“I can’t believe people are gullible enough to buy Prince’s jive records,” Rick James griped to Britain’s Blues and Soul magazine in 1983. “He’s out to lunch. You can’t take his music seriously. He sings songs about oral sex and incest” (Matos 2015). It was the first public shot across the bow in a years-long, mostly one-sided beef between the godfather of “punk-funk” and the young upstart who first rivaled, then surpassed him. But it wasn’t the first time these titans had clashed: James’ comments were transparently rooted in tensions from three years earlier, when Prince was the opening act for his early 1980 Fire It Up tour. And it was just before his tour with James when the “mentally disturbed young man” debuted his most notorious song about oral sex, “Head.”
By January 1980, just a year after his ill-fated live debut, Prince had already been kicked off one high-profile tour: he and the band had played a couple of dates at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, California with Kool & The Gang, but were dismissed because, according to André Cymone, they caused too much of a commotion with the girls in the audience (Dean 2014). James, of course, didn’t know this; all he knew was that he liked Prince’s self-titled album, and he liked the video his management sent as an audition for the tour. “I thought he reminded me a bit of myself,” he later wrote, “except he didn’t move as much” (James 2007 165).
Indeed, there were several parallels and points of divergence that made the two artists worth comparing. Both had released their debut albums in April of 1978; Prince, however, had done so as a studio prodigy barely out of his teens, while James, ten years older, was a battle-scarred veteran of the 1960s rock and soul scenes, with ties to classic-era Motown and to the Laurel Canyon-via-Toronto folk-rock community of Neil Young, Bruce Palmer, and Joni Mitchell. Both, too, had recorded at the Record Plant in Sausalito–though, as biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert note, Prince had done so “under nearly monastic conditions,” while James’ third album Fire It Up–released just a few days before Prince–had been “fueled by prodigious quantities of cocaine” (Hahn 2017). Finally, both James and Prince were clearly invested in blending funk grooves with the rawness and theatricality of rock; but while the older artist’s sound remained comfortably within the confines of post-Funkadelic “Black Rock,” Prince was moving steadily to the cutting edge, adopting the predominantly “white” styles of punk and New Wave. It was a fine distinction that would end poorly for James, as the arrogant kid he considered an acolyte quickly overtook him as the standard-bearer for contemporary Black music.
For the time being, however, James’ main concern was that Prince would be “too shy” to share the stage with him (James 2007 165). He needn’t have worried. The “Spandex kids” in Prince’s band had, in the waning months of 1979, grown even more outré–their soft-spoken leader most of all. Guitarist Dez Dickerson recounted a story to the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the band’s legendary two-night stand at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles: “Between shows, [manager] Bob Cavallo came back and went through his list of critiques. For Prince, it was, ‘You’re wearing these Spandex pants with no underwear. It’s obscene.’ When Bob left, Prince got that look on his face. He said, ‘Bob wanted me to wear underwear, so I’ll wear underwear.’ So he went out in his underwear. Period” (Star Tribune 2004). For the group’s next hometown date, at the Orpheum Theatre on February 9, 1980, Prince wore at least a little more than underwear: he also had thigh-high black pantyhose and a flimsy vest, in zebra print to match his visible bikini briefs.
Compared to his last hometown show, at the Capri Theatre the previous January, the transformation was stark. The band, Prince told Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star, had “become stranger–our personalities… I think we are a little bit more comfortable in our image. We all felt that we’ve wanted to dress this way, talk this way, and play this way. When we first went out, it was like shock treatment. Because some of the places we played were really behind and they [audiences] were older, too, so they were really tripped… I wear what I wear because I don’t like clothes, it’s the most comfortable thing I can find. I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for it. Everybody thinks I’m gay or a freak and all kinds of things like that… but it doesn’t bother me. It’s just me” (Bream 1984).
