Spotlight: St. Paul Peterson (Pt. 1)

STORIES FROM THE PARK:

PRN Alumni Foundation is comprised of the former employees of Prince, Paisley Park, Paisley Park Records, PRN Productions, NPG Records, LoveForOneAnother, any and all of Prince’s companies spanning his impressive nearly 40 year career.
There have been, quite literally hundreds of us in Prince’s employ. The Foundation represents our collective voice.
We are musicians, engineers, managers, lighting directors, wardrobe designers, stylists, makeup artists, drivers, bodyguards, admin staff, valets, drivers (and more!)
This ‘Stories From The Park’ chronicle is a way for our colleagues of all tenures and job types to share a little bit of Prince’s magic with you through our individual voices.
We hope you enjoy getting to know us…we feel as if we’ve known you, Prince’s fans (fam) forever <3 With love and gratitude, PRN Alumni Foundation

FOR LOCAL LEGEND ST. PAUL PETERSON…
NOTHING COMPARES 2 PRINCE

Interviewed by writer: Tony Kiene

Part 1

Among the things that many PRN alumni know is how much Prince Rogers Nelson coveted the opportunity to share his knowledge with others. That said, the ability for someone to truly claim Prince as their mentor positions them in a rather exclusive club, one that Paul Peterson is beyond proud to belong to.

Paul would be the first to admit that his relationship with Prince was at times complicated, and even nonexistent at others. Still, the influence that Prince had on him was indelible and the good times they shared, including several during the last few years of Prince’s life, occupy a permanent place in Paul’s heart.

And perhaps there is nothing that embodies the relationship of these two men more than a single song, a song that would ultimately bring Paul’s life full circle.

The Origins of St. Paul

As the youngest son of Willard and Jeanne Arland Peterson, Paul was born into what was affectionately known as Minnesota’s First Family of Jazz. “You gotta understand,” says Paul, “for Norwegians, we were pretty funky. My childhood and that of all my siblings was immersed in be-bop and R & B. Our family was drawn to African American music because that’s what we loved.”

It must have been serendipity then that Paul came of age in the same era (and locale) that The Minneapolis Sound began to take shape. By 1983, though only 18 and still a senior in high school, Paul was already turning heads in the music community just as his older brothers and sisters (Linda, Billy, Patty, and Ricky) had before him. And, it was his talent and versatility that soon caught the attention of Prince who tapped the young Richfield native to join The Time, taking up one of two keyboard spots that had been recently vacated by Jimmy Jam and Monte Moir.

The next few months proved to be a whirlwind as Paul found himself not only learning directly at the feet of His Royal Badness, but also from his new brothers in what many considered the funkiest band around. By the end of 1983, Paul, just barely 19, had completed filming on what in the eyes of many would become the most famous Rock and Roll movie of all time, Purple Rain.

Shortly thereafter, he was around to help put the finishing touches on The Time’s third Warner Bros. release Ice Cream Castle. By this time however, Morris Day had left the band and Jesse Johnson soon followed. For the moment, The Time was no more. Of course, Prince, who was perpetually juggling a multitude of ideas, already had a plan in place for a new band.

“I want you to be the singer,” Prince told a stunned Paul. And, in spite of any apprehensions he had, Paul replied “Yes” and The Family was born. Featuring both St. Paul (as Prince had rechristened him) and Susannah Melvoin on lead vocals, the band was rounded out by Eric Leeds and holdovers from The Time, Jellybean Johnson and Jerome Benton.

During the summer of 1984, there seemed to be a million things going on in Prince’s universe, all at the same time. On the night of his 26th birthday, Prince and The Revolution unveiled several new songs in a gig at First Avenue. Sheila E.’s debut album was released in early June to be followed by the soundtrack to Purple Rain later that month. Next was The Time’s Ice Cream Castle and on July 26th came the World Premiere of Purple Rain at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Yet Prince, as always, was a few steps ahead of everything else that was going on around him, whether he’d created it or not. And it was during that summer of 1984 that Prince started recording the basic tracks for his latest project.

It had already been a pretty decent summer for (the still teenage) Paul as he officially added his first major label release as well as a major motion picture credit to his résumé. And, not long after he returned home from the Hollywood premiere of Purple Rain, Paul began to contribute his vocals to songs that would ultimately form The Family’s debut album.

