(Featured Image: Found photo from Atlanta high school prom, circa 1970s; stolen from Found Photo Atlanta.)
Along with “If You Feel Like Dancin’,” “One Man Jam,” and “I Feel for You,” Prince, André Cymone, and Pepé Willie demoed a handful of other tracks at New York’s Music Farm Studios on February 17, 1979. André recorded an early version of his song “Thrill You or Kill You,” as well as a slow jam that would later emerge credited to Prince alone: “Do Me, Baby” (more on that later, obviously). And Prince took the opportunity to lay down an early take of another song that would end up on his second album, the downbeat ballad “With You.”
I’m gonna level with you guys: I don’t like this song. I’ve written about some songs for this blog that I like less than others, but this is the first one I’ve genuinely disliked; the one I either skip or zone out for when I’m listening to the album, then promptly forget about after it’s finished. Obviously, “With You” won’t be the last song we cover that I don’t like–again, Carmen Electra–but it will be the last for a while. And I suppose that, in itself, is remarkable.
The other remarkable thing about “With You” is its placement on the Prince album. Not only is it the second consecutive ballad on the record (after the far superior “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow”), but it’s also the Side B opener–a truly baffling choice. It takes the following track, “Bambi,” to finally kick the record back into gear. “With You” is the slow dance at homecoming no one asked for–particularly since it’s following a song that is literally about slow dancing (and, um, ejaculating, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves).
So, okay, “With You” isn’t great. But why do I feel this way? What makes me like it less than the other songs I was kind of “eh” on, like “So Blue”? The answer, I think, is because it feels so impersonal. Prince, as we’ll see, was the album on which the artist’s classic persona came into focus: even the obvious “hits,” like last week’s “I Feel for You” (and next week’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”), came packaged with a louche sexuality that felt risky, fresh, and totally unique. “With You,” however, just sounds like a discarded Michael Jackson song. Both lyrics and performance lack the perversity of Prince’s great slow jams; instead, we get rote expressions of devotion (“I’ve held your hand so many times / But I still get the feeling I felt the very first time”) and equally rote fears of abandonment (“Sometimes you are so very kind / That the nights you’re not with me I’m scared that you’re gonna leave”), delivered in the least magnetic variation of his quavering falsetto. On For You, this would have been acceptable; but on its altogether more personal, more self-assured follow-up, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Maybe that’s why, consciously or unconsciously, Prince seemed to short-shrift the song: according to Prince Vault, “With You” wasn’t played live until the 1999 tour, and even then only as a short instrumental interlude during the piano set. Jill Jones also recorded a version, produced by David Z, for her 1987 album on Paisley Park; I think it’s a little better than the original, but more out of lower expectations than any intrinsic quality of the performance. “With You” isn’t a “bad” song, per se–it’s a perfectly serviceable soft R&B ballad. But in a catalogue as strong as Prince’s, “perfectly serviceable” just doesn’t cut it.
Since I’ve now officially exhausted my cache of things to say about “With You,” I figured we could use the rest of this post to discuss another major milestone in Prince’s early career. As mentioned before, during the period immediately after Prince fired Owen Husney, his affairs were being managed by his cousin Pepé Willie. But Pepé, by his own admission, “wasn’t a manager,” he just “knew what a manager’s operations was supposed to be”–and he quickly learned that Prince was too demanding a client for amateur representation. In fact, he even proved too difficult for some professionals. Willie hooked Prince up with Bob Marley’s notorious manager, Don Taylor, who he knew through his connection with Little Anthony and the Imperials; but Taylor quickly bolted, because Prince was “just too weird” for him. “He’d start recording at one studio, and if something went wrong, he’d want to just scrap the project and book time someplace else,” he later recalled (Nilsen 1999 52).