Prince’s music had “become stranger,” too–and was, in the words of Martin Keller from City Pages, “as bold as his fleshy Frederick’s of Hollywood-meets-Rocky Horror wardrobe” (Keller 1981). The night at the Orpheum marked the first public performance of “Head”: a slick funk groove the band had worked on during the mid-1979 Rebels sessions, with Matt Fink’s Minneapolis synth-horns at their horniest (pun intended) and a bassline you could vamp over for hours–which Prince did, frequently extending the song to epic lengths later in the ’80s (see, for example, the Revolution’s much-bootlegged 1986 performance of the song in Detroit). More notable, however, were the lyrics: a tawdry tale ripped from the pages of Penthouse Forum, with Prince gleefully taking on the role of a Casanova who seduces a virgin bride into performing the titular act on her wedding day. It sounds ridiculous–and is– but is redeemed by sheer tongue-in-cheek naughtiness; the story concludes, rather sweetly, with Prince becoming the (ex-)virgin’s new bridegroom and enthusiastically returning her earlier favors. And on stage, “Head” was pure shock-rock spectacle: climaxing (pun, again, intended) in a live makeout session–and, according to biographer Per Nilsen, simulated fellatio–with keyboardist and co-vocalist Gayle Chapman (Nilsen 1999 64).
The “shock treatment” worked, at least in Minneapolis. “What we’ve got here,” Keller recalled writing in his notes as he witnessed the inaugural performance of “Head,” “is a phenom in the making, a hometown kid brewing a delicious batch of rock and soul music… Call it sex rock. Or maybe funk erotica… His explicit songs mix rock ‘n’ roll’s basic teenager-in-heat tension with black music’s more comfortable sensuality and grace” (Keller 1981). The following week, a series of four shows at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village went over well, albeit to less critical acclaim: New York Times music writer John Rockwell called the performance “vulgar and derivative” (Rockwell 1980). But it was with justified confidence that Prince joined the Rick James tour on February 22, at the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas.
Ever conscious of what he could get away with, Prince initially kept “Head” out of the opening set: he’d start with his first single, “Soft and Wet,” followed by “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?”, “Still Waiting,” “I Feel for You,” “Sexy Dancer,” “Just as Long as We’re Together,” and finally closing with his biggest hit to date, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” But even with a toned-down show, the band’s flamboyant dress faced some resistance in the more conservative South. “People would hate us,” bassist André Cymone recalled to podcaster Michael Dean. “I mean the first three songs, people were, like, booin’ and callin’ us all kinds of names, you know, ‘get outta here’ and ‘what kinda clothes you wearin’… we were gettin’ a whole lotta ridicule” (Dean 2014). The band’s emerging New Wave stylings, according to Dez Dickerson, also drew suspicion from James’ predominantly Black audience: “We came out with a very heavy punk influence,” he told biographer Dave Hill. “For a lot of black people the word ‘punk’ had connotations of homosexuality, and there’s always that macho thing with funk” (Hill 79).
James–no stranger to flamboyant dress himself, though decidedly more gender-conforming–“felt sorry” for Prince the first time he saw his opening act: “Here’s this little dude wearing hi-heels, playing this New Wave Rock & Roll, not moving or anything on stage, just standing there wearing this trench coat. Then at the end of his set he’d take off the trench coat and he’d be wearing little girl’s bloomers. I just died. The guys in the audience just booed the poor thing to death” (James 2007 166). But James seems to have exaggerated the extent of their derision. As Cymone put it to Dean, the crowd may have hated them for the first three songs, but “then after about the fourth song, people were, like, going, ‘Wait a second…these dudes is good!’ …By about the fourth or fifth song, those boos turned into complete cheers” (Dean 2014).
For James, his opening act’s ability to win over the crowd had a simple explanation: Prince stole his moves. “I used to do all these tricks with the microphone–flip it, catch it backwards, you name it,” he wrote. “It was a trademark of mine. I also used to do a lot of crowd chants. I’d have my hand on my ear while I called these funk chants to the audience. This was another trademark.” At some point, James noticed Prince observing his act from offstage: “just staring and watching everything I did, like a kid in school. I’d walk over to him during a song and point my bass right in his face, grab my crotch, give him the finger and keep jammin’. He was remembering everything I did, like a computer” (James 2007 166). One day, James claimed, “I walked into the auditorium, getting ready to go on, and I heard the crowd chanting loudly. I went to check it out. Here’s Prince doing my chants. Not only that, he was stalking the stage just like me, doing the funk sign, flipping the microphone and everything. The boy had stolen my whole show. I was pissed, and so was my band. This went on night after night, every show I’d see more of my own routine. It got to the point I couldn’t do the stuff I had always done cuz Prince was doing it before I came on. It started to look like I was copying him” (166-167).