“The way it worked in those days,” notes Paul “is that I wasn’t necessary at the beginning of the process. Prince would dispatch a cassette over to me. It was often a fully-formed track and it was my job to learn the song based on his guide vocal.” While Paul was impressed by all the songs that were written for this record, there was one that immediately stood out to him.

The Song

When the demo of “Nothing Compares 2 U” arrived at his mother’s house (where he was still living at the time), Paul immediately sat down at the kitchen table and hit play. His first thought was, “Okay, this is heavy duty. This is on another level.” Paul adds that “At this particular time Prince was so prolific, so in tune with what was going on, not only within his own musical sphere but the entire culture. This song seemed to be the perfect embodiment of that clairvoyance.”

As he studied the track and sought to capture its emotion and accurately mirror all of Prince’s different inflections and complex phrasing, it quickly took on a very personal connection to him. Paul and his high school sweetheart, Julie, began dating in 10th Grade before she broke his heart a year later. Although they were now back together, Paul couldn’t help but to lament the time they spent apart. Prince’s extraordinary composition spoke directly to those feelings and to Paul gave the song an even “deeper meaning.”

When it came time to record the vocals for “Nothing Compares 2 U” Paul remembers David Z engineering the session at the fabled warehouse on Flying Cloud Drive, but can’t recall if Prince was there or not. “He might have come by at the end, but you know 34 years have passed so I can’t say for sure.”

Paul’s vocals would not be the final contribution to the song, as Prince decided to employ legendary composer Clare Fischer to add string arrangements. As Paul recalls, it was Susannah that encouraged Prince to use Fischer, who had made a name for himself in both jazz and soul circles for decades. “When I heard the finished song with Clare’s orchestration,” says Paul, “which stripped away much of Prince’s original instrumentation, I found myself loving the song more, if that was even possible.”

Paul first sang “Nothing Compares 2 U” in front of a live audience on August 13, 1985 during The Family’s debut performance at First Avenue. Then, a few days later, the band’s eponymous album became the second LP released on Prince’s new Paisley Park label (following Prince and The Revolution’s Around the World In A Day).

Underscored by the singles “The Screams of Passion,” and “High Fashion,” The Family is widely considered among the best (Prince) associated artist albums of all time. And although never released as a single, the band’s original recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U” became an instant classic among fans.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to follow next week!

Spotlight: Steve Parke

Steve Parke is an award-winning illustrator, designer, and photographer. He worked for Prince for 13 years as his in-house art director at Paisley Park – doing everything from designing album covers and hand painting guitars to enlisting every spare pair of hands to melt candles for an impromptu music video. His photography work with Prince has been published in numerous magazines, including People, Rolling Stone, and Vogue, as well as in books like Prince Stories from the Purple Underground. His own book of Prince photography from this time, Picturing Prince, was published in 2017.

Fellow PRN Alum, Stacia Lang, sat down with Steve for this Spotlight Q&A:

Stacia Lang: While working with Prince as a graphic designer, how did you segue into being his photographer? Do you remember the very first time when he asked you to take photos of him?

Steve Parke: Yes.

He walked into my office and asked if I had heard of digital cameras (new at the time) and I said no. He asked if I could use a camera, and thanks to my work on my high school and college newspapers I DID! So I said yes. I was trying to use strobes with the camera for my first shoot, but I had NO idea what I was doing. It was rather flat. So Prince saw it as a lighting issue which led us to using a 10k light for most of our shoots. It worked, but was less than optimal. I don’t complain (too much) though because I was given such unusual access to shooting him because of the brand spanking new digital camera, technology limitations or no!!

It was certainly a learning curve due to the iso limitations of 200, the iffy sensor and the lack of support in processing images. I often tell people that their phone cameras are better than what was a $40,000 camera in 1997, because it is so true!

Were you ever on site when Prince had a photo session with another photographer? For example, Herb Ritts or Randee St. Nicholas? Did you compare your style or your work to theirs? What did you take away from watching them work with Prince?

I was not, but was envious of the idea that they had studio lighting and I am sure in many cases – assistants. I can’t speak to what their style of work was like, since I never saw it. I can say mine was pretty much guerrilla style, grab the camera and go for most of the shoots. When we did set up lights it was usually just me, him and the 10k light!! I loved that outdoor lighting was the best (though I wish I had a bounce or reflector – see I WILL complain) because he liked the results and it meant we shot more outdoors.

How do you think Prince got the idea that you would be a good photographer? Did you show him photos you had taken?

