Even as he continued to record for himself and his prospective protégés, Prince also managed to lend the occasional hand on sessions for other local artists. He’d helped raise money for his 1976 demo tape by contributing guitar and backing vocals to the Lewis Connection’s “Got to Be Something Here” (later released on their self-titled album in 1979), and had also played and sung on “10:15” and “Fortune Teller”–featuring a young Colonel Abrams on lead vocals!–by his cousin and mentor Pepé Willie’s band 94 East. The latter had been intended for release as the group’s first single, but a change in management at Polydor Records resulted in 94 East being dropped in mid-1978. Pepé and singers Marcy Involdstad and Kristie Lazenberry were understandably upset; but Prince, Willie later claimed to Minnesota Public Radio’s the Current, “was more upset than anybody.” With the help of André Anderson–another beneficiary of Willie’s tutelage, from his time in Grand Central–he resolved to “go back in the studio and record more songs with Pepé” (Renzetti 2016).
The resulting sessions took place at Sound 80, with Willie on percussion and keyboards, André on bass, and Prince, as was his wont, on everything else. Two of the three tracks recorded, “Dance to the Music of the World” and “Lovin’ Cup,” received no formal songwriting input from Prince–though the former, an instrumental, does feature some fiery synthesizer and guitar licks by the 20-year-old virtuoso. It’s the third track, however, that’s the real gem: “Just Another Sucker,” the only song in either the 94 East or Prince catalogue to bear a “Willie/Prince” songwriting credit.
According to Willie, the writing process for “Just Another Sucker” was as clear-cut as Prince’s earlier collaborations with Chris Moon, only in reverse: Willie wrote the music, while Prince supplied the lyrics. But in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, he also described a lot of back-and-forth between the composers: “Writing that song with him was fantastic. I would come up with some ideas and he’d go, ‘Check this out, Pep, tell me if you like this.’ And I would go, ‘Oh yeah.’ I liked everything he did” (Grow 2016).
It’s difficult, then, to make any definitive statements about where “Just Another Sucker” lies in Prince’s musical trajectory. It certainly sounds more akin to 1979’s Prince than to his debut album; its sprightly keyboard leads, catchy melodies, and arena-rock guitar solos add up to the clearest statement yet of what would come to be known as the Minneapolis Sound. It’s also easily the biggest potential “hit” in 94 East’s slender catalogue. But to whom do we owe that credit? Did Prince’s ineffable presence bring a dose of magic to “Just Another Sucker”–or did his own, much more lucrative take on the sound owe an unpaid debt to Willie’s influence? It raises an essential question we’ll return to as the blog progresses (though I doubt we’ll ever answer it): did Prince make the Minneapolis Sound, or did Minneapolis make him?
Further muddying the waters is the fact that the version of the song currently available is not the same, untouched recording from 94 East’s mid-1978 sessions at Sound 80. The version we hear now actually dates from 1985: when Willie released it and several other 94 East recordings featuring Prince under the deliberately suggestive title Minneapolis Genius, with an even-more suggestive cover prominently featuring the Purple Rain-era motifs of a dove and a rose. It’s unclear to what extent Willie reworked the recordings before their eventual release; but the programmed drums sound much more mid-’80s than late ’70s to these ears, and the falsetto vocals sound like a deliberate Prince impersonation. Speaking of those vocals, I’m not convinced by the official credit to Involdstad and Lazenberry: I definitely hear their voices on the track, but the main lead sounds pretty clearly like a man singing in a high register. So who is it? Pepé? Session musician Alvin Moody, who’s credited with “additional guitars?” A spiteful and/or mischievous André Cymone? Or am I hearing “Prince” here just because my brain subconsciously wants me to–because the structure of the melody and the lyrics, with his pet lyrical conceit of being spurned by a mistreating lover, are so indelibly “his?”
“Just Another Sucker” fascinates me for precisely these reasons. For a song so unassuming, it’s weirdly enigmatic: it could just as easily be a vital missing link in Prince’s early work, or a tossed-off anomaly written to help an old friend. Its textbook “Minneapolis” feel could, by the same token, be either a prescient unsung prototype for the style later credited to Prince alone, or a sour-grapes attempt by a spurned collaborator to reverse-engineer himself into the Purple One’s legacy. I suspect, at the risk of resorting to cliché, that the truth contains a little bit of all of these possibilities. We’ll see, again and again, that the artist we know as “Prince” was more than just Prince Rogers Nelson, the individual, but a conglomeration of collaborators, handlers, and influences, all of whom played a key role in shaping his artistic brand–and many of whom were never properly given the credit they deserved. But there was also something undeniably special about Prince that made him–rather than Pepé, André, or anyone else–the ideal vessel for the music released under his name. And “Just Another Sucker,” “Prince” song or not, was a major clue for the direction in which that music would soon go.
Next week, I hope to get out two short posts covering a few stray outtakes from late 1978; then, the following week, I think we’ll jump ahead in time to cover “Moonbeam Levels,” which is due to be the first officially-released outtake since Prince’s passing in April. It will obviously mess with our chronology, but I feel like a “new” Prince song is worth celebrating in real-time–and lord knows this month we need something to celebrate. Have a good weekend, and stay safe out there.