Last time, we talked about some of the ways in which Prince’s new management, “American Artists, Inc.” (a.k.a., Owen Husney and Gary Levinson), helped to foster his artistic growth in late 1976 and early 1977. Another one of those ways was to set up a makeshift rehearsal space in the company’s Loring Park offices: a kind of surrogate for Prince’s former home in the Andersons’ basement, giving him the space to write and demo new songs outside of the formal studio environment.
The majority of the songs recorded at the Loring Park space are not, to my knowledge, currently in circulation; as with the uncirculating Moonsound demos, however, we know at least some of the basic information. There was the aforementioned “I Like What You’re Doing,” as well as a sister song of sorts, “Hello, My Love,” written for an attractive secretary who worked in Husney’s office. According to Per Nilsen’s The Vault, Prince left a cassette of the song on her desk after completing it, but “she didn’t seem overly impressed” (Nilsen 2004 16); Prince, it seems, needed to work on his game in 1977. There was also another, presumably more experimental track, the promisingly-titled “Neurotic Lover’s Baby’s Bedroom,” which Prince wrote after Husney and Levinson bought him his first drum machine. Interestingly, despite this early dabbling, he would continue to use primarily live drums in his music until the release of Controversy in 1981.
Today, the Loring Park sessions are known mostly for, well, the “Loring Park Sessions”: a series of eight jazz-funk instrumentals recorded by Prince, André Anderson (remember him?), and Bobby “Z.” Rivkin sometime in early 1977. These songs, if indeed we can call them that, weren’t really intended for release; they aren’t even named in the circulating bootlegs, just numbered. In fact, as Bobby later revealed on Twitter, they weren’t even recorded at Loring Park, but at the downtown studio Sound 80, with his brother David Z on engineering duties. Still, they offer a compelling glimpse at Prince’s musicianship and versatility in the months leading up to the his first album–not to mention the musicianship and versatility of two notable future sidemen.
It’s been a while since we talked about André and Bobby, so let’s take a moment to reintroduce them to the narrative. André, about whom we’ll have more to say in the months to come, was Prince’s closest musical associate from 1973 until 1981: not just a bandmate, but something more akin to a brother–which makes sense, seeing as they lived under the same roof for at least two years. As mentioned before, he and Prince–along with the rest of Grand Central/Shampayne–had temporarily fallen out over Prince’s decision to record solo demos with Chris Moon in the summer of 1976. Any animus between them didn’t last long, however: Prince even performed with Shampayne a few times after his formal departure from the group, which would in any case dissolve by the end of the year.
As for Bobby, you might recall that he popped up briefly toward the beginning of the Moonsound sessions, as one of the potential drummers brought in by Moon: he’d later describe knowing “from the first second” that Prince “was worth dedicating my entire career to” (Nilsen 1999 27). After the Moonsound recordings, Prince’s and Bobby’s paths continued to cross; Rivkin joined Pepé Willie’s band 94 East, while working a day job as a runner for Husney’s ad agency. In some versions of the story, he was the one who encouraged Moon to take Prince’s demo to Husney (29). Finally, after Husney took over as Prince’s manager, the drummer’s job became “basically to take care of Prince,” as he put it to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He didn’t drive. I took him to get his license eventually. We found an apartment. We bought musical gear. We’d hang out in my Pinto station wagon. We went to a Santana concert at Northrop [Auditorium]. We would move the furniture around at [Husney’s] office, and we’d jam until dawn almost every night” (Star Tribune 2004).
The eight instrumentals circulating as the “Loring Park Sessions” were, presumably, the products of those late-night jam sessions. Even in the eclectic context of the 18-year-old’s early work, they’re fairly unprecedented: by 1977 Prince had established himself as well-versed in FM rock, lite-funk, pop-folk, and R&B, but not necessarily in post-Head Hunters fusion. Still, it’s unsurprising that a musician as skilled on multiple instruments as Prince would find himself drawn to jazz–particularly after growing up with a talented jazz musician for a father, undoubtedly being exposed to artists like Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. In an interview with the Minnesota Daily from around the time of the recordings, Prince even suggested that he’d be interested in recording whole albums of jazz music “under a pseudonym,” releasing “the pop stuff on another label” (Hendricksson 1977). This idea would, of course, come to fruition a decade later, with the debut of his fusion side project Madhouse.