Prince seemed to look at someone’s skill set as a whole. He looked at one thing you did, and if he liked how you did it, he gave you other opportunities to take that skill and expand it. It’s really remarkable that someone who could really work with ANYONE would prefer to champion people he already worked with and allow them first crack at something when he could have easily found an accomplished person in whatever field he was looking for. Of course that meant busting your ass to live up to expectations but I can think of no greater motivation than having a guy who had done that for himself in every step he took asking it of you. As you know, the hours we would put in were tremendous, but they didn’t compare to the hours HE put in.

You had many quiet moments with Prince which could be considered “idea-generating” moments for him. For example, you would both listen to music together, and also you would give him your own opinions at times, which genuinely made him think. Not many people can say they shared that kind of relationship with a creative genius. What do you think you brought to Prince’s creative table? What did he get from you in those quiet moments together? And going a step further, what do you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he created BECAUSE of Steve Parke?

It was really pretty fascinating to look back on what was, at the time, simply work. I think we had an easy rapport which I will chalk up to doing something he wanted to be involved in but I had a skill set that was not his. I also am/was pretty much up for whatever he brought to the table, I’m sure that didn’t hurt things. And yes, we listened to and talked music among other things.

I seemed to be in tune to what he was thinking about, but I also kept on my creative toes by paying attention to what he was into – clothing wise (easy to see)  or general things he said he liked visually (paying attention). He once told me I was the most “in the moment” person he ever met. Which I probably didn’t get at the time, but it was true, I was there for whatever was next.

As you know it is probably hard to define the relationship you had with Prince, because he wore so many hats and could vary who he was to you depending on the day. It is often through others you get perspective. Prince often had me come down to the studio to listen to what he was doing as he recorded, or play me finished tracks on my office sound system via cd or cassette tapes.  Shane Keller told me that was not par for the course, I just assumed it was. Like if he was happy with what you did he shared that part of his creativity with you. In fact, Shane told me, I was in the studio with him more frequently than his band. Something I could have never guessed.

Prince told me he liked to finish the album covers and backs to create “an order he had to fill,” which is very cool because it really let me be part of the process.

One day I was was working on a photo I shot during the Holy River video filming, and added some new (but rudimentary) paint filters, which I messed around with until I got something reasonable. Prince walked in and asked what i was working on and looked over my shoulder. He asked me to print it out, which was unusual for just a photo (usually we did that for cd package mockups). the next day he walked in with a cassette in hand and popped it into my player. It was “Welcome 2 the Dawn” – he had the printout in his hand and said “I wrote that because of this.” I have to say, to this day, that might be the thing that floored me the most over all the things I did with him. Then again…..

What is your favorite Prince song?

That is always a hard question. When I think hard about it I love things like “If I was Your Girlfriend” because it embodies so much of what made Prince a unique artist. But then I pop in a bunch of his B Sides and cant help but hear how many killer songs are in that set alone. “I Love U in Me” has some amazing harmonies – the kind I think separates Prince from pretty much any other singer, but then “Another Lonely Christmas” always hit me as such a unique song under the guise of a straight rock tune. Did I mention “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”? That falsetto, that scream and piano stomp backing…genius.

Who was your favorite Prince “Lady”? Doesn’t have to be a girlfriend…could be a muse or a mother figure, or even a friend who you think brought something unique to his life?

Hm. Thats tough. I pretty much got along with everyone, but Sheila has to be the one since she was super cool to me when I first met her and has always been a real champion of my work and me in general. I was talking with her when she was opening for Lionel Ritchie, we were talking about working for silk screen companies (she had and I was at the time ) and looked at me and said “it’s nice talking to someone who actually looks at my face the whole time”.

What is one thing you learned from Prince that you carry in your “tool box” every single day?

Nothing is really impossible. You may have to tweak plans, but if you really want it you’ll make it happen. He certainly embodied that every second as far as I can tell.

If you could do it all over again with Prince, what would you do differently this time?

Already know how to use studio lighting!

Actually I am pretty satisfied with my experience and relationship with him. I don’t know that I would change a thing, because there is so much amazing and it could change all that as well.

If Prince were to come back and answer one question for you, what would you ask him?

Do you ever take time for yourself?

Was there ever anything Prince said to you that you would engrave on a silver plaque and hang in your home?

“Stick to art.” It was, at the time, a snarky comment but I can see that it has served me well thus far…so snark aside, its pretty good.

Of all the work you did for Prince, what does your son Duncan think is the “coolest” thing?

He says “the Truth” album cover 🙂