(Featured Image: Ray Sharkey and Peter Gallagher in The Idolmaker, 1980; © MGM.)
Prince, as we’ve discussed, had been harboring ambitions to write and produce for other artists since virtually the moment he signed to a record label himself. But after his partnership with Sue Ann Carwell and his “ghost band” the Rebels both fell through, his focus turned by necessity to his own music. It wasn’t until after the release of Dirty Mind when Prince shifted gears back to his budding Svengali ambitions, and plans for a new protégé act began to take shape.
At first glance, it seems strange that Prince would be so intent on fostering other artists at this early stage in his career. There was, of course, the issue of his prolificacy; as the non-LP single release of “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” demonstrated, he was already beginning to write and record more quality music than could be contained by his own albums. It’s also a matter of record that Prince was a fan of Taylor Hackford’s 1980 film The Idolmaker: a dramatization of the life of rock and roll promoter and manager Bob Marcucci, who had discovered, groomed, and promoted teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In retrospect, however, the most compelling rationale for Prince’s Svengali streak comes from one of his earliest collaborators, David “Z” Rivkin. The way Rivkin tells it, Prince wanted to be at the center of a “scene” in Minneapolis, so he made one in his own image: “he said, ‘It’s better if there’s a lot of people doing the same style, because that way it looks like a movement,’” Rivkin recalled to author and researcher Duane Tudahl. “He said, ‘I want to have an army going forward[,] that way no one can deny it’” (Tudahl 2017 344). Just as he’d done with the “Uptown” mythology, Prince was inventing the conditions for his own success.
But it wasn’t just his success that Prince had in mind: he was also under obligation to an old friend, Morris Day. You might recall that the genesis for “Partyup” had come from a groove written by the former Grand Central drummer; in return for the song–used without credit, naturally–Prince had promised to build a new band with Morris at its center. So, to complete his first real set of “idols,” Prince turned to another group of musicians from the Grand Central/Shampayne days: their old battle-of-the-bands rivals, Flyte Tyme.
In the years since Prince left Grand Central to pursue a solo career, Flyte Tyme had stayed active in the North and South Minneapolis club scenes, playing at predominantly Black venues like the Nacirema Club on Fourth Avenue and the Cozy Bar & Lounge on Plymouth (Swensson 2017). By the end of the 1970s, their lineup included Cynthia Johnson on lead vocals and saxophone, Garry “Jellybean” Johnson (no relation) on drums, Solomon Hughes on guitar, Terry Lewis on bass, and James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Monte Moir on keyboards. Cynthia departed the group in early 1980, after a song for which she’d provided studio vocals–Lipps, Inc.’s “Funkytown”–became an unexpected Number 1 hit. Her replacement was Alexander O’Neal, a singer and hustler (not necessarily in that order) who had relocated to Minneapolis from Natchez, Mississippi.
O’Neal was acquainted with both Prince and Morris: Morris from the two playing together in Enterprize, and Prince from an encounter years earlier, when O’Neal’s group the Black Market Band played on the same bill as Shampayne. According to O’Neal, “We were down as the headline act but we didn’t know anything about being headliners. Prince had a little more knowledge about this stuff and, after another group had opened the show, he came on just before we were due to play… That little motherfucker played all over our set. When we got onstage, it was seven minutes before midnight and they were getting ready to shut the damn hotel down. He did that deliberately.” Later, O’Neal recalled seeing Prince in the audience at the occasional Enterprize show: “You’d get the message just before we’d go out to perform,” he wrote in his autobiography. “‘Prince is in the house, he’s in the corner, hiding'” (O’Neal 2017).
Despite these poor first impressions, O’Neal met with Prince and entertained his offer. The idolmaker-in-training wanted O’Neal and the rest of Flyte Tyme to join his new group, which according to O’Neal he envisioned as “like the BusBoys, black rock ‘n’ roll.” “The band would tour with Prince, opening his shows, all stuff like that,” O’Neal wrote. “It was going to be controlled by Prince, but we didn’t know it was going to be controlled by Prince, for Prince, with Prince” (O’Neal 2017). The singer was skeptical, especially about Jellybean’s place in the new group: with Morris on drums, that obviously didn’t leave much room for Flyte Tyme’s drummer. But there is evidence that at some point between the summer of 1980 and the spring of 1981, Prince and O’Neal recorded at least one song for the project, a Prince original called “Rough.”
