‘Purple Rain’ Turns 30: Prince’s Engineer Shares Majestic (And Maddening) Studio Stories
There are those high pressured, perilous jobs that are not for the meek. The U.S. Secret Service; a window cleaner for the world’s tallest building—Dubia’s 2,716 feet wonder Burj Khalifa; Kanye West’s publicist. But during the ’80s, one would be hard-pressed to find a gig more intimidating or unpredictable than working as a music engineer for Prince. Susan Rogers has lived to tell the tale.
An Associate Professor of Music Production and Engineering at the prestigious Berklee College from 1983 to 1988, Rogers had the ultimate insider’s view of the obsessive, glorious run of arguably pop music’s most prolific talent.
“You are talking about someone who would play a show from 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. and then perform at an after party,” she recalls of Prince’s torrid pace. “Then I would book a recording studio for 1 a.m. while on tour and Prince would work on his music or say Sheila E’s record. There is so much great, unreleased material from Prince. We would work all day and night long, and then he would be up the next morning ready to do it all over again.”
But the Purple Rain-era holds a special place in Rogers’ heart. For the then 27-year-old, it was baptism-by-fire after being hired as the songwriting machine’s personal studio technician in August of 1983. It was during this period that Rogers, who would go on to engineer for such acclaimed Prince works as Around The World In A Day, Parade, and Sign ‘O The Times, witnessed the making of the enigmatic artist’s highest selling album (the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning 1984 film has to date sold nearly 20 million copies worldwide). In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Purple Rain album, VIBE sat down with the studio veteran to discuss her wild and crazy ride with Prince Rogers Nelson from superhuman, marathon recording sessions to escaping the clutches of film icon Elizabeth Taylor on the Purple Rain tour. This is not music, this is a trip. —Keith Murphy (@murphdogg29)
VIBE: You set out to become an engineer in 1978, at a time when women were an anomaly on the technical side of recording. What compelled you to go into such a male dominated field?
Susan Rogers: It was the clear ether of youth [laughs]. I did not know it was male-dominated, and I didn’t know any musicians in the business. But what I did know is I loved records and that I had fantasized about being a studio engineer. I always knew I wasn’t cut out to be a musician or a songwriter. My calling was to be on the other side of the glass and to be sung and played to. I just aimed in that direction and found myself there. If people needed a tape machine repaired, the tape machine doesn’t care what gender you are [laughs].
What was it about Prince that made you want to work with him, and what was your role on the Purple Rain project?
I was riding a city bus in Hollywood and there was a kid who was sitting in the back of the bus with a boombox. I heard the song “Soft & Wet,” and I remember thinking, “I got to find out who this is…this is great!” I became a Prince fan immediately. By the time [1980’s] Dirty Mind came out, my mind was completely blown. It was everything I wanted music to be: It was R&B, rock, soul, and funk. And it was art music. Prince was bold, creative and he was making a statement and he had original thought.
I knew I would do anything to work with Prince. So then in 1983, I heard through the grapevine that Prince was looking for a technician. And then I went right to Glen Phoenix, who is the President of Westlake Audio, the studio where Prince recorded and told him I would be perfect for him. I’m female and Prince likes working with females. I am completely well-trained as a technician so I knew I could do the work and I was a huge fan. Glenn asked me a lot of questions and then he sent me over to Prince’s management.
That had to be very surreal for you, right?
It was. They made me an offer right then and there. At the time I was just joining Prince I didn’t know what he was like and what he was thinking going into Purple Rain. But I can say that it was clear that he had momentum. When I first met Prince he was just coming off the 1999 tour. He had already done some of the recording for Purple Rain and there was more to be done. At this time, I wasn’t hired as his engineer. I was his maintenance tech. But you got the sense from being around him that he felt empowered. Prince was aware that with this new power he could do even more than what he had achieved with 1999. It was a big deal for such a young artist to go to his record label and say, “I want to make a movie.” This is an artist who created his own competition with the Time, Vanity 6, Sheila E, and others. Prince was going to try to see how far he could go with all of his artistry.