In the end, Prince would sign with the L.A.-based management team of Bob Cavallo and Joe Ruffalo, at that time best known for their association with Earth, Wind & Fire. According to Cavallo, their relationship with Prince went back further than the artist was aware: ARC Records, the boutique label they co-owned with Maurice White, had been part of the early bidding war before Prince signed with Warner Bros. (Thorne 2016). But stories vary on how, exactly, Cavallo and Ruffalo secured Prince’s clientage. According to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine, W.B. simply realized their recently-signed artist was without an experienced manager; so Carl Scott, a senior A&R executive at the label, called Cavallo’s company. “I assured them that they should pay attention to this guy, maybe talk to him, and they wouldn’t be sorry,” Scott told Uptown (Nilsen 1999 52). But Cavallo remembers things differently: according to him, “Prince saw Earth, Wind & Fire play at the big arena in Minneapolis and thought the show was unbelievable. He called and asked someone at Warner Records, ‘Who’s the manager who helped them put that big show together?’ And they said me. So he reached out to me and we set up a meeting” (Thorne 2016).
Whatever the specifics, Cavallo and Ruffalo were impressed. “I thought he was incredible and his band was very cool, a well-thought-out placement of characters,” Cavallo recalled to biographer Matt Thorne (Thorne 2016). They bought Prince out of his contract with American Artists, and made arrangements for recording his second album; but he still needed day-to-day handlers, presumably just in case the space heater in his basement went out again. According to Willie, he was their first choice. “They wanted me to work with them, for Prince, because, he was getting out of control,” he told the Beautiful Nights blog. “I was the only one who could…talk to him on a real-time basis; he was like my little brother. But, I said no, I didn’t want to do it. I could see where he was going mentally, kind of like ‘I’m the baddest thing ever’ and I didn’t want him to get that way with me, so, I prevented that. They wanted me to ‘handle’ Prince. They wined me, dined me and did everything they could. I said no” (Dyes 2013). So Cavallo and Ruffalo set up their own employees, Perry Jones and Tony Winfrey, in Minneapolis.
Though their professional association was effectively terminated, Prince and Willie stayed friends–at least, for a little while. But Willie later told a story to biographer Dave Hill that foreshadowed their eventual falling-out: “We were in the house once,” he said, “and Prince had just got a royalty check for thirty thousand dollars or something like that. I just said to him, ‘Well, you know, when you make it to the pop charts, just say my name. That’s all you gotta do.’ But he never did” (Hill 62-63). Prince would pay for this slight when Willie used a legal loophole to release several of their early recordings–including two of the songs from the Music Farm sessions–as the 94 East album Minneapolis Genius. “Around 1984 or 1985, I knew that Prince was not going to come back and pull us out of whatever we were in,” he told Beautiful Nights. “He was not going to come back to help us. I knew it. I’ve been in this business a long time and I said ‘I’m doing my own record.’” Willie polished up the old recordings, first in New York and then in Barbados. Then, he said, “I called Cavallo and told him that I was doing Minneapolis Genius. I wanted Prince to know, because, we were still friends. He said, ‘Well, I don’t think that Prince really needs to hear this right now.’ I said ‘What?’ I didn’t even understand that when he said it. I said, ‘Oh, okay, bye’ and hung up the phone” (Dyes 2013).
Minneapolis Genius was the real end of Pepé Willie’s chapter in the Prince story. A legendary “semi-official” release, right up there with the Beatles’ Tony Sheridan recordings, it came out in the wake of Prince’s Purple Rain megastardom, playing up the association as close to the line of copyright infringement as legally possible. It’s since been reissued in many, many expanded and remastered configurations–most recently as 94 East featuring Prince, the version currently available for streaming. Prince, as you might imagine, wasn’t thrilled by the unauthorized release of his performances; but relations with Willie did eventually thaw, if not necessarily grow warm. Willie recently told Rolling Stone about the last time he and Prince spoke: in Las Vegas in 2007, during Prince’s residency at “Club 3121.” “It was just a ‘Hello, how you doing?’ ‘I’m fine. How are you?’” (Grow 2016). Not the most auspicious end to their story, but there you have it.
Next time, we dive into Prince’s second album in earnest. I’m looking forward to it–hope you are, too!