Owen Husney’s dismissal from the Prince camp came at a critical juncture in the artist’s career. Prince spent the summer and fall of 1978 assembling a backing group, in hopes of touring behind For You the following year. It didn’t go entirely to plan; he wouldn’t embark on his first tour until November of 1979, after recording and releasing a much more successful second album. But the musicians he brought together would nevertheless determine his artistic direction for the following decade: providing the nucleus for the Revolution, the band with whom he would eventually conquer the world.
Prince’s first choice would also be his easiest: on bass was his longtime musical brother-in-arms, André Anderson. André, as we’ve noted before, was a major creative influence on For You, with some suggesting that he’d made uncredited songwriting and recording contributions to the album. Now, as Prince’s full-time bass player, he’d play an even more integral role in complementing and refining his friend’s artistic persona. For starters, he shared with Prince a flair for exotic-sounding stage names: upon joining the band, he rechristened himself “André Cymone,” a Francophone variation on his middle name, Simon.
First, though, André would assist in auditioning and recruiting the other band members. For the drummer’s spot, they considered a few familiar faces: including Charles Smith, Prince’s cousin and founding member of Grand Central; Dale Alexander, formerly of 94 East; and Prince’s go-to drummer since the Loring Park sessions, Bobby Z. Last but not least, there was also Charles’ original replacement in Grand Central, Morris Day.
The auditions were intensive: “Dale would play drums for three hours, then I would play drums for five hours, and then Charles would play for an hour,” Bobby recalled to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. From his perspective, Morris was the clear frontrunner: “At any moment I expected Morris and Prince to become friends and get back together, and I’d be out… Morris was a great, left-handed drummer. Very funky. Very quick” (Nilsen 1999 45). In the end, though, Bobby got the job: a decision he later attributed to the rapport he and Prince had developed from their nights jamming in American Artists’ Loring Park offices. “Prince had me from 19 to 20 years old, playing the way he wanted for almost a year. So he had already, in the back of his mind, groomed me to play anyway” (46). Pepé Willie had a more cynical take: “He wanted a white drummer, you know,” he confided to biographer Dave Hill (Hill 53).
It certainly is true that Prince’s vision, from the beginning, was a racially integrated band in the tradition of Sly and the Family Stone. “Everybody took after Stone: Prince, Cymone and all those guys loved him,” Willie told K Nicola Dyes of the Beautiful Nights blog. “He had the multiracial bands, where everybody was together coming out of that hippie era” (Dyes 2013). Not incidentally, Prince also knew that having a few White faces in his band would be key to the crossover success he craved. “He didn’t want to tour with black artists,” Willie recalled to Hill. “He wanted to tour with Mick Jagger and Foreigner, the big guys. He didn’t want to be on the so-called chitlin circuit, and I can understand it. I always told him that the black artists have a double thing to do. I said, ‘You can make it to number one on the R&B chart and it don’t mean nothin’. Now you’ve gotta go Top 40” (Hill 53).
But there were also compelling artistic reasons for Prince to insist on hiring both White and Black musicians. “There was a lot of pressure from my ex-buddies in other bands not to have white members in the band,” he was quoted in a 1983 Rolling Stone feature. “But I always wanted a band that was black and white. Half the musicians I knew only listened to one type of music. That wasn’t good enough for me” (Miller 1983). The reality of the late 1970s’ segregated pop market meant that if Prince wanted stylistic diversity, he’d also need diversity in his musicians.
The next stop for Prince’s new, diverse rhythm section was Los Angeles, where they held two days of auditions at S.I.R. Studios on Sunset Boulevard. Prince’s approach to rehearsal in 1978 was much the same as his later M.O., with more focus on building musical chemistry through jams than on learning discrete songs. And, as Bobby Z later put it, “Not a lot of talking–the talking is through the music” (Star Tribune 2004). This didn’t always gel with the L.A. crowd: “We had guys who were off-tour with other famous bands,” Bobby told Per Nilsen. “They weren’t the famous people in the bands, but were like the keyboard players who played with so-and-so. We were just doing our typical jam thing. They would start jamming for a while, some of them got it and some of them said, ‘Are we gonna do a song?’ or ‘What are we doing here?’” (Nilsen 1999 46). At one point, he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a prospective keyboard player had the audacity to look at his watch; “that was pretty much it for him” (Star Tribune 2004).
Eventually Prince and André took a liking to a guitarist, who Bobby described as “a Hendrix-looking kind of guy, patches all over his jeans, real serious hippie, serious Les Paul axe… Prince and André were pretty infatuated with him for a minute.” But the spell was broken when he offered drugs to the notoriously straight-edge Prince. “He said, ‘You guys want to come up? I’ve got some rock. Cut up some rock,’” Bobby recalled to Nilsen. “He was talking about cocaine, and then that was it. He was just out! That was our luck in L.A.” (Nilsen 1999 46).
