A Soldier in Prince’s Revolution
Drummer Bobby Z opens up about his close relationship with Prince and the early battles they overcame together to create a band and keep the music alive.
by Jayne Haugen Olson,
Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, December 5, 2016
Dressed head to toe in black, 60-year-old Robert Rivkin (aka Bobby Z) enters Winterland Studios in Minneapolis. A quiet, soundproof recording studio seems like an appropriate place for Rivkin to open up about his close relationship with Prince—something he hasn’t done in decades. Rivkin’s silence was always rooted in a sense of duty to his old boss. As Prince himself said to Rivkin’s son in 2010 when Rivkin was in the hospital after a near-fatal heart attack: “Your dad was a good soldier.”
Rivkin was on the front line with Prince. As a drummer for The Revolution from 1978 until 1986. As an advisor and guide at many stages along the way. And as a friend until the end. “It was a complicated journey with a very complicated individual that lasted an incredible amount of years,” says Rivkin. “And now that he’s gone … you start to just relish every moment of the earliest days when it was just him and me.”
The tale of how the black kid from north Minneapolis met the Jewish kid from the suburb of St. Louis Park just five miles away began with a few key players in 1976. There was engineer and producer Chris Moon and MoonSound Studios. Located in Uptown, MoonSound is where Prince worked on his first demos. At the same time, Rivkin was doing session work for MoonSound as a drummer, recording music for big corporate events.
Rivkin also worked for Owen Husney, who had a small advertising agency in Loring Park. In that pre-digital era, agencies had runners who were moving materials, images, film, and copy to different shops around town for typesetting and the like. Rivkin was a runner and all-around errand guy for Husney. Husney would eventually become Prince’s first manager and help him land a deal with Warner Bros.
Husney also went to high school with Rivkin’s older brother, David, and as kids Husney and David played in local bands that had records with Minneapolis-based Soma Records (known for hits such as The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” ). Though Husney had his agency, he and David kept their hands in the music business and were always “on the hunt for talent—looking for the next thing,” says Rivkin. Husney was the marketer. David was the studio and production guy.
Growing up in a creative household, Rivkin had his own musical success prior to meeting Prince. Starting at age 6, he developed his talent as a drummer by playing in local bands. He played all over, from small stages at the Minnesota State Fair to live local TV on the Mel Jass Show. He was mentored along the way by his older brothers and got his break playing with Kevin Odegard’s KO Band in 1975 (Odegard played guitar on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album in 1974).
Always looking for drumming work, Rivkin answered a want ad placed by Minneapolis songwriter Pepé Willie, who was looking for musicians for a singles deal he had with Polydor records. Despite his father’s disapproval, Rivkin signed a contract. As fate would have it, Willie was married to Prince’s cousin, and Prince was also doing work with Willie. So Prince’s and Rivkin’s paths crossed yet again, and now it seemed written in the stars that the two would end up working together. But crossing paths with Prince doesn’t guarantee a long relationship with Prince. As Rivkin says, “It’s about having a next day with Prince.”
André Cymone, Bobby Z, Dez Dickerson, Prince, and Matt Fink, circa 1980.
Do you remember the first moment you heard Prince?
I was in the drum booth [at MoonSound] and I was looking out and he was playing his piano. I never heard anything like it and I never saw anything like it. His hands were moving faster than anyone I’ve ever seen play the piano. And the amount of chords you’re hearing in between the notes—that’s music. He was a Svengali with the piano; he had his way with the piano.
So how did the Chris Moon and Owen Husney orbits intersect?
Prince is working on his demo tape, and I know Owen will want to hear it. And I kinda know the kid [Prince], so I help break the ice, and Owen is blown away by the tape and takes Prince on. My brother, David, was also brought in as an engineer to help develop a proper demo tape for Husney to shop in Los Angeles.
At this point I was 19, and I had two relationships with Prince, really. The friendship, which started out as a professional friendship, because I was working for Owen and my job was to take care of Prince—a handler of sorts. I hit destiny right in the middle of that zone where it was my job to provide for him and earn that spot on the drummer chair [for Prince’s first band], which wasn’t so easy.
We’d move the stuff out of Owen’s Loring Park office and jam until 6 am and then put the stuff back. And then I’d start my day at the agency at 10 am. So I had early knowledge that anybody that came in contact with Prince was about to be eaten alive and time-vampired to death. I was completely taken in, and I was basically 24/7 with the guy for months on end, before there was even a band. Before he got his record deal.
