Excerpted from Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution by Jason Draper. Available from Backbeat Books. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Backbeat Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“I make music because if I don’t, I’d die. I record because it’s in my blood. I hear sounds all the time. It’s almost a curse: to know you can always make something new.” — Prince
Prince Rogers Nelson first became fascinated with music at the age of six, when he saw his father’s three-piece jazz band perform. Everything about it seemed amazing: the sounds that came out of his father’s piano; the chorus girls that came out dancing at Nelson Sr.’s command; the emotive power the whole thing had over the people in the audience.
Author: Jason Draper
Publisher: Backbeat Books
Publication date: 2011-04
Length: 288 pages
Affiliate: http://www.halleonardbooks.com/index.jsp?subsiteid=168 (Backbeat Books)
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/b/bythebook-prince-cvr.jpgPrince became obsessed with music as an outlet for his innermost feelings. In the 80s, those feelings seemed to fall perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist. Twenty years after that epochal event in a tiny jazz club in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Prince had become a global superstar. The most famous musician on the planet, the author and star of Purple Rain, had only just turned 26. Commercial success is one thing. Being one of the most important and talented artists ever to have graced the earth is quite another. With the April 1978 release of his debut, For You, Prince began a ten-year run of albums on which he continued to push himself and his art further and further. In a decade widely remembered for its selfishness and soullessness, Prince redefined the concept of “soulful” music.
Taking his lead from the flag-bearers of funk — Sly Stone, James Brown, and George Clinton — and artistic pioneers such as Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell, Prince imbued his art with his idiosyncratic view of life, turning out music from the mind of a sex-obsessed deviant (Dirty Mind); a bomb-fearing party-animal (“1999”); a God-fearing man searching for a ways to reconcile the spiritual with the sexual (Lovesexy); and so much more.
When Prince had finished redefining the music, he took his battle for individuality to the record business. During the 90s he waged war against his record label, Warner Bros., changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, and pronounced himself a slave to the system. He might have faced derision from all corners then but now, a decade into the 21st century, it’s become obvious that Prince’s actions weren’t just crucial for him, but for whole generations of musicians to come.
Many in the music business continue to suffer as a result of their initial failure to embrace the internet, but not Prince. He was the first artist to release a whole album online via his own self-financed record label, and has continued to seek out new ways to release and promote his music, even going so far as to give it away for free. His fight for artists’ rights has shown future generations that they don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s rules, and shown how one man can stay relevant for more than 30 years on the strength of a passion to challenge the status quo and change the way things are done.
It should come as no surprise that an artist who wages war on staying still remains impossible to define. “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man,” he sang on Purple Rain’s “I Would Die 4 U.” “I am something you’ll never understand.” He has remained true to that expression ever since, whether by fusing masculine and feminine concepts, changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol (and back again), turning his back on his raunchy past and becoming a devout Jehovah’s Witness, or breaking new ground on the internet and then seemingly removing himself from it entirely. Throughout it all he remains Prince: indefinable, contradictory, an enigma wholly committed to beating his own path.
This book is not a muckraker, it’s not a gossip, and it’s sure as hell not bent on setting one man up to knock him down. Prince has been ridiculous, Prince has been amusing, Prince has been astounding. He’s been the envy of every musician on the planet. His peers might be stuck in an endless cycle of albums and tours, but Prince doesn’t need to be seen unless he wants you to see him. Prince: Chaos, Disorder, and Revolution will simply tell you what happened and how, leaving it up to you to make your own conclusions about the man who has done it all, and yet continues to look for more ways in which to do it.
I Wasn’t Born Like My Brother: Handsome And Tall
“I went through a lot when I was a boy. They called me sissy, punk, freak, and faggot. See, the girls loved you, but the boys hated you. They called me Princess.” — Prince
“I named my son Prince because I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do,” Prince’s father, John L. Nelson, told A Current Affair in 1991. Even though his son was only 33 at the time, Nelson Sr. boasted: “He’s done all of it.”
Much less could be said for John L., a gifted pianist and leader of The Prince Rogers Trio — a Minneapolis jazz combo that gave Prince Rogers Nelson his name. With both parents musicians (his mother, Mattie Shaw, was a former jazz singer), Prince was surrounded by music from the moment he was taken home. Apart from co-credits on his son’s future compositions, however, John L. Nelson would struggle to break out of the small-time gigging scene. His son would go on to become the first artist since The Beatles to simultaneously land a Number One album, single, and film — all at the age of just 24.
