A Black and White World
In December 1976, Husney booked Prince — who was winding up recordings with his cousin Pepé Willie’s 94 East — into Minneapolis’s Sound 80 studios to record a new demo tape with local engineer David Rivkin. Sound 80 was much bigger than Moonsound. It gave Prince the opportunity to transfer all that he already knew into a bigger arena — and the chance to take advantage of a wealth of new technology, notably a range of synthesizers such as the Oberheim 4-Voice. To begin with, a group of string players were brought in, but Prince — keen as ever to dominate his own recordings — preferred to use synthesized sounds that he could control himself. He would later declare that this allowed him to inject the “joy” he felt “into all these ‘players’ [so that] the same exuberant soul speaks through all the instruments.”
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. vice-president Russ Thyret and told him that CBS was planning to fly Prince out to LA 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 on April 8, 1977, but still only offered a three-album deal with the added stipulation that Earth Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White would come onboard 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 contract only guaranteed that Prince would be allowed to co-produce his albums, and gave Warners the option of renewing it at the end for either three more albums over two years or two more over one. But it was good enough. On June 25, 1977, less than three weeks after his 19th birthday, Prince signed the deal. On his return to Minneapolis he headed straight for Studio 80 to record a new song, “We Can Work It Out.” It was intended as a symbol of the understanding between label and artist, but the relationship would prove to be rather less harmonious than that.
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. And, with his debut album, Prince was hotly tipped to become the “new” Stevie Wonder.
Warner Bros. knew from the start that Prince was a singular talent. The label had beaten three others to secure the signature of a man they all felt had the potential to become one of the most forward-thinking artists of the time. Even so, the hit-making mentality prevailed. Hit records were supposed to have hit producers behind them: a Sam Phillips or a Phil Spector. 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, Verdine, should produce his debut. As far as Prince was concerned, the slick, metronomic sound of disco would soon be a thing of the past. Punk had already begun to tear up the rock’n’roll rulebook, and it was only a matter of time, he thought, before a similar change affected the club scene. 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.
The For You sessions began in September 1977 at Sound 80 studios in Minneapolis, where Prince had recorded his first proper demo. It was suggested at one point that the engineer of those previous sessions, David Rivkin, might serve as For You’s executive producer. In the end, however, Warners settled on Tommy Vicari, who had previously worked with one of Prince’s heroes, Carlos Santana.
Vicari wasn’t impressed with the facilities at Studio 80 and suggested decamping to Los Angeles. This concerned Husney, who thought his young workaholic might find himself distracted by the city’s abundance of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Husney suggested a compromise — the Record Plant in nearby Sausalito — but needn’t have worried. As soon as he settled into recording, all Prince wanted to do was work.
After moving out to California in October, Prince lodged in a spacious apartment in Mill Valley, overlooking the San Francisco Bay, with Vicari, Husney, and Husney’s wife, Britt. Their home life was pleasant enough: Husney cooked Prince scrambled eggs, while his wife made the singer’s lunch and washed his clothes. Recording was a different matter. Prince made it very clear that this was his show, and would roll his eyes whenever Vicari approached the mixing desk. If he ever did deign to ask the producer something, Prince would push him away as soon as he’d received enough information. By the time the sessions were finished, Husney said, Prince had “absorbed everything he needed out of Tommy Vicari’s brain.… Tommy was heartbroken, because he had just been treated like shit.”
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. Pushing Vicari away, 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 is a competent record, and the making of it proved to be a useful learning experience. Prince had got to grips with a wide range of synthesizers, notably the Oberheim, which would characterize much of his early work. He would not feel comfortable enough with the idea of using real brass instruments on record— in the way that James Brown and 70s funk pioneer George Clinton had before him — until the mid 80s. Anxious to avoid replicating the sound of contemporary disco, he went for something totally different, creating his own “horn section” by multi-tracking synthesizer and guitar lines.
Another important characteristic of For You is Prince’s reliance on high-pitched vocals on both the suggestive, up-tempo material (“Soft & Wet,” the album’s only minor hit) and the lovelorn, acoustic ballads (“Crazy You”). The whole thing seemed to be aimed squarely at the young, female R&B market, right down to the softly airbrushed sleeve art of the Afro-haired singer. Only the final track seemed to suggest something else. With its frenzied, finger-tapping solos and similarly showy bass-playing, “I’m Yours” sounded closer to the MOR rock of Journey than Santana, and a firm reminder of the fact that Prince wanted to reach beyond the black audience. Recalling such conscientious virtuosity, even 20 years later he was still reminding people that he had been brought up “in a black and white world.… I want to be judged on the quality of my work, not on what I say, nor on what people claim I am, nor on the color of my skin.”
Genuine mainstream success was still some way off, however. As impressive as For You might have been, it still bore the hallmarks of overproduction — the opening title track has over 40 layers of Prince’s vocals — while too many of the songs simply repeat themselves without going anywhere, and aren’t quite snappy or sharp enough for mass appeal.
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. Prince set off on a minor promotional jaunt, appearing at signings in cities where the records were selling well. After being confronted by 3,000 screaming fans on one such occasion in Charlotte, North Carolina, however, Prince was more than a little spooked, and soon began to shy away from personal appearances.