James was right; Prince was copying his moves. But, as Hahn and Tiebert suggest, it seems much more likely that the goal was “not to emulate but to embarrass” (Hahn 2017).The diminutive frontman was notoriously averse to direct confrontation, especially with other men; but it would not have been above him to engage in a little passive-aggressive sabotage of his rival’s set, especially if it made his own performance look better by comparison. And a confrontation had been brewing between the two acts since day one of the tour, when James–a “habitual line-stepper,” in the immortal words of comedian Charlie Murphy–pointed his prop “Love Gun” at Cymone backstage. The prank didn’t go over well: “Where I come from,” Cymone told Michael Dean, “if you pull a gun on somebody, you better use it” (Dean 2014). James, in turn, found the openers standoffish and arrogant, particularly Cymone and Prince. “My band was a bunch of friendly down-home brothas loved by everyone,” he recalled. “His band was a bunch of snobs who never bothered to acknowledge my guys” (James 2014 209).
The clash between the Rick James and Prince camps, Hahn and Tiebert write, was “as much cultural as it was musical” (Hahn 2017). As Gayle Chapman recalled, “Rick would get his crew together backstage with booze and joints and they would chant, ‘Shit, Goddamn! Get off your ass and jam!'” (Azhar 19). Prince’s band, by way of contrast, would join hands in prayer. The innate tensions between the groups only deepened after James made “unwanted advances” toward Chapman, according to Hahn and Tiebert: “Prince’s response to the threat, oddly, was to insist that Chapman’s stage attire–which to date had consisted of an Olga brand nightgown–become even sexier” (Hahn 2017).
It appears to have been around this time–mid-April of 1980–when “Head” was introduced into the set, seemingly as a deliberate provocation to both James and the audience. “I think we were in Alabama and Prince had given us the set list,” Chapman told journalist Mobeen Azhar. “The way the whole thing was modeled was like putting a dick down the audience’s throat… He put me out front doing dance moves in everyone’s face. He would have me [facing up with my arms and legs on the ground in crab pose] on my back on all fours and pretend to play keyboard off my stomach. He’d stick his tongue down my throat. We were doing stuff on stage to suggest interracial promiscuity. It was intentional. He was hypersexual. The audience was all black kids. They loved him, but they would boo me” (Azhar 19).
Chapman’s account is supported by a prince.org user’s report of the April 25 show at the Charlotte Coliseum, a week after the Alabama dates and just over a week before the end of the tour. At the climax of the performance, the user wrote, “Prince went mad, threw off that cool ass pink leather jacket, peeled off his stockings, threw them at the audience, and was running around the stage jamming to the beat with nothing but his guitar, bikini underwear, and high-heeled boots (with little stars on the side). And then once he was done jacking-off the microphone (as if he were giving it head–Prince was a real whore on stage back then), tossed his guitar to the side, reached his hand down into his panties to cover his dick, and pulled his panties all the way down to his knees, gyrating toward the audience with only his hand covering his dick!” (prince.org 2009). Presumably, none of these moves had been originated by Rick James.
In the end, whatever the specifics of Prince’s fierce competition with James, the outcome was not in James’ favor. As early as the first month of the tour, Patricia Smith of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “Rick James fancies himself the king of an R&B music genre called punk funk… But he probably didn’t expect to be shown up by a mere Prince” (Nilsen 1999 65). “We started to kick Rick’s butt,” drummer Bobby Z recalled to Per Nilsen of the Uptown fanzine. “We would play for 50 minutes. We were young and hungry. Rick played for like two hours and put people to sleep” (66). In an interview with biographer Dave Hill, Dez Dickerson concurred: “It was a rough period for Rick… But in terms of the way we went over it was good, if you can term someone else’s misfortune as good. We would go over like gangbusters, because the black audience was just dying for something new” (Hill 78-79).
It’s important, however, not to overstate Prince’s victory in this first battle for the “punk funk” throne. The rave reviews of Prince’s act, coupled with the tepid commercial performance of James’ next album, Garden of Love, are often viewed as a clear-cut case of the student overtaking the master–and James is only too easy to retrospectively caricature as an irrelevant dinosaur. But at the time, nothing about either artist’s future was set in stone. Though James unquestionably fumbled Garden of Love, and Prince’s own Dirty Mind was released later that year to critical acclaim, the respective fortunes of their follow-up records were reversed: James’ Street Songs was a breakout smash, while Prince’s Controversy only incrementally improved his commercial fortunes. And James got the last laugh in at least one way: “when I saw that Prince was stealing from me,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I stole from him.” During a break in the tour–most likely after the March 9 date in Sunrise, Florida–James “borrowed” the brand new Oberheim OB-X synthesizer from Prince’s band and took it to Criteria Recording Studios in Miami, where he began work on Garden of Love. “When the tour continued,” he claimed, “I put the synth back on the truck. Prince never knew I’d taken it” (James 2014 211).
