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Inside Prince's vault

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Beyond the big questions surrounding the sudden, shocking death of Prince, last Thursday how and why? lies a question that only a few can answer. What will become of the massive archive of unreleased songs locked in his secret tape vault, located below his Paisley Park compound in Minneapolis?

In a 2015 pilgrimage to Paisley Park, BBC journalist (and Prince super-fan) Mobeen Azhar attempted to discover as much as possible about the famed tape vault for a documentary called 'Hunting For Prince's Vault.'

While Prince (or his attorneys) declined Azhar's request to participate in the documentary, the filmmaker managed to track down several musicians and recording engineers who had first-hand knowledge of the unheard riches lying within his tape archive.

'It has like a bank vault's door it's really, really thick,' said Susan Rogers, Prince's former recording engineer, in Azhar's documentary. Rogers explains that it was her idea for Prince to begin maintaining a thorough archive of recordings and films.

'One of the things I realized that would be smart for me to do would be to get all of his tapes together in one place,' Rogers continued. 'I asked people who worked for him, Where would I find the masters (finished master recordings) for this or for that?' They said to me, They're probably at Warner Bros. (Prince's record label at the time). They're probably in Burbank. Just call them.' Then it became a little bit of an obsession. Then my goal was, I want us to have everything he's ever recorded.'

Prince's vault was established in 1983, Rogers said. 'We realized, If we're going to have a vault, let's have a 'Vault.' Because if we get a tornado, if we get a flood, this is his legacy. We need to protect these things.'

So how much unreleased music is in the vault? It is possibly the largest collection of music recorded by anyone in the history of popular music. Prince, when he wasn't take care of business, it's been said, was recording new music.

'It was as if someone was pouring these songs into him,' said Alan Leeds, former head of Paisley Park Records, in Azhar's documentary. 'And they would just continue to come out the other end, like a water spigot that wouldn't turn off.'

'When I last saw it (the vault), it might have been around '85,' Susan Rogers continues in 'Hunting For Prince's Vault.' 'I think there were some 700 songs. Maybe 800 or so. I seem to remember it was around that mark. And then we kept working, working, working.'

Assuming that Rogers' memory is accurate, those 700 to 800 unreleased songs mark only the first ten years of Prince's professional recording history. 31 years later, the mind boggles at the notion of exactly how many unheard songs are in the vault today.

Catherine Glover (AKA 'Cat') was choreographer, dancer and vocalist who worked with Prince in the 1980s. In Azhar's documentary, she estimates that, by the late 80s, the number of unreleased songs in the vault was 'about 2000.'

'It's really a vault of treasure,' Cat continued. 'It's like The Beatles' stuff and Michael Jackson's stuff. This stuff is incredibleon every levelwith all different types of artists.'

A few years ago, Prince teased that he might release the contents of the vault all at once, titillating fans with the thought of finally having access to that gargantuan body of work. Not surprisingly, it didn't happen. Prince teased and changed his mind about such things as often as he shifted styles and concepts.

One can only assume that a person who so carefully managed his archive of unissued material was all-too-aware of what could happen to it should he suddenly cease to exist.

A fan of Jimi Hendrix, Prince saw what happened to Hendrix's recorded legacy in the wake of the guitarist's death in 1970. A haphazard archive in disarray, with master recordings scattered around the world, Hendrix's tape vault was only put in order beginning in the late 1990s when his family acquired the legal rights to his legacy. Even then, it's doubtful that Hendrix would have wanted most of us to hear those hundreds of hours of outtakes, alternate versions, jams and live recordings. Like Prince, he was extremely careful to release only what he thought was his best material.

Matt Thorne, author of 'Prince,' spoke of the musician's unreleased songs in Azhar's documentary. 'I think the problem is, you and I and the fans think in terms of years and decades and I think Prince thinks in terms of centuries. And I think he's thinking it will come out in 200 years or 300 years. So I think it's going to be such a long game and we're not going to see, unless we're lucky, the main fruit of the vault be released in our lifetime.'

In 2014, Prince shocked his fans by resigning with Warner Bros. Records after an 18-year feud with the label. In return, Warner Bros. gave Prince ownership of all of the music he had recorded during his association with them.

Will Warner Bros. have access to the vault? Did Prince entrust Larry Graham - friend, sometime musical co-conspirator and former bassist for Sly and the Family Stone - to curate and maintain the vault's contents? Now that we know that Prince, a force we once thought was unstoppable, will never record again, will we finally get to hear the secret treasures he left behind? Stay tuned.

'The Big Morning Show with Mike Dow' can be heard on Big 104 FM The Biggest Hits of the '60s, '70s & '80s - airing on 104.7 (Bangor/Belfast), 104.3 (Augusta/Waterville) 107.7 (Bar Harbor/Ellsworth) and WAEI AM 910.

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