Why Prince’s First Recording Session Didn’t Impress His Engineer

Longtime Prince collaborator David “Z” Rivkin recalled his early studio sessions with the musician, prior to his first recording contract.

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 “incredible talent” had been evident, he replied, “Not then”, noting that everyone involved was “all amateurs at the time”.

Things were different after the band broke up. In 1976, as Prince was beginning to develop his solo career, manager Owen Husney hired him into the Sound 80 Studio in Minneapolis to track a new demo, and Rivkin was there again.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said when asked if Prince specifically wanted it. “But I was probably one of the only engineers who knew the street and knew what was going on there, and I didn’t do TV commercials like everyone else; that’s all they did.

At that time, the 18-year-old prince was working alone. “He had all these new songs that were great, and he recorded every part on this little handheld cassette. And he hummed the piano part, then he hummed the drum beat, then he hummed the guitar part,” Rivkin said. “We were going around the room, and before he started the drums, he was listening to the drum part; same thing with the piano, same thing with the bass. He had it planned and he was able to execute it all himself, which is really rare.

Of particular note is Prince’s ability to be “objective” about his own game, Rivkin added. “He didn’t seem like a single guy. He was able to put different personalities into different instruments… He got so comfortable with recording that he ended up doing a lot of it himself.

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 on which producer should work with Prince, he remained famous until they let him do it himself.

While the partnership with Rivkin continued well into the Paisley Park era, the engineer noted that he never worked FOR Prince, but rather WITH him, meaning he was exempt from the behavior notoriously demanding of the artist. “He tortured a lot of people,” Rivkin pointed out. “He could be really tough on people… he would focus on one person he didn’t think was doing the job and he let them.”

Describing him as ‘a very tough boss’, the engineer added: ‘I haven’t had his wrath at all, so thankfully I’m [only] a witness to this. … He liked to keep people under his control. … He wasn’t just letting off steam – it was a control thing. ‘Don’t tell them – let them guess.’ He used to treat his band that way.

Watch David “Z” Rivkin’s interview

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