July 26, 2017 at 12:03 am #3562
Prince sideman Eric Leeds: ‘I don’t believe he was meant to grow old’
Scott Mervis – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Apr 24, 2016
Like everyone else, Eric was shocked to learn of Prince’s death Thursday, but the saxophonist who played with him from 1984 to 1990 says he never could imagine Prince growing old and that the rocker is now “frozen in time” for his fans.
Leeds, a Milwaukee native who grew up in Pittsburgh and studied at Duquesne University, was part of Prince’s inner circle during one of the legendary rocker’s creative peaks. He landed the gig through his brother, Alan, who was Prince’s road manager in the height of the “Purple Rain” era.
Eric Leeds, 64, toured with Prince as a member of The Family and The Revolution, worked with him in the studio on 65 to 70 sessions from 1985 well into the ‘90s, and was later signed to Paisley Park Records for a string of jazz albums, including two in the Prince side project Madhouse.
He currently leads the jazz band LP Music along with fellow Prince alum, keyboardist St. Paul Peterson. Prince recently visited a Minneapolis club to check in on his former band members. Leeds talked about that and his time with Prince in an interview Saturday.
So, I understand Prince came to see your band recently.
We play pretty regularly at the Dakota Club, which is the primary jazz club here in Minneapolis, and we played there about a month ago, and apparently Prince stopped in. I didn’t see him or talk to him. He came in and he went into a private dining room — there are closed circuit televisions all over the club — and he was just sitting in a private room watching us on TV rather than sitting in the club, which I found kind of bizarre. It’s something he wouldn’t necessarily have done 20 years ago. He would have been much more inclined to just sit in the club with some friends or something. I found it just kind of curious.
When was the last time you talked to him?
I saw him last fall for all of about two minutes. We played an LP gig out at Paisley Park, one of his Saturday night parties. He asked us to come out and play, and after the soundcheck he came by and said hello and, to be absolutely honest, other than that I had not had any conversation with him since about 2003.
What was your reaction when you heard this news the other day?
After the initial shock of hearing the words — my brother is the one who told me — and after trying to wrap my head around the phrase “Prince died this morning,” which is what Alan said, I posted a thing on my Facebook page last night and kind of ended it saying it never occurred to me, for example, that Prince would outlive me, and I’m several years older than him. I don’t believe that Prince is someone who was meant to grow old. It just never occurred to me that this was somebody who was going to grow old, like in their 70s or 80s, so the idea that he would check out at a relatively young age just seem to be almost fitting. This might sound cynical, and I don’t mean it in that way, but there are certain icons that kind of get frozen in time if they pass at a relatively young age. We have no idea, for instance, what an old John F. Kennedy would have been. People who were into Marilyn Monroe, so much of the legacy of people like that ends up being that they died at a young age, and I almost think of it in the same manner as Prince, because people are going to remember him as being relatively young and still able to perform at a level he was able to perform, and I think he’s going to be frozen in time like that. To be honest here, he was never someone who seemed particularly interested in the idea of growing old. So I just sat there and said, “You know, this is probably the way it was meant to be.” That doesn’t make it any easier for anyone to deal with.
How did your brother come to be Prince’s tour manager?
Alan had been living in Pittsburgh for years and in the early ’80s he moved back to New York City and he got a gig being road manager for the group Kiss, which was something we laughed about because it was hardly the kind of music that Alan was ever interested in or involved in.July 26, 2017 at 12:09 am #3565
…continue Pg2 – Eric Leeds Interview – April 2016
But he got on the road with Kiss, I think was February 1983, and the production designer for that show was a guy named Tommy Marzullo, who came from Pittsburgh. He knew me because he used to come out and hear my band Taking Names and he’d to come out and hear Billy Price and the Keystone Rhythm Band all the time in the early ’80s. Prince was on the road with the “1999 Tour” and, as it turns out, Tommy was also the production designer for that tour. He was going back and forth between tours and he mentioned to Alan that Prince had just fired his current road manager and was looking for a new road manager, and Alan told Tommy, “If there is any way in hell that you could possibly see if I could get on the Prince tour…” And Alan still had a few weeks to go with the Kiss tour when Tommy came back and told Alan, “I could probably get you the gig with Prince.” Alan said, “I still have a few weeks with Kiss.” Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley told Alan, “Man, we’re good. Everything that needs to be put in place, you’ve pretty much taken care of. Go! Get the Prince tour. We’re cool with it.” Alan finished up the Prince tour and went back to New York in the summer of ’83, and he got a call back from Prince’s manager, who said, “We need you to come to Minneapolis to manage the office at Paisley Park and be a road manager in place.” Alan said, “Well, why?” and they said, “We’re starting to film a movie.” He moved there in ’83 while they filmed “Purple Rain” and after that went out with him on subsequent tours. After the last tour in ’88, Alan became the head of Paisley Park Records until ’92.
