The posthumous release of a lost recording offers a rare glimpse at Prince’s creative process. But does it betray the artist?
“Can you turn the lights down?” With that request to an engineer, a 24-year-old Prince sat down at a piano in his home studio and, in a single, 34-minute take, delivered potent sketches of songs that would define the golden age of his career. He sang three future classics in embryonic form (including a little over a minute of “Purple Rain”), two covers (one a Joni Mitchell song) and three gems that would never surface in completed form.
It was 1983, and after the one-twothree punch of Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999, Prince was already a singular star, one who held nothing back. “Even when there’s no audience in front of him, he was emoting in a way that many artists save for playing an arena,” says Michael Howe, chief archivist for the Prince estate, of the recording. “He was just absolutely committed to conveying emotion.”
For over three decades, the resulting TDK-SA-60 cassette tape sat untouched in Prince’s massive Paisley Park vault. (“Literally thousands of cassettes” of unreleased material, says Howe.) Now, it has been released as Prince’s first posthumous album, titled Piano & a Microphone 1983.
Aside from the year, it’s unclear when the tape was recorded; it might have been in January 1983, when Prince was at home between two legs of the 1999 tour, or October, shortly before he began filming Purple Rain. Prince was then living in Chanhassen, Minnesota, and would record— often through the night—in his Kiowa Trail home studio. (Paisley Park wouldn’t be built until 1986.)
Piano & a Microphone offers an unusually intimate glimpse at the process of a notoriously guarded artist. We hear Prince’s instructions to Don Batts, his personal recording engineer at the time. We hear his foot tapping on the floor as he plays piano. We hear an early version of “Strange Relationship” (reportedly inspired by Prince’s relationship with Denise Matthews, known as Vanity), which wouldn’t surface until 1987, on Sign o’ the Times.
And we hear that tantalizing sliver of what would become his signature song. “I don’t know any documented piece of ‘Purple Rain’ that occurred before this,” says Howe. But the version of “17 Days,” the beloved B-side to his No. 1, 1984 hit “When Doves Cry,” sounds remarkably realized.
“A Case of You,” the Mitchell cover, was one he’d return to throughout his career, including during his final tour, in 2016. His backup vocalist and then-girlfriend, Jill Jones, writes in the Piano liner notes of Prince playing the song “on long drives through Minneapolis on cloudy, dreary days.” The second cover, “Mary Don’t You Weep,” dates back to the antebellum era; Spike Lee used Prince’s version in
his latest film, Blackkklansman.
One of the unheard originals, the sacy “Cold Coffee & Cocaine,” finds Prince singing in the voice of Jamie Starr, the trash-talking alter ego he’d assume during playful moments in the studio. “My suspicion is that the song was intended for Morris Day to record with [his band] the Time,” says Howe. “But it never happened. This is the only version that exists.”
The unanswerable question is whether Prince would have wanted the tape to be heard; he didn’t leave a will or instructions regarding unreleased material. What we do know is that he was deeply protective of his work and image—a perfectionist who never released anything quite as raw or candid as what you hear on Piano. While the album has dazzled critics and fans, it has also sparked heated debate on the Prince.org forum, where many insist it disregards the artist’s wishes. Several reviewers wrote of the uncomfortable tension of listening with pleasure to something the artist might not have wanted them to hear. (The A.V. Club described it as verging “on postmortem voyeurism.”)
Respect for Prince’s wishes “is the No. 1 item when discussing anything that would be contemplated for release,” insists Howe. “We would never release anything that’s not of the highest absolute artistic caliber.”
Given Piano’s strong sales (currently in the top 15 albums list at Amazon) and unanimous raves, Howe says more treasures from the archive will be released. “We’re in a lot of discussions about what might or might not emerge. His outtakes and the things he left behind are, in many cases, better than another artist’s very best work,” he says of an archive of material that could fill a second career. “It was like an afterthought for him.”
PIANO MAN “The things he left behind are, in many cases, better than another artist’s best work,” says Prince’s archivist.