(Featured Image: Prince in his first press kit, 1977; photo stolen from Nate D. Sanders Auctions.)
Sessions for Prince’s second demo at Sound 80 commenced on December 29, 1976 and lasted through the remainder of the winter. This time, a total of six songs were completed: new versions of “Soft and Wet,” “Baby,” “Jelly Jam,” “Make It Through the Storm,” and “Love is Forever”–now renamed “My Love is Forever”–plus a brand new song, “Just as Long as We’re Together.” Just like with the earlier sessions at Moonsound, however, the final demo was limited to only a few tracks. Per Nilsen’s The Vault reported the tape as consisting of “Baby” and “Soft and Wet,” with “Make It Through the Storm” “as a ‘back-up’ if record company executives wanted to hear more” (Nilsen 2004 16-17). According to a recent auction listing, however, at least one configuration seems to have featured “Just as Long as We’re Together,” “Jelly Jam,” and “My Love is Forever.”
In addition to the demo tape, Prince’s management also prepared a luxe press kit to distribute to labels in Los Angeles. “We attacked it all first class, ’cause if we went in as just the average Joes, it wasn’t gonna look like a first-class effort,” Owen Husney recalled to biographer Dave Hill. “We spent 1,500 dollars on fifteen press kits… The usual press kit has clippings, and stories about your mom, and all the other bands you played in. All I did was have a picture of Prince on the cover. It said, ‘American Artists Presents Prince’, and inside there was just five sheets. And on those sheets there was just one picture, and one quote from Prince above each one” (Hill 40). The minimalist presentation had the additional effect of playing up Prince’s enigmatic air, which remained a cornerstone of his public persona for the duration of his career. “[T]here was a mystery about him even then,” Husney told NPR’s Audie Cornish shortly after Prince’s death in April. “And so as a manager I noticed that, and I was able to just make that a part of who he was in all of our publicity and everything going forward. We did a first press kit with him that said very little, because Prince said very little. Because his music does the talking” (Cornish 2016).
Part of letting Prince’s music do the talking, however, was a little obfuscation over what, exactly, constituted “his” music. As we’ve noted before, Prince revealed a desire to play everything on his own records as early as his first sessions at Moonsound. His managers, Husney in particular, supported this tendency, pushing him in the direction of branding himself as a singular auteur: “the next Stevie Wonder,” as Chris Moon had famously put it. “Owen believed in me, he really did,” Prince said in 1981, one of his few acknowledgments of Husney’s contributions in an interview. “First of all, nobody believed I could play all the instruments” (Graustark 121). Husney not only believed in Prince’s instrumental prowess, but he also encouraged Prince’s belief that “no one should produce a record of mine–I should do it” (120). Indeed, the notion of Prince as an all-singing, all-playing, all-producing solitary genius was front and center in the 1977 press kit, which begins with a stark, two-page spread consisting of only the words, “Composition, voice, instrumentation…rarely in a single musician. American Artists presents Prince.”
The trouble was that in some cases, the composition of Prince’s songs didn’t belong to “a single musician” at all. We’ve already mentioned how “Soft and Wet” and “Make It Through the Storm” were co-written with Chris Moon; so, too, was “My Love is Forever.” To hear Moon tell it, the division of labor between the collaborators was extremely clear-cut: Prince wrote the music around Moon’s lyrics. “The night before he would show up I would sit down and write three sets of lyrics for him to choose from and leave them on the piano,” Moon told biographer Matt Thorne. “And his job when he showed up was to come in and if he liked one, work on it, and if not, tear it up and tell me, and I’d come up with another set. By the time I would show up, he would have worked out a guitar track or some kind of basic rhythm to one of the sets of lyrics that I had left with him” (Thorne 2016).
In the case of “My Love is Forever,” the lyrics Moon had written were actually quite personal: “that song was about a girl that I slept with for a year, and we never had sex,” Moon claimed to Thorne (Thorne 2016). But in Prince’s hands, they became pop-universal: with its sprightly, confectionary arrangement, one would never suspect the song had been written for an actual person. Both the original Sound 80 recording and the final album cut begin with a cheery glissando–synthesizer on the demo, electric piano on the album–followed by a silky, muted rhythm guitar pattern and Prince’s “doo-doo-doo” vocalizations. With its bright Oberheim synth embellishments and relatively light bass, the sound of the song is pure Minneapolis: a nascent, slightly disco-fied version of the hybrid style Prince would take to the top of the R&B charts early in the next decade. There’s even a touch of hard rock in the guitar leads that come in after the chorus–though, as was typical of Prince’s early guitar work, the clean, heavily-processed tone is a lot closer to the AOR of studio groups like Boston or Toto than the rawer, more “live” sounds of Grand Funk or Santana.