Having struggled in Louisiana, Prince’s parents had moved separately to Minnesota during the early 50s in search of work in a part of America that was known for its liberal race-relations. Prince would later use his parents’ mixed heritage — his father was part Italian, while his mother had African American, Native American, and white roots — to confuse interviewers who refused to focus on his music alone. A much less mixed influence was, undoubtedly, John L.’s career as pianist in the Minneapolis clubs.
Prince was born on June 7, 1958 at Mount Sinai Hospital, Minneapolis, and at the age of five was taken by his mother to see The Prince Rogers Trio play in a downtown Minneapolis club. The group’s mix of jazz standards and original material wasn’t earth-shattering, but the experience seemed nonetheless to change Prince forever. He watched with interest as his father, decked out in the sharpest of suits, led the band through its repertoire and held sway over the crowd. When a line of dancing girls came out — seemingly also under Nelson’s control — Prince had seen all he needed to see to know that the musician’s life was for him.
There are similar echoes in Prince’s recollections of seeing James Brown at the age of ten. “[My] stepdad put me on stage with him,” he told MTV in 1985, “and I danced a bit until the bodyguard took me off.” Like Nelson Sr., Brown would have a lasting effect on the boy. “He inspired me because of the control he had over his band,” Prince later revealed, “and because of the beautiful dancing girls he had. I wanted both.”
There was a piano in the front room of the Nelsons’ house, and whenever he wasn’t at school or at the local Seventh Day Adventist church, the young Prince — nicknamed Skipper by his mom — could be found playing it. The first pieces he learnt to play were the theme tunes to Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; by the age of seven, he had reportedly written his first song, “Funkmachine.”
The city of Minneapolis itself was similarly influential on Prince’s development. It was one of the few places in America’s Midwest where white and black communities weren’t so strictly divided, which meant that radio was also less segregated. Whereas big cities such as New York and Chicago had stations that played black music all day, KUXL would only broadcast contemporary funk and soul between 10am and 2pm before reverting to rock’n’roll later in the day, when more listeners would be tuned in. “Listening to white radio was a positive thing that gave [Prince] a real, rounded way of finding out what was going on in music,” his first manager, Owen Husney, later recalled, noting that being forced to listen to white pop gave Prince “a real edge.”
Music and the radio became a means of escapism for the young Prince as he sought both a way to communicate his innermost thoughts and also a diversion from the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. He has since downplayed this area of his upbringing, telling Larry King that his father was merely “a very strict disciplinarian,” but the situation appears to have been rather more serious than that. Prince has reportedly shared stories of abuse with a few close confidantes, notably Susan Rogers, his engineer from 1983 to 1988, who worked on his bestselling albums. “Prince told me there was abuse in his childhood,” she later recalled. “He had a weird name, he was small. He was also extremely intelligent and sensitive.” Confirming such claims, Prince addressed family abuse in the semi-autobiographical Purple Rain movie and the song “Papa,” on which he sings: “Don’t abuse children, or else they turn out like me.”
The Birds and the Bees
John L. Nelson and Mattie Shaw divorced in 1968, and their ten-year-old son soon began shuffling from home to home. Prince’s father left his piano behind, giving the boy free reign to learn the instrument by himself. Mattie Shaw remarried a couple of years later, but Prince’s relationship with his stepfather, Hayward Baker, was fraught. “I disliked him immediately,” he recalled. “He would bring us lots of presents all the time, rather than sit down and talk with us and give us companionship.” One direct result of this was that it was left to Prince’s mother to teach him about the birds and the bees — which Prince once claimed she did by providing him with an assortment of Playboy magazines and erotic literature.
Prince’s parents’ split had a lasting effect — and not only on his sex education. Noting Prince’s later, well publicized quirks, Alan Leeds, his tour manager through most of the 80s, said: “His mother basically walked away from him, and his father struggled to raise him and threw in the towel.… It certainly doesn’t add up to a very secure, well-rounded individual.”
In 1970, Prince enrolled at Bryant Junior High and moved in with his father for a brief spell, during which time he hung out with his much taller and more athletic stepbrother, Duane. This too had quite an effect on the young Prince. “My older brother was a basketball star,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1981. “He always had girls around him. I think I must have been on a jealous trip, because I got out of sports.” (Prince later referenced Duane — “my brother, handsome and tall” — on 1999’s “Lady Cab Driver,” and subsequently hired him first as a bodyguard and then as head of security at Paisley Park in the 90s.)
