It’s impossible to speak about the music of the 80s without acknowledging and crediting Prince and his backing band, the Revolution — whose three most notable albums, Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day and Parade, helped define that generation. For many, Prince and the Revolution were the voice of the 80s.
After Prince died in 2016 — days after performing solo on the piano at the Fox Theatre in what became his final concert — the five original members of the Revolution decided to reform and continue to play the music they helped create.
The Revolution — Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Bobby Z, Matt Fink (Dr. Fink) and BrownMark — bring their tour to the Tabernacle on February 24.
When ArtsATL caught up with the Revolution bassist BrownMark — who has made Atlanta home to be close to his disabled sister — he discussed the success of the early years, his post-Prince and the Revolution career, the reunion and his time in Prince’s purple kingdom, which also happens to be the title to his soon-to-be-released autobiography, My Life in a Purple Kingdom.
ArtsATL: You started playing drums when you were only five years old, but you didn’t come from a musical family. What happened to cause you to crave music so early?
BrownMark: Back in the late sixties, there was a television program called The Midnight Special. When I was about five years old, one night, Three Dog Night came on and I asked my mom if I could stay up and watch them. She let me. And that was it for me. From that point on, I knew what my journey was. I knew right then my journey was music.
ArtsATL: You switched to guitar a few years later and by accident you cut the top two strings of your first guitar, essentially making it a bass guitar. You got it by accident, but what kept you wanting the bass sound?
BrownMark: That did happen with my first guitar — a Sears Telecaster. At the time, I didn’t know the difference between the sound of guitar or bass, but I did know what moved me and I was listening to the song “Let’s Do It Again” by the Staple Singers. And that bass line locked into my head and I knew that’s what I wanted to play. I wanted that low sound. I could hum to it. And the funny thing for me was anything I could hum to, I could automatically play on the guitar. I don’t know why — I can’t explain it exactly — but it’s just something I could do.
ArtsATL: Speaking of being a boy, you grew up in Minnesota, same as Prince. In fact, you both had the same music teacher, Mr. Hamilton, at Central High. Do you feel like that shared connection put something unique between you and Prince?
BrownMark: I don’t think so. Prince and I were very different in our approach to music. Prince had a much broader scope of music and what he wanted to do with it than I did. You mention Mr. Hamilton. He was a piano teacher. Prince was a pianist. Prince’s father was a pianist. So, Prince grew up with music, whereas, I didn’t. Mr. Hamilton actually only taught Prince for a year, then Prince moved to North Minneapolis. I only got Mr. Hamilton for one year, too, but that’s because I got kicked out of school. That’s a whole story to itself, which is in my book.
ArtsATL: Your autobiography is coming out soon.
BrownMark: Yes, that correct. I’ve been working on this book for a while and now it’s finally coming out. It’s called My Life in a Purple Kingdom. It chronicles my life in music.
ArtsATL: Sounds like Mr. Hamilton mattered as a teacher and will make it in the book.
BrownMark: Absolutely. He was a really cool teacher. Ironically, he actually taught me all about Prince.
ArtsATL: How so?
BrownMark: Well, I didn’t know a lot about Prince at the time, but Mr. Hamilton told me about him being incredibly talented, and how he played all these different instruments and already had an album coming out at a young age. After hearing about him, I knew I wanted to be like Prince.
ArtsATL: Prince interviewed over 400 bass players before asking you to join the Revolution. He was clearly deliberate about his vision for that band. Did he ever tell you why he chose you over so many others?
BrownMark: He never actually told me. But it was always implied in his behavior and his attitude towards me. I was very “moldable.” And not only was I very “moldable,” I was a humble kid. I wasn’t arrogant and I was willing to learn. I was truly a sponge. It just so happened that I played bass a lot like Prince played bass — stylistically and in our approach to bass. Among many other instruments, Prince was a great bass player.
ArtsATL: When he met you, Prince switched the order of your first and last names, from Mark Brown to BrownMark. Over three decades later it’s still how you’re known in the music industry. Why’d he do this?
