An inside look at the artist formerly known as Prince before the Revolution and before he was pop royalty and had delivered the albums that brought him to worldwide acclaim.
[2016 Editor’s note: Sitting here listening to the notorious Black Album, in shock and in mourning at the passing of one of my all-time favorite musical artists. It’s been a tough year already, but Prince’s death is a hard one to deal with. From playing his songs in my high school band to marveling at his live acumen and unbelievable recorded output, he was an artist who defied classification. I thought this would be a worthy feature to post in the days after his passing.]
Despite his precocious talents and free reign to write and record his own music around the clock at Moonsound Studios, Prince was stuck in Minneapolis without access to major studios and record labels. It was around this time that Prince asked Moonsound’s owner, Chris Moon, to manage him. Moon wasn’t interested in taking on the extra load, but did make one important suggestion: that Prince drop his surname and perform simply as Prince. In the autumn of 1976, he traveled to New York with a demo tape of four of the 14 songs he had completed at Moonsound.
While staying in New York, Prince received an offer from Tiffany Entertainment to buy the publishing rights to the four songs, but declined it, aware that Tiffany would subsequently make all the money from his work. Returning to Minneapolis, he was introduced by Moon to Owen Husney, the head of The Ad Company, an advertising agency that also marketed local musicians. “I thought this group was phenomenal,” Husney recalled, “and I said to Chris: ’Who’s the group?”
Moon explained that it was just one kid, writing, playing, and singing everything. Husney was stunned, and so enthused that he offered to manage Prince, gearing the $8 million per year that The Ad Company made from its existing clients toward promoting his new charge’s interests. Husney raised $50,000 and founded American Artists, Inc. with the sole purpose of managing Prince. He gave the singer a rehearsal space in his offices, rented him a one-room apartment, and took over from where Chris Moon had left off. “I presented myself as the protector of creativity,” Husney recalled. “He was young and a lot of people were going to come at him, and he was vulnerable at the time.”
By the following spring, Prince and Husney had completed work on a demo tape, and Husney printed up 15 press packs at a cost of $100 each. The two men had decided that the best way to market Prince was with an air of mystery. As such, the all-black press packs featured nothing but his name on the outside, with just the tape on the inside. The idea was that Prince could be marketed as a new Stevie Wonder – somebody who demanded total creative control, just as Wonder had.
“I lied my way in everywhere to get him in,” Husney later admitted. “Jealously is what makes this business go round.” He called Warner Bros. and told them CBS was planning to fly Prince out to Los Angeles for a meeting. This had the desired effect, as did a similar call to CBS. Soon, as well as securing meetings with the two biggest record labels in America, Husney had also managed to pique the interest of A&M, ABC/Dunhill, and RSO.
Husney’s approach to the meetings was similarly clever. He would present the label representatives with the press kit and play them the tape while Prince sat outside in the hallway, in order to maintain an air of intrigue. But while securing the meetings had been easy, getting the right deal would prove rather more complicated. Neither RSO nor ABC was interested in signing Prince, while A&M wouldn’t offer anything beyond a standard two-album deal. CBS’s representatives were treated to a live, in-studio audition when they watched Prince record “Just As Long As We’re Together” at Village Recorders in Los Angeles, but still only offered a three-album deal with the added stipulation that Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White would come on board as producer.
This, to Prince, was unacceptable, and left only Warners. Once again the offer was for a three-album deal, but at least this label had a reputation for being more artist-friendly. “While everybody was wining and dining,” Husney recalled, “Russ [Thyret] took us back to his house, sat on the floor, and talked music with us.” Thyret wanted a debut album within six months, and two more by the end of the 70s.
The note on the back of For You says it all: “Produced, Composed, Arranged, and Performed by Prince.” Barring a co-writing credit for Chris Moon (“Soft & Wet”), there was nothing more to say. He might be a 19-year-old boy from Minneapolis who had only signed to the label ten months before the album was released, but in that short time Prince had become the youngest producer Warners has ever had. He was also an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, credited with playing 23 different instruments in the album’s liner notes.
Warner Bros. knew from the start that Prince was a singular talent. Even so, the hit-making mentality prevailed. Hit records were supposed to have hit producers behind them. To the ears of the Warners executives, Prince should have been aspiring toward the disco sound of Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers, and Earth Wind & Fire.
