Man, where did last month go? I’ve been meaning to post for a while now, but haven’t been able to make time between my various other projects (including, like, my actual job). I’m back, though, just in time to talk about one of Prince’s most significant early compositions: a cyclically-titled little number called “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?”
Actually, “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” has been a long time coming for this blog in more ways than one. Some readers may have already noted its absence from my writeup of Prince’s earliest home recordings in 1976, where it made its technical debut alongside early sketches like “I Spend My Time Loving You.” But I wanted to save my discussion of the song for later, because its transformation from that primitive early demo to a much more polished second version in 1978 is in many ways emblematic of Prince’s artistic development in those two short years.
The original version of “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” is much like the rest of the Russell Avenue recordings: promising–the tight, Spanish-flavored acoustic guitar licks and soulful falsetto vocals in particular–but ultimately insubstantial. The only part that really “sticks” is the plaintive chorus: “Wouldn’t you love to love me, wouldn’t you? / Wouldn’t you love to be with me alone? / Wouldn’t you love to have me for your very own?” Not coincidentally, the chorus is also the only part that would make it into future versions of the song relatively untouched. Otherwise, the song has a pleasing, off-the-cuff feel, but it’s hardly a buried gem.
A lot had changed, however, by the summer of 1978. First, as we discussed back in September, the physical conditions of Prince’s home recording setup had vastly improved, with the addition of a four-track portable studio in the basement of his home on France Avenue in Edina. Second, Prince’s songwriting chops had sharpened considerably: first through the intervention of more commercial-minded early mentors like Chris Moon and Owen Husney, and then (one imagines) in reaction to the muted reception of his debut record, For You. It’s clear that in the months leading up to the recording of his second album, Prince was deliberately seeking a hit single; and while “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” wasn’t it, the song’s much hookier second version is evidence of his developing commercial instincts. Opening with a simple drum machine pattern, the new arrangement is driven by a percussive bassline and synthesized clavinet; the vocal line is more melodic, the delivery more confident and assured. It’s still definitely a demo, but it has an effortless lite-funk groove that, if further developed, could have fit in perfectly with the rest of the 1979 album simply titled Prince.
There was also another factor in play, arguably the most revealing of all. Undaunted by For You’s aforementioned disappointing sales–or perhaps just considering contingency plans in case his solo career failed to take off–Prince was already looking to mentor other artists. It was his former Grand Central bandmates André Anderson and Charles Smith who introduced the aspiring Svengali to a 15-year-old singer named Sue Ann Carwell, after seeing her perform with a local group called Quiet Storm at the Minneapolis Elks Lodge (Numero Group “Sue Ann”). “She was winning all the local talent shows and we would check her up,” Smith later recalled. “She was just killing! We knew that people were scared to enter a contest if they knew she was singing. So we told Prince to come down and check her out. He went down there and he heard her phenomenal voice” (Nilsen 1999 44).
Prince and Carwell recorded a handful of his songs together: including “Make It Through the Storm” and “Since We’ve Been Together”–both of which dated back to the Moonsound sessions from two years prior–and “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” They also collaborated together on at least one new song, called “I’m Saving It Up.” None of these recordings, regrettably, seem to be circulating–though Smith has described Sue Ann’s version of “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” as “way better” than the one that was eventually released (more on that later). “He did it on the four-track with André playing the bass part. Prince was kicking the bass drum and playing acoustic guitar. It was unreal!” According to Smith, “Prince was in the house every day, taping Sue Ann… You could come in at seven in the morning, the four-track would be on, and Sue Ann would be sitting there, listening to what they had recorded. She was loving it. I didn’t ever want to leave. I often stayed almost all night, and when I came back the next day, she would still be there. There was no relationship, but Prince really believed in her” (Nilsen 1999 44).