BrownMark: [chuckles] To put it realistic terms, I think anytime you enter into a situation where you’re going to effectively be owned or dominated by another, it’s common for the subject to get renamed. It’s almost human nature that this happens. And, really, nobody came in with their original name. Dr. Fink wasn’t really Dr. Fink, Bobby Rivkin became Bobby Z, Wendy and Lisa were always combined and never spoken of separately. Prince rearranged things the way he wanted them. He was building the characters for the broad musical play he had envisioned. Then he brought us — his players — into it.
ArtsATL: Prince and the Revolution was one of the most powerful bands of the 80s and served as a voice to so many different types of people and seemed to break down social walls. Even the name declared new freedoms were coming and couldn’t be stopped. Did you feel part of a people’s movement, and do you think that was Prince’s intent?
BrownMark: Most definitely. I think it was his plan from the jump. Prince was creating the mass musical of his life — the “Purple Musical.” And all of us in the Revolution were students in the Purple University. This guy lived and breathed everything he was. Some may call him a narcissist for it. They may call him what they wish. But his whole life purpose was to become this great Mozart of our time period. And anything that got in his way would be “X’ed” out, and anything that didn’t represent being a superstar was not permitted. That became a very limiting and even lonely world for not only him, but also for us. He was okay about missing the things regular people do, such as going to Disney World, because he felt such a thing was for tourists, not for superstars. His image meant so much more to him. And back to your original question, Prince was most definitely on a mission and we were hand-picked to most definitely be on that mission along with him.
ArtsATL: You felt that the superstardom had some downsides causing your world to be lonely and isolated?
BrownMark: Absolutely. You take it for granted that you can just go shopping or go walk down the street and mind your own business, but you can’t do that when you have millions of fans. Jesse Johnson (the guitarist for The Time) and I barely escaped a mob of at least 200 women at a mall in Detroit once — they just quickly developed behind us. We had to escape out the back door of a candy store we ducked into. The candy store got rushed and destroyed. People don’t realize when you get masses of people coming at you, you can get hurt. People don’t mean to hurt you, but your hair gets pulled out, your clothes get torn off. Anyway, Prince loved the fame and the crowds, but I never liked that part of it. I was always running away from it, and Prince was always laughing at me. He was a prankster, so he’d lock me out of the limo or have the driver drive off while I was trying to get in and get away from the mob. My clothes would get ripped to shreds [chuckles]. I told him, “I don’t like the mob, that’s your thing.” I guess that was another thing I learned from Prince, that I didn’t actually want to be a superstar.
ArtsATL: Prince was the epitome of creative freedom. You initiated leaving the Revolution so you could ultimately spread your own creative wings. How difficult was it to tell him you wanted to leave?
BrownMark: You know, Prince and I could always talk. I never minced my words with him. I always spoke openly and told him how I was really feeling. We all did. So it wasn’t difficult to tell him that it was time for a change in my life. I had come to clearly understand my role with Prince — he was someone I could learn from. And he was going to take everything I had to offer. It was his bank account which was doing the growing in that, not mine. The main things I would receive from him were the life lessons. That was the trade-off. But, I had to make my choices about branching off while I was still young enough to earn my own way in this crazy business or stay put. After Purple Rain, I decided I needed to think of securing my own future.
ArtsATL: Did he try to get you to stay?
BrownMark: He did. But by that time, all of the offers he made really didn’t matter to me. I felt he should’ve been willing to pay my worth before I was walking out the door. He asked me not to say anything to anyone about leaving, so I didn’t. We had a secret contract where I stayed another year — through the end of the Parade Tour. But we were cool. We truly left on good terms and remained friends.
ArtsATL: Describe your life post-Prince, and how you evolved musically after leaving.
BrownMark: I learned so much from Prince — not only about beats and production — but about how to form groups from the ground up. So I was able to take that knowledge when I left and begin producing. I’ve produced over 100 bands, Mazarati probably being most notable. I produced for Atlantic, Warner Brothers, Motown, Solar and a few others. But I really couldn’t find satisfaction in it after Prince because that open freedom — that funkiness we had — was gone from it. The record labels wanted things to sound a certain way, and the executives were trying to insert what they thought the sound should be into the music. So, I said, “I’m not into this anymore.” I’m not money-driven. I’m in this for the love of creating, and if that doesn’t exist, I have to move on.
