Prince's bassist on life with an icon

Sam Bleazard 10 April 2021

Prince's longtime bassist, Mark Brown, on what it was like to play, laugh and work with The Purple One

Mark Brown went from playing bass to 50 people in the local bars and clubs of Minneapolis, to being renamed “BrownMark” by Prince, and supporting The Rolling Stones on his debut.

He was onstage when “Purple Rain” was first played live, before being swept along by a purple pop phenomenon. On the fifth anniversary of Prince’s passing, Sam Bleazard spoke to him at home in Atlanta.

Reader’s Digest: Do you remember the first meeting with Prince?

Mark Brown: Oh yeah. He walked into a restaurant I was cooking pancakes at. I was young, probably only 15 or 16 at the time, and he was dating one of the waitresses. I mean the way he dressed alone; he was just the weirdest looking dude—but in a good way! I’d heard that he had an album out and that he played all the instruments himself, so I was pretty excited.

RD: What was it like growing up in Minneapolis?

MB: Even though it was quite diverse with blacks and whites living together, we didn’t share the same venues. I would go to a club to get a feel for it, and I would be removed because they would say I was harassing females. I couldn’t go to the bathroom without a security guard following me, there was a real feeling of segregation.

RD: What were the early days with Prince like?

MB: In the early days he was extremely narcissistic, but you can’t reach that pinnacle of success if you don’t have control of your own destiny. I remember an interview with Madonna saying that she watched Prince and what Prince did, for her own career. One of the things I learned very quickly was—I’m coming into his world, he wants me to be 110 per cent, to look and be my best, but if I start to take anything away from him it’s going to be chop-chop-chop!

RD: Is it true your first gig was supporting The Rolling Stones at the age of 19?

MB: I didn’t have a chance to rehearse with the band for a long time, because we went shopping, made music videos—and then we were going on tour with the Stones. Their LA Coliseum show in 1981 was like Woodstock, with 90,000 hot and sweaty people screaming and hollering.

When we played our risqué material, there was all this androgyny and sexuality in it and that just wasn’t them. It was a very intense moment of confusion and misunderstanding, and they started throwing things at us. It became homophobic very quickly because they just didn’t get what Prince was about.

Having been booed on stage before walking off in LA, Prince re-grouped for his Controversy tour

RD: How were things different after that?

MB: He said: “wait till you see our crowd”, and I didn’t know what he meant. We opened in late 1982 with a totally different attitude. When he walked out on that stage, I’d never seen somebody so cool, he commanded that stage, and he commanded that audience. It was the baddest show I’d ever seen in my life. That was when everything shifted for him. He was home.

RD: What are your memories of the Purple Rain tour?

MB: When I watched the hysteria in the audience, the first thing that came to mind was The Beatles. I saw some girls screaming, so I reached out and tapped one of them on the hand. The next thing I knew she’d passed out cold in front of me. I said to myself, “Wait a minute, did I do that?!” She missed the whole concert, and that’s when I realised, we had such power on that stage, our presence, our imagery and everything about it changed my whole world.

RD: Did Prince ever fine you—as James Brown did—for missing notes?

MB: The other band members said that they would get fines, but he would never take the money. He took the money from me! That’s where half of my bass rumble technique came from, I learned to ghost-note so that I wouldn’t get caught off guard. If I made a mistake, he would always hear it.

RD: What are your fondest memories of Prince?

MB: My fondest memories were the time away from music, going to clubs together or riding in his car. When we got out of that environment, sometimes we would play basketball, ping pong, or go roller-skating round the lake. In the early days he would come over to my house unannounced and just hang with me, doing nothing, that was the real Prince that I knew.

RD: Do you remember your last conversation?

MB: I didn’t think it was going to be the last conversation, but I remember in his later years he was living in Paisley Park (his studio complex) because he tore his houses down to live in an apartment there. I looked at him and said, “I’m proud of you man, you did some wonderful things with your life—look at this place”. He said, “No—we built it, I couldn’t have done this without you”. It touched me because he was finally acknowledging that I’d worked hard to help him.

To hear more from Mark on what life was like with Prince and The Revolution, you can listen to the interview in full in the: How can U just leave me standing? podcast series

His book My Life in the Purple Kingdom is available from the University of Minnesota Press

Feature image via flickr.com 

 

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