So, how did you get into the group?
Prince’s group, Morris Day and the Time, that band was breaking up, just before the movie was going to be released in the summer of ’84. The Time broke up and Prince wanted to put another band together that would allow him to be more heavily R&B/pop, so it was going to be different from his own band and was going to be called The Family. And for the first time, Prince entertained the idea of using horns. Alan told Prince, “If you’re looking for a sax player, I just happen to know someone.” Alan gave Prince something of my playing and he was sufficiently impressed. He said, “I love the way your brother plays. Call him and tell him to come up to Minneapolis.”
So, what was that first meeting like?
Walked into a room, Alan introduced us, and Prince said to me, “I’ve got four or five tracks already done for this project. If you would like to listen to them for a few days and come up with a few ideas…” And I wasn’t feeling cocky and arrogant or anything, but I said, “I’m fine with just diving in and starting right now if that’s what you’d be interested in doing,” and Prince smiled at me and said, “Cool, let’s go,” and we worked for about two or three hours that afternoon and finished about four or five tracks.
What was Prince like to work for? I know that James Brown was tough on his band. Prince seemed to be that kind of perfectionist. Did Prince take a cue from James Brown in that sense?
I would think to a certain degree. I had known James Brown since I was a kid because Alan was James Brown’s tour director back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and that gave me an opportunity to know James and most of the guys in his band. They were really mentors of mine. Prince didn’t run it in the almost-militaristic fashion that James did. Prince was demanding and he was a perfectionist, and that’s what we appreciated. Because I played an instrument that he didn’t play — and after the first album, The Family project fell apart — I was fortunate that he just moved me over to his band and expanded The Revolution at that time. And he said, “I would like a trumpet player, do you know anyone?” and I recommended Matt Blisten [aka Atlanta Bliss] from Pittsburgh. Matt and I went to school together at Duquesne and we’d been playing in bands together for 10 years. Because Prince couldn’t play the horns, he had to rely on us to contribute horn arrangements and things of that nature. He had always had tremendous players in his band regardless of what instrument they play, but if they played guitar or keyboard or bass or drums, he could really pick up the bass or guitar or get behind the keyboard and drums and show them exactly what he wanted by playing it. He couldn’t do that with the horns, so the method of communication was a little bit different and it kind of enabled us to take on more of a role in the band. And because he didn’t play the horns, it enabled us to do a lot more recording with him because he could play all the other instruments that he did. And we found [recording in the studio] to be one of the most interesting and fulfilling aspects of working with him.
You were a studied and schooled musician and he was a self-taught player. So how did you evaluate him as a musician?
Hands down, he’s as remarkable a musician as I can remember ever working with. I would say he’s a remarkable musician and on his best day, he was a downright brilliant — not only his instincts but the fact that he had so much music in him he wanted to get out. I’m very grateful that the years I was working with him most closely, from ’84 to ’90, I think those were probably his most creative years, and he was showing a lot of growth in his music. I was lucky to have been there at that time when he was very open to reaching out to other people, including myself and Matt Blisten and Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. He was very open to the idea of reaching out to others in his music, which I understand he was not prone to do in his early days, and certainly I don’t think he did that much in the later years as well. It was just period of time when he realized he was still growing and trying to do a lot of things. He was determined after the success of “Purple Rain” that his next album would be entirely different, and certainly the next album, “Around the World in a Day,” is very, very different, and then came “Parade,” which was the music from “Under the Cherry Moon,” and “Sign of the Times,” which I suspect most critics would look at as perhaps being his high-water mark.
Did you ever know anyone who could record an entire album by themselves?