Unfortunately, the feeling did not turn out to be mutual. Prince and Carwell did record one song–possibly “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?”–at Sound 80, with David “Z” Rivkin engineering. But tensions arose between mentor and mentee, and a demo tape was never finalized. “He was really serious about recording her. She had a great voice,” Prince’s own mentor and cousin-in-law Pepé Willie recalled to Nilsen. “But her lifestyle clashed with the way Prince wanted to run his business. She had that bottle of Johnny Walker. When his own career started to take off, he simply didn’t have the time anymore. He expected her to stay around, but she got disillusioned and decided to move on” (Nilsen 1999 44). Carwell, for her part, balked at Prince’s control-freak tendencies–particularly his insistence that she go by a stage name of his choosing, “Susie Stone.” “I didn’t really believe in Prince,” she later admitted, “and I definitely didn’t want to have a fictitious name” (Hahn 2003 25). Thus began a pattern that would persist through the vast majority of Prince’s working relationships in the years to come: Prince objecting to what he saw as the excesses of his protégés’ lifestyles, while they in turn chafed at the exacting degree to which he sought to mold them in his own image. As biographer Alex Hahn points out, the abortive “Susie Stone” project was an obvious dry run for the likes of Vanity and Apollonia: muses and alter egos that would prove to be more pliable than Carwell, if only for a little while.
But if Prince’s first attempt at producing another artist didn’t go as planned, it left an indelible mark on his songwriting nonetheless. More than one critic has observed that Prince’s lyrical voice on “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” seems to have been influenced by his decision to give the song to a woman: Matt Thorne, for example, has suggested that the titular request may have seemed “too needy even for [Prince’s] earliest persona” (Thorne 2016). I think there’s more to it than that, however. The original 1976 version is weirdly distant, even off-putting in its framing of Prince as an object of desire. He opens with an arrogant, preening assumption of sexual interest: “I can tell by the fire in your eyes / That your love desire [?] is on the rise / Who could guess that my kiss could do so much? / I can tell that you want to feel your love touch mine.” The come-on is, if you’ll forgive the anachronistic reference, more Robin Thicke than vintage Prince; he sounds less like a genuinely seductive force of nature than like the arrogant prick at the club who can’t fathom the notion of a woman not wanting to fuck him. By the second version, however–and, presumably, with the shift to a female subject–he’s much more sincere in his probing questions: “Look into my big brown eyes / Tell me what’s on your mind / Do you really love me / Or do you just wanna make some time?” His shift to a female speaker allows him to play the coquette, starting out demure before sneaking in a frankly erotic edge: “I don’t want to tease you / I only wanna turn you on / I know I can please you / ‘Til your rocks are gone.”
In short, Prince seems to have discovered early on that he was better at writing about sex from a woman’s perspective: his sexual appeal is simply more convincing, more fully-realized, when he’s putting himself in the shoes of his own seducee. This may very well have been something he discovered in the process of writing for women like Sue Ann Carwell; his brilliance, though, was in realizing that he didn’t need to write any differently when he was the one singing the song. The 1978 version of “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” feels to me like the point at which Prince’s androgynous lyrical voice fully came into its own; in the years to come, he would use that gender-fluid appeal–and his own, equally gender-fluid looks–to turn himself into a sex symbol.
As it turned out, however, “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” would remain associated with female artists–at least in its official capacity. Prince dug the song up again in mid-1981–a rough-and-ready power pop version, eventually released on 2019’s Originals compilation–then twice more in 1982 and 1986. A version from the latter year is currently circulating with some very Crystal Ball-era keyboards and saxophone by auxiliary Revolution member Eric Leeds. This take was supposedly submitted for inclusion as a duet on Michael Jackson’s Bad–though exactly how Prince saw this as less potentially homoerotic than the title track, which he claimed to have rejected for its “your butt is mine” line, is beyond me. In any case, the Jackson duet never happened, and the 1986 recording instead provided the basis for a version on Taja Sevelle’s Paisley Park debut the following year. It’s a catchy tune, but it’s got nothing on the Prince versions; which, I suppose, is the other side of the coin that is Prince’s lyrical androgyny. If he was a lot more interesting singing from a woman’s perspective, then his songs in turn tended to be a lot more interesting coming from him, rather than from an actual woman.
We’ll be back (hopefully in less than a month) with more unreleased tracks from 1978. See you soon!
(This post was updated to include the 1981 version of “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” released on Originals in 2019.)
“Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?”
(Taja Sevelle, 1987)