Prince didn’t stay with his father for very long. In 1972 he moved to Central High, where he began to come into his own. He was still a quiet, shy boy who walked around in denim flares, knitted tank tops, and an Afro, and spent his lunch breaks practicing alone in the music room — in part to avoid his schoolmates, who seemed happy making life difficult for the introverted teenager. “People would say something about our clothes or the way we looked or who we were with,” Prince told Rolling Stone in 1981, “and we’d end up fighting. I was a very good fighter. I never lost. I don’t know if I fight fair, but I go for it.” But he had also a natural teenage interest in girls, and was reportedly kicked out of his father’s house after being caught in bed with one of them.
In 1985, while giving Rolling Stone journalist Neal Karlan a tour of Minneapolis in the wake of Purple Rain’s extraordinary success, Prince pointed out a phone booth as being the one from which “I called my dad and begged him to take me back…he said no, so I called my sister [Tyka] and begged her to ask him. So she did, and afterward told me all I had to do was call him back, tell him I was sorry, and he’d take me back. So I did, and he still said no. I sat crying at that phone booth for two hours. That’s the last time I cried.”
Prince spent a brief period living with his aunt Olivia Nelson before moving in with a close school-friend, André Anderson, whose mother became a kind of surrogate mom to Prince, too. Prince initially shared a room with André, but soon grew frustrated at his friend’s untidiness and moved into the basement. By then the boys had already formed a band together — Grand Central, with Prince on guitar, Anderson on bass, and cousin Charles Smith on drums, with André’s sister Linda and neighborhood friend Terry Jason joining later — and now had somewhere to practice. Surrounded by musical instruments after rehearsals, Prince continued to practice on his own in the comfort of isolation. But that wasn’t all that went on in the basement. Stories abound of more typical adolescent behavior taking place down there. “Prince and I made music and entertained various local girls,” Anderson later recalled. “When I first met Prince he was a nice respectable boy. He didn’t even cuss. I was the renegade.”
Charles Smith had a rather less romanticized view of his time in the basement. “[It] would flood all the time in the spring,” he later said in an interview for the BBC documentary Liquid Assets: Prince’s Millions. “[Prince] would always cry to me: ‘I’m not gonna live like this anymore…. When I make it, I ain’t ever gonna turn back.’” Smith didn’t stay in the group for long, with the other members soon deciding that he was devoting too much time to the school football team. He was replaced in 1974 by another of Prince’s school friends, Morris Day, who later went on to front The Time.
The group then became Grand Central Corporation and picked up their first manager in the form of Day’s mother, LaVonne Daugherty. She subsequently invited Prince’s cousin by marriage, Pepé Willie, to help oversee the group. Willie had recently moved to Minneapolis from New York, where he had worked as a musician, and had often given Prince advice over the phone. His first job was to acquire studio time for the band at the local Cookhouse facility.
At first Willie wasn’t sure who Grand Central Corporation’s main star was. “Everybody was talented,” he later recalled. “But I always, always noticed Prince going over to Linda, the keyboard player, and showing her: ‘No, this is what you play.’” Prince would then do the same with Anderson, picking up the bass and showing him what to do, too. Before long Willie had hired Prince as a session player in his own funk band, 94 East. (Several tapes of their collaborations exist, notably 2000’s Prince With 94 East: One Man Jam.)
On February 13 1976, the Central High Pioneer ran Prince’s first ever interview. The school paper marveled at his ability to play “several instruments, such as guitar, bass, all keyboards, and drums,” noting that he had also started to sing but had given up on the saxophone. In the weeks prior to the interview, Prince had been working on a demo with Grand Central Corporation in Minneapolis’s ASI Studio (paid for by Morris Day’s mother). Prince told the Pioneer that they hoped to have an album out in the early summer, but conceded that, because of the lack of major studios and record companies, it would be “very hard for a band to make it in this state.… I really feel that if we had lived in Los Angeles or New York or some other big city, we would have gotten over by now.” Little did he realize that, in ten years time, he would have turned Minneapolis into a new center of cool, and would be running his own label and hi-tech recording studio out of it.
