Upon his return from Los Angeles in May of 1982, Prince’s first task was to upgrade the basement studio in his home on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen: replacing the original 16-track console with a new 24-track Ampex MM1200 machine. According to biographer Per Nilsen, this project took about two weeks, overseen by Prince’s go-to home studio tech and engineer, Don Batts. Astonishingly, within hours of the new studio’s setup, Prince had recorded the basic track for one of his most enduring songs, “Little Red Corvette.” “It was incredible to build the studio in that short time and then come up with that tune so quickly,” Batts recalled. But, as he also acknowledged, “That’s how fast it generally went” (Nilsen 1999 100).
Indeed, much about “Corvette” seemed to emerge with almost supernatural ease, as if Prince had merely plucked it from the ether fully-formed. According to legend–and like other 20th-century pop standards, the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”–the song first came to him in a dream, while he was dozing off in the front seat of keyboardist Lisa Coleman’s 1964 Mercury Montclair Marauder. “I bought this vintage pink Mercury at a car auction,” Coleman told The Guardian in 2008. “It was so bitching-looking that Prince used to borrow it and dent it, which I’d make him feel bad about. He slept in it one time and came up with ‘Little Red Corvette’… even though it was a pink Mercury” (Elan 2008). Prince wrote in his unpublished liner notes for the 1993 compilation The Hits that he “always considered the song a dream because it was written between 3 or 4 catnaps and he was never fully awake” (Dash 2016).
There’s certainly something dreamlike about the way “Corvette”’s opening synth chords melt out of the speakers, rising like steam over the Linn LM-1’s steady pulse. There’s also a kind of dream logic to the lyrics, an expressionistic tableau of a one-night stand where even the metaphors appear to be metaphors for something else. The titular “Little Red Corvette” is of course the woman in the scenario: a fast little number who’s “got to slow down,” else she “run [her] body right into the ground.” But for a song that’s ostensibly one long exercise in sexualized car imagery, “Corvette” mixes its metaphors with several references to horses–most famously the Trojans, “some of them used,” that the song’s subject keeps in her pocket. We all know this line is a thinly-veiled reference to condoms; but that only begs the question, who keeps used condoms in their pockets? That it comes across as a telling character detail and not an egregious public health violation only adds to the song’s sense of surreal inevitability.
“Corvette” weaves its spell from the first verse, one of the most literary and economical in Prince’s canon: “I guess I should have known / By the way U parked your car sideways / That it wouldn’t last.” These lines, author Ben Greenman writes, display “a mastery of detail and compression worthy of Bruce Springsteen, or Raymond Carver for that matter” (Greenman 72). And, like a great Carver story or Springsteen song–though perhaps Prince’s more prominent influence, Joni Mitchell, would be the apter comparison–it all flows from there. Prince’s narrator continues, “You’re the kinda person / That believes in makin[’] out once / Love ’em and leave ’em fast”–an epithet that could apply just as easily to his own checkered romantic history. He balks at the used Trojans–again, who among us wouldn’t?–before ultimately surrendering to the logic of the dream: “But it was Saturday night / I guess that makes it alright and U say / ‘What have I got to lose?’”
Part of the reason why these lyrics resonate so deeply is because, at some point in the “catnaps” that produced them, Prince managed to plug himself into the mainline of American pop’s collective unconscious. As Slate’s Jack Hamilton writes, “Little Red Corvette” “reviv[es] one of the great subgenres in pop–the car song–and link[s] it to one of the other great subgenres, the one-night–stand song.” Car songs, Hamilton continues, “are usually just songs about girls, with a built-in objectification that veers too easily into misogyny. From Robert Johnson’s ‘Terraplane Blues’ through Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene’ and even the Beach Boys’ ‘Little Deuce Coupe,’ the car is fast, beautiful, and dangerous: You want it, but you know you should know better.” With “Corvette,” Prince marries the car song’s instantly recognizable iconography to the one-night-stand song’s more nuanced treatment of “the consequences of lust, waking up the next morning and wondering if you shouldn’t have done that–or worse, wondering if the other person wonders if he or she shouldn’t have done that.” The song, Hamilton writes, tells “the story of someone who finally got Sally to slow her mustang down, but now all he can do is wonder if she’ll still love him tomorrow” (Hamilton 2016).
