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The LA Singer Who Sang Prince's 'Nothing Compares 2 U' First

Susannah Melvoin poses next to a photo of Prince. (Mark Von Holden/Mark Von Holden/Invision/AP)
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There's a "Nothing Compares 2 U" that everyone knows. But another version was released first, by a singer personally chosen by the songwriter, the late, legendary Prince. This is the story.

When Prince died in 2016, he left behind a massive archive of unreleased music. The vault's slowly being opened up -- his estate has started releasing some of the never-before-heard tracks from a musician who was famously protective of his music.

The latest release, demo album Originals, gets a wide release Friday after previously being a Tidal exclusive. Fans get 14 tracks that Prince wrote and gave to other artists to record -- demos never released in his lifetime.

That includes Prince's demo of "Nothing Compares 2 U," which his estate released last year.

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One of his collaborators was Susannah Melvoin. She was dating Prince and performing as a backup singer when he offered her one of his songs to sing.

"Usually, my vocals were designed around what he needed me to do," Melvoin told The Frame. "And as a background vocalist, you learn how to be a part of the band -- you don't stand out, per se. This particular song was the first time I really use my voice on a track."

That song: "Nothing Compares 2 U." Melvoin recorded it as a member of the R&B group The Family in 1985.

Melvoin grew up in Los Angeles in a musical family. Her father Michael Melvoin was a jazz musician, the first musician to head the Recording Academy. Her sister Wendy Melvoin was a guitarist for Prince backing band The Revolution. Susannah started her music career as a session singer when she was just 17, backing Prince by the time she was 20.

She said the recording of "Nothing Compares 2 U" was heart-wrenching. Melvoin and Prince were romantically involved at the time, but things were shaky.

"We were going through our own thing." She said he used music to communicate and felt he was sending a message to her through the song. "It felt personal."

The Family released one album -- and their rendition of "Nothing Compares 2 U" was never released as a single.

Then, Sinéad O'Connor asked to record the song.

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Melvoin learned years later that O'Connor had heard and loved The Family's record, and wanted to cover the song herself. Much to Melvoin's surprise, Prince agreed.

"He was very protective," she said. "Like, you can't call me and asked me for this, kid. I have to vet you. And if he didn't vet you or didn't know you or didn't have a relationship with you, he wasn't going to give that up."

But because Prince had already released it the way he wanted to via The Family, he was ready to let it go. "It was already out into the public sphere."

O'Connor released her cover of "Nothing Compares 2 U" in 1990. It became a worldwide hit with an instantly iconic music video.

"[Prince] was the ultimate social worker for his music," Melvoin said. He described his songs as his children who needed to go to good families, she added.

"There's a psychology behind Prince's artistic generosity. He watched over his music carefully. He was nurturing these tracks for artists to take and grow."

How would Prince feel about the release of his demos? "It would never have happened," Melvoin said. "The man that I know would have never let anyone have sort of allegiance or license to do anything with his music."

Nonetheless, Melvoin sees an upside in releasing works from Prince's archive -- so long as it's being done with honesty and integrity.

"To be pragmatic and honest, he isn't here, and that's a horrible tragedy. But when someone like him passes, and he has this treasure of music, I do feel as though on some level, it's a responsibility to uphold his legacy."

That's what she's doing by talking about him and his music, and how she feels his estate is acting as well.

"I think that they're doing this particular project with a lot of integrity. It feels right to be here."

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on KPCC's The Frame.