This is part of a multi-part tribute to Prince. See the rest of the parts here.
If you've been attending shows at First Avenue over the past decade or so, you are likely familiar with the face of Pete Johnson. Though he took a 10 year hiatus, he first started at First Avenue in 1988.
I saw him at the club many times, but we never spoke until one time I was DJing to a nearly empty Record Room 6 or 7 years ago. Pete was walking through the room while I was playing "Do It Roger" by Zapp (which, in my estimation is one of the funkiest songs known to man), and he stopped in the booth to tell me that he appreciated hearing the song and that he used to work for Zapp. Since then Pete and I formed a bond based on funk. Every time we saw each other we would talk about which bands we should be listening to or seeing in concert.
Over the years I found out that he not only worked for Zapp, he also worked on the Purple Rain tour. I asked him how he got involved with the tour and his experience while on it.
How did you first get involved with Prince?
I am from Akron, Ohio and Ohio was the home state of a lot of R+B bands, one in particular was Roger Troutman and Zapp, who were really popular in the early 80s, they were hot at the time. They were also on Warner Brothers, as was Prince. Zapp picked me up straight out of high school, I was a roadie for them for a whole year. That was in 1981. Prince’s first tour was Controversy and Warner Brothers talked Prince’s people in to putting Roger Troutman and Zapp on their tour as the second act, the Time was the opener. So I just happened to be working for them at the time, and wham bam there I am on the Controversy tour.
What did you do for the tour?
I was a roadie, I moved gear, drove the truck, and helped set up, the whole nine yards. They taught me the tricks of the trade because they liked me as a person, they liked that I was a go-getter.
After the Controversy tour ended, what was next for you?
I did the whole tour with Roger and Zapp and then the tour was over and I found myself back in Akron. A couple years later I ended up on the Purple Rain tour as a roadie for Sheila E. When I was on tour in 1981, we shared some dates with Cameo, who had a lot of R+B hits at the time. Three years pass and I went to see the Cleveland stop on the Purple Rain tour, I went to the show to hang out and it turned out that Sheila E’s road crew were guys who worked for Cameo. They were a 4 man crew, 3 of them had worked for Cameo and the fourth was a political hire that they didn’t get along with. They wanted to get rid of him and hire me.
A whole month went by and I didn’t hear from them. I heard there was going to be another show in Cincinnatti, so I hopped on a Greyhound and took myself to Cincinnatti and showed up at the concert because I wanted to know why I hadn’t heard from these guys. If they weren’t going to hire me, I just wanted to know, and not be hanging in limbo. I talked my way into the venue and these guys were super surprised, they said “Pete, what are you doing here?” and I told them I wanted an answer one way or the other. By the end of the weekend they told me to get my ass on the bus and we were on our way to Memphis. By the time we got to Memphis I was officially part of the Purple Rain tour, working for Sheila E.
After the Purple Rain tour, did you end up back in Ohio or did you move to Minneapolis?
I did go home for just a little bit. I was home for about 6 months and then I moved to Minneapolis in December 1986. While we were on the Controversy tour, I became really good friends with Brown Mark, Prince’s bass player. He was a year older than me, he was 19. The reason we became friends was because he wasn’t old enough to go to bars, and Prince didn’t want him to go anyway, so at lot of times we’d be in the same hotel, and because we were close in age we just kind of naturally started hanging out together. He told me about this group he had called Maserati, and he made me an offer to work for them one day. I eventually took him up on his offer, that was ultimately what led me to come to Minneapolis.
Do you have any good Prince stories from your time with him?
While I was working for Zapp, I was pretty in to Prince. I didn’t let those guys know that. I had Prince records when I was 14 years old. Once we got on the Controversy tour, for lack of a better word I was completely blown away, infatuated, mesmerized by the prospect of having access to this guy every day. I used to follow him around. Any time we were in the same location, anywhere he was, I was hiding behind corners, watching him.
One time he caught me following him. He asked me “What do you want?” I told him “To be you.” He said “Well you can’t be me. You can play music like me and you can learn to sing like me, but you can’t be me, because I’m me.”
The last time I saw Prince was about a year ago was at Paisley Park. I went up to him after the show just to say hello. I told him he probably didn’t remember me because it’s been many years, but I reminded him who I was. He stopped for a second, I could see he was trying to find me in his memory. He didn’t remember me but he told me “I’m glad you came over to say hi, there really aren’t a lot of us left from those days.” Strangely that was the last thing Prince ever said to me. I look back to that now as kind of a prophetic good bye.