Ultimately, just as he had after his failed quest to find management in New York, Prince opted to go back home and find the rest of his band there. Husney, who was still representing Prince at the time, put it this way: “He didn’t want some hired hands that came from California, and then, at the end of the day they got their paycheck and went back home.” Willie concurred: “Prince said that he wanted to have people from home,” he told Nilsen. “It was a great idea because the band members that you pick and the people that you are gonna be with on tour is your family. So you’ve got to have people that you trust. He trusted his hometown musicians” (Nilsen 1999 45).
The first “hometown musician” Prince recruited after returning from L.A. was Gayle Chapman: a keyboard player and vocalist from nearby St. Louis Park. Chapman “used to jam with Prince’s cousin, Charles,” she recalled to journalist Mobeen Azhar. “He told me to listen to For You. I was alone at home with it cranked up too loud and I heard a voice in my head say, ‘He’ll need a touring band.’ I asked around and it turned out Prince was looking.” She auditioned in Prince’s France Avenue basement–wearing, in her words, “a blue-jean tent dress” like “a granola queen.” Three months later, she said, she got a call from Prince: “Can you make it to practice in an hour?” “I must have driven at 100 miles an hour. I turned up with my amp in my arms and karate-kicked the door open. Prince looked at me as if to say, ‘I hired this nut?’ He set me up in front of an Oberheim and said, ‘I’ve set it the way I want it. Just play'” (Azhar 14).
Prince later told Chapman that she got the gig because she was “the funkiest white chick [he] ever met” (Azhar 19). If that sounds like affirmative action, it’s because it sort of was: according to Bobby Z, Prince was deliberately seeking a band that was sexually as well as racially diverse. “He was looking for something different from [Shampayne] and Grand Central,” he said to Per Nilsen. “I think he knew he wanted a band to back him up that was different than anything he had had. I think he really, really liked Fleetwood Mac. I think he liked the idea that women should be in the band” (Nilsen 1999 45).
With Chapman on board, two open seats remained: a second keyboardist and a second guitarist. To fill these positions, Husney took out an ad in a local weekly, the Twin Cities Reader. One of the guitarists who answered the call was Desmond D’andrea Dickerson, better known as “Dez.” “‘Warner Brothers artist seeks guitarist and keyboardist,’ I think it said,” Dez later recalled. “I remember thinking it was OK, though I wouldn’t go crazy about it. I just thought, ‘Well, this is the first train out of town,’ and I tried to get on it, you know?” (Hill 54). Dickerson was arguably the most seasoned of the local musicians Prince had auditioned to date: a veteran of local rock groups Whale Bone and Revolver, and most recently the leader of a glam rock act called Romeo. When he arranged his audition, he was heading out with Romeo “to play a gig in South Dakota or some place” (Nilsen 1999 47).
According to Charles Smith, Prince and André had a routine to which they’d subject unlucky guitarists: “If they felt someone was crap, they would look at each other and start soloing in the middle of an audition. And the person who was jamming with them didn’t know that Prince and André were making fun of him” (Nilsen 1999 46-47). Not only did Dickerson pass this test, but he also managed to impress Prince with his own lack of showboating: “I found out later that he liked how I didn’t instantly try to solo for fifteen minutes,” he recalled to Dave Hill (Hill 54). Prince, in turn, impressed Dickerson with his professionalism: “He asked me deep, long-term-oriented questions,” he told biographer Alex Hahn. “I could tell he was a thinker–he wasn’t just saying, ‘Gee whiz, we’re all going to be rock stars’” (Hahn 2003 26). By the end of the audition, Dez was hired–though Prince, true to form, didn’t bother telling him. “[H]e kept calling me, asking me if I could come over to his house and learn some of the tunes, or play with him and André,” Dickerson explained to Hill. “He never told me that I had the job. I mean, to the day I left, he never told me. I just figured when I started getting paid, I must have it” (Hill 54-55).
Earlier, I wrote that in order for Prince to make stylistically diverse music in 1978, he required a racially diverse band; but Dickerson, not unlike Prince and André, was an exception to this rule. In his interview with Uptown, Bobby Z recalled Dez as “a very strong rock guy. He didn’t listen to black music at all. He listened to REO Speedwagon and heavier metal bands. And he was a Led Zeppelin freak” (Nilsen 1999 47). Dickerson also credited himself with raising the bar for “image-consciousness” in the band: at the time he joined, he had “started wearing a tie, Johnny Mathis meets Cheap Trick. My hair was real short, very GQ.” This would make for a somewhat incongruous visual aesthetic when the band finally performed together in January: Prince with his afro and thigh-high legwarmer boots; André with, as Hill described it, “a bandana lashed around his thigh in an echo of Jimi Hendrix”; and Dez in his New Wave-influenced “pin-stripe and tie look” (Hill 54). Pretty soon, though, Dickerson’s particular brand of flamboyance would spread to the rest of the band; within a few years, Prince, too, would be chopping off his hair and wearing skinny ties.
