STORIES FROM THE PARK
PRN Alumni Foundation is comprised of the former employees of Prince, Paisley Park, Paisley Park Records, PRN Productions, NPG Records, Love4OneAnother, 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
Spotlight: Lisa Chamblee
"AT HEART, I’M A PRODUCER WITH ENGINEERING SKILLS"
CHRONICLING FREE SPIRIT LISA CHAMBLEE’s BOLD JOURNEY FROM IPR TO PAISLEY PARK AND BEYOND
Interviewed by writer: Tony Kiene
After she carefully wrote her name on a slip of paper, Lisa Chamblee set out to find her boss. When she finally tracked him down in Studio A at Paisley Park, Lisa approached confidently, handed Prince the slip with her name on it, and said, “This is how you spell my name for the album credit.” Prince took the note, glanced at it, turned his eyes to Lisa, smiled and replied, “Okay. Give it to Sam (Jennings). He’ll take care of that.”
Such a demonstration of self-assuredness was nothing out of the ordinary for Lisa; she has always been rather “bold”. Nevertheless, the significance of that moment was not lost on her. “Wow,” she thought to herself, “I could get credit on Prince’s album (3121). How cool is that?”
"THE MINNEAPOLIS SOUND IS IN MY DNA"
Although she spent most of her youth in the Massachusetts city of Worcester, approximately one hour west of Boston, Lisa’s roots run deep in the Twin Cities. She was born in Minneapolis while her mother Sheila and father Derek were both natives of St. Paul.
Her grandfather, the late Alvin “Del” Chamblee, was a true renaissance man. A World War II veteran and graduate of the Chicago Conservatory of Music, “Del” relocated his family to St. Paul in the early 1950s where he made a name for himself as a singer, playwright, actor, author, and painter. Lisa’s great uncle, Eddie “Long Gone” Chamblee, a successful solo artist in his own right also played with the likes of Lionel Hampton, T-Bone Walker, Count Basie, and Dinah Washington, to whom he was once married.
By the mid-1970s, members of Lisa’s family were also becoming well acquainted with the musical royalty that was coming of age on the west side of the Mississippi River. “My mom saw Prince play several times while they were still in high school.” Add in some of Lisa’s uncles who were friends of Brownmark’s as well as other future vets of the local music scene, and, as Lisa puts it, “You could say The Minneapolis Sound is part of my DNA.”
That said, Lisa didn’t really discover Prince until around the age of 11. She reveals, “It was the Diamonds and Pearls album, particularly the title track that first caught my attention.” And, as Lisa matriculated through high school, she received a first-hand introduction to the world of media and entertainment through her participation on the television show Youth Unity, which aired on Worcester’s WCTR Channel 3. And while she became enamoured with the film and video production, it would be the world of audio that spurred her passion and aspirations, she just didn’t know it yet.
FINDING HER CALLING
After graduating in 2000, Lisa made her way east to South Bend, Indiana, where she began her freshman year of college at the University of Notre Dame. As was the case in the Twin Cities, the Chamblee’s were well known around northern Indiana. Lisa’s great-uncle, the late Roland W. Chamblee, Sr. – decorated war hero, human rights activist, and beloved physician – remains a legend in the South Bend community and beyond. His son, Roland, Jr., spent nearly a quarter-century as a Superior Court Judge in St. Joseph County before leaving the bench to re-establish his own law practice.
As she prepared to follow in the footsteps of other successful Chamblee’s, Lisa chose business as her major. Yet it became clear to her during that first year, that Notre Dame just wasn’t a good fit. “I was too much of a creative person, a free spirit,” explains Lisa, “I wasn’t interested in becoming a soldier for ‘the man.’” So, for her sophomore year, she transferred to Minnesota State University, Mankato.
On weekends, Lisa made the 90-minute drive up US Highway 169 to stay with her aunt Rachel, who was a singer in the Twin Cities. And while accompanying Rachel to a recording session, Lisa first met the one and only Morris Hayes. “It was at his home studio and I was amazed at how much gear he had,” recalls Lisa, “Not just instruments, but gear. He had everything, I mean everything. Morris was a gear whore.”
