Celebrating Prince: What’s Next for Paisley Park, His Legacy, and The Estate
by Tonya Pendleton
Now that the 2022 Prince Celebration – delayed two years by the COVID-19 pandemic – is history, the question remains what is the way forward for the annual event as well as Prince’s legacy?
It was a long wait, but 800-plus fans converged on Paisley Park for the fourth Celebration since Prince’s untimely passing in 2016. In those two years, the world, and Minneapolis, were profoundly changed by COVID and the murder of George Floyd, which happened not far from where Prince grew up.
The 2022 Celebration, June 2-5, was scaled down from four days to two. The town of Chanhassen, Minnesota, finally agreed to extend the time events could take place at the site, so that nights at Paisley could better reflect the experience when Prince hosted parties and performances into the wee hours.
The unofficial Celebration kickoff was the ‘unveiling’ of the Prince mural in downtown Minneapolis, a much-needed boost to the area. Located at Ramp A, adjacent to the First Avenue nightclub which Prince put on the map in “Purple Rain” the once-bustling area is now a shadow of what it was pre-pandemic.
Restaurants and bars are either closed or have reduced hours. As many Minneapolis businesses are still either on WFM status or hybrid schedules, the city’s downtown has become sketchy, sparsely populated with folks that appear to be struggling with various issues from homelessness to addiction. Crime is up.
So the block party and mural unveiling billed as the ‘Crown our Prince’ event was a welcome one for Minneapolis residents who came out in all manner of Prince regalia to see the 100-foot-tall mural seven years in the making. It was spray-painted by artist Hiero Viega, who was chosen by a 16-member committee made up of Prince’s family and others close to him.
Heirs Sharon Nelson and Tyka Nelson spoke on behalf of the family. Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey turned out for the event along with one-time Prince collaborator Pepe Willie, Minnesota Lynx coach Rebekkah Brunson, and a good portion of Minnesotans who partied to Dr. Mambo’s Combo, a popular city band, and a deejay.
At the Celebration’s official opening event at the W Hotel, DJ Lenka Paris kept the VIP party going until 1 a.m., but the night kicked off with a Q&A from Robert Whitman, one of Prince’s early photographers, who took the iconic black and white pics of Prince in front of Schmitt Music in 1977. Also in attendance were former Prince bandmembers Bobby Z., Sonny T and Jill Jones, and Prince bloggers Kanisa Williams of the Darling Nisi blog and podcast (h/t to Nisi for the party info) and Kim Camilia and Casey Rain of The Violet Reality.
On to Paisley for day one on Friday, where the truncated schedule meant everything was crammed into a 9 a.m. – 2 a.m. timeline with a break for lunch on-campus and dinner off-campus before returning for the evening concert. Minneapolis broadcast icon Robyne Robinson, who was also on the mural selection team, emceed both days of Celebration.
Over the two days, Jones, Prince’s first ex-wife and collaborator, Mayte Garcia, photographer Randee St. Nicholas, three engineers, Prince’s shoe makers, a performance from Brown Mark and ‘The Bad Boyz of Paisley,’ a self-guided museum tour, and the screening of an unreleased Prince concert are on the agenda.
VIP attendees received additional perks which included a scarf, a studio ‘session’ and a VIP brunch at The Dakota with The Steeles.
In previous years, Prince collaborators including Jesse Johnson, Sheila E., The Revolution, Afshin Shahidi, Steve Parke, George Clinton, and various incarnations of the NPG have come to Paisley to share their stories. Panels included personal testimonies from fashion designers to photographers to dancers, accounts from members of the NPG and the NPG Hornz, the creation of Paisley Park and what it was like working with, arranging for, and rehearsing and touring with Prince and his bands.
Though the cottage industry of blogs, podcasts, books, websites, Facebook and Instagram accounts, and affinity/event groups that existed before and after his passing have covered his career in painstaking detail, Paisley Park has the advantage of being the location where Prince spent most of his time creating.
Engineers Chris James and Tom Garneau, who were interviewed by author Duane Tudahl, shared more about Prince’s famously exacting recording process by playing some unreleased tracks with Prince’s directives intact. James played portions of a “Purple Rain” tour soundcheck where Prince jokingly berated an audio tech for missing show cues: “Them’s money cues,” Prince told him.
