Timeless and Authentic
No one could ever replace a musician as iconic as Prince. What we still can do, however, is celebrate his life and work with the musicians who helped make him who he was in the first place. We spoke to the Purple One’s original Revolution drumming foil, who’s been on the road with the bandmates who were beside him way back when the magic began.
As a member of the Revolution, Bobby Z accompanied Prince on his rise to fame between 1978 and 1986. Though the singer and multi-instrumentalist recorded his first several albums almost solely on his own, his 1981 album, Controversy, featured Z on one track, and on ’84’s blockbuster, Purple Rain, Z appeared on half the album. Perhaps more importantly, though, Z and his bandmates in the Revolution helped establish the sound that defined Prince’s famous live show, which, like his albums, increasingly featured electronic drums. Z’s hybrid drumkit utilized the then-brand-new technology, helping move it forward in drummers’ minds as a valid tool.
Back in the studio, Bobby Z continued to share the drum seat with Prince on 1985’s Around the World in a Day and ’86’s Parade, but when guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman left the Revolution at the end of the Parade tour to go out on their own, the group disbanded, and Prince replaced Z on drums with Sheila E.
Z didn’t sit still, though, and went on to add support to Wendy & Lisa’s self-titled 1987 debut album, coproduce tracks on Culture Club singer Boy George’s since-deleted 1988 album, Tense Nervous Headache (tracks are currently available on the album High Hat), and, in 1989, release his own, self-titled album. “I’m proud of the projects I worked on in my role behind the desk,” Z says today. “I’m very lucky to have produced with some extremely talented people. Growing up in our household, my mother encouraged our creativity. We were the first by far in our area to have music and band practice in our basement. I grew up as a studio rat as well as a live drummer, and I’m grateful to have had a lot time in both situations.”
Bobby Z was born Robert Rivkin on January 9, 1956, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the age of six he started taking an interest in music, and by the time he was in junior high school he’d formed a band and got his first taste of touring. Z met Prince in the late ’70s while working for Owen Husney, who is often given credit for having discovered Prince. Bobby’s stage name came from the nickname that his grandfather would call him, “Butzie.”“I was Butzie to my Grandpa Charlie the day I was born,” says the drummer. “He was my buddy. I was four years old when he passed, and I was crushed. But from then on my brothers David and Steve shortened Butzie to just Z. Prince wanted people to connect us, so he gave David the Z moniker as well.”
In early 2010, Bobby suffered a near-fatal heart attack. After recovering, he set up a charity called My Purple Heart to raise public awareness of heart attack warning signs and risk factors, as well as raise funds for research. In 2011, he celebrated the one-year anniversary of surviving his heart attack with a reunion performance with the Revolution at the popular Minneapolis club First Avenue. The show, which featured Revolution members Melvoin, Coleman, bassist Brown Mark, keyboardist Dr. Fink, guitarist Dez Dickerson, and sax player Eric Leeds, was called “Benefit 2 Celebrate Life!” Beyond raising needed funds, it represented the first time the Revolution had played together since 2003.
The last time Bobby would perform with Prince was ten years later, when he joined his old boss on stage for “Purple Rain” during the last two shows of the 3rdeyegirl tour. Reflecting back, Bobby says of the performances (which happened on the same night), “It was a thrill to be back onstage with Prince.” Alas, it was never to be again, as Prince unexpectedly died in April 2016 of an accidental opioid overdose. Surviving Revolution members responded by regrouping, and they have been performing regularly since.
When not on tour, Bobby Z hosts a radio show in Minneapolis on the Current 89.3 FM and their newly launched web radio channel, the Purple Current. We caught up with him while the Revolution was in New York for two shows at Sony Hall. Original band members Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Brown Mark, Dr. Fink, and Bobby—along with Mint Condition’s Stokley on vocals— funked up the sold-out crowd and had everyone dancing and singing along to every song from the get-go. This was not a tribute band by any means. It was the real deal, and you could truly hear the influence they had on the superstar’s early sound. The Revolution was, and remains, timeless and authentic.
MD:First things first—how are you feeling?
Bobby: I’m feeling really good! I’m very lucky to have been at the right place and the right time to have amazing doctors save my life twice. I had a serious artery blockage and a subsequent heart attack almost eight years ago, and then complications two years afterwards, with an incident with a stent. Even though my heart has some damaged areas, with the right meds and cardiac rehab, as they say on TV, you can live longer and stay out of the hospital. We’re all very fortunate to benefit from the advances of modern medicine.
MD: Let’s go back to the beginning. What got you interested in music and drums?
Bobby: I grew up watching my brother David’s band in the basement. The drummer, John Hughes, was a fantastic rudimentary player. He had a huge impact on me. His drums were set up most days in the basement, and I was trying to play on those before I could even reach the pedals. Then along came Ringo on Ed Sullivan and, poof, at seven years old I was officially a drummer!
MD: Today your brother David is a very talented and successful producer, engineer, mixer, and writer. Besides his longstanding work with Prince, he’s worked with Billy Idol, Buddy Guy, Neneh Cherry, A-ha, and Fine Young Cannibals, and he was a member of Lipps Inc., who had a huge hit with “Funkytown.”
