Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ’Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’
Thirty-five years ago, Prince concluded his “Purple Rain Tour.” Twenty years ago, D’Angelo wrapped up his “Voodoo Tour.” Bill Reeves is one of the few touring professionals to work on both, and numerous others in his 40+ year career.
“One of the interesting things we built for [The Scream 1 Tour] was a little car for Bow Wow. It had a little fiberglass body and electric motor,” Reeves told REVOLT. “He would drive it out of a garage, around the stage, and then back into the garage. It was actually a workable little car.”
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” the Roadies of Color United co-founder talks rehearsal accidents on the “Purple Rain Tour,” dealing with Lauryn Hill’s lateness, and D’Angelo’s stage fright. Read below.
We have to start with your work on Prince’s “Purple Rain Tour.” What was it like working on such an iconic tour?
There are a couple of important things about that tour. The one thing that was amazing to me, in terms of his impact, was the fact that was the first time I saw massive amounts of fans coming to shows dressed like the artist. That was one of the few times I saw everyone in the audience dressed up either as Prince, in purple colors, had the hairdo, or had some of the elements of the costume. That was an indicator of how impactful his album was and Prince was at that time. People came looking like him. At the time, Prince’s signature look was a high-collard, sort of Edwardian dress jacket with ruffled shirts and high pompadour, a little bit of eye makeup, and of course the color purple. Fans would look exactly like the album cover — recreating the jacket with all the buttons, boots, and everything. They would also do their version of Prince’s look.
How did the stage design come together?
It was a collaboration between LeRoy Bennett, the lighting director, and co-creative director with Prince, and a design firm led by John McGraw. John was a pretty big set designer at that time. His firm was called Planview. Roy and John came up with the basic elements of the stage design with the trap doors, elevators, and all of that. Of course, Prince had large amounts of input in that process.
Do you remember what sort of input Prince had?
Speaking of one of those behind the scene moments people don’t know about, he performed a song where he was in a bathtub onstage. A bathtub comes up on the lift, he’s in the bathtub, and in reality, he only had his shirt off, but it suggested he was naked in the bathtub. There’s a shower head with fiber optic strands coming out… so it looks like it’s water coming out.. We’re in rehearsals, he’s on the stage, in the bathtub, singing this song, and that’s one of the moments where it’s just him on the stage and the lights are just on him on this raised platform. It was usually a pretty strong part of the show.
In rehearsal, the first couple of times we tried it, everything worked fine. I remember one time he was in the bathtub, singing the songs, shifts his weight, and that’s when we discovered that nobody had bothered to anchor the bathtub. The whole thing fell off the riser. I think he stood up to get out, and him and the bathtub went tumbling down a six or eight foot tall riser. He was unhurt and the bathtub was unhurt. Thereafter, everybody made sure to have that bathtub anchored down, so it couldn’t tip over. After the moment of horror and rushing to the stage, he bounced up and said, “I’m good.” After that, the jokes the crew for a few days was calling that moment “When Doves Die.”
What were you responsible for on that tour?
I was the production coordinator. The production manager was Tom Marzullo. It was probably the largest tour on the road that year. We had about 14 or 15 trucks including our own generator for arenas. In the early to mid-80s, most tours were like today, two or maybe three trucks. We were doing an arena show that was so power hungry that we had our own generator in the truck. My job was to coordinate the production. I dealt with the crews and various needs of the production like setting up and tearing down. It was a massive production and a lot of people were there to run it.
Prince was also one of the biggest artists in the world. What was it like being with him?
Security was a whole new level of precautions you had to take with physically securing the venue and stage, as well as his movements. It was extraordinary the amount of fame he had at that moment. We were coming into town and had fans waiting in the parking lot at loading around five in the morning. There would be fans trying to get into the loading area, so we had security always because there were always people trying to get in.
Working for Prince in 1985 had to be a completely different experience than working with Lil’ Bow Wow on the first “Scream Tour” in 2001.
