WITH HIT SONGS LIKE PURPLE Rain, Kiss, Raspberry Beret, 1999, When Doves Cry and Little Red Corvette and electric performances of lesser-known tunes that put his genius on display, Prince was an innovator, a pioneer and an inventor rolled into a rock star in heels. His colorful and stylized clothing, as well as his music, sent a clear message to the world—this guy was blazing his own musical path.
Perhaps he understood the journey more than most, since one of his bands was named, The Revolution. In fact, Rolling Stone ranked Prince at number 27 on its list of the “100 most influential artists of the rock and roll era.”
Steve Parke—an illustrator, designer and photographer—was not only a big fan of the purple one, he worked for Prince for 14, non-stop, adrenaline fueled years as his art director at his $10 million, 65,000-square-foot complex, Paisley Park Studio.
“Prince created his own universe at Paisley Park—it gave him the freedom to work on his own schedule and with the people he wanted to work with,” explains Parke, who helped Prince redesign the inside of the building.
Following Prince’s tragic death in 2016, Parke dug into his memories and his extensive archive of photographs and other memorabilia to recreate those magical years in his book, Picturing Prince. In this exclusive interview with COMMERCE, Parke reveals his personal experiences working with one of the music world’s most eclectic and legendary talents.
COMMERCE: How did you first connect with Prince?
STEVE PARKE: In 1988, I was doing commercial illustrations; Prince needed a set for one of his productions and a friend who had worked with him recommended me. I flew out to Prince’s Minnesota studio, Paisley Park, and was told that Prince was leaving for France in three hours and wanted to see some design sketches before then—something like this normally takes weeks to complete. I could finish at least one-third of the set in that time, which he was OK with.
What happened with that first opportunity to work with Prince?
I worked like a madman to get the sketches done in time and Prince liked them. He told me to have the finished set paintings ready when he returned from France in three days—again instead of the several weeks it typically takes. He finally agreed that one third of the paintings would be realistic in that timeframe, and I basically worked 72 hours straight to meet that deadline.
Was this rush to satisfy Prince an exception or just his creative process?
I soon found out that this was typical for Prince: he was involved in multiple projects and wanted them all done as quickly as possible without compromising quality. For the next couple of years, I worked for Prince sporadically on assignments, including set design, photography and T-shirt designs. I also designed some artwork and put an image of Prince in it, and that became the cover of his 1990 album, Graffiti Bridge and the poster for the movie by the same name that was subsequently made.
This was before Photoshop and other personal computer programs were widely available, right?
Initially, yes. Around 1990 they began to be more common, and I quickly realized I’d better learn how to use these kinds of programs. I pretty much taught myself.
When did you start working for Prince fulltime?
Officially, in the mid-90s as art director. But Prince was the kind of person that didn’t believe in limiting labels— he let you explore, and if you wanted to try something new, he’d give you free reign. So around 1997, Prince told me he had heard about this new technology called digital cameras; we rented one for a ridiculous amount, and from 1996 to 2001, I did most of his digital photos, too. I also helped him redesign the Paisley Park studio building.
How was Prince as a boss?
Prince gave me a fair amount of autonomy, but he was also actively engaged and was always checking in. Sometimes, when I was working on designs on the incredibly slow computers we had back then, Prince would sit right behind me the whole time. He liked to watch the process unfold, but it was easy to get nervous when the guy who’s on top of the food chain was watching you.
What was it like working for Prince?
With Prince, fulltime could mean your entire day. I routinely put in 80 hours to 120 hours a week for weeks at a time. He was fantastically creative, but it could burn you out. For example, he’d ask me to help get some stage clothes for his ads before an album release, and I’d ask, “What size?” He’d reply, “All sizes.” Or he’d decide to produce a new record and would push me to design sets and an album cover, and then just as suddenly decide not to produce it. That could be frustrating but being around him was such an electric experience that you didn’t get upset.
What was life like at Paisley Studio?
At one point, early on, he had a separate residence, but also had an apartment at the studio. When I worked for him, though, Prince was recording almost all the time, so it was like he was there all the time. For the most part, it was normal because he was working so much, He did throw some memorable parties—although, frankly, I had too much to do to go to the parties. He would sometimes take us out to movies at 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m. in the morning because that was midday at Paisley Park.
How would you describe Prince’s personal style?
What you saw was what you got. For example, the outfits he wore for his publicity shots and TV appearances—like a ruffled purple shirt and black beaded collar; or a full-on purple ensemble— were the same outfits he would wear when he was offstage. If he knew you and was comfortable with you, you could speak with Prince as though he was an ordinary guy. But if someone he didn’t know was around, he would often go into his rock-star persona and act distant. Prince created his own universe and put his own money on the line when it came to his career. That’s why he built Paisley Park Studio—it gave him the freedom to work on his own schedule and with the people he wanted to work with.
