Ephemera, 1977-1978

Make It Through the Storm

There’s a remarkably increased emphasis on commercial pop songcraft in the circulating Sound 80 demos, to match the new polish of the production.

When last we left our intrepid hero, he was in New York City, shopping the demo he’d recorded at Moonsound over the summer. But Prince turned out to be a harder sell than he’d expected. “He thought the first person who heard him would sign him,” his then-collaborator Chris Moon told biographer Matt Thorne. “And it didn’t happen, and neither did the second guy or the third guy” (Thorne 2016).

Eventually, Prince came to Moon once again for help. “He called me up and said, ‘Oh, man. I called up all these record companies and they won’t have anything to do with me. I can’t even get in to see them,’” Moon told another biographer, Dave Hill. “He says, ‘I need your help. I want you to get me an appointment with one.’ I hung up and thought, ‘Jesus Christ’” (Hill 32). A few unsuccessful cold calls later, the legend goes, Moon hit upon a ballsy gambit: he told the secretary for Atlantic Records that he was representing Stevie Wonder. “Two minutes later, the boss is talking to me on the phone,” Moon recalled to Per Nilsen of Uptown magazine. “I said, ‘This is Chris Moon and I’m representing Prince. If you like Stevie Wonder, you’re gonna love my artist. He’s only 18, he plays all instruments, and he’s not blind!’” (Nilsen 1999 29)

Moon’s subterfuge got Prince in the door at Atlantic, but to no avail: “the next Stevie Wonder”’s sound was cryptically deemed “too Midwestern” by the label’s representatives (Hendricksson 1977). So in a way it’s fitting that the most important connection Prince made in the fall of 1976 was located back in the Midwest: all the way home in Minneapolis.

Owen Husney in the Minneapolis Insider, 1977; photo stolen from the Numero Group.

Like Moon, Owen Husney was part of the Twin Cities’ advertising industry: he co-owned a small agency, the Ad Company, with offices in downtown Loring Park. But he also had ambitions in the music world. Back in the ’60s, Husney had played lead guitar in a garage band called the High Spirits, whose 1965 cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “(Turn On Your) Love Light” was a regional hit in Minneapolis and Kansas City; in an interesting coincidence that demonstrates just what a small town Minneapolis was in the 1960s and ’70s, one of Husney’s bandmates in the High Spirits was none other than David “Z” Rivkin. By the time he crossed paths with Prince, Husney had long since stopped performing, but was still moonlighting as a manager for various local acts. His biggest prospect was a hard rock group called “Rings,” about whom I can’t find anything on the Internet, but they must have seemed important at the time: Husney was reportedly in competition for their business with Don Arden, the notorious manager of Black Sabbath. “We were involved in a very heavy battle,” Husney said to Hill, “then all of a sudden I got that Prince demo tape, and I never even bothered to call the group back” (Hill 34).

I said, ‘Who’s the group? These guys are good.’ He said, ‘Sit down.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because it’s one kid playing all the instruments and singing all the voices.’

Owen Husney

Husney’s first time hearing the Moonsound tape is another indelible part of the Prince legend. Moon had been hounding him for days, he told Thorne, because he was “the only manager I could think of” (Thorne 2016). Finally, Husney agreed to give the demo a listen: “I said, ‘Who’s the group? These guys are good,’” he recalled to Hill. “He said, ‘Sit down.’ I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because it’s one kid playing all the instruments and singing all the voices’” (Hill 33). Suitably impressed, Husney called Prince right away–which, as it turned out, was well-timed, because things were starting to get tense between the aspiring artist and his half-sister Sharon. “I was running up sort of a bill there, at her place, and she wanted to sell my publishing for like $380 or something like that–which I thought was kinda foolish,” he later told Barbara Graustark of Musician magazine (Graustark 120). With his welcome wearing out at Sharon’s house and a new management prospect at home, Prince opted to return to Minneapolis.

With co-manager Gary Levinson, 1977; photo by Robert Whitman.