From what I understand, Stevie Wonder did. If you go back to early articles on Prince about Stevie Wonder, the reference was obvious. I understand that when they first brought him to the attention of Warner Bros. Records, they hyped him, saying, “This kid could be the next Stevie Wonder.” At that time, the ability to play all those instruments and with the depth he did… He was known as an iconic rock guitar player, that’s a given. The instrument I used to love listening to him play more than anything was bass. I had a lot of opportunity to hear him play the other instruments to a degree that others did not, at jam sessions and long soundchecks. Before PaisleyJuly 26, 2017 at 12:11 am #3566
…continue Pg3 – Eric Leeds Interview – April 2016
Park was built, for the first several years, when I was working with him, we would do most of our recording in LA at Sunset Studios. So it wouldn’t be unusual for Matt and I to be out in LA for weeks at a time. He would block out a studio for maybe a month, and we’d be in there almost every day. There were times when we would go in with just him and Wendy and Lisa, and it was not unusual for us to go into the studio late at night with him for hours. We would just jam and he would float between instruments, and those were the opportunities when you really got to hear Prince play.
I remember in the ’88 tour, you guys were just jumping from one song to the next without stopping, or barely even finishing a lot of them.
It was a non-stop thing, and I always found one of the most interesting aspects were the transitions he would write and segues from one to another. Occasionally, we would work on things for several hours and sometimes he would just throw up his hands and say, “Oh, that didn’t work. I’m going home, I’ll see you all tomorrow,” and then he would come back in the next day with a whole new fresh set of ideas about how to approach the same issue. It was very enjoyable to just sit and watch the creative process unfold. And then we would run through the show a couple times a day for months.
Once you came up with the show, did you pretty much stick with it?
For a while. He could get awfully bored with things very quickly. “Lovesexy,” we were out on tour for six months. The changes in the show were incremental, but yeah, it would change a bit.
Aside from the music, what was the lifestyle like in the band? Were there rules? Was it like a party as it went along? What was the backstage atmosphere? I know you would hit clubs a lot after.
Yeah, we would do that occasionally. Try to keep a perspective on it that when you’re out on the road on a rock ’n’ roll tour, a top-tier recording artist, when you’re on a tour like that, it’s Disneyland. It’s not real. I was on the road with Billy Price for four years with seven of us in a van, driving up and down the East Coast, playing one-nighters, where we’re driving 250 miles a day to get to the next gig. You get to the gig, you play the gig, you’re playing three or four sets, you go to some cheesy-ass motel where you’re doubling up in a hotel room. You get up the next morning and you get to the van and you do it all over. THAT’s being on the road. In Prince, you’re staying in four- and five-star hotels, we all had our own rooms, sometimes they were mini-suites. Basically, by the time we hit the road, we had the music so completely ingrained in us that we could play it in our sleep. And for something like the Lovesexy Tour, which was a theatrical presentation, you really had to know it that well. The last thing we had to think about was “Oh my god, I hope I don’t make a mistake.” By then, it was pretty much a machine. All I had to worry about was being in the hotel lobby at lobby call. It might be noon. Everything else is taken care of. You get in the van, you get driven to the gig. Matt and I go to our dressing room, our cases with our horns are already there. So all we have to do is get them out of the case, warm them up, find a good reed, and then know that within the next hour Prince is going to get there and we’re going to start the soundcheck that will last anywhere from an hour to two hours, depending on what kind of mood he’s in. We finish the soundcheck, go back to our rooms, have dinner and chill out. Our stage clothes are brought to us by the wardrobe department. We change clothes, we hit the stage, we do the gig. That’s what it’s like. Once were on the road like that, we really don’t see Prince until we get to the venue. There was a level of professionalism in every aspect, and everybody knew exactly what their role was. So it was Disneyland. He was an absolute professional. This was a guy that no matter what the situation was, whether it was rehearsal for a gig or a jam session or whatever, you knew that if you were called to be there at a certain time, that Prince was going to be there before we were and Prince was probably going to be the last one to leave. That engenders not only a sense of professionalism, but the fact that this guy is for real when it comes to that. This guy isn’t going to phone it in just because he’s the boss.
Everyone talks about how quiet he was, so how much did he let you get to know him?
