(Featured Image: For You, 1978; photo by Joe Giannetti, © Warner Bros.)
The contract Prince signed with Warner Bros. stipulated that he deliver his first album to the label within six months. But before he could begin work, there were a few issues that needed to be addressed: specifically, the executives at W.B. remained wary of giving full production responsibilities to an unproven teenager from Minnesota. “Warners basically said, ‘We know he’s talented, we know he can play the instruments, we know he can write songs, but does he have record sense?’ Those are distinct areas,” Prince’s then-manager Owen Husney told biographer Per Nilsen. “The question was, ‘Does he have the ability to make a record that will sell?’” (Nilsen 1999 35)
Warner wasn’t sure, so they did what any record label would do in their situation: they hedged their bets. In an odd echo of Columbia’s earlier, failed strategy, W.B. chairman Mo Ostin tried to convince Prince to work with an experienced star producer: Maurice White. But not even the superior White brother could dissuade the 19-year-old phenom from his ambitions. Prince, according to Husney, wrote a lengthy note laying out the reasons why the Earth, Wind & Fire leader wasn’t a good fit for his debut: “He had analyzed their music and felt it wasn’t going anywhere in the eighties… He didn’t want that. He felt it was going to pigeonhole him. So I called back Mo and I said our decision was still ‘no.’ We wanted to be self-produced” (Nilsen 1999 35).
In the end, Husney and Ostin settled on a compromise–once again, following the earlier negotiations with CBS almost to the letter. Warner flew Prince back out to Los Angeles, under the pretext of offering him some free studio time. As he worked, however, the label sent producers and executives to surreptitiously observe his process: including head of A&R Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman (best known at the time for his work with Randy Newman), Gary Katz (producer of Steely Dan), and Ted Templeman (the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, et. al.). “He thought some of these people were janitors,” Husney claimed to Nilsen. “They were all walking in and out of there. Prince had no idea who the heck it was” (Nilsen 1999 35). But the ruse worked, and in the artist’s favor: Waronker and Templeman in particular were impressed, and agreed that Prince should be allowed to self-produce. “You could not only tell there was talent but there was a vision,” Waronker later recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He went out and played guitar, then overdubbed drums. By the time the drum part was recorded, it was clear. We didn’t want to insult him by making him go through the whole process, but he wanted to finish” (Star Tribune 2004). With Warner Bros. sufficiently convinced, Prince became the youngest producer in the label’s history.
As it turned out, though, Warner still had a few compromises up their sleeves. Prince initially wanted to record the album the same way he’d recorded his demo: at Sound 80 in Minneapolis, with David “Z” Rivkin as his engineer. But, as Rivkin put it in an interview with Nilsen, “I was a newcomer and Prince was a newcomer, and to give newcomers total control was too scary… if they were gonna give him that much control, they’d have to have somebody that was some sort of a noted somebody that they could use” (Nilsen 1999 36). So Rivkin endorsed Tommy Vicari: an up-and-coming engineer with whom he’d recorded some of his own demos, and who had previously worked with Billy Preston, Patrice Rushen, and Santana. Vicari would oversee Prince’s work in the studio, and ultimately receive an “Executive Producer” credit on the album.
With a trusted minder now on board, W.B. was set up to win another small victory over their willful client. The label initially agreed to fly Vicari out to Minneapolis and record the album at Sound 80, but these plans were quickly scrapped. Some sources have cited an unspecified technical issue with the local studio; more likely, however, Vicari just wasn’t comfortable there. “He was used to the Record Plant and the types of speakers they had,” Paul Martinsen, an engineer with Sound 80 at the time, told Nilsen. “We had something different. Maybe he just wanted to do it in California because he could have more of his people around.” Once again, it was Husney who came up with a compromise: in an effort to keep Prince away from the “fucked up” L.A. scene, he proposed that they record at the Record Plant in Sausalito, where Fleetwood Mac (ironically the poster children for L.A. “fuck-ups”) had recorded much of their blockbuster 1977 album Rumours (Nilsen 1999 36).