And so it was that the label made provisional arrangements for Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White to produce Prince’s debut. The trouble with this was that Prince had already turned down CBS partly because of the label’s insistence that Maurice’s brother should produce his debut. As far as Prince was concerned, the slick, metronomic sound of disco would soon be a thing of the past. Giving his debut album the Earth Wind & Fire treatment could potentially kill it before it even got into stores.
“He didn’t want that sound placed on him – he wanted to go forward,” Husney recalled. “Prince walked out of the room and said: ’Nobody’s producing my first album.’” Husney was then left with the unenviable task of convincing one of the world’s biggest record labels that an unknown teenager with no previous track record should be allowed to produce his own album.
Warners put Prince to the test in much the same way that CBS had a year earlier. After booking him a weekend in Los Angeles’s Amigo Studio, a series of top executives came in and out, surreptitiously, to watch as he recorded “Just As Long As We’re Together” from scratch, all by himself. Prince thought they were janitors and carried on as normal, but the executives were suitably impressed, and agreed to his wish to produce the whole album himself. There was just one catch: somebody more experienced would be brought in as the album’s executive producer, just in case Prince ran into any difficulties.
Having completed work on the basic tracks by the end of December, the For You team moved to LA’s Sound Labs studio in January 1978 to begin overdubbing. It was here that the pressure seemed to get to Prince. He spent over a month and a half piling up overdub upon overdub, gradually eroding the spontaneity of the original recordings in a self-conscious bid to prove that he was capable of making the kind of polished, commercial record that Warners wanted. He finally finished the record on February 28, eight months after he had started work on it. It had cost $170,500 – just $500 short of the planned budget for the first three Prince albums – and had turned its creator into a wreck.
Released on April 7, 1978, For You received largely positive reviews, although most of them were concerned more with the fact that it was the work of a 19-year-old and had little to say about the actual musical content. Prince’s local paper, the St. Paul Dispatch, called the album “a technical marvel and a curiosity” most interesting “because one man did it.” For You did nonetheless reach Number 21 on Billboard’s R&B chart, while “Soft & Wet” made it to Number 12 on the R&B chart and Number 92 on the Pop chart.
In the summer of 1978, Prince used his Warner Bros. advance to move into a new home at 5215 France Avenue in the Edina area of Minneapolis. He then set about holding auditions for a band that he could take out on the road with him, choosing Del’s Tire Mart as a rehearsal space. Bobby Rivkin – the brother of the Sound 80 demo engineer David Rivkin (Bobby Z), and an employee of Owen Husney’s – came in on drums, while Prince’s old school-friend André Anderson (now calling himself André Cymone) played the bass, just as he had done years earlier in his mother’s basement.
With a mix of ethnicities already in place (Rivkin was white; Cymone was black), Prince was keen to mix up the band’s sexuality as well – just as Sly & The Family Stone had done in the 60s. Prince brought Gayle Chapman into the fold, telling her: “You’re white, you’re blonde, you have blue eyes, and you can play funky keyboards.”
Dez Dickerson was next to join. A veteran of the Minneapolis scene, with a punkier look than most black guitarists of the time, he was impressed by Prince’s professionalism – despite the fact that the singer turned up two-and-a-half hours late for their scheduled rehearsal. “He was very clear that he wanted the band to be an amalgam of rock and R&B,” Dickerson later recalled.
The last member to join was keyboardist Matt Fink, who had been intrigued by Prince ever since Bobby Z played him a demo tape in 1977. He had asked Bobby to keep him in mind if Prince was ever on the lookout for a keyboard player, and now was the time.
Having assembled the band, Prince spent the rest of the year whipping them into shape while Owen Husney tried to focus his energies on putting together a tour. Since the release of For You, however, Prince had begun to see Husney as more of a runner than a manager, perhaps as a result of his frustration that the album hadn’t been an instant smash hit.
Prince’s demands eventually became too much. After having their equipment stolen from Del’s Tire Mart, the band moved into Pepé Willie’s basement. “Sometimes the basement was less than balmy,” Dez Dickerson recalled. “Prince called Owen and told him to get a space heater and bring it to Pepé’s.” Husney, however, was waiting on an important call, and didn’t think it wise to leave the office. Prince demanded that the job be done there and then. An argument ensued that resulted in Husney quitting on the spot. Prince tried to convince him to return, but the three-page letter he had written detailing what he considered to be a manager’s responsibilities didn’t jive with what Husney thought the job should entail. Pepé Willie was willing to do the smaller jobs, but that served only to mask a bigger problem: having just released his debut album, and while still trying to get his band tight enough for a tour, Prince lacked a guiding force.