In those days, yes, he was very quiet and very private in that manner. In those days, members of the original Revolution had already been in his band for five, six years, and because he was looking to grow musically, it made it more comfortable for him to have more personalized relationships with the band, to the degree. In those days, I had his private phone number, and if there was a circumstance to call him at home, I would do that, but it would have to be for a specific reason. But we all did, and before Paisley Park was built, he had a recording console in his house, and Matt and I were at his house an awful lot. And there were times during the summer when he would on occasion invite members of his band for a cookout. And when we were in rehearsals, there might be a night where we would get a call that Prince has rented out three or four bowling lanes at a particular bowling alley, “so if you feel like coming by around 10 or whatever.” So it wasn’t necessarily like, “OK, I gotta go bowling.” It was like, “Yeah, OK, maybe I’ll stop by around midnight and hang for a while.”
Van Jones, on CNN, said Prince was one of the funniest people he ever knew.
Prince had a tremendous sense of humor and it could be very dark at times. There was an awful lot of laughter in those days. Basically, you got to be able read him like a book. There were days when he would walk into the studio and we would look him and we would be like, “OK, it’s going to be one of THOSE days.” But I was not someone who was particularly interested in letting him determine what my frame of mind was supposed to be on a given day. I was the kind of person who thought, just because he’s walking in in a bad mood, that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden I have to be in a bad mood. And there were times when myself or other people in the band would make it their purpose to say, “OK, I’m going to put a smile on his face some time during the day.” And a lot of the time, if we really got into some cool music, that would put a smile on his face, and then things would cool out and he would say, “OK, now we’re going to have some fun.”July 26, 2017 at 12:13 am #3567
…continue Pg4 – Eric Leeds Interview – April 2016
Did he use that sense of humor in a caustic way at all?
Oh, absolutely! Absolutely! I liked to be able, to some degree, make fun at him at his expense. But he could give it as good as he got. Absolutely. And a lot of times, it was interesting: Let me get under his skin a little bit and see what he comes back with. He could be very funny.
What were the circumstances of it ending with you guys?
With that particular band, we were all under contract with him and we knew at the end of the ’80s that particular band was going to break up because he was not planning to go back on the road for a while after that. And to be honest, I think everyone in the band, myself included, we were kind of done with it by then. At that point in time, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do next, but, fortunately for me, he was still using me in the studio an awful lot. And then within a year after ’89, we had these two albums we had done as Madhouse, the instrumental thing that he basically created for me, so we were already doing those. And I was working on what would have been the third Madhouse album, and in the midst of the project he came to me and said, “You know, I want to sign you to Paisley Park Records and make this an Eric Leeds album instead of a Madhouse album.” And to be honest, that was probably the most significant gift. The biggest compliment he could ever have given me was to come to me and say “I want to sign you to my label.” Obviously, I said, “Wow, well, thank you.” So that enabled me to record two CDs for Paisley Park/Warner Brothers. After the mid-’90s I was involved in other things and he would occasionally bring me back into the studio. Then, in late 2002, he came to see me in the Latin band I was in and a couple weeks later I got a call that he was back on the road with this band, and I ended up infrequently doing some gigs with him in late 2002/early 2003. By the end of 2003, he was ready to go back on the road with the Musicology Tour. In the early 2000s, he was really at the low ebb of his career before the big comeback, and at that point I was really not interested in going back on the road with him. I was done with the idea of doing that. And I was back just trying to play jazz as much as I could, so I turned him down for that gig and we went our separate ways, and after that I saw him maybe once and that was about it.
Well, it sounds like it was all an amazing experience, and one that opened a lot of doors.
It really was. Because of Prince, I was able to work with George Clinton, one of my absolute heroes in music. At the same time he signed me to Paisley Park, he was signing George Clinton, so that enabled me to get to know George and do horn work on a couple of his albums. Because of Prince, I got to know Miles Davis. He’s MY Prince. Musically, there’s probably no one who is more significant for me than Miles, and because of Prince I got to know Miles, and I gotta tell you, all of us who knew and got to know Prince, we’re all sitting here and reflecting on what it meant in our lives. The friendship I had with Sheila E. and with Paul Peterson, who has been my closest friend in the Twin Cities for years and years now, we have that relationship because of our mutual involvement with Prince. That’s really for us. For everyone else, the music obviously is the lasting legacy, and the musical experience is for us our legacy with Prince, but the relationships are as important, if not more important. We have that because of him. That is one of the most important aspects of all of our mutual involvement with him.
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