(Laughs) You have no idea! You have no idea was 20,000 hysterical 13-year-old girls sound like. You have no idea what it sounds like in an arena like that. I wish someone put a db meter (decibel meter) on the crowd because the tour was aptly named “The Scream Tour.” They would scream at the top of their lungs for 90 minutes.
What was it like putting that tour together?
The tour was based around Lil Bow Wow. One of the interesting things we built for that show was a little car for Bow Wow. It had a little fiberglass body and electric motor. He would drive it out of a garage, around the stage, and then back into the garage. It was actually a workable little car. He was about 14 at that point. He loved the car. I’m pretty sure he took it home with him after the tour.
What was the rider backstage for a 14-year-old Bow Wow?
At that point, his mother was also his manager and on the road with us every day. She had him on a pretty tight leash, so his rider wasn’t crazy. The adult in charge kept it pretty straightforward.
What tour would you say helped you grow as a production manager?
Different tours address different elements. In terms of production chops, there are two tours. The first one was the “1999 Tour” with Prince. That was the tour just before the “Purple Rain Tour.” For the “Purple Rain Tour,” the movie and album blew up, money was no object, he was larger. We were playing multiple days in sold out arenas. I think we did five shows at the Joe Louis Arena over seven or eight days. We’d load the show in, do two or three shows, load the show out so the hockey team could play a game, and then loaded the show back in to do a couple of other dates, loaded it out for the hockey team to play some more games, and so on. We did that a couple of times. The scope of it was massive.
But, the tour we did before the “Purple Rain Tour” — the “1999 Tour” — was smaller in scope. We were playing some theaters and a lot of arenas. That’s the tour I worked the hardest on, as far as a day-to-day grind. For instance, we did 93 shows on that tour. This was back in the day when tours were two or three months instead of two or three weeks. We started that tour in November, worked through Christmas, took most of January off, and came back in February to work until April. In the month of February, we did 21 shows in 28 days. Only one of those shows was a “double” where we did two shows in one city. The rest were one-offs. We were in the middle of the winter and on the East Coast.
At one point, Prince wanted to appear on the top of the PA Stack and do a song. He would end the song, we would blackout, and he’d want to appear in the middle of the stage one second later. So, we ended up building a slide on the fly while we’re touring and going city to city. I had a slide fabricated, so he could do the song, jump on the slide, slide to the deck, so he could run and reappear on stage.
You also worked with two of the most reclusive artists ever: D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill. What is it like working with two artists who are sporadic with their performances?
It’s more frustrating. In the case of Lauryn Hill, her lateness is completely out of your hands as a production manager. My job is to get the show together, get it set up, make sure it’s functioning correctly in all of its elements, so when the artist comes to the stage, he or she can just go to work. My job for Lauryn was get the show set up, make sure all the elements were functioning, and then sit around (laughs). Then, come showtime, we go past showtime and you’re just sitting there twiddling your thumbs. It really wasn’t difficult from that standpoint because we did what we needed to do and then we just wait. The building manager and promoter are going crazy, and the crowd is getting a little anxious. But, what am I supposed to do? There’s her door, go knock on it and see if she wants to come out. Of course, nobody did. Her one thing is the stage volume is incredibly loud and because her volume is loud, her band’s volume is turned up punishingly loud.
With D’Angelo, I was way more involved creatively with the “Voodoo Tour.” On that tour, I designed the set. The same guy who was the tour manager for Prince and Maxwell was also the tour manager for D’Angelo. When I first got hired, I went to New York to have a meeting with D’Angelo, his manager, and the tour manager. We sat around a table and D’Angelo started sketching out his concept. He didn’t have a defined concept, but he had a general feeling he wanted to convey for the show. I did a few sketches and he said, “Great, that’s what I want to do.” I went and got it constructed. As far as dealing with him as an artist, he’s personally a lovely guy to talk to and work with. Onstage, he was an amazing performer. But, he had, at that point, bouts of self-doubt, so everyday was a challenge to get him onstage because he had stage fright. After that “Voodoo Tour,” he went silent for about 12-14 years and then started working again. You were never sure if he was going to show up for the show or not. We ended up cancelling shows here or there because he had emotional and self-doubt issues.