Prince and Stevie Wonder perform “Through the Fire” (Photo by M. Caulfield/WireImage)
Prince’s 3121 album turns 15 this month. The album’s title comes from a legendary series of parties the icon threw in Los Angeles. I first heard about the 3121 parties he was throwing during awards season 2005 from the Black Eyes Peas’ Will.I.Am. I had become friends with Will, who told me of an epic night, jamming with Prince. Herbie Hancock and more until the early morning, then having a chef break open the omelet bar at seven am following the all-night soiree.
I never thought I would get to go to one of the parties though. They were legendarily no press allowed. That was to ensure the guests were comfortable and could be themselves with no one watching. This was also largely pre-social media so what happened at the parties was for the guests only, not for Instagram.
But I was fortunate to have a close friend working with Prince at the time, who told him I had to be invited to one as a guest under the condition I not write about the event. That was an easy choice for me to make. Go to the party and not write about it for Rolling Stone, where I was working at the time.
So March 19 of that year, following the NAACP Awards that night, a friend and I headed to the 3121 house around 10 PM for what would be the most memorable night of music I would ever experience in more than two decades of covering everything from Elton John Oscar parties and Grammy MusiCares events to Super Bowl parties and backyard shows from Neil Young, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, Beck and more.
I have still never written about that night, but with Prince’s Twitter posting about the 3121 house this week brought back a lot of incredible memories. So where to start? We entered the house, which had a purple spotlight on the metal gate and the purple Prince symbol flashed on the pool.
Inside we wandered around looking at the incredible array of food, from a chocolate fountain for fruit, cheeses and more to a sushi bar. Those are what I remember all these years later, but I think any food you could think of was available as you walked from room to room.
As we walked through the house just soaking in the vibe one room was so crowded we couldn’t see inside. So we wandered around to the back door of the room where we saw why there so much attention focused on this room — Joni Mitchell was playing pool. Being at the same party as Joni Mitchell would have right there made this among the most memorable nights ever, but there was so much more.
Talking to basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson a few years ago about Prince, Johnson explained why Prince was the consummate host. ” When the All-Star game was in Minnesota, he gave an after party that started about three in the morning,” he said laughing. “And he performed until the sun came up.”
As the consummate host, Prince knew how to make his guests feel free to be themselves. He was spot on to have no press there, as it was very rare to ever see Mitchell out for example. But with no press there she was comfortable. And as my friend and I walked through a crowded hallway I tapped a woman on the shoulder to slide by her, and Christina Aguilera turned and flashed a huge smile at me as she allowed us to pass by. No press, no guard up.
This was of course 16 years ago, so the timeline might be slightly off, but I want to say it was sometime around midnight when Stevie Wonder showed up. Through stupid random luck I had interviewed him several times in the year prior so I walked up to say hi after his arrival.
At this point there was a jam session going on in the living room, as there would be throughout the whole night. I asked Wonder if he would play and all these years later I distinctly remember his answer verbatim: “If the mood strikes me.”
Now, anyone who’s ever been fortunate enough to be around Wonder knows he can’t be around a live band and not have the mood strike him. So I was optimistic that he, like Hancock, who was already jamming, would eventually grace the stage.
Where was the host in all of this by the way? The only time I saw him was walking through the living room barefoot, smiling at anyone he passed by, but not speaking to anyone.
Prince communicated through music, so he let his playing do the talking, which it eventually did, though not until much later. I realize as I write all of this it feels like a short story, but all of this is true and really happened.
Including the moment at around three in the morning where my friend and I sat on one of the four couches that were positioned in a diamond shape; Aguilera sat on another and Wonder was sleeping on another, all of us staring one of the greatest musical legends taking a disco nap.
At this point with Wonder dozing off around three, the prospect of him performing seemed dim at best. But being a disco nap it was short, and sometime around maybe 330, Wonder woke up. The events leading up to his taking the “stage,” which was just a setup in the living room, are all a blur at this point, as all I remember is what happened next.
Sometime around four am, with about 150 people in the house, Stevie Wonder stepped to the keyboards, Prince put on his guitar and what happened next I have rightfully described for the past 16 years as the best 10 minutes of music ever.
In a Los Angeles living room, with people standing there in awe, joy and disbelief, Stevie Wonder led a band including Prince on guitar in “I Was Made To Love Her.” Now, Wonder and Prince have played together publicly before, and maybe even in that intimate a setting. But the odds of them playing together in a living room for that small a crowd with Joni Mitchell playing pool behind them are pretty small.
The 3121 parties have rightly become part of the Prince legend. And to be there once feels like a dream, though that night has kept giving. Whether talking to Magic Johnson, Anthony Anderson or anyone about Prince mention the 3121 parties and they immediately get a knowing smile.
Years later when interviewing Mitchell’s drummer Brian Blade about the Joni 75 tribute show in L.A. for her seventy-fifth birthday I mentioned the Prince party and seeing her play pool and Blade cracked up and said he wasn’t surprised as he often saw her get in “the zone” playing pinball.
So when Cameron Crowe introduced me to Mitchell at an event in L.A. two years ago, I walked up and said, “I heard you’re a hell of a pinball player.” She started laughing. But if I hadn’t seen her playing pool at the 3121 party I never would have known to bring up that story to Blade, prompting him to tell me about the pinball.
All because of having been to one of Prince’s 3121 parties. In a lifetime of great music moments, nothing can ever top this one.
I have written for Billboard, Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times, Yahoo, Vice and every other major publication as well as host the Hulu interview series Riffing With and