But first, the band needed another keyboard player. Bobby recalled the final leg of the auditions as “the longest and most involved. We exhausted the possibilities.” Among these possibilities were James “Jimmy Jam” Harris, of local band Mind & Matter, and Rockie Robbins: the brother of Ronnie Robbins from another Minneapolis group, Cohesion. Harris was the early frontrunner. “I don’t know why he didn’t hire Jimmy,” Bobby later said. “He was good and he was young. I remember the audition.” But Prince, much as he had with Bobby himself, favored a White player: a seasoned jazz musician named Ricky Peterson. “Prince wanted Ricky,” Willie told Nilsen. “He is one of the great musicians of the Twin Cities but Ricky couldn’t deal with Prince. He just couldn’t deal with him because he wanted to be who he was and Prince was trying to make him into something he wanted him to be” (Nilsen 1999 47). Peterson jammed with the band “for weeks and weeks,” he later remembered. “They wanted me in the band, but they’d say, ‘This is what you can’t do: You can’t drink; you have to show up on time.’ A light went off in my head that said, ‘This sounds like horrible boot camp’” (Star Tribune 2004).
Prince did end up hiring an experienced (and White) keyboardist to complete the lineup; but instead of Peterson, it was Matt Fink, a veteran of the Minnesota bar scene who, like Chapman, hailed from St. Louis Park. Though he was the last member of the band to be hired, Fink had probably been chasing the gig the longest: “Matt had bugged me for six months to get an audition,” Bobby told Per Nilsen. After things didn’t pan out with Peterson, Fink finally got his chance. “I just waited until the final hour and then it worked,” Bobby recounted. “Matt always thought that Ricky would have the job. I never did. I knew that Ricky was a strong candidate, but I knew that Prince was never really content with him. And Ricky was never really content” (Nilsen 1999 47). Fink, on the other hand, was a natural addition–though Prince apparently couldn’t resist playing a mild practical joke during their audition. “The first thing Prince said to me was, ‘So, tell me, did you learn that song “So Blue”?’” he recalled to Nilsen. “I said, ‘No, I didn’t. Oh, God!’ Then he laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. There’s no keyboards on that one.’ So he played a joke on me, just to break the ice. Then we started jamming on stuff” (48).
Prince’s band was fully assembled in November of 1978: right around the same time as the falling-out with Husney. But even without formal management to back him up, Prince ran a tight ship: “This guy could have worked the band 24 hours a day,” Pepé Willie told Nilsen. “They came over to rehearsal, mainly around 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning, and they wouldn’t leave until 10, 11 at night. They might just take a break for about an hour, and that was it. They didn’t even stop to eat!” “We rehearsed until we could do it in our sleep,” Bobby concurred. “He was always a very disciplined band leader, and expected that whenever you picked up the drum sticks or guitar pick, that you played to the best of your ability. The rehearsals were lots of jamming and figuring out song arrangements. Just trying to get some sort of direction. Very, very long” (Nilsen 1999 48). The band rented a space at Del’s Tire Mart, a warehouse in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, until a burglary late in the year robbed them of most of their equipment; so Willie, by then serving as a kind of stopgap manager, moved them into the basement of the house he shared with former 94 East singers Marcy Ingvoldstad and Kristie Lazenberry.
Finally, on January 5, 1979, the moment they’d been working toward arrived. Prince’s first live performance as a solo artist was inauspicious, to say the least: a benefit concert for the Capri, a renovated former movie theatre on the city’s north side. Promotion was a family affair, according to Lazenberry: “We made the tickets, we sold them, we even did the door. We were the security too!” (Hill 58). So, for that matter, was attendance: of the venue’s 507 seats, only about 300 were occupied–the vast majority of which, according to biographer Liz Jones, were taken by “former school friends, musicians, [and] cousins” (Jones 57). But Prince, by most accounts, showed promise. Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader described a rapturous introduction from KUXL D.J. Kyle Ray, who “hallelujahed in the tradition of Muhammad Ali: ‘The power and the glory, the Minneapolis story–PRINCE’” (Keller 1979). Minneapolis Star music critic Jon Bream described the singer strutting around the stage “with grand Mick Jagger-like moves and gestures. He was cool, he was cocky, and he was sexy” (Swensson January 2014).