Joshua Welton, who worked on Prince’s penultimate album “Hit and Run, Pt. 1,” talked animatedly about working with Prince and his ability to hear even the most subtle musical distinctions while his wife Hannah participated in the inaugural studio ‘sessions.’ Taken from actual sessions, the recordings replicated Prince taking the musicians through their paces.
Through headphones attached to the seats, approximately 50 people in Studio A were able to ‘listen in’ while NPG members including Kirk Johnson, Tony M., Levi Seacer, Jr. and Morris Hayes held a session as well. They played a live version of “Son of Sexy MF” with Prince’s original vocal directions. It proved to be one of the weekend’s most popular moments, though it was only available for VIP ticketholders. The 3rdeyegirl version included Liv Warfield and Donna Grantis, playing their cover of the Nichole Nordeman song “What If” with Prince and Ida Nielsen’s voice on the prerecorded track.
Unfortunately, Brownmark’s first-night performance was met with less than enthusiastic reviews. But a highlight was a guest appearance by singer Grace Gibson, the daughter of actress Lynn Whitfield (“Greenleaf”). Gibson understood the assignment, singing credible versions of “The Beautiful Ones,” and “Soft and Wet” dressed in a purple one-piece with flowing sleeves and purple boots. On her Instagram, she deemed performing at Paisley Park “a dream come true.”
On day 2, St. Nicholas’ stories about working with Prince anchored the new photography exhibit of her work at Paisley. The exhibit focused on photos she took during their 25-year creative collaboration, that she says often included her inviting women to “entertain” Prince. (Her words, not ours, but apparently it worked, as the black and white photos illustrate some of the compelling work they created together.) In particular, a photo of Prince sitting at a piano in the midst of what looks like ruins was inspired by building in Los Angeles St. Nicholas came across spontaneously while it was in the midst of being demolished. Prince loved the idea of shooting in the desolate space and a grand piano was brought in to set the scene.
Jill Jones, one of Prince’s most talented and outspoken collaborators, played an unreleased version of “77 Bleeker St” with Prince on vocals from her woefully underrated self-titled Paisley Park debut album (now out of print). Former Current personality and author Andrea Swensson did the interviewing honors for Jones, St. Nicholas, and Mayte. Jones also talked about working on the widely derided “Graffiti Bridge” movie. She said she believes it was derailed by shooting solely on the Paisley Park soundstage and the deteriorating relationships among the principals. Jones, who identifies as African American, also said that throughout his career, Prince amplified the African American community through his work and philanthropy.
“He did that,” she said. “He brought us all together for a reason.”
Mayte, who joined St. Nicholas to discuss photos taken of her and Prince together, was often visibly emotional during her panel. Although portions of her memoir “The Beautiful: My Life with Prince” are critical of their relationship, it falls short of being a salacious tell-all. Mayte said she’d never say anything bad about her husband and father of her child, Amiir, who died soon after his birth in 1996. Although she played some tracks from collaborations with Prince, including selections from her “Child of the Sun” and “Scorpio” albums, she readily admitted that she isn’t a singer. She also revealed that the concert to be shown later that evening was her first time on stage with Prince.
The last event of Celebration was a concert originally performed at Prince’s Glam Slam Minneapolis nightclub in 1992. It seemed much like a dress rehearsal for the Diamonds and Pearls tour that did a 50-show swing overseas between April and July of 1992. In previous years at Celebration, the pivotal concert screening has been held at the Target Center and The Armory and both times, were compilations of the same two shows from later in Prince’s career.
For this one, at the height of Prince’s funky 90s, Prince’s vocal and guitar tracks, along with Rosie Gaines’ vocals, were retained. The show was synced to NPG bandmembers including Tony, Seacer Jr., Hayes and Tommy Barbarella, playing along live, while Damon Dickson and Mayte added their dance routines as well. While that sometimes made it complicated to follow along between the live musicians and the recorded ones, the show played fairly seamlessly from both ends.
Prince sang, dance, gyrated, played keys and guitar, changed outfits and du-rags multiple times and put on the kind of show that answers the question ‘Why is Prince the greatest performer of all time?’ Watching his chemistry with Gaines makes you wonder why their time together didn’t last longer. And, as the engineers aptly described during Celebration sessions and bandmembers have attested to, Prince’s legendary rehearsals made for a crack band at their peak executing on his vision of perfection.