After a brief courtship period, Prince signed with Husney, who in turn raised money with a local attorney, Gary Levinson, to found their own management group: American Artists, Inc. With Husney and Levinson as his managers, Prince’s career prospects–and, indeed his life–improved in several ways. On a practical level, they got Prince out of the Andersons’ basement: a space that had provided him with much freedom and inspiration, but was beginning to chafe at him by late 1976. In a 1981 interview with Rock and Soul magazine, Prince would refer evocatively to the “centipedes and poverty” he faced on Russell Avenue. There were, presumably, no centipedes at the new one-room apartment Husney and Levinson paid for, at 2012 Aldrich Avenue South; as for poverty, this was at least alleviated by the $50-a-week allowance they paid their client (Nilsen 1999 30).

His new management also allowed Prince the means to record a more professional-sounding demo at Sound 80 studios in south Minneapolis. Established in 1969 by engineers Tom Jung and Herb Pilhofer, Sound 80 was the most state-of-the-art recording facility in town: it was, at that time, best known as the studio where Bob Dylan had recorded much of his classic 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. For Prince and his engineer, the aforementioned David Z, it was almost too much to handle: “We tried all kinds of stuff because I didn’t know how to record,” Z later told Nilsen. “I was first and foremost a musician. People at Sound 80 would tell us, ‘You can’t do that!’ But we were doing it. We’d overload the board and we’d do things that people who knew electronics wouldn’t do” (Nilsen 1999 31). Learning curve aside, however, one need only compare the two circulating versions of “Soft and Wet” to hear the striking difference in sound quality between Prince’s Moonsound demo and his recordings at Sound 80. 

We tried all kinds of stuff because I didn’t know how to record… We’d overload the board and we’d do things that people who knew electronics wouldn’t do.

David Z

Whether or not Prince would admit it, Husney in particular also had an influence over his charge’s creative direction. Like several of Prince’s other early mentors, Husney considered his early songwriting efforts to be overly long and rambling: “He was the genius, but I knew that his genius had to be shortened a bit to make it on the radio,” he told Uptown magazine in 1999. “There had to be verse/chorus, there had to be a bridge in the song, it had to go along with a particular formula.” He asked Prince to start writing “formula songs,” even if “nobody ever has to hear it.” His first attempt, an unreleased track known as “I Like What You’re Doing,” was according to Husney “about as nursery-rhymish as you can get. But I think everyone understood a very big lesson from it: his songs had got to be three to four minutes long and not these 12-minute rambling things that the original demos were” (Uptown 38).

Tape box from Sound 80, used for the recording of Prince’s second demo in 1977; photo stolen from Nate D. Sanders Auctions.

Indeed, there’s a remarkably increased emphasis on commercial pop songcraft in the circulating Sound 80 demos, to match the new polish of the production. One track in particular, “Make It Through the Storm,” feels like another self-conscious effort by Prince to write a “formula song”–though, as a co-composition with Chris Moon, it technically predated the aforementioned edict from Husney. Moon’s lyrics are standard pop breakup-to-makeup material, albeit with a slightly wordy, dramatic flair (“The world’s a cold and empty place / Without a love to keep you warm”). And Prince’s music is like a Platonic ideal of mid-’70s R&B: disco beat, rhythm guitar straight out of the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady,” and his youthful falsetto at its most Smokey Robinson-esque. Perhaps most notably, the song heavily features synthesizers in place of the live strings of “Baby”: an early indication of what would eventually be dubbed the “Minneapolis Sound,” and a deliberate choice on the part of Prince’s team. “Both Moon and I felt that synthesizers were going to be the sound of the future, and we suggested he go in that direction,” Husney later recalled (Nilsen 1999 31).

In the end, “Make It Through the Storm” may have been too commercial for Prince. Though it was re-recorded during the For You sessions at the Record Plant (a version, regrettably, not currently in circulation), it didn’t make the cut for the album; nor was it selected as one of the tracks to represent Prince for his second demo tape (more on that next week). When Prince revisited the track a second time in late 1978 (again, no recordings of this version appear to be circulating), it was as a demo for a potential protégée, Sue Ann Carwell: an early establishment, perhaps, of Prince’s self-confessed tendency to “write more Top 40 when writing 4 other artists” (Dash 2016). Carwell didn’t end up working extensively with Prince, for reasons we’ll touch upon later, but she did release her own version of “Make It Through the Storm” in 1981, as the B-side for her vintage Minneapolis Sound single “Let Me Let You Rock Me.” On Carwell’s version, however, the song was credited to Chris Moon alone.

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