From their first session together in 1981, Peggy McCreary had been Prince’s go-to L.A. recording engineer. McCreary, a.k.a. “Peggy Mac,” was a former waitress at Hollywood hotspot the Roxy Theatre who had worked her way up through the ranks to become the first female staff engineer at Sunset Sound, with credits on records by Little Feat, Kris Kristofferson, Van Halen, and Elton John. When she got the Prince gig, it was “just a fluke,” she recently told Variety. “I was available the weekend that Hollywood Sound called and said, ‘Our board went down, do you have an engineer and room?’” (Aswad 2019). But the artist’s salacious reputation had preceded him: “the receptionist said, ‘Peggy can’t work alone in the studio on the weekend with him. He writes really dirty songs about giving head and stuff,’” McCreary recalled to Pitchfork. “I thought, ‘Oh God. Who’s gonna be walking into the studio?” (Sodomsky 2019).
As it turned out, the person who arrived at Sunset Sound that weekend was “extremely polite, quiet… [and] short”–a far cry from the oversexed libertine of Dirty Mind infamy (Kiene 2019). In fact, Prince was so demure that McCreary found him difficult to understand: “He would mumble what he needed from behind a flap of hair,” she recalled. She finally had to confront him directly: “I said, ‘You know what? If you want me to work with you, you’re going to have to talk to me, to my face, so I can hear you!’” (Sodomsky 2019). Sensing she’d offended him, McCreary assumed they’d never work together again; but when he returned to the studio the following January, he requested her for the session.
Soon, the no-nonsense engineer and the reticent wunderkind had developed a close, if occasionally dysfunctional, working relationship. Peggy and Prince “were always about to kill each other,” the Time’s guitarist Jesse Johnson told sessionographer Duane Tudahl, “but she got such a great sound on everything.” McCreary continued to bristle at Prince’s aloof manner and workaholic tendencies: “He didn’t appreciate mistakes,” she later recalled. “Nobody does, but mistakes happen. It’s just human error”–something Prince had little patience for (Tudahl 2018 48). But he was also capable of showing his appreciation, albeit in mostly idiosyncratic ways. He christened “Colleen,” an unreleased instrumental recorded on January 15, after McCreary’s middle name (Aswad 2019). On January 11–McCreary’s birthday–he called her into the studio to record another track. “I was like, God, couldn’t he give me my birthday off? Shit!” she told Pitchfork. But at the end of the session, “he stood there at the door with a little smile on his face and threw the cassette at me and said, ‘Happy birthday’” (Sodomsky 2019). The track, a “rockabilly song” called “You’re All I Want,” remains in her possession to this day.
Perhaps McCreary’s warmest memory of Prince took place on the evening of April 28, 1982, when he asked her out of the blue what she liked to drink. “I said ‘Remy Martin, why?’” McCreary recalled to Variety. “And he said ‘Order a bottle of Remy Martin [and] a bottle of Asti Spumant[e].’ [I] never let my guard down in the studio–you did not f[uck] up around him, it was devastating if you did–so I said, ‘No, Prince, I don’t wanna drink.’” But Prince insisted; and a few drinks later, he was playing the grand piano in Studio 2 of Sunset Sound, singing and keeping time with his feet on the pedals. McCreary remembered “being buzzed and thinking ‘Is this song really as good as I think it is?’” (Aswad 2019).
The song was “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”; and, McCreary was later relieved to confirm, it really was that good. A bluesy soul ballad cut from the same cloth as tracks like “So Blue,” “Still Waiting,” and “Gotta Broken Heart Again,” its pristine craft and execution is enough to make those earlier songs feel like clumsy first drafts. Indeed, “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” feels in many ways like Prince’s Ur-song: a pure expression of the carnal and emotional longing at his core, drawn from the deep well of the African American musical tradition.
As the title suggests, “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” belongs to the subgenre of pop songs about missed connections on the telephone; but unlike most of its antecedents (the Beatles’ “No Reply,” Electric Light Orchestra’s “Telephone Line,” the Nerves’ “Hanging on the Telephone”), this song puts Prince’s narrator in the passive position of waiting for a call that never comes. He tries to fill the absence with memories of past intimacy: “I keep your picture beside my bed / And I still remember everything you said.” When this no longer works, he dwells on the absence itself: “I always thought our love was so right / I guess I was wrong / Always thought you’d be by my side, mama / Now you’re gone.” Finally, he presses the issue: “What I want to know, baby, what we had was good / How come you don’t call me anymore?”
