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Ephemera, 1981-1982

If It’ll Make U Happy

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 recalled, Prince also gave him studio time to work on some of his own music (Dickerson 201). This was likely 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.

Prince and Dez at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on the Dirty Mind tour, December 1980; photo by Leni Sinclair.

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 was a very unsettling thing to try and reconcile… I was having enormous problems with going on stage in front of nine-, ten- and eleven-year-old kids, and singing about incest.

Dez Dickerson

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 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–an Oberheim OB-SX, according to Duane Tudahl’s liner notes for 1999 Super Deluxe–that resembles the sound of a steel drum. At first listen, the style feels like a radical departure; but in some ways, it’s surprising that Prince didn’t go reggae sooner. 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.

Prince and Dez (and Lisa Coleman) on the Controversy tour, circa 1982; photo stolen from Michelle Maio’s Pinterest.

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. The arrangement, even with its layers of backing vocals by Prince and Dickerson, is overly sparse: a likely attempt at creating a dubby sense of space in the mix that ultimately just makes it sound unfinished. The laid-back melody is catchy enough, but it doesn’t go anywhere. For years, “If It’ll Make U Happy” circulated as a snippet that faded out abruptly at the halfway mark; but even the two extra minutes restored by its official release on 1999 Super Deluxe fail to make a stronger impression.

What “If It’ll Make U Happy” lacks in polish, however, 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 the song 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 2019’s Originals compilation 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”–recorded within a month of “If It’ll Make U Happy”–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, the song remained officially unreleased until 2019, when it appeared as one of 24 liberated Vault tracks on the Super Deluxe edition of 1999.

As I prepare to shut down for the long weekend, I’d like to once again thank everyone who has contributed to the d / m / s / r Patreon: Pierre Igot, Caroline S., Oliver A., Demetrius, Cliff Dinwiddie, Marilyn Hinson, Jessica, Darling Nisi, Kaitlyn, Vegard Moen, John Loos III, and Anne Clark. Your support is hugely appreciated, far beyond any monetary considerations. I also want to thank, as always, everyone who reads the blog: patrons or otherwise, I couldn’t do this without you. I can’t wait to see what the fourth (!) year of d / m / s / r will bring, and I appreciate everyone who has come with me for the ride thus far!

(This post has been updated to include the original version of the song, released on 1999 Super Deluxe.)

“If It’ll Make U Happy”
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Zach

By Zach

Recovering academic. Music writing at Slant, Spectrum Culture, and elsewhere. Founder and editor, Dystopian Dance Party. Tweets @zchoskins.

2 replies on “If It’ll Make U Happy”

“Hey Dez, don’t you like my band?” does seem to be clearly directed at Dez’ depature or at least unsure position in the group, and I have always had a theory that little adlib was overdubbed in later: he shouts out *everyone* else that is currently in the group, and then makes the Dez remark in a clearly different voice/vibe. Maybe I’m hearing too much into it though. Great post again!

Yeah I definitely think both scenarios are possible–it just struck me when I was looking at the dates that Dez was probably next door or possibly even in the room when he recorded it, so I wonder if it feels more significant in retrospect. I do agree that the callout feels much more… pointed than the others, hahaha

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