The version of “Rough” currently circulating is not the version Prince recorded with Alexander O’Neal; it is a solo recording, believed to have originated from the same mid-1980 home studio sessions that produced the Dirty Mind album. But its provenance as a side-project cut is clear, from the New Wave-tinged classic Rhythm & Blues sound–which does, in fact, bear more than a passing resemblance to the BusBoys–to the lyrics, which sound exactly like the kind of thing one would write for a streetwise young Alexander O’Neal to sing.
“Rough” is another song about a classic Prince femme fatale: a “girl” with “a build like a Cadillac” who “keeps her money in a garter belt / Next to a .38.” Were this intended as a solo Prince song, he’d probably have let her turn him out; but since the song was meant for the Band Formerly Known as Flyte Tyme, he sticks to a more conventional set of warnings against an unruly woman: “She’ll take your money / Your self-respect / Your personality / She’ll leave you high / She’ll leave you dry / All the boys agree / The girl is too rough.” It isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it is a lot of fun–especially Prince’s call-and-response with the backing vocals (also by Prince, of course) and mock audience participation toward the end (“If you’re rough, raise yo’ hand!”). If nothing else, it’s impressive that even in the midst of recording an album as stylistically cohesive as Dirty Mind, Prince was still able to toss off a song with a personality this distinct.
Unfortunately, “Rough” would not survive the next phase of Prince’s idolmaking project–and neither, as it turned out, would Alexander O’Neal. Sources differ over why, exactly, O’Neal was dismissed from the project. In a 1992 interview with Blues and Soul magazine, Jimmy Jam claimed that “Alex wanted a bunch of money and a new car and new clothes. He was outrageous, and we’re all sitting there telling him to shut up” (Ward 2016). There were also unsubstantiated rumors that O’Neal didn’t make the band because Prince deemed him too dark-skinned to cross over; it should be noted, however, that the only person citing these “rumors” appears to be O’Neal himself. The singer’s official explanation, as recounted in his autobiography, is that he simply asked too many questions: “my mouth did not allow me to accept the opportunity they were presenting. The problem was that I wanted to know how everything was going to be handled and how the deal would work. And it seems they didn’t like it” (O’Neal 2017).
Whatever the specific reasons for his dismissal, the circumstances certainly bore Prince’s passive-aggressive mark. “While all this stuff was going on, Flyte Tyme still had gigs to do,” O’Neal wrote. “So I’m wondering why are we not rehearsing? Turns out these motherfuckers had already been rehearsing with Prince, but nobody told me… They were saying, fuck Alex. We’ll take this band, which is excellent, and we’ll put Morris as the lead singer. We’ll keep Jellybean, the guy he was talking about, and instead we’ll get rid of his ass. And that’s what they did. It was ugly and nasty the way they did it. No one told me or was man enough to say that they had signed the deal with Prince” (O’Neal 2017).
With O’Neal out of the picture, Prince was free to forge ahead with his vision for the new group; but he had also left behind another disgruntled associate, who would join his former tourmate Rick James in casting aspersions on his loyalty and authenticity. “In the time I was building my career it was crucial to me to remain true to my roots and develop my R&B sound,” O’Neal wrote. “I never wanted to achieve success by watering down what I was doing just so I could be played on white radio stations… That wasn’t the choice Prince made. He was from the same black community as me, but it didn’t run as deep… Prince was black when it was convenient for him to be black” (O’Neal 2017). Like James, O’Neal wasn’t exactly an impartial source of this criticism; but as Prince’s star continued to rise in the early 1980s, while many of his former colleagues remained stuck in the Northside club scene, similar resentments would fester.
As for “Rough,” the song did have an afterlife–though, unfortunately, only in private. Susan Rogers, at that time Prince’s recording engineer, recalled taking it out of the Vault in 1984 for consideration by either the Family or Mazarati. “I remember it was just kind of one of those macho funk things,” she told Alan Freed of Uptown magazine. “It wasn’t one of his better ideas” (Tudahl 2017 361). Later, in January of 1986, Prince recorded a new vocal track by Jill Jones for potential inclusion on her self-titled album, with saxophone overdubs by Eric Leeds (and if either of them want to leak this version, tell them to hit me up). Somewhere in there, he also offered the song to Joyce Kennedy, lead singer for the Chicago “black rock” group Mother’s Finest; she, too, demurred. “Rough,” it seems, has a suitably rough reputation, but it really isn’t bad–it’s just that so much of Prince’s other work from this period, whether released under his own name or farmed out to others, was so much better.