During the lull between the first and second legs of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s relationship with publicist Howard Bloom began to bear fruit. Bloom had been hired by Prince’s manager Bob Cavallo at the end of 1980, in advance of the artist’s first headlining tour. Their goal was to finally achieve what Prince had been trying to do since 1978: break out of the music industry’s R&B “ghetto.”
Bloom, as he would be the first to proclaim, was the right man for the job. At the time, he told biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, “it was incredibly unhip for any white person to work with any black artist. There was a wall, and it was segregation to the nth degree” (Hahn 2017). But Bloom, a White man of Jewish descent, had a reputation for flouting this segregation: “I was considered the leading ‘Black’ publicist in the music industry,” he recalled to K Nicola Dyes of the Beautiful Nights blog. “I worked with more Black acts and I learned more about Black culture than anybody else in the PR field” (Dyes 2014). Bloom, then, was one of the few in the music industry who took notice after Prince’s second album went platinum without ever “crossing over” from the R&B charts. Now, all he had to do was harness his client’s obvious star power, and make it impossible for the rest of the world to ignore.
We’ve already discussed Bloom’s first plan of attack: the development of an “origin myth” that could sell the artist on mystique alone. To achieve this, he met with Prince in his own hometown of Buffalo, New York, where the band was rehearsing for the tour’s kick-off date at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. The publicist and his client spent seven hours, from two until nine in the morning, finding what Bloom called Prince’s “imprinting” or “passion points”: “those little points in your life that your brain wraps itself around and keeps… as the core of your motivation, of your passion” (Bloom 2016). Bloom used Prince’s “passion points” to develop a narrative for the press, with an emphasis on the artist’s rebellious, countercultural streak: values, in other words, that would align him with rock and roll, and particularly with the “underground” subgenres of punk and New Wave.
The publicity push started slow–too slow, as we’ve seen, to sustain momentum for the tour. A phone interview with Dennis Hunt of the Los Angeles Times showed up in late December; a slightly anachronistic puff piece, focusing on the commercial success of Prince’s second album, ran in the Saint Paul Recorder the following February. But the tide really began to turn with a one-two punch aimed squarely at the rock literati: an interview with Rolling Stone’s Bill Adler, which ran alongside a rapturous four-and-a-half-star review of Dirty Mind in the magazine’s February 19th issue; and the aforementioned Saturday Night Live performance later that same week. With these twin endorsements from two of the era’s most influential gatekeepers, Prince was gaining traction at last. More interviews appeared in New Jersey’s Aquarian Night Owl, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Boston Real Paper, and New York Rocker. Soon, riding this new wave of publicity, the Dirty Mind tour would relaunch with a series of club dates.
But first, it was time for Prince to solidify his hometown audience. Guitarist Dez Dickerson has observed the “odd dynamic” Prince had with Minneapolis early in his career: due to the paucity of “Black” R&B radio stations in majority-White Minnesota, Prince would often find himself playing dramatically smaller venues at home than he did on tour (Dickerson 83). Indeed, by early 1981, he had played only a handful of “official” gigs in his own town: the first, at the Capri in January 1979, had sold only about 300 tickets; the second, at the Orpheum the following year, filled less than half of the venue’s 2,500-seat capacity. At the same time, as we’ve observed, a vibrant underground rock scene was fermenting in the Twin Cities, with bands like Hüsker Dü, the Suburbs, and the Replacements emerging from the Downtown and Uptown club scenes. Minneapolis thus provided the ideal microcosm for Prince’s and Bloom’s strategy to cross over via the New Wave market.
Fortunately, the city also offered the ideal platform. Sam’s–a former disco previously known as Uncle Sam’s, and before that the Depot–was rapidly becoming the hip venue for touring bands on what would eventually be known as the “alternative” rock circuit. Situated in a converted Greyhound bus depot on the corner of 7th Street and First Avenue, the club’s “7th Street Entry” (a former coat check room) served as an incubator for local hardcore acts, while the 1,500-capacity Mainroom hosted the bigger headliners.
Prince would play the Mainroom: a newspaper ad from early March 1981 shows him sandwiched between New York “No Wave” pioneers DNA and a group of Irish up-and-comers called U2 (see right). But that was hardly a foregone conclusion. Andrea Swensson’s new book, Got to Be Something Here: The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound, eloquently summarizes the structural inequalities and barely-veiled segregation that separated the city’s Black and White music scenes in the 1970s and ’80s. For our purposes, however, a briefer quote from James “Jimmy Jam” Harris–at that time still working Northside clubs as a DJ and a member of Flyte Tyme–will suffice. “If you were a black band in the 1970s… you couldn’t play the downtown clubs,” he told the Minneapolis City Pages in 2003. “It was never said, but we knew what the score was” (Matos 2016).