Rachel also had sessions with Allan “Sparky” Starks, who worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Gloria Estefan among others. As Lisa notes, “This was the time when a lot of people were transitioning from analogue to digital and you could have a somewhat affordable audio work station in your home.” In contrast to Morris, this is what Allan had and being able to witness such different environments would ultimately serve Lisa well.
It was at Sparky’s studio that Lisa first came to believe that audio engineering was something she could do. “Sparky was called away for a minute and he said, ‘Lisa, you can record Rachel.” After showing her a few commands on Pro Tools, he left and before she knew it Lisa was running her own session. And, as she became more and more familiar with the process, it occurred to her that there were so many career possibilities in music. Now if she could just figure out what Morris had going on in his studio. “Every time I walked in there I said to myself, “What the hell?!” All the same, Lisa proved to be a fast learner.
FIRST IN HER CLASS
One day, Morris told Lisa about a new school that Jack Robinson and some others were putting together and for the second time in as many years, Lisa transferred schools. However, this time, as she enrolled in the inaugural class of Minneapolis-based Institute of Production and Recording (IPR), Lisa new exactly what she wanted and wasn’t going to let anything get in her way.
As a woman, in an arena dominated by men, Lisa knew that she had to be twice as good as any of her classmates. “I realized there were very few women in the control room,” she says, “Sure you would see a female singer, or sometimes even a musician. But a producer or an engineer? No.” For every Peggy McCreary or Susan Rogers, it seemed as though there were hundreds if not thousands of men in those positions. So, Lisa set about to help change that ratio and treated IPR as her own personal boot camp.
Her production teacher was none other than St. Paul Peterson and she learned engineering from the legendary Tom Tucker, Sr. (one of the four founding partners of IPR). She proudly proclaims, “My first mentors in this business were not only heavyweights, but Prince heavyweights at that.” Lisa didn’t waste any time learning her craft, even recording multiple albums worth of material for outside clients at IPR during her time in school. And, just like a professional, she charged those clients for her services before IPR instituted a policy against such a practice.
When Lisa was finished at IPR she hadn’t only graduated, but did so as the class valedictorian. She immediately opened her own studio with production partner, Onyx and for the next year or so continued to refine her proficiency and knowledge of audio, while admitting, “At heart I’m a producer that just happens to have engineering skills.”
At some point in early 2004, Morris had some more news to share with Lisa. “He simply said to me, ‘Be ready. You might be getting call from Paisley Park soon.” Of course, like anyone in Minneapolis, Lisa wanted to work for Prince. However, to her knowledge Paisley Park was that it was in need of a lot of work. “At the time, I knew that only Studio A was hardly up and running.” Therefore, she wondered why they might call on her.
What she didn’t know was Grammy-Award winning engineer Dave Hampton – who’d worked with jazz legends Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Marcus Miller – had been brought in not only as a studio designer but also the new technical director at Paisley Park. It was Dave’s charge to make sure the facility was fully functioning again.
In spite of her reservations, she heeded Morris’ advice and started to get ready. Says Lisa, “I listened to pretty much all Prince’s music along with all the music that influenced him: classic funk, rock, and R&B.” And, knowing that Prince “liked to record directly to tape,” she made sure that all her bases were covered if she ever called upon to record Prince herself. Then, just a few months after Morris alerted her, Lisa got that call.
“I LOVE HOW LISA SET UP THAT ROOM”
It was Saturday evening, May 1, 2004, when one of the engineers failed to show up at Paisley Park. Morris called Lisa, let her know she “was up,” and she made the drive out to Chanhassen. Always prepared, she brought along a résumé and a CD demo of her work. As she arrived at the front door, Dave Hampton greeted her and escorted her to Studio A. When she walked in Lisa noticed that Morris and engineer Ian Boxill already seemed to be well into a session. “Morris,” she declared, “You started without me?”