And in 1977 he gets that deal with Warner Bros. He goes to California and records his first album. Eventually he’ll need a band.
He had already worked through the north Minneapolis bands and musicians he played with until this point, and the distilled version of all that was Prince and André [Cymone]. To cover what Prince played on the album he needed two guitars, two keyboards, a drummer, and a bass player. And it was really hard for him; he had to give us pieces of himself.
I auditioned for about 18 months against everybody in town twice… . Persistence is a trait that Prince admires, and I certainly had that.
I found out in many, many ways and years later that he was just wired differently than the rest of us mere mortals. He really was running on a different electric current. I didn’t care if anything happens to this guy—there’s nobody I’m ever gonna see who’s gonna play guitar like this. There’s nobody that can write a song like this. There’s nobody gonna sing like this. Maybe I’m insane and nothing happens—there were a lot of naysayers. I’m lucky. I’m young. I’m stupid—and I’m fully committed!
So you’re earning your stripes, working to get the job.
He doesn’t really talk much, didn’t really say anything, just play. My never-ending quest was some sort of black belt unattainable thing. I said, “I want to play drums with you.” And he said, “Nah, I’ve got to get somebody to spin sticks on fire.” So I said, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “I’ll show you.” So we went to Atlanta to see Mother’s Finest. Husney sent us down there and their drummer was spinning sticks on fire! It was this real urban hard rock band, really like Parliament with heavy metal guitars. It was very impressive and really cool, but I said to him on the way home, “But you have such beautiful melodies. What are you going to have—a guy spinning sticks on fire when you have these beautiful songs?” That doesn’t make any sense. I think this was his way of telling me I wasn’t flashy enough. But I’m going to be his drummer and he doesn’t know it.
I was in this band for life—I was a lifer. He’s an immovable force but there was 1 or 2 percent of your creative ideas that he would allow. He definitely had all of the great ideas. There’s no doubt that this guy was the biggest genius of all time, but if you’re going to interact with him, you better be damn good with whatever you’re suggesting. Otherwise, it just gets shot down, and ideas got shot down a lot. He would also bounce his brilliant ideas off you and all you could go is, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” You had to be a “yes man” quite a bit because his ideas were so brilliant. But there was a little bit of inspiration and perspiration from my background—I felt that I could not be equal, but I knew the music business pretty well.
At this point you’re still being paid by Husney to take care of Prince.
And having the time of our lives. We’re driving around town. We go to Star Wars, do this and that. The most fun there ever really was was then, when it wasn’t obviously as serious as it really became. Back in the beginning, maybe my role was more of an interpreter, because his communication skills were his own. He talked to you or he didn’t talk to you. You felt honored if he did and you felt shunned if he didn’t. He was just Prince. He’s not normal. He’s just really this exotic creature and so he needed communication to talk to the rest of the world, so I did that bridge forever. A lieutenant. Even close to the end.
So here we are and we’re spinning sticks on fire and I’m not getting the job, but I know I’m [eventually] getting the job. We go to a Santana show. I feel even more hopeless now after Santana just kicked our ass. I was like, “Where do we go?” And then, finally, we went to Fleetwood Mac [during the 1977 Rumours Tour] and it resonated. And Stevie Nicks really captivated him. Women were his biggest muses. Prince was a gradient of abilities—and he was such a romantic. We had a couple of good weeks after that. He was writing all the time. I’d drop him off at his house he was renting at 52nd and France Avenue, go home and get four to five hours of sleep, and I’d pick him up and he’s got a tape and he’s written new songs while I’m asleep.
And then he calls me one night: “Well, you ready? I mean ready. See you tomorrow.” I’m hired. He chose me, and he had André, and now we’re just kind of auditioning people.
And then you get a release date for that first record—April 7, 1978.
To tour he needs a band, and Warner starts to pressure him, and he doesn’t like pressure. And Husney tells us we can’t audition in his office, so we get a space, the former Del’s TireMart [where Prince once worked; it’s since been torn down]. We’re auditioning everyone in town. We also do auditions in Los Angeles, which were disastrous, actually.
So you head back to Minneapolis to find more musicians.