Can you share a few anecdotes about Prince?
You must understand that he worked very hard and cultivated a kind of ethereal persona. But he was also a very funny guy who wasn’t above a practical joke. For example, the Paisley Park studio had a sophisticated intercom phone system. During the day we had a receptionist to take calls, but at night anyone could answer the phone. Sometimes when we were working during the evening he would answer and say, “Hello, can I take your order?” as if we were a fast food restaurant.
Or a fan would call and ask for him, and Prince would respond, in a flat Minnesota accent, “I’m sorry, but we have no direct contact with Prince.” I think the best would be when one of my friends would call me, on my extension, and Prince would sometimes pick it up and act like he was my assistant, and then he’d hand me the phone. My friends would ask, “How do you rate an assistant to pick up your phone?” And I’d tell them, “Man, you were just speaking with Prince!” They were astounded.
Another thing is that Prince was dedicated to perfection. He’d rehearse at least eight hours a day in the weeks before a show, and each time he played as if he was in front of an audience. At a show, he’d often go beyond the setlist of songs, so his band had to know something like 30 additional scores.
All those rehearsals and training paid off. I remember, after one show, a music critic from the Baltimore Sun came up to me afterward and said that Prince must have been lip-synching to a tape, “because the music and performance were so flawless.” When I told him that every performance was 100 percent live, he had a tough time wrapping his head around that.
What are your favorite photos of Prince?
We did one shoot at an arboretum in Chanhassen, Minnesota, just down the road from Paisley Studio. When Prince was outside, he seemed to relax more. When we got there, he went straight to a favorite spot, so it was clear he had spent some time there before.
Another favorite shot was Prince with a basketball— most people don’t know that Prince was on his high school basketball team, even though he was only 5 feet, 2 inches tall. I think he had the skills to be a pro, but unfortunately not the height. We had a basketball net, with court outlines on the Paisley stage, and he’d sometimes shoot a few baskets to relax. One day, I took the digital camera and got a few shots of Prince dribbling the ball right between his legs and he crouched like a panther and looked directly at me. It was an awesome photo.
What are some of your favorite Prince songs?
He put together many records, including signature hits like Purple Rain, but I love some of his quirkier stuff, like, If I Was Your Girlfriend, where he experimented with speeding up his vocals. Another one of my favorites was Violet the Organ Grinder, which was based on an earlier track, Get Off. I told Prince that Violet the Organ Grinder was great; the melody and lyric structure was odd, but it worked. He was pleased that I understood what he was trying to do.
How did you and Prince interact with other musicians?
Prince had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, but he knew that I liked a band called No Doubt. Once, when the band was playing in the area, he took me to their concert, and we even went backstage and met the band after it was over. Then, Prince told me to go to the Paisley Studio to meet him in Studio C, a small, intimate rehearsal space. When I walked in, there was Prince, No Doubt lead singer Gwen Stefani, and the bass and guitar players from the band—all jamming. It was awesome.
What kind of influence did Prince have on music?
Among others, I’ve done work for Sheila E.— who wrote the touching forward to my book, Picturing Prince— David Bowie, AC/DC, the Grateful Dead and Bon Jovi. But Prince had his own sound, which reflected pop, rock, funk and other influences. He kept innovating with sound and content, and established his own style, with his colorful and stylized clothing and backdrops. In so many ways, he was a pioneer.
What can readers discover in your book, Picturing Prince?
It’s a different perspective, because they’re getting an inside look from someone who not only worked closely with Prince but who was also a fan. I enjoyed his music and the way he pushed boundaries; working for him was like living out a dream. With this book, I wanted to share the experience, and talk about him as a person, not just as a rock idol. People who knew him have told me I did a good job of bringing the human side of Prince to the public.
How should the world remember Prince?
He fought against unfair record label contracts, and he did a lot of charity work, donating his time as well as his money. But I would like to see him remembered for his groundbreaking talent. Prince was influenced by performers like Sly and the Family Stone, Carlos Santana and James Brown, but in the end, Prince did things the way he wanted to—with his own style.
Where were you when you learned Prince was found dead on April 21, 2016?
I was in Baltimore, and a friend from St. Paul, Minnesota, called me and said TMZ was reporting that Prince had passed away. Initially the report just said “a body” had been found in the Paisley Park Studio, but I didn’t believe it was Prince. I tried to go back to work, but then the phone went crazy with calls, and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. It wasn’t long before Prince’s death was confirmed, and all over the news.
His family chose a quick cremation, but there were memorials in Minneapolis and all around the world. I volunteered to photograph the first memorial gathering at Paisley Park, where I had helped Prince redesign the inside of the building from corporate to creative. When I walked in, it was like nothing had changed—except Prince was no longer there.