30 Years Ago: Wendy & Lisa Go From Sideshow to Stars
Long before they were soldiers in Prince’s Revolution, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman were close. The two had grown up together in Los Angeles, the daughters of Mike Melvoin and Gary L. Coleman – members of the vaunted Wrecking Crew that played on numerous ’60s and ’70s hits by the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra and the Jackson 5. Music was their birthright, and Wendy and Lisa (and their siblings) grew up singing and playing instruments, with Melvoin specializing in the guitar and Coleman on piano.
In 1980, Coleman joined Prince’s backing band on keyboards and vocals. A few years later, when the group was in need of a guitarist, she recommended her childhood pal Melvoin – who by then had not-so-secretly also become her lover. The two became supporting stars in Prince’s band, the newly Christened Revolution, featured on and in Purple Rain (“Is the water warm enough?" "Yes, Lisa”), co-writing songs and even getting their own Rolling Stone cover story in 1986 (although they were pictured flanking their bandleader).
When the relationship between Prince and the Revolution began to crumble during the 1986 tour, and was dissolved soon after it, Wendy and Lisa endured as both a romantic couple and a creative team. For them, there was no question that they would continue to make music together.
“It seemed natural for us to work together because we’ve known each other so well for so long,” Melvoin told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “We come from musical families and our families are close to each other. We’ve complemented each other musically for years. We’ve been writing together for a long time. It just made sense to work with Lisa. We never even thought about solo careers.”
After forming the new duo – named simply Wendy & Lisa – the two musicians began to share vocal duties, with the more extroverted Melvoin taking center stage on the singles (and in the videos). But relied on each other, but also on other members of their families. Wendy’s siblings Jonathan (who would later tour with Smashing Pumpkins) and Susannah (one-time Revolution backing singer and Prince’s ex-paramour) contributed to the debut album, as did a couple of Colemans, David and Gary.
Wendy & Lisa weren’t allowed to use any of the unreleased material they had worked on with Prince, so they created a batch of new songs, often working with their Revolution bandmate Bobby Z. – who co-wrote five songs and co-produced the new album. But just because they couldn’t use their songs written with Prince didn’t mean that they couldn’t write about Prince. Poppy lead single “Waterfall” appeared to express cautious optimism about the separation (“People may come / People may go…”) and “Sideshow” seemed to hint at how it was to share a stage with Prince. Meanwhile, “Song About” took on the Purple One more directly.
Listen to "Waterfall"
“Wendy and I were sitting around talking about our memories of him in certain situations. We just translated them into song form,” Coleman revealed, then Melvoin added, “It’s a sad song because it’s sad thinking about what happened and realizing all that is gone for good. We wrote that song to let him know we’re never going to let go of the memories.”
Wendy & Lisa shopped the finished album to record labels, eventually signing with Columbia, which released the album in August/September 1987. Although Wendy and Lisa was more pop-oriented than a Prince album, it certainly shared plenty of DNA with his recent work, particularly in its melding of different genres. “Waterfall” became a minor hit in the U.S. (No. 56 on Billboard), but Wendy & Lisa had more success in England, where this album – and their next two – charted and the singles got a warmer reception on radio. Melvoin and Coleman, who eventually broke up as a couple but remain committed as musical partners decades later, look back on their debut fondly.
“To be able to share that with the person that you’re in love with, to be on stage and play music that you wrote together and look over at each other and be like, ‘Wow, look how cool this is!’” Coleman recalled to Out. “We had our sisters in the band and our brothers on the road with us in the crew or helping out in the studio. We had this great life and a big house.”
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