(Featured Image: “A favorite with the ladies”; Victorian advertisement card for Clark’s O.N.T. sewing threads. Photo stolen from Antique Images.)
As we mentioned last week, Prince recorded 14 finished songs at Moonsound in the summer of 1976; when it came time to shop his work to record labels, however, he and Chris Moon pared it down to a four-song tape with just “Soft and Wet,” “(My) Love is Forever,” “Aces,” and “Baby.” The idea was to concisely demonstrate the full breadth of what the 18-year-old prodigy from Minneapolis was capable of. “Soft and Wet,” of course, was the naughty funk number. “Love is Forever” was slick and commercial–assuming it resembled the released version, anyway–with a pronounced disco flavor and arena-rock guitar leads. “Aces” was, according to Moon, the experimental showpiece: a seven-minute-long, proggy-sounding opus intended to “give Prince an ability to step into many different directions–Mediterranean, Indian, all these different feels I envisioned him experimenting with” (Thorne 2016). And “Baby” was the ballad.
Prince initially asked Moon to come with him to New York and represent him as a manager–an idea his collaborator flatly refused. “I said to him, ‘The piece I do is putting the music together, writing the lyrics, producing,'” Moon recalled to Per Nilsen. “‘The piece I don’t do, the piece I have no experience in, is booking your hotel, making sure that your ass is on a particular point at a particular time, making sure that you’re wearing the right kinda clothes. I don’t care about that, I’m not interested in that'” (Nilsen 1999 29). So Prince made the trip solo, staying in New Jersey with his older half-sister Sharon Nelson.
Without any professional contacts other than Sharon, Prince’s first time on the East Coast was a humbling experience; he may have been the most promising young upstart in the Twin Cities, but in New York he was just another in an endless line of teenagers looking for their big break. Most labels wouldn’t even see him. Finally, Sharon was able to get him an in with Danielle Mauroy: a French-born producer for Tiffany Entertainment Corporation, the short-lived artist management group owned by New York Knicks player Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (Nilsen 2004 16).
I couldn’t find much information out there about Mauroy, aside from a few scant discographies–she’s credited with producing the 1968 garage-psych nugget “You Must Be a Witch” by the Lollipop Shoppe, which is a pretty neat connection if you’re into that kind of thing–and an offhanded mention in a January 1977 issue of Billboard. In his 1981 interview with Barbara Graustark of Musician magazine, however, Prince remembered her as “very beautiful” and recounted their interactions with a palpably erotic undertone (Graustark 120). “[S]he asked me to sing. And I said no,” he laughed. “And she said, ‘Why not?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m scared.’ And she said, ‘You don’t have to be scared.’ And they turned the lights down and it was really strange” (118). He recalled singing the melody of “Baby” for her: “She said, ‘I don’t care what you do, just hum, because I just want to hear you sing.’ So that’s what I did, just started singing and humming, and making up words and really stupid stuff” (119). Graustark, seemingly picking up on the sexual tension, asked at one point if Prince and Danielle “had a relationship.” His response: “Mm-mm. It was only…it was only mind games. I mean, we’d look at one another and…play games, but it wasn’t…we never said anything” (120). Okay, sure, Prince.
Whether or not Prince’s personal relationship with Mauroy ever went anywhere, their professional relationship certainly did not. He went over to her apartment and played her his songs, but “she didn’t like any of ’em,” he explained to Graustark. “Except for ‘Baby.’” And even there, they had creative differences: Mauroy wanted to arrange the song “with a lot of orchestration, timpani, strings,” and wasn’t keen on the idea of Prince playing on the track “unless I could play better than the session guy, which I didn’t think I could do if a guy was gonna sit there and read the chart. I’d get aced out right away. So that didn’t materialize” (Graustark 119).
Still, it’s easy to hear why Mauroy was so taken with the song. “Baby,” as I mentioned before, is probably For You’s prettiest ballad; it’s also one of the most easily-reconciled with the existing musical landscape of 1976. Prince’s silky falsetto vocals and baroque musical accompaniment sound straight out of the Philadelphia-based “smooth soul” playbook–with the obvious caveat that, while Philly soul employed teams of session musicians, vocalists, producers, and arrangers, the vast majority of “Baby” was recorded by Prince himself. As with “Soft and Wet,” there are earlier versions of “Baby” circulating among bootleg collectors; unlike that song, however, the arrangement stayed remarkably consistent between the versions recorded at Sound 80 and at the Record Plant later in 1977. The main difference in the final version is the more prominent string section: performed on the demo by the WAYL radio orchestra and arranged by Prince himself, then re-arranged on the album by violinist and recording artist Charles Veal. Interestingly, Prince would also revisit sections of “Baby” much later in his career, lifting the three-chord turnaround after the line “we’ll grow stronger everyday” for the main riff in “Eye Hate U” from 1995’s The Gold Experience.
Arguably the most remarkable thing about “Baby,” however, is the song’s subject matter. While the title suggests the usual romantic slow-jam platitudes, it’s actually much more literal than that: the lyrics find Prince’s character and his girlfriend confronting an unplanned pregnancy, initially with dismay, then ultimately giving way to warmth and hopefulness. That’s unusual thematic territory for a romantic ballad, to say the least–though apparently not for Prince; Chris Moon recalled another song from the era, “Surprise,” dealing with much the same scenario. “I don’t know if this was something he was worried about or wary of,” he said to biographer Matt Thorne, “but I told him I think we want to stay away from babies because that’s not something young girls are going to want to be thinking about” (Thorne 2016).
Of course, Prince’s teenage preoccupation with unexpected pregnancy does sort of beg the question of whether he was writing from experience; and for at least a few weeks this year, it looked like that might have been a possibility. Once it became evident that Prince had passed away without leaving a will, a number of people claiming to be his illegitimate children predictably emerged from the woodwork. One of them, a 39-year-old man from Kansas City, Missouri named Carlin Q. Williams, said he was born after his mother had unprotected sex with Prince at a Kansas City hotel in July of 1976. The question of what Prince was doing in Kansas City in 1976 notwithstanding, the math would have checked out for little Carlin to have been the inspiration for “Baby” and/or “Surprise.” But alas, it was not to be: Williams submitted to a DNA test, and it came back negative. I guess we’ll just have to assume that Prince wasn’t writing what he knew, so much as he was writing what he was mortally afraid of; thinking back to when I was young and fairly new to being sexually active, I can certainly relate.
Next week, we’ll conclude the story of Prince’s time in New York, which resulted in his much more successful second demo recording. First, though, check back Saturday for another crosspost from Andresmusictalk, covering the lovely ladies of Vanity/Apollonia 6. As always, thanks for reading!
(Note: This post was slightly revised to correct my mistake in attributing the live string arrangement on “Baby” to a synthesizer.)