No recordings seem to exist of the Capri Theatre performances; thanks to eyewitnesses, though, we can confirm that the January 5 date opened with “For You” and included versions of “Soft and Wet,” “So Blue,” and a handful of other songs, before closing with his then-recently-released second single, “Just as Long as We’re Together.” Though some have described Prince’s performance as apprehensive–Nilsen, for example, claimed that he “largely stuck to his guitar and spent most of his time looking at his musicians rather than facing the crowd” (Nilsen 1999 50)–this doesn’t really gel with other accounts. In this instance, Bream seems like the most reliable source: and in his view, the show “clearly indicated he has extraordinary talent” (Swensson January 2014).
But most sources do agree that the second Capri date, held on the following night, was a bit of a shambles. The band was dogged by bad weather–temperatures “twenty below zero,” Matt Fink reported to Jones–and technical issues straight out of the air force base scene from This is Spinal Tap (Jones 57). “Dez was using a really primitive wireless guitar transmitter that malfunctioned and created a lot of noise,” Fink recalled. “We had to stop the show for 10 minutes while they disconnected it and got him wired up with regular guitar cables. It seemed like an eternity with dead silence up on stage, with Prince at first not saying anything, having his back to the audience” (Nilsen 1999 51). Dickerson painted a similar picture to Hill: “All I remember is Prince spending most of the evening with his back facing the audience, and in between songs, mumbling into the mike with his eyes closed. I remember André and I far overdoing it… I took every opportunity for running into the audience, to the back of the auditorium, and back up on stage. Just stupid things” (Hill 59).
Had the two nights at the Capri been reversed, I might be writing a very different blog post right now; but unfortunately, the show that really counted for Prince was the one where everything went wrong. Warner had sent representatives to observe their fresh signee and decide if he was worth investing in a tour; as Prince confessed to Bream in a pre-show interview, “Everybody at Warner Bros. has a big impression that I’m really quiet. ‘If he doesn’t talk, he probably won’t sing or dance too much.’” The purpose of the January 6 date was, he explained, “to put to rest all those accusations” (Nilsen 1999 50). Instead, the label reps seem to have witnessed a confirmation of their fears. “The show wasn’t gelled yet,” Bobby told Nilsen. “It wasn’t a star and a band. Prince was just trying to figure out who he was. He was developing a character but he didn’t have the moves down, so there were holes and spaces in the performance. He didn’t have the moves to slick it all up. Only experience will give you that” (51).
One thing, at least, that can be said about the second Capri show is that it featured the only known performance of “I am You”: one of a handful of songs written and demoed in late 1978 about which we know little more than the title. Uptown described “I am You” as a “rock-oriented number” that “saw Prince moving from instrument to instrument” (Nilsen 1999 50). Clearly, though, this display of showmanship wasn’t enough to convince W.B. to bankroll a tour. “They felt the band wasn’t tight enough, which was true,” Fink later explained. “It was a combination of that and the fact that For You wasn’t a hit. They thought, ‘Well, it was a nice try, but let’s do another record and then get out on the road. Let’s give the band a year to develop’” (51). Husney, who had kept in touch with his contacts at the label, heard a blunter assessment: “They told me that the show was a complete disaster” (Hahn 2003 28).
Certainly, that was Prince’s takeaway. After the show, Dickerson said, “Prince was real down on himself. I remember us encouraging him, ‘Put it behind you. We did fine’” (Star Tribune 2004). “He would hardly talk,” according to Charles Smith. “He said, ‘Man, that was shit.’ And I told him, ‘No, it wasn’t. You guys really sounded good. You just need a little bit more time to grow together. It will be happening.’ But he didn’t believe me. He just thought it was shit” (Nilsen 1999 51). In the wake of the disappointment, a planned third night at the Capri on January 7 was cancelled. The show had been a financial failure: “we sold just enough to pay for the lighting,” Willie told Hill. “I think I came out with about five dollars’ profit” (Hill 59).
But Prince’s solution to this setback, as ever, was simple: keep working. According to Willie, he “didn’t want to hear anybody telling him that his band wasn’t ready, so therefore he took it upon himself to work the band until they got super-tight” (Nilsen 1999 51). The next time he performed for an audience, he would be ready. And the band was a key aspect of his new strategy. In the studio, Prince would continue the role of the solitary auteur: “the next Stevie Wonder,” as Kyle Ray introduced him before the first night at the Capri. But on stage, he now had a band: a trusted and well-honed musical unit, which was as much a part of his artistic persona as he was a part of it. Pretty soon, the combination would be unstoppable.