Pleasant and frothy, if not especially memorable, “My Love is Forever” is Prince at his most self-consciously commercial. Chris Moon may have been inspired to write the lyrics from personal experience, but they also seem crafted to suit the heartthrob persona he was shaping around his collaborator, rarely straying from pop clichés of eternal romantic devotion. If nothing else, Prince’s breathy, intimate vocal performance feels precision-engineered to make teen girls melt–and this, too, was reportedly thanks in part to Moon’s intervention. When they’d first commenced working together, Moon told Thorne, Prince’s singing voice was so soft and high that the microphones at Moonsound struggled to pick it up; so Moon attempted to create a more conducive atmosphere in the studio, dimming the lights and instructing Prince to lie down on the floor. “So he’s there in the dark, on the floor, with the microphone halfway down his throat, pillows under his head, and over the course of the next few days I coaxed vocals out of him,” he recalled. “A little, high, falsetto voice. Sweet, kind of reminiscent of Michael Jackson” (Thorne 2016). It’s a technique Prince is said to have recreated on his own for future recordings, most notably 1981’s “Do Me, Baby.”
But while teen heartthrobs are expected to sing other people’s words and receive extensive vocal coaching, teen musical prodigies are not; and so it was that, while “Soft and Wet” showed up on For You credited to both Prince and Moon, “My Love is Forever” was attributed to Prince alone. By this time, Moon had left the Prince fold: they’d amicably parted ways at the end of 1976, with Moon affirming that “the only thing that you have to do is make sure that my interests are protected, and everything goes down the way it should be.” Needless to say, Moon’s idea of his interests being protected did not include Prince taking full credit for songs he’d co-written; so in 1986, according to Dave Hill, he reached a settlement with Prince’s publishing company, Controversy Music, selling his interests in the songs for an undisclosed sum (Hill 35). The following year, Hill wrote, Moon produced a single for Twin Cities vocalist Cynthia Johnson, best known as the voice of “Funkytown” performers Lipps, Inc. On the back sleeve was a “special thanks” to “Skippy Nelson” (36).
The irony of all this is that in many ways, Moon planted the seeds for his own short-shrifting. He was, again, the first to coin the description of Prince as “the next Stevie Wonder,” and he admitted to Per Nilsen that he thought of his teenage protégé as “a product”–or, in today’s parlance, a brand. Moon even claimed to have been the first person to encourage Prince to drop his surname and go by his regal-sounding given name alone: “It set him apart,” he explained. “He started to practice signing his name with a small heart over the ‘i’ in Prince” (Nilsen 1999 28). In this sense, writing Moon out of the back story was just the next logical step in transitioning from Prince Rogers Nelson to “Prince”: the Young, Mysterious Musical Genius from Minneapolis™.
These days, of course, consumers of pop music have an interpretive framework through which to understand the apparent contradiction of an artist who works in close collaboration with others, but whose artistic vision is nevertheless highly individual and personal: see, for example, the legitimate (if sometimes controversial) critical acclaim afforded to creator-brands like Kanye West and Beyoncé. In 1977, however, in order to claim the title of musical auteur, one needed to actively play the role. And so, from For You until 1984’s Purple Rain–and frequently later, as well–Prince’s records all came with the same, infrequently-asterisked inscription on the sleeve: “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince.” It was the little white lie that landed Prince a lucrative record deal, mere months after recording “My Love is Forever.” But it also ensured that the dispute with Moon was only one of many authorship squabbles in the years to come.
Unfortunately, this is a busier week than most, so I’m afraid this will be the only full post on d / m / s / r until next Tuesday or Wednesday. I will, of course, be linking to another installment of my Prince (Protégé) Summer guest series on Saturday; then, next week, we’ll finally talk about that record deal I’ve been alluding to for what feels like ages. Hope to see you then.