Purple Partnership: The Revolution's Wendy Melvoin Recalls the Co-Writing Process for 'Purple Rain'

The inside story of the collaborations that molded one of the greatest albums of all time.
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History tends to portray prince as a genius/control freak/one-man band, but it’s important to note that Purple Rain is credited as “produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince and The Revolution.” This is not lip service. Like Robin to Prince’s Batman, or Keef to his Mick, Wendy Melvoin’s sass, spirited vocals, and avant-garde guitar structures played a crucial role in the creation of the Purple One’s masterpiece. Melvoin offered to look back at some Purple Rain sessions as the reformed Revolution continued its 2018 tour.

Which Purple Rain songs were you involved in creating?

I had a hand in everything, except “Darling Nikki” and “The Beautiful Ones.”

How did you develop the chordal structure to “Purple Rain”?

The band was in rehearsal, and Prince brought in this chorus. He said, “I’ve got these three chords. It’s almost like a straight-up country song. I need everybody to be who you are, and let’s make it something else.” I used my bag of tools to take this progression that sounded simple, and rework the chords to give it more subtext and elevate the song into something higher. I had a jazz-harmony background, so I re-harmonized the chords as triads. I also used my thumb on the neck similar to the way Richie Havens did. If my index finger was barring the 3rd fret, my thumb could barre the low-E and A strings on the 5th or 6th frets. That’s how I played “Purple Rain.”

For the record, what is the song’s opening chord?

I was in standard tuning, and Bbadd9 would be the easiest way to tab it.

Would you also experiment with alternate tunings?

If I got bored with standard E or dropped D, I would tune to some beautiful chord I loved, and I’d create a piece of music based on that. I’d usually use the bass notes as the root, and then end up with some bizarre +13sus chord by the time I was done. If I’m trying to impose a different flavor into a pop or rock element, I’ll do open tunings with distortion and lots of reverb and delay.

How would you work out guitar parts with Prince?

Just hours of jamming. We’d sit on a groove for three or four hours. He’d call out a key change, and we’d find the next right place to lay the railroad track down to keep the train moving. Most of the time, we’d go with call and response. Prince starts the phrase, I finish it. You stay on the groove, and make tiny, subtle changes—such as slide one note between the minor and major to make it funkier. But that one tiny tweak can turn the groove on its head. Nuance was the most important thing.

How was “Computer Blue” written?

Lisa [Coleman, keyboardist] and I came up with that little lead lick, and we all started jamming on that. Prince was good at corralling us to stay in the moment, and tease out the song structure. He was the chef, and we were the line cooks making this beautiful paella.