As we discussed last week, Prince responded to his scuppered 1979 tour plans in characteristic fashion: by throwing himself even further into his work. Pepé Willie, his cousin by marriage–and, at the time, his informal manager–recently recounted a story from around this period to Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow. “One night, at around 10:30, I tried to call Prince and I didn’t get an answer,” he said. “So I went over to his house, because he wasn’t far from where I lived, and I see his car parked in front of his house. I rang the bell, knocked on the door and I didn’t get no answer. Then I hear this little tapping sound, and I went around to the side of the house and I peeped through the basement window, and Prince was down in the basement playing drums. I mean, he was wailing away. And this was after 12 hours of rehearsing. It was just unbelievable. So I had to tap the window in-between the drum beats so he could hear me, and then he came to the door and we talked. But after that experience, I had said to myself, ‘Gee, no wonder why he’s so good. This guy practices all the time’” (Grow 2016).
In addition to the non-stop rehearsals, Prince also wasn’t above picking up a session gig or two. In February of 1979, Tony Silvester from soul trio the Main Ingredient (of “Everybody Plays the Fool” fame) contacted Willie with an opportunity: he was producing an album by Pepé’s old employers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and needed musicians. “I told him, ‘Look, I got two musicians who can play everything,’” Willie recalled to biographer Matt Thorne (Thorne 2016). So Willie, Prince, and André Cymone left for Music Farm Studios in New York, where they cut a handful of backing tracks in a one-day session. Silvester and the Imperials didn’t end up using them–though two of the songs they recorded, “If You Feel Like Dancin’” and “One Man Jam,” would later show up on the 94 East compilation Minneapolis Genius. Of more historical significance, however, were the personal demos Prince and André squeezed in at the end of the session: including one song, “I Feel for You,” that would become one of Prince’s enduring classics.
The progression of “I Feel for You” from initial demo to pop-R&B masterpiece was, however, neither immediate nor direct. Based on Willie’s recollection, the version recorded at Music Farm was incomplete: “Prince had just wrote it, and he didn’t have any words” (Grow 2016). Most sources indicate that Prince didn’t initially intend the track for himself. In his unpublished notes for Warner’s 1993 compilation The Hits, the artist revealed that both “I Feel for You” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” were originally recorded as demos for Patrice Rushen: another R&B wunderkind who had contributed some uncredited synthesizer to For You–and on whom Prince had “a mad crush” at the time. Even 14 years after the fact, he seemed almost sheepish about the song, explaining that he “tended 2 write more Top 40 when writing 4 other artists” (Dash 2016). And while “I Feel for You” certainly is one of Prince’s enduring classics, it remains most prominently associated with “other artists”: namely Chaka Khan, whose 1984 cover version reached Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Prince’s original, by comparison, wasn’t even released as a single.
That’s a shame, because “I Feel for You” could have been a hit, even five years before Chaka’s version. With its bright, layered synthesizers and super-clean, muted guitar and bass, it’s another fine example of the ever-developing “Minneapolis Sound”; and Prince’s vocal performance is his most charismatic to date, already nailing that unique mixture of girlishness and understated virility that would make him the 1980s’ most potent sex symbol. On his previous album, we noted Prince’s gift for sneaking a frank come-on almost subliminally into a love song: see, for example, “In Love”’s disarming declaration, “I really want to play in your river.” On “I Feel for You,” he demonstrates his mastery of that gift, delivering declarations of love in a tone that makes it unmistakably clear that he’s really trying to fuck (“I wouldn’t lie to you, baby / It’s mainly a physical thing”). It’s a sweet valentine of a song that also wants desperately to get into your pants; the pinnacle, along with its close cousin “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” of the “naughty implied sexuality” that had been Prince’s driving principle since “Soft and Wet.”
But for whatever reason, the song remained an unsung achievement in its writer’s discography, destined only for the penultimate track on his self-titled second album–until, that is, early in the following decade, when Prince’s burgeoning crossover success began to inspire cover versions. First came the Pointer Sisters, who included a faithful (if inferior) rendition on their 1982 album So Excited! There was also the little-remembered Jackson sister Rebbie, whose own sprightly version appeared on her 1984 debut Centipede. Both covers, like Prince’s original, were album tracks only; so it was up to Chaka–whose own version was released a mere week before Rebbie’s–to finally turn the song into the hit single it had always deserved to be.
And so she did; Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You” is rightly considered to be a landmark of 1980s pop. The song connects two of Prince’s foremost influences–Stevie Wonder, who contributes one of his trademark chromatic harmonica solos, and of course Chaka herself–with a few of his high-profile antecedents: the high-octane arrangement, inspired by the nascent freestyle genre, was crafted by frequent Babyface collaborator Reggie Griffin with the assistance of David Frank from the System, the New York-based synth-R&B duo that had basically picked up where Prince’s 1999 album left off. And of course, there’s the iconic presence of M.C. “Grandmaster” Melle Mel, whose memorable opening verse marked the first appearance of a rapper on a crossover pop/R&B single. The song was a huge success–for Chaka and for Prince, whose writing credit won him the 1985 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Song.
But I have a confession to make: as much as I appreciate Chaka’s cover of “I Feel for You,” I still prefer the original. Prince’s cleaner, more spartan construction feels less dated to me than the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach favored by Griffin and company; it’s easier for the melody to shine when it’s front and center with the keyboards, rather than fighting for prominence with Stevie’s harmonica and the boisterous leader of the Furious Five. And Prince, with all due respect to Ms. Khan, is the better flirt: Chaka sounds like Chaka, as powerful as she is indelibly sexy, but Prince really sells the song’s perversity, batting his eyelashes at the same moment he’s running his hand up our thighs.
Prince, in his own way, seems to have agreed with my assessment. Just as he did with many of his songs made famous by other artists, he spent the last few decades of his life reclaiming ownership of “I Feel for You”–though always with an air of deference to Chaka, a hero from his teenage years whose vocal influence was evident on his original recording. Both artists would perform the song as a duet in 1998, while touring in support of Khan’s NPG Records album Come 2 My House; he’d later put it into regular rotation for his solo performances in 2003 and 2004, an era that was as much about securing his legacy in popular culture as it was a conventional “comeback.” Indeed–like another song he and Khan shared, the Rufus ballad “Sweet Thing”–he was playing it right up until the end: his last recorded performance of the song was on April 14, 2016, at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, just a week before his passing. And even after he passed, Chaka and Stevie were both there to perform the song at the October 2016 tribute concert at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. These days, when most people hear “I Feel for You,” they probably still think of Chaka Khan (chakachakachakakhan); but they’re also a lot more likely to know who wrote it. I’m pretty sure Prince would approve.
Next week, we return with another–and, I’m afraid, much less iconic–song originally recorded at the Music Farm. See you then!
(Thanks to Patty Herbst in the comments for the correction: the October 2016 tribute concert was at the Xcel Energy Center, not the U.S. Bank Stadium as originally planned.)
“I Feel for You” (Prince, 1979) Amazon / Spotify
“I Feel for You” (The Pointer Sisters, 1982) YouTube
“I Feel for You” (Rebbie Jackson, 1984) YouTube
“I Feel for You” (Chaka Khan, 1984) Amazon / YouTube
“I Feel for You” (Chaka Khan, Prince, and Stevie Wonder, 2006) YouTube
“I Feel for You/1999” (Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder, 2016) YouTube