Were you around when they initially recorded parts of Purple Rain at August ’83 First Avenue gig?
No. But I was hired in August of 1983, around the time the First Avenue songs were [premiered]. I was planning the transition from moving from Los Angeles to Minnesota. There was a mobile truck at First Avenue and David Rivkin, Bobby Z’s brother, did the recording during the live gig. But I did arrive in time to do a lot of the overdubs for the Purple Rain album. The first thing Prince had me do was work on his home studio. I had to tear out an old console and install a new one. He had just brought a new API console. I repaired his tape machine, which was an Ampex MM 1200. I got a lot of stuff done. One of the first songs we worked on was “Darling Nikki.” We did a lot of work for the Purple Rain album in his home studio.
“Darling Nikki” is a hell of a song to have as your first project. Did you press play and think to yourself, “What have I gotten myself into?”
[Laughs] You have to remember I was his new employee. So Prince had me put up the tape of “Darling Nikki.” I pushed up the faders and I remember thinking, “Holy shit!” “Darling Nikki” wasn’t even finished yet, but you could tell it was something special. I would hazard to guess he did it all by himself; he played everything. The song “Let’s Go Crazy” was recorded live at a rehearsal. That was one of the first things I did with Prince. He rehearsed the song and the arrangement of the song with his band The Revolution. At that time, St. Louis Park was the city where Prince rehearsed. Now typically, the recording studio is isolated from the musicians, but not in this case. We had the recording equipment right in the middle of the floor. We recorded the band live and then Prince and I stayed there late, late late to do the guitar solo and the additional instrumental parts. That was the first song I recorded with him from beginning to end. It was crazy.
You talk about recording with Prince so nonchalantly, but from all the stories about his recording exploits he was known for wearing out engineers. How were you able to keep up?
Let me tell you. At that time, four hours of sleep was a good night’s sleep for Prince. I would usually get a phone call at 9 a.m. and it’s from Prince. When he would call that meant come to the studio immediately. Prince would tell me what kind of set up he wanted. The most important thing was to never hand Prince an instrument that wasn’t in tune. His technicians taught me how to tune his piano, drums, bass, and guitar. And this included setting up a vocal mic as well. Prince would come downstairs and usually have a lyric sheet written in long hand. And he would tape it up on a stand in front of the drums. I’d hit record and he would play the entire drum track from beginning to end without a click with the song in his head. He was a musical genius, especially on the drum machine.
That’s how talented he is. Prince wanted to be able to walk from the drum booth into the control room, pick up the bass and play the bass parts. Next, he might do the keyboard or pick up the guitar. He’d get half of the instrumentation done and then by himself he would record his vocals. Once it was time for vocals, I would leave the room. He always had to do his vocals alone because he needed that concentration. We could finish an entire song and have it printed and mixed in one day and have copies made. And then a few hours later, the phone would ring again and it’s Prince [laughs]. And I would come back and do the whole thing again. But that’s just so extremely rare. Most people don’t or can’t work like that.
Can you think of any other artist that has been that obsessed with recording at such a torrid pace?
No. I can’t think of any other artist who has ever done what he’s done. His competition at that time was Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna. Now there have been other artists since that have seemingly done it all in the studio. But they don’t really do it all. They are not writing, producing and arranging all of their material. And playing every instrument and writing music for movies at the same time and writing for other artists. Prince was doing all this and designing every aspect of his live show. He even designed his own clothes. To do all this and be on top for as long as he was and to have that many hit records and exercising that much control and power and that much anonymity over that many aspects of your music there’s no precedent for that.
You are not dealing with someone who wakes up and does the dishes, huh?