Bobby: He did well! David was the godfather of “the Minneapolis sound.” He taught us and Prince how to make records. He has an instinctive record sense. He made us all better players and producers. Both my brothers are amazing talents. My bother Steve is an Academy Award–nominated film editor for Avatar.
MD: How did you hook up with Prince and then go on to be a member of his band?
Bobby: I met Prince at Moon Sound studios during the making of his first demo. I worked for Owen Husney, Prince’s manager at the time, as a delivery runner for his advertising firm. So my job became basically to drive him around, and we became friends. Then we started to jam. I auditioned against every drummer in Minneapolis twice, and then got the job and became his drummer for eleven years. Our friendship lasted until the very end.
MD: What did you learn from Prince?
Bobby: He knew pretty much everything there is to know about performing, no matter the instrument. His musical discipline of time and space was impeccable. He was one of the greatest masters of music of all time.
MD: Of all the classic Prince tracks, do you have any favorites?
Bobby: My proudest achievement in drumming for him is “Purple Rain.” The live track was recorded by my brother David and was done in one of the first mobile studio trucks, which was parked right outside of the First Avenue club on the night of August 3, 1983. We played the song for only a week or so, and it had been arranged by the band. It truly was a unique experience, with Prince letting go of a song completely to the band. With a few minor fixes, the live version of “Purple Rain” is what you see in the movie and hear on the soundtrack. I swear that song is alive every time we play it—always fluid, emotional, and otherworldly.
MD: Did you and Prince play together on recordings?
Bobby: When I think of Prince and all the percussion and drums he and I did, it really boggles my mind. He was a very proficient drummer, especially in the studio. The studio was a blank canvas for Prince, and the drums were no exception. There were no rules for how to record drums, but the beat was always front and center. A lot of the drum tracks were recorded in a very unorthodox way. And of course the super advantage he had over all of the musicians that played for him was that he heard it all in his head and could play your part. Having said that, he loved to be challenged—but only if your ideas were good!
MD: Prince always had amazing musicians. The late John Blackwell idolized you. Did you know John?
Bobby: I did know him. He was so gracious and so gifted as a drummer. I was very lucky to have spent time hanging out with John at Paisley Park and watch him in action at rehearsals with Prince. His respect was an honor and a gift to me. Not everybody has humility and talent. He is truly missed.
MD: In those early days, electronics were fairly new. How did you get into playing along to sequences and programmed drums?
Bobby: Prince had one of the first Linn LM-1 drum machines. The song “Private Joy” [from Controversy] is the first time you hear it on record. I think drum machines in general scared all drummers back then, but Prince’s manager at the time, Steve Fargnoli, gave me some advice. He said, “It’s here, so learn how to use it.” It was very good advice.
At the onset there was no technology available to support Prince’s desire to have a drum machine that was playable via pads. We used the outputs from the LM-1 to trigger small acoustic guitar pickups and mics placed inside the snare. Don Batts, our genius tech, had created an interface that made Simmons pads trigger the Linn sounds. It was quite unpredictable and would often double trigger. I remember praying on live TV during the American Music Awards performance of “Purple Rain” that it would work. It did, luckily, but technology quickly caught up, and playable pads become popular.
Prince’s real precision innovation in the studio was the Pearl Syncussion pads and sounds. On our tour now I use samples of those sounds to create the authentic electronic cymbals, toms, and bombs that are such a big part of our music.
MD: What made you and the band decide to go out on tour?
Bobby: It’s only been two years now since Prince passed. The band is just enjoying sharing his music with his fans, many of whom are still grieving. We’re finding out that this music means so much to so many people. It’s lifecycle music. I want to thank all the fans for their support of the band and me. We’re all still in shock from Prince’s passing. We found that playing his music is a happiness factory. At this point in our lives it feels like it’s a gift that he left for us, not to regain past glories, but to spread something that is so elusive in our time now…coming together for him.
Tools of the Trade
Back in the day, Bobby Z played a Ludwig kit with Black Simmons SDSV pads, a Simmons SDSV module, a Linn LM-1 drum machine, two black Pearl Syncussion pads, two Pearl Syncussion modules, and Zildjian cymbals (14″ hi-hats, 16″ and 18″ crashes, 20″ ride). Today he plays DW drums, and all loops and sounds are fired from a Roland SPD-SX multipad. Like his original Ludwig kit, Bobby’s current DW features a 14″ tom, an 18″ floor tom, and a 22″ bass drum. He still plays Zildjian cymbals.
Bobby Z on His Purple Heart Foundation
I formed my Purple Heart Foundation in partnership with the American Heart Association after my recovery. We did amazing benefit shows for three years in a row all at First Avenue. We did the first one with the Revolution, with Prince’s blessing. The second show was with actor and singer Maya Rudolph, [pre-Revolution bassist] André Cymone, and Dez Dickerson. And the third show was with [Prince singer] Apollonia and Brian Setzer. We actually saved lives with these amazing shows by showing PSAs from the AHA that showed people how to recognize the signs of a heart attack, and how to do hand CPR to the beat of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.” I know it sounds crazy, but that is the BPM at which you need to do a chest pump on an attack victim’s chest while you wait for first responders to arrive. We received amazing testimonial letters that said things like, “You helped my father,” and, “You saved my uncle.” For more information, your readers should visit the American Heart Association at heart.org. They do amazing work in the fight against heart disease.