I had known Matt [Fink] and he knew synthesizers really well. He was a synth wizard back then. So I got Matt to audition, and that worked. I was really excited about [guitarist Dez Dickerson’s] audition because I knew his band, Revolver, and Dez was a front man on his own. He wasn’t standard R&B—he was new and fresh. I thought the complement of those three guys [Prince, Cymone, and Dez] would be fantastic. I didn’t really think about the back line [of the band]. From my experience the front line was all that mattered. But Prince turned [and said] everybody was important in a band.
And then you had a major setback.
We got ripped off. Somehow the door didn’t get locked at Del’s and all of our gear was gone. Word was out about a kid with a deal with Warner Bros. and that his band had freshly bought gear. There was a feeling of “what do we do now?” after it was stolen. We can’t go to the house on France [Prince’s rental had already received too many noise complaints from previous rehearsals]. And it was about this same time that Prince chose to part ways with Husney.
We have no manager; we have to get new gear. André had brought in Gayle Chapman [on keyboards], so the band was up and running. Rehearsals need to start. No one is getting paid, so Prince is cutting checks to us himself. It’s an ugly time. It’s heartbreaking. But you don’t quit Prince. We keep playing—the music is too powerful. And we need a space, so I go to Pepé [Willie], who’s like an uncle to us. He’s a hero in the story, my story. So he lets us rehearse in his basement.
The album has been out and Warner Bros. was saying, “We’ve got to see you play. You’ve got no manager. You’ve got nothing going on here. What’s going on here?” So we went to Capri Theater in north Minneapolis and said, we’ll charge three dollars a ticket or whatever, we’ve just got to do something, get out of the basement and play. We’ve got to put on a show otherwise this thing’s going to fade away.
Capri Theater, January 5 and 6, 1979.
It’s 28 degrees below zero, the guys from Warner Bros. came and we were trying out FM transmitters for the first time for wireless electric guitars. The transmitters pick up terrible feedback—interference from the radio noises and transmissions from passing cop cars. The performance was really bumpy. A lot of non-believers after that first show. I was pretty dejected, not really at Prince—it was a band effort and we were unseasoned and unprofessional. It was tremendous pressure on him, especially. He had the gifts, but obviously the only way to get better is to get out there. So that was a turning point. Warner Bros. stepped in, luckily, and he got a second album. And new management.
I sat with him every day and watched him record the second album, Prince, which now, in hindsight, is pretty remarkable. “I Feel for You.” “I Want to Be Your Lover.” And of course “It’s Going to Be Lonely.” I would go out there [to an L.A. recording studio] and play the drums, get sounds, try a track, do a track. Listen to what I would do. But he had it in his head—he was playing against himself. Perfection that we didn’t know he had. From day one I know that you don’t get in the way of him recording. You can suggest things and do things, but if he’s hearing it in his head, just get out of the way. Just put your ego away, don’t get hurt about it, just participate. So I learned how to participate in a creative way from just being around him.
The second album comes out in October 1979.
Things were starting to move quickly with [the success of the single] “I Want to Be Your Lover.” In January 1980 we were on both Midnight Special and American Bandstand. These were milestones. But bands drop every day, and for Prince this was just a step—don’t act too happy. If you watch that video with Dick Clark you see that Prince was gonna win that ego war—“Dick Clark, you’re gonna remember me.” And he did.
And now you are headed into the Dirty Mind era.
Before the album was released [in October 1980] we toured with Rick James for three months. And Prince was also taken with all of this stuff going on in London, including Steve Strange [a UK pop singer and influential figure in the New Romantic movement of the early ’80s]. With the punk thing, the anarchists, and he’s kind of fascinated by the more sexual side of that.
Later, when MTV started [in 1981], they showed a lot of English stuff, like Adam & The Ants. The way the drums were being played, double drummers and stuff like that. They had a revolution vibe, soldier stuff, and then all of a sudden there were people going military [with their look]. And there’s fashion vibes and we were looking for that imagery and then we went to Tatters [vintage and used clothing store at LynLake]. His Dirty Mind outfit, which was kind of Frank N. Furter [Tim Curry’s character from Rocky Horror Picture Show] with a trench coat—he’s back to this exotic creature again. And Prince decides to shock his record company as well as the world with this very aggressive image. They didn’t know how to market it. They figured in Europe they’d have a little bit more appeal. So we did this brief tour of London, Paris, and Amsterdam.
And we came back to the States and the album was being hailed in New York City and a couple places, but the “I Wanna Be Your Lover” audience didn’t know where they fit in. He had really challenging lyrics—like we know Prince is so famous for later, challenging the audience.
