In 2003, a world famous musician played a secret gig at a small Melbourne night club. This is Prince at Bennetts Lane.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born in Minneapolis on June 7, 1958.
His parents were both involved in music; his mother, Mattie Della, was a singer, and his father, John Lewis Nelson, was a pianist and song writer. Prince’s unusual first name came from his father, who often appeared under the stage name ‘Prince Rogers’.
Watching his parents perform onstage and rehearse at home, Prince quickly developed a passion for music. He wrote his first song on his father’s piano, when he was 7.
Prince’s parents separated when he was 10.
His mother remarried shortly afterwards, and had a son, Omarr, with her new husband. Prince did not get along with his half-brother, and his teen years were unsettled; living sometimes with his mother, or his father, or in the basement of a family friend.
Throughout, he retained his interest in music, learning how to play guitar and other instruments, as well as piano, and continued to write his own songs. He also studied ballet, at the Minnesota Dance Theatre.
When he was 17, in 1975, Prince was hired by his cousin to add some guitar to a record he was putting together, for his band ’94 East’. The following year, Prince recorded his own demo tape and shopped it around the major labels, eventually landing a contract with Warner’s Music.
Prince’s first album, ‘For You’, was released in 1978.
It was a minor success with lead single, ‘Soft and Wet’, appearing at the bottom end of the Billboard Top 100. According to the album liner notes, Prince wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, co-produced the record, did the arrangement, and played 27 instruments across the 9 tracks.
The young artist’s prolific enthusiasm continued; he released three more albums in the next three years. His mix of funk, soul and rock provided an upbeat and catchy backdrop for his lyrics, which were notable for their unabashed sexuality.
This was reinforced by Prince’s stage presence. Handsome and charismatic, he performed in tight leather clothes, sometimes shirtless, sometimes in a big purple trench coat, and parlayed his ballet training into some provocative routines with his backup dancers.
It was a recipe for success.
Prince’s fifth album, ‘1999’, was released in 1982, and launched him to global superstardom.
The album began with the titular track, followed by ‘Little Red Corvette’, both huge hits that became classic songs of the era. The album built on the foundation from Prince’s earlier records, and made both his music, and performing style, iconic.
More hit records and songs would follow, including ‘Raspberry Beret’, ‘Kiss’ and ‘Purple Rain. Alongside Madonna and Michael Jackson, Prince became one of the defining artists of the 1980s.
Prince first toured Australia in 1992, as part of the ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ world tour.
The clamour to see Prince live locally was enormous. He had been popular in Australia through his run at the top of the charts, and a tour was viewed as overdue. Kicking off in Japan, Prince swung down the east coast of the country, before moving on to Europe and North America.
‘Diamonds and Pearls’ had been another successful record, producing the hit song ‘Cream’.
Backed by a new band, The New Power Generation, Prince was an animated presence on stage, tackling the new songs with enthusiasm. He sold out six shows at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, and five at Melbourne’s Tennis Centre. Reviews for the concerts were glowing.
It would be 11 years before he would return.
By 2003, Prince, though still popular, was no longer the chart-topping phenomenon of a decade before.
Displaced by a younger generation of singers, Prince responded with a shorter tour, playing only two arena shows in Sydney and Melbourne. Now middle aged, his set list reflected his new position as an FM rock staple; without a big new hit, focussing instead on earlier classics.
The two shows in Melbourne were set for 21 and 22 October, at Rod Laver Arena. Prince arrived a few days beforehand.
Bennett’s Lane is a short cul-de-sac, running north of Little Lonsdale Street, on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD.
In 1992, Michael Tortoni opened a jazz club at the end of the lane, and took the venue’s name from it. With a subdued but chic interior, and a nifty location with a hidden feel, the club began to attract top local and international artists.
In a city with a rich music history, ‘Bennett’s Lane’ quickly established itself as one Melbourne’s premier small venues.
On Sunday, October 20, 2002, Bennett’s Lane manager Meg Evans was on duty, when a surprising guest arrived: Prince.
He told staff he was looking for a place to play a warm up gig, prior to his first Rod Laver show:
‘The person who was here at the time called the boss upstairs and he came down.