With all this talk about dream logic and the collective unconscious, it seems almost silly to try and find a “real-life” inspiration for “Little Red Corvette”; yet the temptation persists, if only because the emotions at the song’s core feel so real. The readiest explanation is that, like many of the artist’s other songs from the period, it was inspired by his increasingly tumultuous relationship with Denise “Vanity” Matthews. Prince’s libertinish attitudes toward sexuality never quite extended to the women he dated; and by all accounts, Matthews was more sexually experienced and forthright than earlier girlfriends like Susan Moonsie. It thus seems reasonable that she would have provided the inspiration for “Corvette”’s maneater with a “pocket full of horses” and a wall covered in “pictures of the jockeys / That were there before me.” This interpretation would appear to be borne out by Prince’s decision, at a show in Melbourne the day after Matthews’ February 2016 death, to dedicate an emotional medley of “Corvette” and the similarly libidinal “Dirty Mind” to her memory.
More recently, however, another former paramour has emerged with a claim to at least some aspects of the song’s genesis. Mi-Ling Stone Poole first met Prince at a party in Bloomington, Minnesota on New Year’s Eve, 1976. A mutual friend was “bound and determined” to get the two together: ‘‘She said, ‘You’re both short. You’d make a cute couple,’” Stone Poole told City Pages. “[S]he introduced us and, and, you know, eyes locked, smiles.” But Stone Poole was seeing someone else at the time; so it wasn’t until January 1979, when they met again at the downtown Minneapolis club the Fox Trap, that any actual sparks flew. “I guess he just made a point to introduce himself, like, right then,” she recalled. “We danced, and hit it off.” Prince and Stone Poole dated briefly for about a year–she also takes credit for inspiring “Sexy Dancer” from his self-titled 1979 album–before a personal crisis forced her to leave the Twin Cities in 1980. “I think he was taken [a]back, like, ‘What happened to her?’” Stone Poole told City Pages. “A couple friends said he’d asked about me. I just disappeared. I didn’t have a choice, and I never looked back” (Mullen 2016).
The case for Stone Poole as “Corvette”’s muse boils down to a few specific details in the lyrics. For one, Prince was critical of the way she parked her car (“sideways,” presumably). For another, Stone Poole really did have photos of jockeys, along with other athletes and celebrities, on the walls of her St. Paul home: “I remember that moment, when he went to my house, and he asked me a lot of questions about that, the pictures on the wall,” she said. Even the line about the “Little Red Corvette” having an “ass like I’ve never seen” allegedly had its basis in reality: “I was known for that back in the day,” Stone Poole confessed. “I had a little waist, and the curves, and, talk to some of the guys around town back then. Unfortunately, that’s what they remember!” (Mullen 2016).
Of course, the likeliest answer of all is that “Corvette” was inspired in the same way as most creative works: through a heterogeneous blend of details both remembered and fabricated. In this sense, it is about Mi-Ling, and Vanity, and whoever else was floating around in Prince’s head when he dozed off in that little pink Mercury. But in her 2017 interview with Michael Dean’s Podcast on Prince, Stone Poole offered one more interesting detail. The titular image of the “Little Red Corvette” is typically read as labial and/or clitoral–and on some levels it is, particularly when it comes to Prince’s vow to “try to tame your / Little red love machine.” But as Stone Poole pointed out, she–and, for that matter, Vanity–is a light-skinned Black woman, with a complexion colloquially known as “red” in African American vernacular. Back in the ’70s, she told Dean, men called her names like “‘Little Red,’ ‘Redbone,’ of course ‘mulatto’ and all those other terms I didn’t like… So that could even be a hint to the name of the song” (Dean 2017).
With “Corvette,” Prince tied together all of these disparate threads–girlfriends past and present, sports cars and horse jockeys, genital euphemisms and colorism–into his strongest bid for crossover success to date. The song’s alchemical blend of pop and R&B conventions flouts the rigid confines of early ’80s radio formats: it’s smooth and soulful on the verses, building up to a big, irresistible singalong chorus. And, rare among crossover efforts by African American artists of the time, “Corvette” sacrifices none of Prince’s roots in Black music to the nominally White mainstream: his vocalizations on the final lines (“Girl, you got an ass like I never seen / And the ride / I say the ride is so smooth / You must be a limousine”) are as gospel-inspired as anything in his catalogue this side of “Do Me, Baby.”
The secret weapon behind “Corvette”’s crossover appeal was guitarist Dez Dickerson, who Prince brought in to add backing vocals and a guitar solo to the track. According to Don Batts, this uncharacteristic generosity with the spotlight was a gesture of goodwill to Dez, who had been increasingly champing at the bit to pursue his own musical ambitions: “He kind of threw him a bone as a way to keep him in the band[,] because creatively Dez was definitely getting to the end of his wits” (Nilsen 1999 100). But it was also part of a larger strategy Prince had been pursuing since Dirty Mind: using the suggestion of a band dynamic to appeal to rock fans for whom lone, studio-bound singers smacked too strongly of “disco.” In this sense, Dickerson’s guitar solo on “Little Red Corvette” was simply an extension of the lead-guitarist role he already played on stage: “I remember [Prince] came into the dressing room before a show and said, ‘I’m gonna start letting you do most of the soloing live,’” he later recalled. “[H]e made sure he had his moments, but he was more than happy, for the most part, to just let me be the guitar hero up there” (Beaulieu 152).