Prince was among the first artists to cross that de facto barrier. He was already known around Sam’s as a customer; owner Allan Fingerhut recalled letting him into the club while he was still a teenager, during the Uncle Sam’s days. More importantly, however, the buzz around Prince was making its way downtown. “People had told [general manager] Steve [McClellan], this guy is hot,” then-music critic (and, later, manager of Twin Cities country-rockers the Jayhawks) PD Larson told Minnesota Public Radio. “He was largely an unknown quantity to a good chunk of Minneapolis. So [Sam’s] essentially took a chance” (Renzetti 2016 “Prince’s First”).
Like many of the chances taken on Prince in those days, it paid off. Still high off the exposure from Rolling Stone and SNL, the frontman and his band took the stage after opening act Curtiss A with renewed confidence. “I remember it was just an unbelievable performance,” bassist André Cymone recalled to Chris Riemenschneider of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “There was a good-to-be-home side to it, but also a little bit of the conquering-hero thing” (Riemenschneider 2016). In a cheeky reference to his return from the “Oz” of New York to the Midwest, Prince began the show by clicking his heels together, Judy Garland-like, and murmuring, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” Then, he proceeded to knock the crowd’s proverbial socks off.
The setlist for the March 9, 1981 show at Sam’s is superficially similar to other dates from the Dirty Mind tour–this was, after all, a warm-up of sorts. The band opened with “Do It All Night,” then launched directly into a muscular version of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” The newly-devised medley of “Gotta Broken Heart Again” and “Broken” came next, followed by “When You Were Mine.” There were a few subtle tweaks; “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About),” a Dirty Mind outtake we’ll discuss in more detail soon, would later move up in the set, right before the epic sequence of “Sexy Dancer,” “Sister,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and “Head.” By and large, however, this was the same show Prince would be playing upon his return to New York later that month: “Still Waiting,” “Partyup,” “Uptown,” “Crazy You”–a surprising, but welcome reimagining of the For You album track–and “Dirty Mind,” with an encore of “Bambi” and a new song called “Everybody Dance.”
The latter is the ostensible subject of this post, but to be frank, there isn’t much to say about it. “Everybody Dance” is little more than a bludgeoning three-chord keyboard and bass riff, interspersed with Prince’s shouted exhortations, “Everybody, everybody, everybody dance” (later, “Everybody, everybody say yeah” and, “Everybody, everybody scream”). Toward the end, Dez, Prince, and André trade solos. The performance is energetic and was no doubt thrilling live, but it doesn’t exactly translate to a muddy audience recording 36 years later. Biographer Matt Thorne has likened “Everybody Dance” to “the extended robotic improvisations [Prince] would later favor in rehearsal” (Thorne 2016). It certainly does bear a resemblance to some of those, but is less interesting than most; there’s little wonder that, by the end of the tour, a new song called “Jack U Off” had replaced “Everybody Dance” in the setlist.
There is, however, plenty to praise about the Sam’s performance in general, which makes up for whatever uniqueness its setlist might lack with the sheer energy coming from both sides of the stage. Prince, Dez, André, Lisa, Dr. Fink, and Bobby Z are all on fire; even more impressively, so is the audience. They bellow along with the chorus of “Do It All Night”; they scream like Beatlemaniacs at the slightest provocation; they start up the “fight your own damn war” chant from “Partyup,” in the middle of “Head.” “It was just a phenomenal show,” recalled Kevin Cole, at that time the club’s house DJ. “I knew from the second I saw him that I was seeing something magical and something special. This was really the first time, I think, Prince had found his audience in Minneapolis… He came out and just blew everybody away. And what was cool, was not only that, but I think he was blown away too. You could see on his face and as he was playing, in the confidence, that he was also being fueled by this love and acceptance that he was feeling from the audience” (Renzetti 2016 “Prince’s First”). On the circulating recording, Prince can be heard teasing the crowd, “We’re gonna play all night, how ’bout that?” Their jubilant response says it all.
Like the Ritz date from the previous December, the Rolling Stone coverage, and the appearance on SNL, Prince’s debut at Sam’s marked a watershed moment in his crossover from R&B wiz kid to New Wave rocker. Certainly, it was the beginning of a long relationship with the club, which would be rechristened as First Avenue at the end of the year. Prince made a habit of testing out his new material at the venue, using it as a public rehearsal space for the Controversy, Parade, and Sign “O” the Times tours; his one-off performances there were also the stuff of legend, most notably the August 3, 1983 benefit concert that provided much of the second half of Purple Rain. And of course, there was the club’s prominent presence in the Purple Rain movie, which cemented it permanently in Prince’s mythology and made the venue and the artist inextricably intertwined. On that Monday night in March 1981, the days of Prince starring in a major motion picture were still almost unfathomably far away; but it’s reasonable to say that the seeds for his crossover had already been planted. Prince was about to leave the R&B “ghetto” for good.
(“Everybody Dance” is regrettably[?] not available for streaming anywhere that I can find; however, you should be able to find the Sam’s show if you look hard enough. And, uh, if anybody from NPG happens to be reading this, how about you make it easier on all of us and put out an official release? I promise, I have money I desperately want to give you for this amazing show.)