And therein lies the challenge of extending Prince’s legacy to those who weren’t around during his heyday. The 2022 Celebration generated mixed reviews from a fanbase used to a high bar. But without Prince to sell it, how do future generations learn of his genius? One of those entrusted to his legacy, Prince’s former lawyer, Londell McMillan, says that the fans will have more say in the future.
McMillan, director/producer Charles Spicer, heirs Norrine and Sharon Nelson, and John Nelson, Jr.’s three children will likely take over the Estate in late July once the court finalizes the agreement to remove Comerica Bank from overseeing it. Through Prince Legacy, LLC, they will share decision-making with Primary Wave, a music company that has raised money to purchase rights to several legacy estates including those of James Brown, Bob Marley, Sly and the Family Stone, Ray Charles, and Whitney Houston. Paisley Park, currently run by Mitch Maguire, will continue to be a part of the Estate holdings.
“I thought there were some good things and I thought there were some things that could be improved significantly,” McMillan said of the Celebration. “I didn’t think the talent was at the bar of what we did with Prince and what we produced with him.”
McMillan says attracting top-tier talent to Paisley is challenging because of the size of the venue, which limits the amount of money a performer can make. But he believes his industry relationships will help draw in the quality of musicians Prince was able to attract during the three Celebrations he put together while he was alive. Also, according to McMillan and Paisley Park engineer Duff Eisenschenk, Paisley Park has been upgraded over the last 2 years and is expected to become a full-service working studio again.
According to Rodney Fitzgerald of Prince 365, an affinity and activity group that produces Prince-related events and has worked with Paisley Park on programming, those initial Celebrations were akin to comprehensive gatherings like the annual Essence Fest. Fitzgerald remembers seeing musicians like a young Alicia Keys, Sheila E., Rachelle Ferrell, and Norah Jones there along with scholars like Dr. Cornel West and journalists like Tavis Smiley who were brought to Paisley Park to share their expertise in various disciplines.
“It was my Woodstock,” Fitzgerald remembers. Like McMillan, he says there needs to be a formula to include more fan feedback and to bring in younger fans. “The future of Celebration is the estate allowing the fans to interact more and to participate more — not turning it in to a Comic-Con— but to get together and fellowship and to bring new generations forward because our window is closing.”
There is some precedent in the way other legacy estates have kept fan interest going. Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home, has become a multi-generational concert venue and artistic space as well as a historical attraction in the Memphis area since it opened to the public in 1982, five years after Presley’s death. Graceland worked with Paisley Park in its first years as a museum, but that partnership ended in 2019.
As Graceland has successfully expanded its offerings over the years, it remains a blueprint for the possibilities of the future of Paisley Park. This year’s “Elvis” biopic with Tom Hanks and Austin Butler as Presley will only generate more interest in his legacy. That’s something the Prince Estate hopes will happen when the multi-part Prince documentary directed by Oscar-winner Ezra Edelman (“O.J. Made in America”) drops in 2023. The Michael Jackson estate is currently celebrating the success of “MJ The Musical,” on Broadway, which just earned an Tony for its star Myles Frost.
In 2021, Prince leapfrogged Jackson to become Forbes’s second-highest earning dead celebrity, likely due to the $120M valuation for his estate. “Prince: The Immersive Experience” opened this year in Chicago after another exhibit did well in the U.K., and the Estate has cranked out several well received box sets, including this year’s “Prince and the Revolution: Live” a remastered version of the Syracuse show from the “Purple Rain” tour. As the Estate turns over and new leadership assumes control, renewed efforts to preserve Prince’s legacy should make for compelling content not just for Celebration, but for future projects overall.
“I’d like to see us relieve Comerica of their duties, have Prince’s estate close and create a magnificent purple legacy that excites the fans forevermore,” McMillan says. “He was really that special. I expect everything to work out. What makes the most sense is to make the fans happy and create music lovers who didn’t even know Prince. We have to figure out the plans to make sure Prince stays current and I’m very much so looking forward to that.”
Tonya Pendleton is a veteran multimedia journalist in news, sports, lifestyle and entertainment reporting. She’s written for Essence, Ebony, BET.com, The Source, XXL, Jordan Magazine, the Philadelphia Daily News, The Washington Post and more. In her current incarnation as a writer/editor with TheGrio.com and as “Things To Do” curator for NPR affiliate WHYY, she crafts content for a local and global audience. The Philadelphia resident was born and raised in New York City and is a graduate of The New School. Follow Tonya Pendleton on Twitter and Instagram.