ArtsATL: What’d you do next?
BrownMark: I actually retired from the business in 1992. I just walked away. But, that was short lived [chuckles].
ArtsATL: You just mentioned that you learned so much from Prince. Can you tell us the three most valuable lessons which come to mind?
BrownMark: For one, I learned work ethic. Anything you want, you have to work for it. It’s not just going to show up and sit in your lap. He taught me you have to work hard to be different, to stand out — and that one lesson really is why I was able to have a 90 percent success rate as a producer of getting artists from point A to Z with record deals. The second lesson I learned from Prince was that you have to become what it is you want to be. You have to become engulfed in every aspect of what it is you want whether that is to be an artist, a producer or whatever you want to be. That lesson is why I went to [(record) engineering school, so I could understand more facets of producing. He taught me in order to achieve sustaining success, you have to learn everything there is to know about something — and then become it. A third lesson I learned from Prince was how you treat people and how not to treat people because whatever you dish out is going to come back to you. I learned from watching Prince and watching his mistakes. You have to remember everyone has feelings, everyone is human and people have self-esteem which can be destroyed in a flash. So I learned that everyone is great — we’re just different and have differing levels of success. Prince was an awesome man, and he was incredibly talented musically. Otherwise, he was no better than anybody else. That was a lesson, I know, he himself learned, as well.
ArtsATL: Prince always talked about moving forward, not looking back. But now that he’s gone, it’s a different thing. Do you and the Revolution feel that he’d want his band [to] bring this music back?
BrownMark: Well, the Revolution never agreed to never look back. And if you look at history, you see that you must look back. Failure to look back means you’ll fail moving forward. You have to look back in order to learn from your mistakes. And as a musician, when you create greatness in your past, you owe it to your fans to relive that and give it to them again. I don’t agree with taking that from them at all. This is something we’ve all discussed. Now that he’s gone, we feel this is something Prince’s fans deserve and need in order to heal — as do we. The thing is, while Prince was still alive, we’d all talked about getting together and bringing this music back. And he was actually considering it. But then he passed and it never happened.
ArtsATL: How did the Revolution agree to move forward with the idea?
BrownMark: The Revolution is a democracy. We have nothing but respect and love for one another, and we all felt the same for Prince. We all talked and decided that, although our leader was gone, we already had his blessing for this. We would have no guilt or worries that he’d be turning over in his grave over it. Those discussions we had while he was living made us know it was more than okay that we do this.
ArtsATL: Do you feel, somehow, that Prince is still directing you?
BrownMark: I don’t personally feel that. Some of the band members do feel that sort of spiritual presence. Personally, I don’t believe in all that. I’m a religious man. In fact, Prince and I were of the same religion. I believe when you’re dead, you’re dead — you’re dust. I do, however, believe the spirit of who Prince was lives on in us because he was such an important part of my life and all of our lives. So, in that respect, he’s always present with me.
ArtsATL: Prince played his last two solo concerts at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre just before he passed away. Have you heard anything about a live album release of those shows?
BrownMark: I’ve heard speculation about a lot of things, but I don’t truly know about anything. His family inherited a half-billion dollar estate, and they have their hands full trying to sort all of it out right now. While there are a lot of great ideas about what to do, they’re always met with road blocks and red tape. So I think it’ll be quite a while before we see anything like that happen.
ArtsATL: I know the Revolution has had some guest vocalists at the shows, but I heard you say,“We have a mind-boggling experience with the audience,” when speaking of how the center spot has been honored during these shows. How is it working without Prince?
BrownMark: We helped to create these songs with Prince, so they are a real part of us and very much second nature to all of us. But as far as the little man in purple — who is impossible to replicate — the audiences are stepping up to fill the void. In every city, the audience has become our bandmate. They sing with us, and they know almost every word to every song. And that blows us away. I had the pleasure of having my auntie, who is in her 80s, come to one of the shows. Afterward, she said, “I had no idea how loved you all were and how famous you were until I saw all those people smiling and singing the words to all the songs.” And that pretty much sums up why we’re doing this.