It helps that Dickerson’s guitar heroics are perfectly suited to the song, adding an arena-rock sheen that Prince’s own, bluesier playing tended to lack. Besides, studio magic ensured that Prince retained creative control, even when he’d nominally handed over the keys: as Dickerson wrote in his 2003 memoir, the brief, eight-bar solo was stitched together from four different takes, which “ended up creating a melodic flow that I probably would not have played naturally” (Dickerson 203). Whatever its provenance, “Corvette”’s guitar solo played a critical role in cementing Prince’s legitimacy as a rock artist–particularly when paired with the music video, in which “Prince and Dez cavorted like Mick and Keith, sharing a mic on the choruses, wielding guitars like true born axemen,” in the words of critic Brian Morton. “Whatever audiences heard on 1999, on ‘Little Red Corvette’ they saw a new rock god in the making” (Morton 2007).
In retrospect, “Corvette”’s potential for crossover success feels self-evident; what’s striking is just how little that success was a foregone conclusion at the time. Michael Hill’s four-star review of the 1999 album from the December 1982 issue of Rolling Stone doesn’t even mention the song; Prince himself only played it occasionally on the first leg of the 1999 tour, before removing it from the set entirely. Meanwhile, the album’s lead single and title track–another song seemingly tailor-made for the pop mainstream–missed the Top 40 in its initial release, but hit Number 4 in Soul and topped the Disco/Club charts. So, when it was time for a second single in January 1983, Warner Bros. wanted Prince to hedge his bets and record a 12″ version of “Little Red Corvette,” ensuring he would at least maintain his momentum in dance clubs if a radio hit failed to materialize.
The resulting eight-and-a-half minute “Special Dance Remix” is a truly remarkable rejiggering of the song: constructed, like the extended remixes for “Let’s Work” and “Drive Me Wild,” from a mixture of previously-recorded material and new overdubs with the assistance of Sunset Sound engineers Bill Jackson and David “The Blade” Leonard. The changes to the first half of the track are mostly subtle–an added guitar lick here, a short bass and drum machine breakdown there. It isn’t until the point when the album version ends that the remix really starts to take off: Prince lets out a “Do Me, Baby”-worthy scream, and the familiar fade-out gives way to a funky bass-synth line and Linn LM-1 pattern. A lithe bass guitar creeps into the mix, while Prince–adopting an absurd Mid-Atlantic thespian’s accent–recites a kind of poem: “There are some things you do to me / That leave me in a velvet sweat / Darling, there are some things that I want to do to you…” Then, at the top of his lungs: “So you’ll never! Forget!” A frenetic chicken-scratch guitar drops in, and Prince shouts out the international distress signal, “Mayday!” Just when the whole thing seems dangerously close to going off the rails–always the best part of an extended Prince mix–the song fades out as placidly as it began.
In the end, the “Special Dance Remix” of “Little Red Corvette” would remain an obscurity–at least in the U.S., where it snuck out on the B-side of a promo-only release. What really broke the song, more than any remix, was the music video shot during rehearsals for the band’s February 1, 1983 show in Lakeland, Florida. Warner Bros. flew in Bryan Greenberg, a veteran of the proto-MTV Nickelodeon show PopClips, to film Prince and the band on their stage set for a budget of less than $20,000. Originally, the plan was to intercut additional footage of Prince and Vanity driving around in an actual red Corvette; but after wrapping up the performance shots, Greenberg recalled to Uproxx in 2017, he and Prince “both kind of decided we [already] had the video” (Ryan 2017).
Did they ever. The “Corvette” video is undeniably cruder and simpler than many of its contemporaries–notably Steve Barron’s video for Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” with its iconic light-up sidewalk, or David Mallet’s opulent creations for David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl.” Sharon Oreck, a producer of music videos including Prince’s own “When Doves Cry,” wasn’t wrong when she summarized the videos for both “Corvette” and “1999” as “just smoke, then Prince’s face, then Prince’s butt… like, porn bad” (Tannenbaum 67). But Prince had more than enough screen presence to transcend his low-rent surroundings. The camera loves him–especially when he takes off across the stage to accompany Dickerson’s guitar solo with a sequence of choreographed dance moves, ending in a James Brown-style split. According to Greenberg, this memorable moment wasn’t quite as effortless as it seemed: Prince “didn’t know how to work with a director or D[.]P[.], this was all new to him… So, he didn’t tell me what he was going to do. He said, ‘Just follow me.’ So I follow him and he does the splits and he drops below my camera. You can’t just drop! It doesn’t work that way. So I explained to him how we needed to do that. We did it two more times and that take is actually the third take of that sequence” (Ryan 2017).
