Prince Turns a Young Girl’s Images Into ‘Starfish and Coffee’
Prince had been struck by stories his onetime fiancee and lead singer of the Family, told of a peculiar childhood classmate. He and Susannah Melvoin agreed the tale— and the girl — deserved to be immortalized in writing. But when he sat her down at their kitchen table in 1986 and asked her to pen a more detailed account, she didn't know it would become "Starfish and Coffee," a song first released on Sign 'O' the Times the following year.
Prince took her story downstairs, where he had a home studio. He asked Melvoin not to join him until it was complete. Ultimately, she received a writing credit for the song.
The song followed the story of a girl named Cynthia Rose, who Melvoin and her twin sister Wendy (of the Revolution) went to school with for six years as children. Cynthia Rose was ignored by her classmates, but in whom Melvoin took special interest. Melvoin had shared the story with Prince several times.
"I think Cynthia was dropped off from another world filled with extraordinary images. Images only Cynthia knew the meanings behind," Melvoin wrote in an essay about the song's history. "Her favorite number for many years was the number 12. I knew this because she’d rock back and forth in her seat asking you if you knew what her favorite number was for the day… It was always shocking to her that you knew what her favorite number was I would inevitably say 'I think it’s twelve, right Cynthia?' She was amazed and joyous that you guessed it right. Once more I’d watch how she would ecstatically experience the world."
At a May 2016 memorial for Prince, Rolling Stone said that Tavis Smiley "recalled Prince's insatiable curiosity to know about everything – he called Prince 'nosy,' and many in the crowd laughed in assent. He said Prince loved having deep talks about all sorts of subjects. Smiley said they often had hours-long phone conversations about 'how to navigate this thing called life.'"
So it's not surprising that he listened attentively to her stories of Cynthia Rose. The song's title comes from Cynthia's frequent sharing of her breakfast consumption.
"Cynthia would also reveal what she had for breakfast. Consistently it was STARFISH AND PEE PEE," Susannah continued. "I never understood the combo meal. Furthermore, as a consequence nobody else could. Here it seemed like the deal breaker for most kids. Above all the kids in our class had no interest in how Cynthia came to get her morning breakfast. I considered it tender and funny, and listened to her tell me anything she wanted to say whether it was firmly planted on earth, or from her planet of tender hearted people who love numbers and draw smiley faces."
Before Prince ventured down to his Galpin Blvd. Home Studio, Melvoin shared, he said "the Pee Pee's got to go," and asked her if coffee would be an acceptable substitute. Ten hours later, he presented the song to her with a smile.
Title aside, it's a faithful retelling of the story, which references Cynthia Rose by name, as well as the Melvoin sisters and their teacher, Miss Kathleen, and even features a telltale school bell.
That first version that he recorded for Sign O' the Times, his first album after disbanding the Revolution, wasn't his last. In 1995, he re-recorded the song at his Paisley Park Studios, likely intended for the 1996 children's album Happy Tears, which was announced along with he and wife Mayte's pregnancy, according to PrinceVault. It is also likely, according to the Vault, that his 1996 performance of the song for The Muppets Tonight TV show (embedded above) was planned to coincide with the release of the album, but the project was canceled when their son died a week after birth due to complications from Pfeiffer's Syndrome.
Prince continued to tinker with "Starfish and Coffee" over the years, and in 2002 released a live piano version on One Nite Alone... Live!, his first live album.
Prince: 40 Years of Photographs, 1977-2016