Before the 1984 blockbuster Purple Rain catapulted Prince on to the national stage, there was an Aug. 3, 1983 benefit concert for the Minnesota Dance Theatre at the recently re-branded First Avenue. It was there that the budding pop star debuted much of the Purple Rain album tracks, and recorded the versions of “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m A Star” heard in the film and soundtrack.
“Those versions were almost exactly what he did live,” said longtime Prince producer David Rivkin, also known as David Z.
Since technology at the time couldn’t record wireless bass well, Rivkin said, Prince later added bass overdubs. He did some content edits, cutting the song down from about 14 to nine minutes.
“It was incredible; I mean little did I know it was gonna be that big of a recording,” Rivkin said. “Prince was really not a well-known figure back then. This is the kind of recording that launched him into super stardom.”
As a Star Tribune write-up from the time explains, Minnesota Dance Theatre artistic director Loyce Houlton waited outside Prince’s door, where she asked him to do a benefit show for “the financially beleaguered dance company.” Two weeks later, about 1,200 people came to see the Purple One for $25, raising $23,000 for the company, First Avenue documents show. The night also included performances from the company, including a piece choreographed by Houlton to Prince’s “DMSR.”
The $25 ticket price — worth $60 today — had been escalated above the average $4 or $5 show ticket to help raise money, said then-First Avenue general manager Steve McClellan.
In addition to the 1,200 customers, First Avenue records show 252 people attended with free tickets, which McClellan said may have included MDT members. Guest lists — which show at least 32 names that weren’t working or performing — show prominent members of the local music scene were also in attendance.
Those who were there describe the 75-minute set as mesmerizing.
“I think what I remember most about that show was not so much watching him but watching the people in the crowd reacting. And how it was kind of like, you know, this guy goes really deep inside of people. It’s just his energy, his aura, all that. It just made me realize how much his music affected people,” said Hugo Klaers of The Suburbs.
“The energy level that was put out by the band was absolutely indescribable,” said Marsh Edelstein, who booked and managed bands at the time and now runs Marsh Productions. “People were just in awe.”
Rivkin recorded the show that night from a Record Plant truck. The New York-based remote recording business had also previously done work with acts like Aerosmith and Jimi Hendrix.
“There really wasn’t anybody in the Midwest with a superior recording truck like that,” he said. “Those guys were all really top pros, and it was wonderful to see and work with them, and I learned a lot.”
With help from Record Plant engineers David Hewitt and Kooster McAllister, Rivkin routed microphones into the truck, using about 24 inputs. They split the microphones with the club, allowing engineers in both places to mix the sound right. In September 2015, a video surfaced of the “Purple Rain” performance, which Rivkin said was taken from the video monitors the engineers used in the trucks. You can watch it here.
When the time came to perform the now famous track, the crowd seemed to be stunned silent.
“Nobody clapped because they had never heard those songs before,” Rivkin said.
For the movie, he said, he added in audio of cheering fans from a Vikings game.
At the time, no official announcements had been made about the Purple Rain movie, which was filmed at First Avenue in December of that year. Back in August, Rivkin said he didn’t know where the recording would be used.
“Nobody knew anything. I didn’t know if it was just for his own personal folly or if he was gonna use it for something … It was kind of a weird situation. I kind of assumed it was going to be a record, but I didn’t know there was a movie being written,” David said.
So why did Prince pick this show to record and then stick with it?
“I guess because it was fresh and new and it came off so good that he decided to use it,” Rivkin said. “He could have waited and done 20 shows and picked the best one, but he didn’t. He’s kind of like that though — it’s like first impressions are the most important.”
Set list from August 3, 1983, via setlist.fm:
Let’s Go Crazy
When You Were Mine
A Case of You (Joni Mitchell cover)
I Would Die 4 U
Baby I’m a Star
Little Red Corvette
Artifacts from First Avenue’s file on the show, via MNHS:
Jackie Renzetti studies journalism and political science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and co-hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”