The video, splits and all, caught on quickly with MTV: along with the aforementioned “Billie Jean” and Prince’s own “1999,” “Corvette” is widely credited with breaking the fledgling cable network’s de facto color barrier, proving to conservative executives that the MTV audience would embrace videos by Black artists. Soon, the ongoing 1999 tour began to break color barriers of its own. Audiences were “90 per cent black until ‘Little Red Corvette’ came out,” recalled Monte Moir, keyboardist for opening act the Time. Then, “all of a sudden it shifted, drastically. It got to be half and half, if not 60-40 white” (Hill 116). Soon, according to Dez Dickerson, Prince’s management team “would come back before the show. ‘It’s one third white tonight. It is one half white. It’s three quarters white!’ We were getting the ‘White report’ on the house” (Tudahl 2018 35).
“Little Red Corvette” finally brought to fruition what Prince had been striving toward since his 1978 debut: bona fide crossover status. The song peaked at Number 6 on the Hot 100–five places above Prince’s previous biggest pop hit, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and his first song to make the Top 10. For the first time in his career, it even placed higher on the Hot 100 than on the Hot R&B Singles charts, where it peaked at Number 15 (maybe Warner should have released that 12″ remix after all). Most importantly, “Corvette”’s breakthrough set the stage for even greater things to come. Prince “could do both ‘Little Red Corvette’ and all that pop shit,” as Time drummer Jellybean Johnson later put it. “He could do it and have the white folks and stuff. And that’s what he wanted. And that’s the reason when he made Purple Rain, he exploded. Because he had everybody” (Tudahl 2018 39).
As a final sign that Prince had entered a more rarefied stratum of the pop world, “Little Red Corvette” even directly inspired one of his own musical influences. On January 29, 1983, Fleetwood Mac frontwoman Stevie Nicks was driving to her honeymoon with then-husband Kim Anderson when “Corvette” came on the radio. “We’re like [‘]oh my God, it’s Prince![’]” Nicks told MTV News in 2009. “So I start singing all these words, and I’m like, ‘Pull over, we have to get a cassette player! And we have to record this!’ I’m writing in the car–here we are, newlyweds, and we get to our hotel and we’re setting up the tape recorder and I’ve made up my whole new melody to [the song].” A few weeks later, Nicks was at Studio 55 in L.A., recording what would become her own hit single, “Stand Back.” “I track down Prince’s phone number–and because I’m Stevie Nicks, I can get it,” she continued. “I call him, and I never thought he was going to answer, or that it would be him, or that I would ever find him–and he answers” (Backer 2009).
Prince, as we know, was also in L.A. at the time, and made it to the studio within 20 minutes. “He came in, listened to the song–you know, very cool, very quiet,” Nicks recalled on a 1998 episode of VH1 Storytellers. “And I said, ‘Do you hate it?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s okay, it’s cool,’ and they set up an [Oberheim] OB-8 for him and he played the ‘doo-doo-doo-doo-doo,’ the 1/16-note thing, and then, he did it like one time. And then he went to the middle part where it goes ‘deedat-deedat-deedat-deedat’” (Tudahl 2018 28). This, and some possible drum programming, appear to have been the extent of his contribution to the song: as Nicks put it to music journalist Timothy White, he “was absolutely brilliant for about 25 minutes, and then left” (White 622). But Nicks gave him a co-writing credit out of courtesy: “If you really listen carefully, you can sing ‘Stand Back’ along to ‘Little Red Corvette,’ and you can sing ‘Little Red Corvette’ along to ‘Stand Back,’” she said. “So, I gave him half of the song for that inspiration” (Tudahl 2018 28).
Intriguingly, in the program for her 1991 Timespace tour, Nicks described “Stand Back” in terms similar to the ones which Prince would use to describe “Little Red Corvette” two years later: “It never belonged to me,” she wrote, “it has always belonged to the world and to Prince, who inspired the entire song” (Tudahl 2018 28). It seems fitting for a song that came to its author in a dream to continue drifting into others’ lives in much the same way. Prince would write many more songs of otherworldly beauty before his time on the planet was up; “Little Red Corvette,” though, was even more miraculous than most.
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“LITTLE RED CORVETTE/DIRTY MIND”
(Live at the Sydney Opera House, February 20, 2016)