Prince Had Many Backing Bands in His Career, but He Only Led One Revolution

Obviously, the star attraction is no longer playing alongside them. But as drummer Bobby Z explains, they feel like he’s still there in spirit—especially when they screw up.

PURPLE POSSE: (From left) The Revolution's Mark Brown, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin, Matt Fink, Bobby Z. IMAGE: Kii Arens.

Prince played with a lot of musicians in his lifetime. But if you ask Robert Rivkin, he was only ever really in one band. It happens to be the one Rivkin also played drums in—the Revolution.

"The other bands were like Wings. Are Wings like the Beatles?" says Rivkin, known to Prince diehards as Bobby Z. "I don't mean any disrespect to anybody. But I just felt like we spent so much time together in creativity and interaction, and I think it's what makes it strangely immortal."

Few fans would disagree. Although the classic incarnation of the Revolution—Rivkin, Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Matt Fink and Mark Brown—lasted only a few years, they supported Prince during his ascension to megalithic stardom during the Purple Rain era. And in Rivkin's estimation, they weren't just clinging to his lavender coattails, but sharing the experience. After the group expanded then dissolved, Prince led several bands, but he was never truly a member of one again.

That's Rivkin's view, at least. Regardless, it's hard to argue that any collection of musicians knows his music quite as intimately. After Prince died last April, the rest of the Revolution reunited for a three-night stand at First Avenue, the Minneapolis club he made world famous. Now, they're touring the country, playing his most well-known material, plus some recently unearthed obscurities from the just-released expanded edition of Purple Rain.

Obviously, the star attraction is no longer playing alongside them. But as Rivkin explains, they feel like he's still there in spirit—especially when they screw up.

Willamette Week: You met Prince just as his career was starting. What were your first impressions of him?

Bobby Z: So I'm walking by the door of Studio A at Chris Moon's studio for the very first time. I peek through the door and I see the afro. I got the side-eye look that we all know so well now. Back then, I was the same guy I am now, and I go, "Hey, what's going on in here?" He looked at me like he just saw Dracula or something. But I won him over with a few jokes, and then I watched him record. He went out there and did drums first. And I went, what is he doing? What's going on? How does he know where to stop and start? Then he played bass. Then he played guitar. Then he played keyboard. Then he started singing. And I went, "This isn't songwriting. This is channeling." And I was hooked immediately.

Was Prince basically Prince from the beginning?

Yes. That's the thing that's so interesting for me. I got to see everyone get fired. [Laughs] He was always driven, but he opened his own doors—many, many doors—with his brilliance. I was proud of him, to say the least.

Was Prince knowable even for someone like you, or was he fairly private even to his bandmates?

When we were kids, I was with him 24/7—movies, stores, restaurants, back to the apartment, back to Owen [Husney, Prince's first manager]'s office, recording, playing. As time went on, I always had a connection, but rock stars get busy. As Wendy [Melvoin] tells it, when he disappeared from us to prep the movie is when he really became a superstar, because he had so many things going at once. And sure, everyone's got a mask on in some form. We're all many different people, and he was no different.

Prince was a notorious taskmaster, and I imagine he'd be particularly harsh on you as a drummer. Do you have specific memories that involve him being particularly demanding of you specifically?

First of all, to pick a nice Jewish kid from St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and stick with him all those years and be his drummer is pretty commendable for him. I'm forever grateful he did that. Being a drummer for him is an extraordinary moment, because he hears everything going on in his head simultaneously, every part. But we had 100 million moments together that were incredible. And no one will ever know, because they were private moments. But they're very rewarding to think back on, that's for sure.

You've said that you feel the Revolution was the last time Prince was in a band, and after that he became a bandleader. What do you feel made the Revolution different from the other bands Prince would go on to play with?

I get in trouble when I say that. I don't mean any disrespect to anybody, but I know, because I remained friends with him basically his entire life. I'd go out to rehearsals and see how he runs rehearsals with other bands, and my opinion is, he spent hours with us as a member of the band that he probably didn't as a bandleader later. He was our bandleader, but we're called the Revolution in the movie—one name—and he wanted to be a member of this creation. He created a band for him to be immersed in. Sure, he was a solo act when he started, and he was a solo act after us, in my opinion.

Was there any hesitation about taking this reunion beyond those initial tribute shows?

I have reluctance every day. We're very confident in our skills, it's just aging and health, and there's a lot of things in life that go with doing this. By bringing it to people this way, it's really helping us and we know it's helping people. Because they're crying. They're coming to us crying. And it's sad. The show has an element of being really sad. But we don't know what else to do. I can't imagine sitting home. What would [Prince] want me to do? I don't know if he'd approve of what we're doing, but he'd approve of what we're doing onstage. And that's what matters to me. Because we're playing to him. If we make a mistake, we're looking up to Heaven, not at each other. The band doesn't care, but he would've killed me for that!

How much ownership do you feel over these songs? Are you purely paying homage or does it feel like your music, too?

It absolutely feels like our music, because the Purple Rain album was a band recording. Fact is fact. There were so many creative ideas flowing, and his were 99 percent right all the time. But if you had 1 percent—first of all, it better be damn good, and if it was good and it enhanced it, it brought everyone closer, and everyone wanted to contribute.

What's your opinion on some of the stuff that's happened over the last year, with regards to Prince's catalog now being on Spotify and his vault starting to get raided?

You have to stream. You just have to. I understand his protest, but I also understand the demand for his music is overwhelming. Prince was always on top of technology, and you have to factor in his forward thinking, too. He was making a statement about not streaming at a particular point in time in his career, but he's been known to change, too, for contractual or revenue reasons.

But I believe you need to buy this [expanded Purple Rain] package to get the DVD and watch the Syracuse show. If you were too young—which everybody was, for the most part, 30 years is a long time—this will show you, if we're getting any good reviews now, imagine what we're doing with Prince on top. That Syracuse video will at least give you a peek back at this unbelievable show.

How much discussion was there about doing a full-fledged reunion while Prince was alive?

Yeah, we talked about it. Sure. He called us Mount Rushmore, he knew what he had. But like I said, I appreciated the fact he was a solo act when he started, and he needed his own space after the Revolution. Being in a band is claustrophobic. There's no doubt. It's a compromise on many levels, whether you're Prince or not.

You last played live with Prince in 2013. What was that like for you?

I had a little heart trouble a few years ago. He wrote a statement saying when I got better, I'd play "Purple Rain" with him. And we went out there and knocked it out, and he said some really nice things during the breakdown that were unbelievable for me. It was a pretty incredible moment to be acknowledged by him for our hard work in the beginning, being nobodies together. I mean, literally—lots of nothingness there. We were a couple of goons running around.

What do you feel is the greatest misconception the outside public has about Prince?

That he's not a normal person. He is a normal person. He's an extraordinary person, but he's still a human. He was just a driven leader of men—a king.

SEE IT: The Revolution plays Roseland Theater, 8 NW 6th Ave., on Friday, July 14. 9 pm. $35 general admission, $55 balcony seating. All ages.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.