Why Prince’s First Recording Session Didn’t Wow His Engineer
Rivkin’s first time in the studio with Prince was with the musician’s high school band, Grand Central.
“It was Prince and Andre Cymone and Morris Day. A trio,” Rivkin recalled to Sunset Sound Recorders (video below). “I didn’t think it was anything special.”
Asked if Prince’s “amazing talent” had been obvious, he replied: “Not at that time,” noting that everyone involved were “all amateur back then.”
Things were different after the band split. In 1976, as Prince began developing his solo career, manager Owen Husney booked him into Minneapolis’ Sound 80 Studio to track a new demo, and Rivkin was once again present.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said when asked if Prince had wanted him specifically. “But I was probably one of the only engineers that knew the street and knew what was going on, and I wasn’t doing television commercials like everybody else; that’s all they did.”
By that point the 18-year-old Prince was working by himself. “He had all these new songs that were great, and he had recorded every part on this little hand cassette machine. And he hummed the piano part, then he hummed the drum beat, then he hummed the guitar part,” Rivkin said. “We’d go around the room, and before he started the drums he’d listen to the drum part; same thing with the piano, same thing with the bass. He had planned it out and he was able to execute it all himself, which is really rare.”
Of particular note was Prince’s ability to be “objective” over his own playing, Rivkin added. “He didn't sound like it was one guy. He managed to put different personalities in different instruments… He got so comfortable with recording that he did a lot of it himself eventually.”
The demo led to the deal with Warner Brothers, and Rivkin accompanied Prince to the label’s Amigo Studios in North Hollywood, where “all the famous producers came into the room to see if Prince could actually do it himself.” While the subtext was to make a decision over which producer was to work with Prince, he famously stuck it out until they let him do it himself.
While the partnership with Rivkin continued right into the Paisley Park era, the engineer noted he’d never worked FOR Prince, but instead worked WITH him – meaning he was exempt from the artist’s notoriously demanding behavior. “He tortured a lot of people,” Rivkin pointed out. “He could be very hard on people… he’d focus on one person that he didn’t think was doing the job and he’d let ‘em have it.”
Describing him as “a very tough boss,” the engineer added: “I didn’t come under his wrath at all so I’m luckily [only] a witness to that. … He liked to keep people under his thumb. … He wasn’t just venting – it was a control thing. ‘Don’t tell ‘em things – let ‘em guess.’ He used to treat his band that way.”
Watch David “Z” Rivkin’s Interview