In early April, 1977, Owen Husney and Gary Levinson flew with Prince to Los Angeles, armed with their new press kits and a fully-formed persona for their artist. Most dramatically–and, for future biographers, confoundingly–the managers fudged the date of Prince’s birth, passing him off as a year younger than he really was. “I knew if he was worth so much at 18, he was worth that much more at 17,” Husney later explained to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In all aspects of their presentation, Husney and Levinson took pains to set themselves apart from the competition: “L.A. at that time was jeans; open, untucked shirts, and cowboy boots,” Husney recalled. “We were all wearing three-piece suits; we had one made for Prince, too. And we sent the tape on a silver reel” (Star Tribune 2004).
Much as Chris Moon had done for Prince in New York, Husney also engaged in a little subterfuge to get their foot in the door. “I lied my way in everywhere,” he told biographer Per Nilsen. He started with Russ Thyret, Vice President and Director of Promotion at Warner Bros., with whom he’d had a previous business association: “I said to Russ, ‘Listen, CBS is flying us out for a presentation on this kid that can play all the instruments. He’s 17 years of age. Do you want to take a meeting with him?’ And he said, ‘Sure!’” Only then did he get an appointment with CBS–by informing them that he was being flown out by Warner. “And then I called A&M Records, ‘Listen, CBS and Warner Bros. are flying us out. Would you like to be part of this presentation?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, well, call us when you get here’” (Nilsen 1999 32).
In the end, Prince and American Artists met with five labels in L.A.: Warner, CBS, A&M, RSO (home of the Bee Gees), and ABC/Dunhill. Of those five, the first three put in serious bids–but all were taken aback, to varying degrees, by the extravagant terms proposed by this semi-professional Midwestern management team and their teenage client. As Husney put it to biographer Dave Hill, “We wanted three albums, because it was gonna take that long for him to develop. We wanted him to be his own producer, and to play all the instruments.” A&M, Hill wrote, “stalled on the three-album commitment” (Hill 41). For the others, Prince’s demand to produce his own work was the sticking point. “Not one of the labels wanted him to be his own producer,” Husney said to Nilsen. “They felt that he was just a young kid who had to learn. And I kept saying that I wanted him to be his own producer, and everybody said, ‘Gosh, you’re crazy’” (Nilsen 1999 32).
Fortunately, Prince’s demo tape included just the song to prove his mettle as a one-man record-making machine. “Just as Long as We’re Together” is less a pop song in the conventional sense than it is a four-to-six-minute demo reel all its own: an unabashed showpiece for Prince’s abilities as a singer, instrumentalist, and hooksmith. It’s little wonder, then, that when first CBS and later W.B. wanted to observe Prince’s skills in the studio firsthand, this was the song the artist’s team chose to highlight.
There are three early versions of “Just as Long as We’re Together” in circulation, all apparently recorded at Sound 80 in Minneapolis. The first is the shortest and simplest, clocking in at three minutes and 44 seconds; based on the track listing of the press kit recently listed for auction, it’s also most likely the one that was played for labels, as the instrumental coda from the final version is listed as an entirely separate track, “Jelly Jam.” Even here, however, the showboating starts early, with a bright opening synthesizer passage leading directly into a lightning-fast, jazzy turnaround. The whole song is packed with little flourishes like that: barely a moment goes by that Prince doesn’t fill with a short keyboard doodle or a splash of backing vocals (his own, naturally). The lead vocal performance, too, feels like a self-conscious demonstration of his range. He sings the first verse in his now-customary falsetto, then dips into a deeper register for the majority of the song; in the second take, his delivery of the line “I’ll get the music, baby, you bring the wine” is downright Larry Graham-ian.