With For You already three-quarters of a year old, Prince had high hopes that 1979 would begin with a tour in support of it, but he would first have to convince Warners to back it financially. In the interim, Willie organized a pair of shows at Minneapolis’s Capri Theater.
Prince made his live debut as a solo artist on January 5, 1979. It wasn’t a sell-out, but still drew a crowd of several hundred fans, friends, and family members, all intrigued to see the local-boy-made-good in action. But Prince was still a tentative live performer and often played with his back to the audience. All in all, the show – for which each of the band-members wore tight spandex, leg-warmers, and high heels – seemed more like a dress rehearsal than a proper concert.
Two nights later, a delegation of Warners officials came to watch Prince’s second show and decide whether or not he was ready for a full tour. This was unfortunately the night that Dez Dickerson decided to try out a wireless pickup, which refused to work properly. None of this helped Prince, who was already nervous. The constant breaks to fix Dickerson’s equipment disrupted the flow, and when a “painfully shy” Prince plucked up the courage to address the audience, the guitarist recalled, he “barely spoke above a whisper.”
The concert was an unqualified failure. Having put so much effort into proving he could make a record entirely on his own terms, Prince was devastated that he couldn’t do the same in a live setting. “I kept trying to speak to him and he wouldn’t even talk,” his cousin, Charles Smith, recalled. “He thought the show was shit.” So did the Warners officials, who vetoed any plans for Prince to tour.
Warners’ main focus was on finding a new management team. The label opted for the Hollywood-based firm Cavallo & Ruffalo, a highly experienced agency who had previously worked with Little Feat; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Weather Report. Cavallo & Ruffalo sent runners down to handle Prince’s day-to-day requests, and installed a senior employee, Steve Fargnoli, as his manager. Fargnoli proved so important to the Prince setup that he would soon be invited to become a partner in the company, which was renamed Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli.
Meanwhile, Prince busied himself working on songs for his next album. From late April to late May he recorded at Alpha Studio in Los Angeles with engineer Gary Brandt – Warners having decided, after the Tommy Vicari debacle (which made it clear that Prince wouldn’t listen to anybody), that there was little point in insisting on another executive producer. Left to his own devices, and having decided that he now “knew how to write hits,” Prince recorded his self-titled second album in 30 days, and needed only a couple of weeks to add overdubs and complete the final mix at Hollywood Sound Recorders.
Prince sounds like the work of an artist who had learned from the mistakes of his previous album. Where For You meandered at times, the follow-up contains a wealth of more varied, interesting grooves. The songwriting is snappier and more hook-laden, as evidenced by “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” and “I Feel For You” (later a hit for Chaka Khan). The album reached Number 22 on the Billboard Pop chart – a mere 141-point improvement on For You – and hit Number Three on the R&B chart. Now it was time, once again, to think about touring.
The Prince tour was certainly eventful. To begin with, two months of shows had to be cancelled after the singer caught pneumonia in early December. Then there was the small matter of an appearance on American Bandstand, for which Prince and his band were set to perform the album’s first two singles, “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”
Backstage they met the host, Dick Clark, one of the most respected figures on American television. Everything was going well until Prince came up with a mischievous idea: he and his bandmates should refuse to answer any of Dick Clark’s questions. The band was mortified, but the stunt worked. Prince became infamous almost overnight after answering Clark’s questions with nothing more than series of hand gestures, such as holding up four fingers when asked how many years he had been playing. (Clark later called it the hardest interview he ever conducted.)
Another issue to resolve was the group’s image. “We were all groping for images of how we wanted to look on stage,” Matt Fink recalled. “Prince pretty much left it up to each individual member of the band to figure it out, of course, with his final approval.” For Fink this meant everything from prison chic to a doctor’s gown and mask (which earned him the nickname Dr. Fink). Prince, however, had an entirely different look in mind: “loud spandex and bright colors,” as Dickerson put it. “I overheard Bob [Cavallo] talking to Prince about the fact that he could not scandalize the audience by wearing that spandex and no underwear.” Prince took Cavallo’s instructions literally. “That’s all he wore: a pair of bikini briefs!”
Excerpted from Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution by Jason Draper, published by Backbeat Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard. Reprinted with permission. Visit HalLeonardBooks.com and enter the discount code AP2 at checkout to receive 20% off the list price and free domestic shipping (least expensive method)!
Here’s an added bonus treat… a video that shows a behind-the-scenes look at Prince’s Super Bowl show in Miami in the rain.
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