Prince was really personable. He said, ‘Can I have a gig here tomorrow night?’
We had the Alan Browne Trio performing, he was going to be on Monday night, and so he performed after Alan’s concert.’
– Meg Evans, Bennetts Lane manager
Exactly why Prince chose the venue is not known, although there was a kind of precedent; Harry Connick junior had played warm up shows at the club several times on his own tours.
Prince’s secret show was not formally announced, but word got out.
By 8.30pm on Sunday evening, 100 people were queuing outside Bennett’s Lane, eagerly hoping to get in or, at least, catch a glimpse of the star. In the end, about 200 people paid $20 each to cram into the club. Several well-known local musician identities also got in, including Katie Noonan and a heavily pregnant Kate Cebrano.
Prince appeared onstage, with his full eight piece band:
‘They came through the La Trobe Street entrance. We had so many people out in the lane, and in the lane behind.
He came in and complimented us on the club, and elected to play in the small room.
It was absolutely electric. Everyone was just holding their breath.’
– Meg Evans
The lengthy set lasted around two hours, and passed into local legend. Prince’s subsequent Rod Laver shows were sold out, and the performances well received.
Another decade passed before Prince toured Australia again.
In 2012 he returned, again playing two shows in Melbourne at Rod Laver arena. After his previous appearance at Bennett’s Lane, endlessly discussed since, speculation was high: would the artist play another secret show?
But he did not come and ask for a warm up gig. Instead: late on the night of May 14, after his first Rod Laver show, Prince suddenly reappeared at Bennett’s Lane.
This time he was looking for a place to wind down and relax after the high energy performance he had just given. In a sign of the changing times, word got out via facebook:
But the atmosphere this time round was different.
Prince did not even go on stage until 2am, this time in the big room, and delivered a mellower, more improvisational set. The superstar played several instruments, as well as singing.
The lateness of the hour also meant a smaller, though still rapt, crowd. Most of the attendees had simply stayed on from other shows, earlier in the night.
Meg Evans was on duty again, and had a chance to interact a bit more with the club’s famous visitor. She served him a drink and told him about her five month old son, Melmo, who did not yet have a middle name. Prince offered ‘10 or 15 names’ the couple should consider.
The next day Bennett’s Lane announced all proceeds from the show had been donated to charity. At the artist’s request, there are no photos or audio recordings of either Bennetts Lane appearance.
Prince returned to Australia in 2016, bringing his ‘Piano and Microphone’ tour here in February of that year.
Now the raucous, high tempo pop of his earlier hits had given way to a more intimate style, as Prince played for the first time without a backing band. His choice of venues reflected the change in approach; instead of arenas he played the smaller, but more elegant, State Theatres in Melbourne and Sydney.
The tour was not without its difficult moments.
Punters in Melbourne complained of a short set length (about 80 minutes) alongside sky high ticket prices. And the artist was obviously affected by the death of a former girlfriend, singer Denise Matthews, that was announced shortly before his first Melbourne show.
He appeared subdued and moody on stage, although the concerts were overall well received.
Local music fans hoping for a third Bennett’s Lane show had their hopes raised by a tweet from the star:
‘WHERE 2 HAVE THE AFTERPARTY IN MELBOURNE ON THE 17TH? THOUGHTS’
Excited fans showed up at the venue on both nights of Prince’s main Melbourne shows. But this time, they were to be disappointed: Prince did not appear.
On April 21, 2016, two months after his Melbourne performances, a 911 call was received from Prince’s house in Paisley Park, Minneapolis.
Paramedics attended, but were too late: the artist had already been dead for nearly six hours. The cause of death was given as an accidental overdose of pain medication.
He was 57 years old.
‘Musically he was a genius.
His musical mind was without borders and without gender.
It was never inhibited in whatever he wanted to say.’
– Meg Evans
Bennetts Lane held a tribute concert for Prince shortly after his death.
In 2015, the building the club was housed in was sold for redevelopment. It remained in operation during the initial stages of the project, but closed its doors on 8 February, 2017.
An apartment building is being constructed on the site, set for completion in 2022.