As everyone was overcome with laughter, Dave informed her that she was actually scheduled for Studio C. It was there that she was asked to work with Malo (Adams), emerging solo artist and former front man of St. Paul’s critically acclaimed power trio, the Tribe of Millions. What Lisa assumed might just be a one-off session, was in actuality a job interview. “Dave set some ‘booby traps’ for me to work my way through. This included some noise, sort of a hum in Pro Tools that really wasn’t there.” Lisa passed her test with flying colors and was hired as the local staff engineer. Nonetheless, Lisa realized that she still had to prove herself. “I may have gotten by Dave, but there was still Prince.”
Lisa’s first assignment was to “wire-up” Studio D, which essentially had been a closet until Dave began the process of transforming it. The first thing she noticed was the PA system, which seemed unusual. When she asked why, Dave replied, “That’s what Prince wants.”
To this point, Lisa had still not even met Prince who was on the road, six-weeks or so into the Musicology Tour. Even so, she knew that a break in the tour schedule was upcoming and worked tirelessly to “make sure everything was right.” In retrospect, Lisa acknowledges that putting together Studio D turned out to “the beginning of my partnership with Dave,” (the two of whom today operate the southern California-based Reftone Speakers among numerous other business ventures).
Shortly after her new boss returned to Paisley Park, Lisa got word that Prince told Ian “I love how Lisa set up that room” (Studio D). This was great news on a couple of fronts; Not only was Prince impressed with Lisa’s work, but she’d already heard more than once “If he remembers your name, that’s a good sign.” Moreover, it was in Studio D where Prince would later compose his Grammy-nominated and Golden Globe-winning “A Song of the Heart” (from the motion picture soundtrack Happy Feet).
LISA’S MASTER CLASS
It wasn’t long before Lisa had the opportunity to go into the studio with Prince. “It was just for some keyboard overdubbing that he was doing, nothing major” remarks Lisa, “Still, it felt like I was holding my breath the whole time. I’m not sure I was even breathing at all.” And, when she forgot to stop the tape it went off the reel. “Lisa!” Prince snapped. As she scrambled to fix her mistake, Prince asked, “What are you, scared?” In that moment, remembering all the times she’d been told, “Prince can smell fear,” she calmly gathered her thoughts and reminded herself to just breathe. “No. I’m fine,” Lisa laughed, “He looked at me for a moment. Then we continued the session.”
From then on, things went much smoother for Lisa. Among her fondest memories at Paisley Park is from 2005, when Prince was about as excited as she’d ever seen him. “Guess what we are doing today,” he asked Lisa. Before she could even respond, Prince continued, “Sonny and Michael are coming over and we are going to record.” So, Lisa set up Studio A for what, unbeknownst to her at the time, would become one of the most unforgettable nights of her life. She describes it like this, “The vibe was so surreal, so dope.”
Lisa remembers it was quite difficult to gain her focus through all the amazement. “You could feel Prince’s energy in the room; it was off the charts.” And, when you coupled Prince’s electricity with the ethereal connection between the three of them, it was “pure magic.” Prince, Sonny, and Michael recorded eleven or twelve songs that night in succession, a handful of which would later anchor the 2009 album Lotusflow3r. “It was like completing a Master Class in production and engineering all in one fell swoop,” says Lisa. “To capture the masters playing new music, collaborating and improvising…words can’t describe the magnificence of that night.”
“LISA… I WANT YOU TO HEAR SOMETHING”
As Prince started to record 3121, Lisa’s role increased and she was able to spend more and more time in the studio. “I would record his drums, then bass, guitar, and then keys. But he recorded his own vocals,” explains Lisa. Thus, after she set him up for vocals, Prince would ask Lisa to leave the room.
Normally, she would find something else to do. Sometimes she might pick up a magazine, which she did on one particular occasion. Generally, if Lisa was not in the room and Prince needed something, he’d simply summon her over the intercom. For example, “Lisa. Studio A,” was a common refrain throughout the corridors of Paisley Park. “Yet one this one time,” as she recounts, “He just appeared at the Engineer’s Lounge. Scared me half to death.”