The lyrics of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” are powerful in their simplicity. Mostly, though, the song is a vocal showpiece: a chance for Prince to show off his increasingly elastic range, with dexterous leaps from pristine falsetto to throat-shredding screams and back. The intimacy of the performance is spellbinding; with few exceptions–the multi-tracked backing vocals on the chorus, the echoing reverb when he hits that last “please” on the bridge–it sounds like he’s live in the studio. When he breaks into his speaking voice for the occasional sonorous aside (“It’s just one lousy dime, baby”), you can practically hear his breath on the microphone. And when the song fades out–too early, in the estimation of Peggy Mac, who teased the existence of an extended version in her interview with Variety–the effect is like reluctantly waking up from a dream.
For those of us not lucky enough to be Peggy McCreary in April 1982, the closest we’ll come to experiencing the rest of that dream is the previously-unreleased second take of the song, which was recently unearthed for 2019’s Super Deluxe edition of 1999. The take is, in the words of Tudahl’s liner notes for the set, “even more intimate” than the original (Tudahl 2019 31). Before Prince starts playing, he can be heard telling McCreary, “Whenever you’re ready.” He’s already begun to embellish the piano part he’d recorded for the first time earlier that night: hammering out a doo-wop-style eighth-note rhythm with his right hand while playing the more familiar chord progression with his left. Without the studio polish of the master take, he sounds more vulnerable: his voice dropping almost to a whisper when he sings, “it was good before,” then turning ragged as he croons, “I can’t stand bein’ alone.” The take ends, not with the pyrotechnic display the original seemed to be building toward, but with a beautifully melancholy minor-key flourish. As the sustained notes die away, you can even hear Prince stand up from the piano stool to leave the booth. When I first heard Take 2 of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t an extended mix of the version I already knew and loved; now, though, I appreciate it as something even more astonishing: a wholly unique reimagining of the song that is just as perfect in its own way.
“How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”’s sense of intimacy leavened with virtuosity made it a natural focal point for the solo piano sets Prince began including in his live shows on the 1999 tour. On stage, the song got bigger and flirtier, with Prince clearly relishing the squeals he got when he sexed up the lyrics. A lengthy coda, with the band joining in on backing vocals, provided a platform for Prince to indulge in extended, Bobby Womack-esque raps and pepper in bits of songs in progress, notably the Time’s “Chocolate” (“I’d make it so nice if I only could / Don’t you wanna play with my Tootsie Roll? I’m sure you would”). For the Purple Rain tour in 1984–85, he even built in a bit of stagecraft just to soak in the crowd’s adulation, standing up from the piano and preening at the side of the stage “until [they] make up [their] mind.” “What’s the matter, you got another man?” he’d ask, to predictably rapturous response. “Is he fine? Tell me, darlin’, does your man have an ass like mine?”–turning around, at this point, to reveal a shapely posterior (barely) covered in sheer lace.
Crowd-pleasing qualities aside, a gospel-derived acoustic piano ballad wouldn’t have fit in amidst the 1999 album’s neon-lit futurism; so instead, Prince gave “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” to Warner Bros. for the B-side of the title track and lead single, released in September. Not counting “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)”–which was issued as a standalone U.K. single before ending up on the flip-side of “Let’s Work”–it was Prince’s first of many non-LP B-sides: a now-antiquated format that, like the extended 12″ mix, he elevated to an art form.
As a B-side, “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” was ineligible for chart consideration; but while that obviously kept it from becoming a hit, nothing could keep it from becoming a standard. Like “Do Me, Baby,” which found a broader audience with its 1986 cover by Mel’isa Morgan, the song’s adherence to R&B convention opened it up to interpretation by more conventional R&B singers. Broadway star Stephanie Mills was the first to the gate in 1983, with a cover version that bolstered Prince’s solo piano arrangement with gospel backing vocals, live horns, and some decidedly Minneapolis synthesizer swells. It’s a fine rendition, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
More of a success, at least commercially, was Alicia Keys’ 2001 version, retitled simply “How Come You Don’t Call Me.” Keys, according to Billboard magazine, came by the song from her manager and A&R rep: “They gave me a copy of the song on tape,” she recalled. “It is so raw and so truthful–I was just feeling it” (Hall 23). That much is clear from her performance, which attempts to brute-force the listener into “feeling it” as much as she does by putting us through a gauntlet of melismatic vocal showboating. Like most things to do with Alicia Keys, it’s equal parts precocious and exhausting; still, having found modest success on the pop and R&B charts, Keys’ version is probably the best-known by default.
It’s thus a testament to the song’s durability that the best version of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” remains the same one Peggy McCreary first heard, a little buzzed on cognac, on the night of April 26, 1982. “He was halfway through 1999 and the pressure was off… At least a little bit, when he recorded that one,” she remembered. “He was in a really good mood that night and he made that evening so fun. That was one of our best nights” (Nilsen 1999 99). That we also get to experience it, nearly 40 years later, makes it that much more of a gift.