The lyrics, on the other hand, seem designed to simply stay out of the way: a few of the lines showcase Prince’s coquettish charm–the aforementioned “I’ll get the music” come-on is especially memorable–but the majority can be predicted from the title and accompanying chorus, “Just as long as we’re together / Everything’s alright.” Indeed, Prince seemed to have taken little care in making sure his lyrics made cohesive sense; as biographer Matt Thorne pointed out, there’s a direct contradiction in tone between the first and second verses, with Prince “oscillating between singing about how he will allow his lover her freedom and wanting her near by” (Thorne 2016). No matter, though: the song is performed at such a breathless pace (itself a proof of the Minneapolis wunderkind’s chops) that it’s unlikely most listeners would notice.
“Just as Long” is also an early indication of Prince’s talent for expanding on a groove. Even in the original, four-minute version, the song has the feel of an extended cut, taking off from the Oberheim solo after the second verse for a contrasting bridge with more pronounced funk undertones, featuring Prince on clavinet, electric piano, synth, drums, and bass. Later versions of the song–including the final take released on Prince’s debut album–went further, appending the aforementioned “Jelly Jam” as a kind of extended instrumental coda.
In fact, “Jelly Jam” actually predates “Just as Long,” dating back to Prince’s summer 1976 sessions at Moonsound (though the version currently circulating originates from Sound 80). A short, fairly simplistic funk instrumental, it’s unlikely that “Jelly Jam” was ever intended for release on an album, but it serves once again as a sampling of Prince’s skills on multiple instruments: namely, Larry Graham slap bass, Stevie Wonder clavinet, Jimmy Nolen chicken-scratch guitar, and his own unshowy but rock-solid drumming. Given the brief runtime and demonstrative nature of the track, it makes sense that it was eventually absorbed into “Just as Long”–literally, in fact, as the last two minutes of the second and third circulating versions of the latter sound to these ears like a literal copy-and-paste of the separate “Jelly Jam” take.
As mentioned above, however, simply listening to “Just as Long” and “Jelly Jam” wasn’t enough to convince prospective labels of Prince’s ability to self-produce. So CBS booked a day of studio time at Village Recorders in West Los Angeles to observe Prince as he cut a version of “Just as Long as We’re Together” in real time. They still weren’t sold, and tried to sway Prince to their cause by hosting a luncheon with their choice of producer, Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire. “We were supposed to say ‘wow!’” Husney recalled to Per Nilsen, but the musician-turned-manager “had worked around stars my whole life, and Prince was one of those guys who wasn’t really impressed with that kind of stuff.” Instead, the suggestion of White as a producer “destroyed the possibility of Prince going with CBS” (Nilsen 1999 32).
Today, of course, the notion of Prince needing the bass player from Earth, Wind & Fire to help put a hit record together sounds patently ridiculous–a record business snafu right up there with the Beatles being rejected by Decca Records. But putting myself in the shoes of CBS in 1977, and judging “Just as Long” purely on its own merits, I can’t help but think that they had a point. It’s important to remember, as we noted last month, that self-producing artists were an anomaly in the industry at the time; this was the province of established studio wizards (Todd Rundgren) or megastars pursuing vanity projects (Paul McCartney), not unproven teenagers from flyover country. Even Stevie Wonder recorded the first four of his classic 1970s albums with the help of co-producers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil. And right down to its final incarnation, recorded at the Sausalito, California Record Plant in late 1977, “Just as Long” sounds more like a proof of concept than a hit record. Its arrangement is busier than ever, with an even more breakneck tempo and enough layered keyboards, percussion, and backing vocals that one gets the impression Prince was trying to overwhelm the listener in a display of sheer maximalism.
Indeed, “Just as Long” is an impressive technical achievement–not least for a 17-year-old* (*actually 18, but who’s counting) first-time producer. But CBS was right: it wasn’t a hit. When the song was eventually released as Prince’s second single in November of 1978, it reached only Number 91 on the R&B charts, missing the pop charts entirely. In other words, the problem wasn’t that CBS overlooked Prince’s immediate commercial potential; the problem was that they weren’t willing to play the long game and allow him to develop into the artist he obviously had the talent and drive to become, on his own terms. That, as it turns out, is exactly what Warner Bros. was willing to do–at least, after a little bit of convincing. And that is where we’ll pick up, either Friday or early next week, with our next post.