“Lisa. I want you to hear something,” announced Prince. He then stopped and said, “Wait a minute. How old are you? I’m not sure if you can hear this.” Incredulous, Lisa shot back, “Sure I can! What are you even talking about?” After they both laughed, Prince shared his new creation, “Satisfied.” With regard to this ballad which ultimately appeared on 3121, Lisa wasn’t going to offer her opinion unless Prince asked. “I never wanted to come off as self-important. I just thought of myself as a facilitator. Prince was the vessel.” Regardless, Prince did ask, “What do ya think?” and Lisa confirmed that yes, she indeed liked the song.
As she casually strode toward Sam Jenning’s office with slip in hand (of how to credit her name on 3121), Lisa recognized this was big personal moment for her; Assistant Engineer on 3121. Likewise, it had not escaped her that she was part of unique collective, something that had never occurred before at Paisley Park. “With Dave, Ian, Ralph (Sutton), Khaliq (Glover) and myself, Prince had an all-black crew. That meant a lot to all of us and I know it did to Prince as well.”
Not long after she’d completed her duties at Paisley Park, Lisa relocated to Hollywood where she went to work for world-renowned artist, composer, producer, professor, and maestro of multiple musical genres, George Duke. At George’s fabled Le Gonks West Studio, Lisa became 2nd engineer to Erik Zobler, who’s own career spans more than four decades.
She spent nearly eight years with George and Erik until Duke’s passing in 2013. Among the myriad of artists Lisa helped record during this time were Jeffrey Osborne, Teena Marie, Sheila E., Kevin Whalum, Eric Benet, Ledisi, Tower of Power, and “Uncle” Charlie Wilson. “Those were truly great times,” she says.
While she reminisces about that period of her career so many stories come to mind. One that sticks out from around 2007 is when she got the chance to record Charlie Wilson, who was looking to shop around some new material. Riveted by how great his vocals sounded, Lisa was quite pleased with herself. “I must have really done well,” she thought. When informed that “Uncle Charlie” was simply that good, she took it in stride and playfully declared, “Well. At least I didn’t f#!% it up.”
Another memorable occasion was recording Teena Marie. Having worked with Prince, Lisa was no stranger to pranks and other shenanigans. Still, what George and Erik had in store for her that day was something altogether different. “They told me that Teena wanted my invoice (for Lisa’s services) right after the session.”
This seemed a little peculiar to Lisa, who would normally forward her bill a few days later “like pretty much everyone else did.” But since the two of them insisted, Lisa went ahead and presented her invoice to Teena immediately following the session. “She seemed really cool about it and even cut me a check right there on the spot,” laughs Lisa, “But I sensed her surprise. That’s when I knew George and Erik had played me.”
In 2013, Dave and Lisa opened Reftone Speakers, which have become an industry standard in professional music studios all over the world. Naturally, Prince was well already well aware of the technical expertise that the two of them brought to the table. And as Paisley Park was again in need of some upgrades, Prince sought their help.
“Dave and I were supposed to work with him again but we never got that chance,” explains Lisa, “Someone from Prince’s team called Dave from time to time in order to pick his brain. However, Dave asserted that he ‘needed to be there’ and for whatever reason that never happened. I believe we were actively blocked getting back to Paisley Park. And that breaks my heart.”
On April 21, 2016, Lisa happened to be at a trade show in Las Vegas– and of all places was staying at the Rio Hotel and Casino. The last time she’d been there was on her 25th birthday, when she saw Prince perform during his celebrated Club 3121 residency. That morning when the news of Prince’s passing reached her, Lisa was devastated. “I cried all the time, I couldn’t even talk about him for a year,” she conveys, “That day we were robbed on the embodiment of music. Prince was music.”
hen she thinks back on all the things that she took away from her time with Prince, several things register instantly. “To be fearless for one,” she notes, “Plus, he’d always tell us to think big, and then think even bigger.” Perhaps most importantly, Lisa affirms that “Prince wanted you to be yourself and in doing so to become the best possible version of you.” And, as Lisa and countless other PRN Alumni have expressed, there was no one better than Prince at getting the absolute best out of those around him.
© Tony Kiene & PRN Alumni Foundation