By the middle of 1976, Grand Central Corporation had renamed themselves Champagne, partly because of the old name’s similarity to Sly & The Family Stone bassist Larry Graham’s new group, Graham Central Station, and partly because Charles Smith had begun to complain that he had come up with the original name. Champagne began recording at Moonsound Studio, a small recording facility owned by Chris Moon, a local concert promoter who wrote jingles for advertisements. Moon quickly took note of Prince’s talent and invited him to collaborate on some songs he had started writing the lyrics to in exchange for as much free recording time as he wanted. Despite suggestions that Isaac Hayes might offer Champagne a recording contract, Prince accepted Moon’s offer, and was given the keys to Moonsound just in time for his graduation from Central High on his 18th birthday. Under the Employment heading of his yearbook, Prince simply wrote the word “music.”
“He was sort of what we would call an urban legend up in the Minneapolis area. There were these hushed conversations about…the next Stevie Wonder.” — Dez Dickerson
Despite his precocious talents and free reign to write and record his own music around the clock at Moonsound Studios, Prince was still stuck in Minneapolis without access to major studios and record labels. Struggling to find success, he found himself a growing fish in an increasingly small-seeming pond. “I didn’t have any money,” he later told Rolling Stone magazine, “so I’d just stand outside [McDonald’s] and smell stuff. Poverty makes people angry, brings out their worst side. I was very bitter when I was young.” Realizing that, in Minneapolis, “we got all the new music and dances three months late,” Prince decided to create something of his own. “Anyone who was around then knew what was happening. I was working. When they were sleeping, I was jamming. When they woke up, I had another groove.”
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. One of them, “Baby,” was a Prince original that would later show up on his debut album, For You. “Soft & Wet” would, too, but that was a Chris Moon co-write, as were the other two songs, “Love Is Forever” and “Aces.”
While staying in New York with his half-sister Sharon, Prince received an offer from Tiffany Entertainment to buy the publishing rights to the four songs but declined it, aware even at this early stage of the way the music business worked, and 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. With the help of his lawyer, Gary Levinson, 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.”
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.
Del’s Tire Mart and Pepé Willie’s Basement
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, 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. The three of them had played together before, so it made sense to carry on with a well-rehearsed rhythm section.
With a mix of ethnicities already in place (Bobby Rivkin, or Bobby Z as he became known, was white; André 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 had his eye on a similar boundary-crossing line-up when he brought Gayle Chapman into the fold, telling her: “You’re white, you’re blonde, you have blue eyes, and you can play funky keyboards.” (“Everything he did had groove,” Chapman would later remark. “You could tell a Prince piece when you heard it.”)
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 only guitarist who opted not to showboat in rehearsals, Dickerson quickly settled into a comfortable, complementary role in the band.
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. Given the circumstances, the show was neither here nor there. 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. (“There were some definite uncomfortable moments,” he later recalled, “[which] caused a couple of delays.”) None of this helped Prince, who was already nervous at the prospect of his second ever solo show being his most important to date. 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. But this in itself posed another problem: what to do with an artist who had used up virtually all of his three-album budget on one record, wasn’t ready to tour, and had just sacked his management?
Warners’ main focus was on finding a new management team. The label opted for the Hollywood-based firm Cavallo & Ruffalo, a highly experienced agency run by a pair of Italians, Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo, 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 more weeks to add overdubs and complete the final mix at Hollywood Sound Recorders — a far cry from the four months spent working on For You.
Despite working so quickly, Prince was unable to enjoy his downtime. Soon after moving into his new house in Minneapolis during the summer of 1978, Prince met a local singer, Sue Ann Carwell, and began working on songs with her at home and at Sound 80. But while Prince would later become known for his ability to adapt to a different sound for each project, much of what he recorded with Carwell just sounded like his own material. Just one year into launching his own career, Prince clearly had eyes to becoming a svengali, but once Carwell signed to Warners (with the help of Owen Husney), she was assigned a different producer in order to differentiate her sound from that of the label’s other young star.
Prince’s interest in masterminding other acts didn’t end there, of course. In June 1979, not long after completing work on Prince, he told Dez Dickerson of his plan to “record an entire record, with the band, under the nom de plume The Rebels.” The band, according to Dickerson’s memoir, My Time With Prince, “were being asked to come along for the ride and make him look good.”
This time around, instead of making something that sounded transparently like his R&B-oriented solo work, Prince decided to build on the rockier elements of songs such as “I’m Yours” and “Bambi.” He also intended for The Rebels to be more of a collaborative effort, even allowing Dickerson and André Cymone to write some of the material. But after working on nine songs at Ears Sound Studio, Colorado, in July 1979, Prince scrapped the project, deciding that the whole thing sounded too generic.
