good de­scrip­tion of what it felt like to be sit­ting in a mar­ket­ing meet­ing at Warner try­ing to fig­ure out how to pro­mote the star’s next al­bum without

us­ing the name “Prince.”

A decade af­ter his name change, in 2003, Prince found him­self at the cen­ter of a qui­eter but no less un­usual episode. On Erev Yom Kip­pur, a Min­neapo­lis woman an­swered her door­bell to find two gen­tle­men stand­ing in her door­way: her home­town’s most fa­mous son — whom she rec­og­nized in­stantly — along with Larry Gra­ham, for­mer bassist for Sly and the Fam­ily Stone — whom she didn’t rec­og­nize. The two of­fered her pam­phlets and asked if they could come in­side to talk about the Bi­ble. Prince, it turned out, had be­come a Je­ho­vah’s Wit­ness.

Prince was no stranger to the Jewish part of town. When he orig­i­nally put to­gether his band the Rev­o­lu­tion — the group that ac­com­pa­nied him on his breakthrough al­bum and sub­se­quent film, “Pur­ple Rain,” which cel­e­brates its 30th an­niver­sary this sum­mer — he made a con­scious de­ci­sion to have a mul­tira­cial out­fit fea­tur­ing both men and women. Hav­ing come up through the ranks of Min­neapo­lis’s thriv­ing funk scene, Prince’s ul­ti­mate mu­si­cal goal was al­ways to be a main­stream pop star and not to be con­signed to rhythm and blues. The dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of his mu­sic, what prob­a­bly ac­counted for its mass ap­peal, was pre­cisely that it in­cor­po­rated many styles not of­ten as­so­ci­ated with black mu­sic, in­clud­ing new wave, heavy metal, synthpop, psychedelia and even clas­si­cal — into what came to be called “the Min­neapo­lis sound.”

So when he hired mu­si­cians, they in­cluded drum­mer Bobby Z, who was re­ally Robert Rivkin, a nice Jewish boy from the St. Louis Park sec­tion of Min­neapo­lis, the same neigh­bor­hood that pro­duced other nice Jewish boys in­clud­ing the moviemak­ing Coen Broth­ers, co­me­dian and politi­cian Al Franken, New York Times colum­nist Thomas Fried­man, and Peter Him­mel­man, the Ortho­dox singer-song­writer son-in-law of Bob Dy­lan. Prince found Robert Rivkin through his brother, David Rivkin, who worked with Prince as a pro­ducer and en­gi­neer. Later on, Prince would en­gage the ser­vices of a third brother, film ed­i­tor Stephen E. Rivkin, on sev­eral of his movie projects. The Rev­o­lu­tion’s key­boardist, “Doc­tor” Matthew Fink, also hailed from St. Louis Park. Vi­o­lin­ist Novi Novog, who later went on to play with the group Ex­treme Klezmer Makeover, also contributed her ef­forts to “Pur­ple Rain” and sub­se­quent Prince record­ings.

Around this time Prince be­gan his as­so­ci­a­tion with the Melvoin twins, Wendy and Su­san­nah, daugh­ters of famed stu­dio mu­si­cian and for­mer Na­tional Academy of Record­ing Arts and Sciences pres­i­dent, Michael Melvoin. Melvoin, whose fam­ily name was orig­i­nally Mehlworm, had been a mem­ber of the famed “Wreck­ing Crew,” the stu­dio out­fit that played on nu­mer­ous hit al­bums by the Beach Boys, Bar­bra Streisand, John Len­non, the Jack­son 5, and dozens of oth­ers.

Wendy joined the Rev­o­lu­tion as a gui­tarist and played on “Pur­ple Rain,” and Su­san­nah Melvoin signed on as a backup vo­cal­ist. Su­san­nah also nearly be­came the princess of the royal court of the Rev­o­lu­tion, one of sev­eral women who were en­gaged to be mar­ried to Prince without ul­ti­mately ty­ing the knot; she is sup­pos­edly the in­spi­ra­tion for the Prince song “Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U,” made fa­mous in a hit ver­sion by Sinéad O’Con­nor. The twins’ brother, Jonathan Melvoin, played per­cus­sion on Prince’s “Around the World in a Day” al­bum. (He went on to play key­boards with the band Smash­ing Pump­kins be­fore dy­ing of a heroin over­dose in 1996.)

It turned out to be some­what for­tu­itous that Prince chose pur­ple to be his iden­ti­fy­ing color. One might imagine he adopted pur­ple for its as­so­ci­a­tion to roy­alty, which dates back at least as far as King Solomon, who had the ar­ti­sans of Tyre pro­vide pur­ple fab­rics to dec­o­rate the Tem­ple. Pur­ple is also a color as­so­ci­ated with psychedelia, such as in the Jimi Hen­drix song “Pur­ple Haze.” But pur­ple would gain ad­di­tional res­o­nance for Prince later on — in Nazi Ger­many, pris­on­ers in con­cen­tra­tion camps who were mem­bers of “non-con­form­ist” re­li­gious groups, such as Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses, were re­quired to wear a pur­ple tri­an­gle.

So when you’re cue­ing up your an­niver­sary edi­tion of “Pur­ple Rain,” do so with the knowl­edge that half of the band plus the guest vi­o­lin­ist on this rev­o­lu­tion­ary al­bum were Jewish.


Be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion:

Prince on tour in 1985.


Lay­ing Down His Funky Weapon: Prince col­lab­o­rated with artists from the Jewish sec­tion of Min­neapo­lis.

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