Even on unfamiliar turf, however, Prince was determined to get his way. Sessions for the album commenced on October 1, 1977; not long after that, David Z was flown to California at Prince’s request, to help the still-tentative singer record his vocals. “It turns out that Prince, because of our work together on the demos, had realized that I was suited to doing the vocals with him,” he told Nilsen. “Tommy Vicari was primarily an engineer. He needed help with the vocals. I also think that Prince wanted more input on the experimentation side, and basically that’s what I did” (Nilsen 1999 37).
Prince must have been happy with the results, because the opening title track of his debut album is all about vocal experimentation; but “For You” has a long history, far preceding David Z’s arrival at the Record Plant. Several early versions of the song are circulating, at least one of which dates from the 1976 sessions in the Anderson family’s North Minneapolis basement. Though obviously primitive, these demos offer an interesting view of the song’s development over time, while also revealing a remarkably consistent melodic and lyrical core.
The obviously home-recorded first version of the track begins with Prince accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, playing in the same gentle soul-folk style as on his contemporaneous song “Nightingale.” His voice is double-tracked, harmonizing with himself over the simple, benedictive lyrics: “All of this and more / Is for you / With love, sincerity, and deepest care / My life with you I share.” At the conclusion of the verse, he adds a flourish of jazzy, Spanish-flavored guitar. An electric piano also enters the mix, with Prince singing a wordless vocal coda that would be replaced on the album cut.
The other three circulating demos have also been attributed to Prince’s home recordings, but I’m actually pretty certain they originate from his sessions at Moonsound. For one thing, they’re sonically much clearer than the first version, without the layers of tape hiss and distortion that come from trying to simulate a multi-tracked recording on mid-’70s home equipment. For another thing, I’m 99.9% sure that the voice heard at the beginning of Versions 3 and 4 is that of Chris Moon. In any case, these recordings offer more polished, alternate takes on the same basic arrangement as the home demo. The second version sounds like it was recorded for an overdub; at only 45 seconds, it picks up at the conclusion of the verse and moves into the aforementioned coda, with only Prince’s voice and keyboard on the track. The third version is the most complete, with a new acoustic piano intro–am I crazy, or do I hear the influence of Vince Guaraldi here?–and clearer harmony vocals. Finally, Version 4 sounds to me like the same take, but with the piano stripped out after the intro so the vocals can be heard more clearly.
The final take of “For You,” recorded at the Record Plant, is as radically different from the demos in execution as it is instantly recognizable in form. First, Prince and (presumably) David Z have removed all instrumentation from the track, turning it into a pure vocal showpiece with layers upon layers of multi-tracked a cappella harmonies. My ears frankly aren’t good enough to pick out the exact number of overdubs, but I think it’s safe to say he took full advantage of the studio’s 24-track recording capabilities. Moving further into the experimental side, the first few seconds of Prince’s opening vocalizations are played backwards, giving the song a hint of post-psychedelic whimsy and pointing the way to the similar-sounding coda on 1984’s “Darling Nikki.” The one sour note, for me at least, is the new closing passage: though the demo versions’ simpler arrangement isn’t anything special, either, this one just sounds overly precious, with Prince’s one-man choir coming off like a cross between monastic chanting and an all-castrati Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Despite all the studio wizardry, however, “For You” is a surprisingly intimate song: one of the few successful examples on a record that perhaps strives a little too hard to ingratiate itself to the listener. Biographer Matt Thorne has noted that all of the songs on the album (and, indeed, its 1979 follow-up) are addressed in the second person, to a nebulous but deeply suggestive “you” (Thorne 2016). This is of course a convention in pop music, which attempts to connect directly to an audience of emotional teenagers, but Prince takes the simulated intimacy to another level. In many cases, however, For You spoils the effect: obscuring its direct address with overly fussy arrangements and self-conscious musical showboating. It’s hard to feel like Prince is singing to “you” when he’s so busy fiddling fastidiously with half a dozen different synthesizers. But on the blissful opening title track–the first thing most listeners in 1978 ever heard from Prince–he really does sound like he’s singing directly to us. All 50 of him.
Sadly, this is another week where I’m only going to be able to get one post out. But I’ll be back early next week with the next track from For You, and before that with another Prince (Protégé) Summer guest post on Saturday. Have a great week!
(Note: Unfortunately, the demo versions of “For You” don’t appear to be streaming; hit me up with a link if you find them, otherwise I guess you’ll just have to rely on my words to paint a picture.)