The idea was for The Rebels to be a kind of “secret” side project, but what Prince learned from the experience was that, if he was to successfully mastermind a new act such as this, he should be in control but not necessarily involved on a full-time basis. Similarly, after working with Sue Ann Carwell, he realized that there should be a link to his own sound, but not to the point where there was no differentiation between the two. Both experiences proved useful in the long run, however, in that they would inform Prince’s plans for the launch of The Time in 1980.
Loud Spandex and Bright Colors
Having proved that he could lead two other acts while improving on his own previous work, Prince began to trust himself more. One example of his growing confidence came with the recording of the single “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which, according to Gary Brandt, “didn’t come together until we put the [live] drums on.” Prince recorded the drums himself, playing along to what had already been taped. “[Drum machines] are kind of hard to play to,” Brandt recalled, “because they’re usually right on the meter.” Prince, however, was “very synchronized,” and had no trouble “fit[ting] himself into that track, knowing exactly what would come up.”
Prince was released on October 19, 1979. It was preceded by the single release of its opening track, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which showed much more commercial promise than anything on For You, hitting Number One on Billboard’s R&B Chart and Number 11 on the Pop chart. Like much of For You, “Lover” is a simple love song sung in what Rolling Stone called “the most thrilling R&B falsetto since Smokey Robinson.” (Hip-hop producer Timbaland would later describe it as “one of the most innovative songs ever released.… It was the record that got me interested in music.”) It was also a lot tamer than the highly charged “Soft & Wet,” and as such appealed to a much wider audience.
Taken as a whole, 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). There are still hints of Prince’s love for MOR rock, notably on “Bambi.” But while the music is fairly generic, the lyrics — in which Prince tries to convince a lesbian that “it’s better with a man” — point toward the sort of taboo subjects that Prince would later mine to great success. The album’s ballads, meanwhile, are tighter and more convincing, and helped by a more minimal production style, which made them much more club-friendly. Prince himself was very much aware of the difference this made. “I never saw Prince again,” Gary Brandt later said, “but I got countless calls from his managers asking me how I recorded various parts of his album.”
Prince was still very much an R&B record aimed squarely at female listeners. On the front jacket Prince is pictured topless, with messy hair and thick moustache, against a baby-blue backdrop; on the back he is naked, riding a Pegasus (no explanation necessary); his name is inscribed in purple, with a heart dotting the “i.” 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!”
In February Prince was invited to join Rick James’s Fire It Up tour as the supporting act in what was billed as the Battle of Funk. Prince’s young bucks did to James what Prince’s future protégés The Time would threaten to do to their master a few years later: winning over the crowd with a short, snappy set that had a lot more going for it than the headliner’s two hours of overindulgence. As Bobby Z later put it: “We were young and hungry and we started kicking his ass.” James found himself struggling to follow Prince’s energetic, flamboyant performance, with large chunks of the audience leaving during his set.
The animosity between the two was further fueled by the fact that Prince and his band tended to avoid socializing with James and his party-hard entourage. James wasn’t sure what to do with a group so far from his own sensibilities. “I felt sorry for him,” he later recalled. “Here’s this little dude wearing high heels, standing there in a trench coat. Then at the end of the set, he’d take off his trench coat and he’d be wearing little girl’s bloomers. The guys in the audience would boo him to death.”
As the Prince tour wound down in April, further trouble emerged from within Prince’s own traveling party. As a member of a religious sect called The Way, keyboardist Gayle Chapman found herself increasingly conflicted about her role in the group. “Prince was tired of the costumes that I was coming up with,” she later recalled. “He sent his girlfriend down to the hotel room that I was in, she knocked on the door…dumped this bag of multicolored underwear on my bed, and said, ‘Prince says wear this or you’re fired.’”
Chapman felt similarly uncomfortable about having to kiss her bandleader rather suggestively during the song “Head” (which subsequently appeared on Dirty Mind). “There had been some tension between her beliefs and what she was being called upon to do in our live show,” Dickerson recalled. “There was a developing role that she was given that involved the simulation of some pretty vulgar things on stage.”
Things came to a head when Chapman told Prince she planned to go on a trip with her Way group; Prince wanted her to commit to some short-notice rehearsals instead. An argument broke out that resulted in her leaving the group, leaving Prince with another round of personnel issues to deal with. All of this paled in comparison, however, to the kind of shake-up he already had in mind.