What we can say, with no exaggeration, is that in 1980 Prince had the kind of momentum Rick James could only dream about. And he made good on that momentum immediately after returning to Minnesota, where he began work on the project that would become his third album in his new home studio in Orono, on the north shore of Lake Minnetonka. The sessions were rapid, even compared to Prince–started and completed within the space of a few weeks in May and June. But in his race to the next milestone, Prince left someone important behind: his first keyboardist, singer, and simulated onstage sex partner, Gayle Chapman.
There has been a lot of speculation around Chapman’s departure after the Rick James tour–to her vocal displeasure. The most common explanation seems to have originated in a comment from Bobby Z: “Gayle had to make out with Prince at the end of ‘Head,'” he recalled to Per Nilsen. “They did this big, long, wet kiss for 30 seconds at the end of ‘Head’ and that probably pushed her over the edge a bit. But I think she had a God versus Devil war going on in her head. She definitely had a problem with the lyrics. It was against her religious beliefs” (Nilsen 1999 68). In fact, Chapman was an adherent of the Evangelical Christian sect The Way International, but she’s since denied that her beliefs had any impact on her decision: “It’s not like, ‘I served God here, now I serve Prince,'” she told biographer Matt Thorne. “I worked for this guy, I didn’t worship him” (Thorne 2016).
It is clear, however, that Chapman wasn’t comfortable with the nature of her duties as a “worker” for Prince. “I did tell him that I did not want to sing that song,” she told K Nicola Dyes of the Beautiful Nights blog, referring to “Head” (Dyes August 2013). But her objection seems to have been rooted less in religious convictions than in the general disconnect between her authentic self and the character she was playing onstage: “Here I am, singing a song about giving head, and I wasn’t even having sex,” she explained in a video version of the Dyes interview. In the end, she said, “I left because I needed to grow, and I was an employee in somebody’s band, doing a job, trading my time for money. It didn’t matter who it was; I think, at that time…if I wasn’t growing the way I needed to, I would have left” (Hautala 2013).
Chapman’s absence left a hole in the studio version of “Head” that was ultimately filled by two other band members–though, to their presumed relief, neither was required to fill it in quite as literal a fashion as she had. Matt Fink–now rechristened “Dr. Fink,” after his earlier “jailbird” persona was deemed too similar to the one James adopted for his performance of “Bustin’ Out (On Funk)”–contributed an appropriately surgical Oberheim solo, ending with a demented squiggle that could only signify the, er, explosive conclusion of the song’s subject. And Chapman’s official replacement, a 19-year-old, classically-trained new recruit named Lisa Coleman, took on the role of the soon-to-be-deflowered virgin, playing it with an air of ironic reserve rather than Chapman’s gung-ho sexuality. In live performances, Matt Thorne writes, Lisa said her lines “in a sulky, lazy voice from beneath her fedora… Rather than being objectified, she seemed as much of a hoodlum as the rest of the band” (Thorne 2016).
“Head,” then, embodied many of Prince’s tensions of the era, and somehow even managed to contain them: it’s unmitigated Black funk with a punk-rock attitude; it’s almost pornographically explicit, but not (at least in its final version) exploitative. But those tensions were, in the end, only imperfectly contained. In his one-sided war on Prince, Rick James actually had some valid arguments: his issues with his former opening act were unabashedly personal, but his specific contentions–that Prince was an opportunist whose desire to break racial boundaries masked a discomfort with being “merely” Black–would be picked up by other, more objective critics later in the decade. Prince, James ranted in the Blues and Soul interview, “doesn’t want to be black. My job is to keep reality over this little science fiction creep” (Matos 2015). By the same token, Gayle Chapman would hardly be the last woman in Prince’s orbit to chafe against the sexual fantasy he imposed upon her–nor, for that matter, would James be the last fellow performer to be subjected to his hypercompetitive “pranks.” “Head,” on the one hand, was only one song; but on the other hand, it was also the foundation upon which Prince’s racial, sexual, and personal preoccupations of the next decade were built.
We’ll be back next week (I hope!) with another vessel for those preoccupations, also premiered during the Fire It Up tour. See you soon.
(This post was slightly edited to include the correct location of Prince’s home on Lake Minnetonka.)