The majority of Prince’s sessions at Sunset Sound, like the majority of his studio sessions in general, were solo affairs; but while recording at Sunset in early April 1982, he was accompanied by his touring guitarist Dez Dickerson. Dez, as noted previously, played drums on the Vanity 6 track “3 x 2 = 6,” recorded on April 5. He was probably also in the studio for the tracking of “Extraloveable” on April 3: at one point, Prince can be heard taunting, “Hey Dez, don’t you like my band?”–an aside that has been widely interpreted as referring to Dickerson’s departure from the group the following year, but was more likely a simple case of good-natured, competitive ribbing. Last but not least, Dickerson’s backing vocals are clearly audible on “If It’ll Make U Happy,” recorded on April 6.
Between these sessions, the guitarist later recalled, Prince also gave him studio time to work on some of his own music (Dickerson 201). This was almost certainly meant as an olive branch, as tensions had emerged between the two bandmates. Like André Cymone before him, Dickerson had no intention of spending his entire career as a sideman; and, like Gayle Chapman, he’d begun to find that Prince’s sexual boundary-pushing was at odds with his own beliefs.
The turning point for Dez had arrived in December 1980, between the legs (no pun intended) of the Dirty Mind tour. After a fight with his soon-to-be-wife, Dickerson had experienced a religious epiphany: “Some things, deep-rooted things, changed immediately,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir. “My speech had previously been, well, let’s just say, colorful. Suddenly, the thought of uttering profanity became disgusting to me” (Dickerson 125). This obviously created conflicts while touring with Prince in the full flush of his “Rude Boy” phase. “It was a very unsettling thing to try and reconcile,” Dez told biographer Dave Hill. “I was having enormous problems with going on stage in front of nine-, ten- and eleven-year old kids, and singing about incest. I got to the point where I was mouthing the words and not saying them out loud to provide a balm for my own conscience. At first, I was able to say, ‘Look, I’m making money, I’m getting famous, and I don’t care!’ But as time went on, those other things weren’t enough” (Hill 123).
It’s unknown which of Dickerson’s own songs were worked on at Sunset Sound in early April; but “If It’ll Make U Happy,” while not quite G-rated, at least had lyrics that he could safely sing out loud. A song about regret in the wake of a hastily-ended relationship, the raciest it gets is in the penultimate verse: “You can stay in my house, baby / You can sleep in my bed / If you want, I’ll send you my body / You can sleep on it instead.” Add to that a confession that he “really don’t dig / Makin’ love on the telephone,” and you still have arguably one of the most wholesome songs from this chapter of the Prince discography.
Yet while its tame lyrical content was certainly convenient for the born-again guitarist, “If It’ll Make U Happy” isn’t really about the lyrics. The song is first and foremost a genre experiment: Prince dipping his toes into reggae, with syncopated live drums, rhythm guitar on the offbeat, and a keyboard that resembles the sound of a steel drum. At first glance, that may seem like a radical departure, but in some ways it’s surprising that he didn’t record more songs in the style. Much like the rockabilly sound that informed tracks like “Jack U Off” and “Delirious,” reggae was a key influence on late ’70s and early ’80s New Wave. As avowed fans of that scene, both Prince and Dez would surely have been aware of artists like Grace Jones, whose 1981 album Nightclubbing deftly blended reggae and synthpop; or the Police, whose Ghost in the Machine shot to Number 2 on the Billboard charts while Prince’s Controversy languished in the double digits.
All of which is not to say that Prince’s first stab at pop-reggae is on the same level as Grace Jones or the Police. More than most unreleased Prince recordings, “If It’ll Make U Happy” feels like a demo–particularly in the circulating version, which fades out abruptly after just under two minutes. But what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in potential: with a little more gloss, its sunny harmonies and glistening arrangement could have been a hit for someone.
As for who that “someone” could have been, that’s a tougher question. Per Nilsen’s The Vault claims that “If It’ll Make U Happy” was considered for Prince’s fifth studio album, but this feels like conjecture to me; it definitely wouldn’t have fit on any configuration of 1999 I can imagine. I find it equally likely to have been intended for another artist–maybe the Time, whose frontman Morris Day has just about the right vocal range for the song; maybe Dez himself; and maybe someone entirely unrelated. If the release of the Originals compilation last month showed us anything, it’s that Prince would often hold back his less characteristic material to shop around for other artists: see, for example, the smooth R&B ballad “You’re My Love,” which eventually found a home with country crooner Kenny Rogers. Perhaps in some alternate universe, there’s a version of Jimmy Cliff’s Grammy-winning 1985 album Cliff Hanger with “If It’ll Make U Happy” on the track list, possibly credited to Joey Coco or Alexander Nevermind.
In this universe, though, “If It’ll Make U Happy” remains officially unreleased. Like “Strange Way of Saying I Love You,” it was among the tracks offered to fans for possible inclusion on a second volume of Crystal Ball in late 2000. Unlike “Strange Way,” however, it was not among the tracks selected; and in any case, Crystal Ball Volume II never came out. If rumors of a forthcoming expanded edition of 1999 turn out to be true, then this song could finally have its chance to shine. Otherwise, it remains one of the many underheard gems that have escaped the Vault through unofficial channels.
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“If It’ll Make U Happy” YouTube