But, okay, let’s cut to the chase: are the “Loring Park” instrumentals actually any good? The answer is, yeah, I think so. Granted, had they been polished up for official release at the time, it’s doubtful that they would have made much of a splash; again, this is pretty conventional jazz-funk in the mid-‘70s Herbie Hancock vein. But the tracks are well-performed, and the chemistry between the musicians is undeniable. The first track starts with some wah-wah guitar from Prince before settling into a smooth, funky groove; André was clearly taking as many notes from Larry Graham for his bass style as Prince was for his. Early in the song, Prince puts down his guitar and contributes an electric piano solo, sticking to that instrument for the majority of the sessions; toward the end of the track, however, a synthesizer also creeps into the mix. The group’s interplay is tight and in the pocket–in parts, the track almost reminds me of the breakdown at the end of 1979’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (though that, of course, was played by Prince alone).
The second track picks up in much the same way, with some impressive fretwork by André and Prince switching between synthesizer, electric piano, and clavinet. His synth solos on the Oberheim Four Voice in particular are a sign of things to come, speaking once again to the influence of Parliament–Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell on his playing. The jam ends playfully, with a classic piano-jazz finale. Track three overall settles into a cooler, more mellow groove, with Prince mostly staying on the electric piano, switching occasionally to clavinet, synth, and “Theme from Shaft” guitar; André really starts to cook around the three-minute mark. Track four dials it back further still, opening with a pulsing bassline and Bobby’s hi-hat before building to another electric piano and synthesizer showcase. Prince’s playing on this one in particular is pure Herbie Hancock. Same with track five, which leans heavily on the “jazz” side of the jazz-funk equation with André’s walking bass and Bobby’s swinging hi-hat rhythm. At one point, Prince takes an equally jazz-inflected guitar solo–which is either overdubbed or he’s more talented than anyone thought, because the keyboard stays in the mix throughout.
On the sixth track, the trio shift back into more of a funk mode, with Prince contributing some driving rhythm guitar as well as more jazzy electric piano, later shifting to another Oberheim solo straight out of the Worrell playbook. Maybe the catchiest track is number seven, which begins with a melodic bassline from André and then launches into a groove reminiscent of vintage Stevie Wonder, right down to Prince’s squawking synth solos. Finally, track eight begins with some swing hi-hat from Bobby, leading into more of Prince’s Wonder-esque synth noodling and a series of almost comical breakdowns. Toward the end, André takes a bass solo, then the whole “band” comes back in for the finale.
Biographer Matt Thorne writes that some of the “Loring Park” tracks “sound far more expansive than those on For You, revealing how in order to achieve commercial success, Prince would have to begin by narrowing his creative focus” (Thorne 2016). To be honest, I’m not sure I’d go that far. Prince, as we’ll see, was a capable mimic when it came to jazz (or blues, for that matter), but his wheelhouse was firmly within the pop and funk framework. His virtuosity and his willingness to bend commercial boundaries were much better employed in a context where such traits made him an outlier, rather than in a genre like fusion, where they pretty much serve as the baseline. Prince may have played like a motherfucker, but he was never going to be George Duke or Herbie Hancock; which was fine, because quite frankly, neither of them were ever going to be Prince. He played to his strengths when he brought together his instrumental chops and breadth of musical influence with his near-peerless songcraft and pop sensibility. In 1977–or, indeed, 1978–he just wasn’t there yet.
But that doesn’t mean these tracks are without merit. Again, the playing by these 18- and 19-year-olds (or 21, in Bobby Z’s case) is a revelation: the drums in particular, actually. I’ve seen more than one social media commenter or forum poster who was absolutely convinced that it was Morris Day on the drums for these sessions, thanks to a longstanding misconception–encouraged, no doubt, by Prince in the early days of the New Power Generation–that Bobby was some kind of club-footed automaton. He wasn’t, and these tracks should if nothing else help to explain why he was Prince’s go-to drummer in the first eight years of his career as a professional live performer.
There would be more tight musicianship in the songs to come: this time by Prince solo, in a deliberate showboating effort that paid off with his long-awaited recording contract. We’ll begin that chapter of our story next week.
(This post has been edited to correct a longstanding historical inaccuracy, thanks to a serendipitous Twitter reply by Bobby Z.)