[Laughs] That’s true! When I first got to Prince’s home it was a typical split-level suburban house and the studio was in a bedroom downstairs right below his living room. So his piano was right above me. While I was downstairs in his bedroom for a week installing his console and doing his wiring, Prince was just waiting for his studio to be built, and I would hear him on the piano playing over and over again. I heard him play an early version of “The Beautiful Ones” more than any other song. He was just working it out over and over again. It was a powerful theme for him in his playing. It was really a privilege to hear him play these great songs. He would sit down at the piano and just play.
What was a typical recording session with Prince like during the Purple Rain era?
A typical session for Prince was when we started a song from scratch we typically didn’t leave the studio until it was mixed and printed. No one else did that. But Prince did that for every song. So if we came in and we started a song from scratch we would either do the drum machine or live drums first. Then we might bring in members of his band. But usually, he would finish an entire song without any help. We would not leave until everything was overdubbed. When I officially became Prince’s engineer I would usually be mixing it as we went along. He changed his method of recording after Paisley Park was built because he could finally use automation. But most of the time I was with Prince it was very old school.The only time we would remix something after the fact is when the original track was cut live like in the case of “Let’s Go Crazy” and subsequent records like “Mountains.” And of course, we would remix tracks that were recorded live by the mobile truck. We would bring it back in the studio, fix it and mix it. That was the case with “Purple Rain” and a few other tracks on that album.
Did you have a hand at recording Purple Rain’s film score as well?
Even though I came in late on the project, I was doing quite a bit of work on the album and the movie. In addition to sequencing Purple Rain and taking it to mastering, I helped with recording the incidental music for the film. I was hearing it all as it was coming together.
Was there a sense that you were working on a game-changing project?
There was definitely a sense that the Purple Rain soundtrack and entire project was noteworthy. We had no idea that this thing was going to sell how many millions of copies that it did. But there was a sense that if they hadn’t noticed Prince before they would notice him now. And he had songs that didn’t make it on the album like “Wonderful Ass,” which was on a tape that was just sitting there in his room when I joined him as an employee. He had those great [Purple Rain b-sides] like “17 Days,” a song I loved! He had so much material. That was probably his most fertile period. And really good stuff. I was disappointed that his funk songs like “17 Days” didn’t make it onto Purple Rain.You engineered on the Purple Rain tour as well. What’s your fondest memory?
We had a mobile recording truck at the Superdome in Louisiana. Imagine being a single-named artist and selling out two nights at a place that holds 60,000 people. That’s where we recorded “4 The Tears In Your Eyes.” This was an astonishing moment for me. I was on the side as the band was taking the stage and was hit by the sound of 60,000 people. I have never heard anything like that before. Prince and the stage looked so small in a place of that size. It was great just to realize what this guy had accomplished. After that, we played Los Angeles, which was a big deal because you would see all of these celebrities backstage. I’m looking at Prince like, “Wow, you are the guy I go to work for everyday.”
That had to be a humbling experience for everyone involved, right?
It really was. Prince was an output for recording and performing. That’s all he did. But he didn’t want to be backstage, and yet something remarkable happened at the Forum. Prince was held captive by Elizabeth Taylor! He didn’t want to be talking to Elizabeth Taylor… not there; not after a sold-out show. But there he was. My ex-boyfriend John was also backstage. So I’m running around because we have the mobile truck there, too. John looked at Prince being talked to by Elizabeth Taylor and he saw a brother in trouble [laughs]. And John thought to himself, “I’m going to fall on the sword.” So John jumped in between Prince and Elizabeth Taylor and did his best Quincy, Massachusetts, nutcase kid. He’s screaming, “Prince, the show was wicked awesome! I took two hits of acid and smoked a big joint!”
That should have been a Dave Chappelle sketch.
It was hilarious! That was enough of a distraction where Prince could look at Taylor and go, “Well, nutcase in the room…what are you gonna do?” and make his escape. I never heard this until Prince told me that story afterward. He was laughing when he told what happened. He said, “Man, that dude saved my life…I love that guy!”‘