Now it’s October 1981. André has left the band, replaced by Mark Brown, aka BrownMark, on bass. Gayle has also left, replaced by L.A. native Lisa Coleman. And the band has been asked to open for the Rolling Stones.
Mick Jagger loves Dirty Mind and he wants Prince to open. That’s big news. It was a huge opportunity. It was supposed to be two shows in Detroit, two at the L.A. Coliseum for the Tattoo You Tour. And we get to the Coliseum and it’s mammoth. It’s Prince, it’s George Thorogood & The Destroyers, J. Geils Band, and the Rolling Stones. People that are up front are rough—it’s the Stones’ reputation—and it’s a festival scene. So if you survive the front, you were there since 6 am. You’re probably drunk for the third time and high on God knows what. They’re excited that there’s music about to start. But they don’t realize that they’ve got five hours until the Stones and three opening acts. So concert promoter Bill Graham comes out and says, “All right, we’ve got a new act for you today.” Boo. Everybody wants the Stones.
So you’re set up right there.
We’re set up to die. So Dez and Mark and Prince are pushed to the very front. We start out with I think “Uptown” and they hear us singing falsetto. They’re not interested, they’re not willing, they’re certainly not tolerant. You’ve got three brothers up there. You’ve got weird-looking white people in the back. It’s New Age weird punky funk rock—all the stuff they don’t want to know about or be interested in. They just want the blues or rock and roll. They don’t want to listen to anything new—let alone from the guy who looks like a chick but he’s not a chick and the chicks like him. So it doesn’t take much to get people going. And somebody threw an orange that landed on Mark Brown’s bass head. Prince is now dodging items, including an empty Jack Daniels bottle. Now, Prince’s head goes down and—God saved him—it missed his head by an inch. I had the best angle you could have and it just came crashing against the drum risers, and I looked at Lisa Coleman and I was horrified. Then, all of a sudden, it’s severe. People are throwing beer bottles and empty food wrappers. At this point, Prince has had it. We’re into the second song or third song; we’re barely surviving and it becomes a sport. So Prince walks off. It’s a dangerous environment, I don’t blame him, but we’re left there.
You’re not going to turn that stadium around.
No. So he goes down and I see Bill Graham talk to him, and he comes back and he ends the set. It was bad, and he just left [afterward]. There were a few times when I thought it was over forever, and that was one of them. He goes home to Minneapolis, and we’re still out there and we’re supposed to do this second show two days later. Somehow Jagger convinces him, and Prince decided to tough it out. It was good money—we needed it for the staging and it was the most prestigious gig at the time. It was one of the only times I saw Prince visibly, physically have to do something against his will. I saw him do many things because the record company wanted it or something, but he somehow always put his twist on it where he would manipulate it to make it cool or different. His way. But this time, he was in the cage—the exotic animal is now in a cage and I just felt so bad that we’d come all this way. I never felt we’d cross over after that. I just thought that this was it.
He was challenging to that audience. Now, he helped that—that particular outfit [thigh-high boots and black bikini briefs]. That’s Prince—he would not compromise, no way, no how. So for some reason, they brought things to throw [for the second show]. There’s butcher paper—I have no idea if it was raw chicken or cooked products, but again, he leaves. Somehow, we got out of there… . But we sounded pretty good, actually.
After that I really felt that I let him down, or that all white people let him down. Everything let him down. But again, he was provocative. I drank the Kool-Aid pretty good; I never blamed him. But at the same time, the challenge visually for people—it was a very risqué, push-the-envelope kind of look. But what he did eventually was to blow everybody away.
That same month, Prince would release his fourth album, Controversy, and a year later 1999. Dez stayed on through the tour for 1999, replaced by Wendy Melvoin on guitar. And now The Revolution of Purple Rain fame was complete. And the rest is history.
I was just so proud of him sometimes. I stuck it out, and the rewards were watching him dazzle people. The victory was his success and rooting for him because in the beginning it was an impossible task. And then, to do it all the way to Purple Rain. It was a pride thing that I’d stuck it out, my soldiering on. He was this remarkable character and limitless talent. He ultimately was just creative beyond anything you’ve ever seen. There’s a story of da Vinci painting with one hand and writing with another. And that’s him. His ability was beyond—like the masters. When we look back, we’re going to remember maybe Prince and the Beatles.
And as Mozart will forever be associated with Vienna, Prince will forever be associated with Minneapolis. And Prince had conquered the world.