It’s tempting to assume that the filler tracks Prince penned for the Time–of which there was at least one on every album–were dashed off quickly, without the level of care and attention he reserved for his own music. But, while that may have been the case sometimes (looking at you, clumsy edit at the end of “I Don’t Wanna Leave You”), it wasn’t always. See, for example, “Chili Sauce”: my personal vote for the most egregious filler in the group’s discography, and yet also the subject of a staggering five nights of sessions at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles.
According to Duane Tudahl’s essential studio chronicle, Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984, Prince started work on the unnamed instrumental that would become “Chili Sauce” at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, 1983, after completing a mix for the ill-fated “My Summertime Thang.” He began with a sleek, sinuous Linn LM-1 pattern, reminiscent of the one he’d used on “Electric Intercourse” in January–or, for that matter, the one he would later use on “The Beautiful Ones” in September. From there, he layered on more tracks, before ultimately deciding that the song needed live strings–a sound that had been absent from his discography since “Baby” on his 1978 debut album.
And so it was that session violist Ilene “Novi” Novog got a call at half past midnight, asking her to come to Sunset Sound for a recording session with Prince. Novog had previously played with the Doobie Brothers (that’s her on the group’s ethereal 1974 hit “Black Water”) and Frank Zappa; as well as her own soft rock group, Chunky, Novi & Ernie, with singer Lauren “Chunky” Wood and bassist Ernie Eremita. She had heard “1999” and “loved the song,” she recalled to Tudahl, but–understandably, given the late-night summons–expected Prince “to be a little brat.” When she showed up, though, she found the artist “really good to work with, very professional[,] and a workaholic… He sat down and played the piano and he was very nice” (Tudahl 2018 64).
Novog’s viola solo is the clear highlight of the song that would become “Chili Sauce”: impeccably complementing the rest of the arrangement’s stately grand piano, programmed drums, and swelling synths. In some ways, it’s a shame Prince didn’t have bigger plans for it; the strings add an exotic dimension that was unique in his own work to date, let alone the material he’d written for the Time. Unfortunately, it was not to be: when the session ended, about an hour before dawn on Friday, April 15, Novog’s work was done, and Prince would spend the next several nights turning the track into incidental music for a comedy sketch.
When work on the song resumed at 9:00 that night, it was finally given a name: not yet “Chili Sauce,” but “Proposition 17.” Its premise is simple enough: Time frontman Morris Day, in his customary role as a feckless womanizer, asks right-hand man Jerome Benton to keep count while he runs a series of lines on his date, advising him to “stop me when I get to 17.” He proceeds, as the title implies, to proposition her 17 times: tossing in a few lines that should be familiar to anyone who’s watched Purple Rain (“In my bedroom… I have a brass… waterbed…”). Indeed, Albert Magnoli’s draft screenplay uses the song’s dialogue verbatim in a scene between Morris and female lead Vanity, suggesting Prince had it in mind from the beginning as part of his film project.
To be frank, it works a lot better on screen than on record. Most of the problem with “Proposition 17”/”Chili Sauce”–okay, pretty much all of the problem–is Prince’s cameo as a Chinese(?) waiter, which he insists on delivering in an accent straight out of the Mickey Rooney School of Unnecessary Yellowface. I’ve listened to “Chili Sauce” dozens of times, many in the past two weeks; yet somehow, I still manage to be thrown off guard every time that damn waiter comes in with, “Ah! Good evening, Mistah Day! Two for dinnah?” Matters of political correctness aside, this is a nearly six-minute track: one of only six, on an album less than 40 minutes long. Giving a tepid comedy sketch this much precious real estate–over 13% of the album’s total runtime!–feels like a bridge too far, even after the lengthy dialogues that peppered the previous album.
But whatever “Proposition 17”/”Chili Sauce” might say about Prince’s instincts as an editor (let alone his questionable accent choices), his work ethic remained beyond reproach. He continued to labor over on the track–alongside “If the Kid Can’t Make You Come,” the ballad with which it would form a loose storyline and bridge the two vinyl sides of the Time’s Ice Cream Castle–for the rest of the weekend: including one marathon, 17-hour session on Sunday, April 17 that also yielded additional overdubs for “My Summertime Thang” and the basic track for “Chocolate.” Deservedly or not, Prince lavished the track with attention: adding sound effects from the studio’s extensive library to create the track’s restaurant ambience, and even making the rare decision to bring in a professional actress to play the role of Day’s seducee, rather than drafting an amateur from his own camp. Granted, that actress–Sharon Hughes, best known at the time for her role opposite Linda Blair in the women-in-prison skin flick Chained Heat–isn’t exactly Meryl Streep; but then, as we’ve already established, “Proposition 17” isn’t exactly Sophie’s Choice, either.
According to Tudahl, Prince finally finished work on the track at 6:00 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, April 19. At some point in the 15 months before its release on Ice Cream Castle, its title was changed to the two words that serve as the skit’s climax: words that are “so harsh, so American,” as Day puts it, “And yet, on the other hand… exciting.” According to keyboardist Jimmy Jam–whose tenure with the Time just happened to come to an end on the same day that “Proposition 17”/”Chili Sauce” was completed–the phrase was originally coined by Day’s seven-year-old daughter Tionna, who blurted it out during one of the band’s rehearsals: “We always have fun with taking words and doing something a little different with them,” he recalled (Tudahl 2018 65).
It’s arguable that the most lasting impact of “Chili Sauce” is its introduction of those words to Prince’s lexicon, where they would crop up in performances by not only the Time, but also his own band the Revolution. As Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin later explained, “If you are playing funk and you want to up the ante of the groove, you would say… ‘CHILI SAUCE’ and the groove will take a subtle yet massive change… [H]opefully the result is even funkier” (Tudahl 2018 63). For a particularly famous example of this technique in action, one need look no further than the live version of “The Bird” that appears both on Ice Cream Castle and in Purple Rain, where Day brings out the “chili sauce” to add some extra kick (and, in the movie, an iconic slide) to the closing vamp.
Even beyond its historical significance, however, “Chili Sauce” has something to offer to the generous listener: namely, Day’s performance, which gives off more than a glimmer of the scene-stealing charisma and comic timing that would earn him positive notices in Purple Rain the following year. My favorite delivery is the line right after the aforementioned “brass waterbed,” where he adds, “You’re just… surrounded by… plants, and… lights, and shit.” And, while I’ll never be okay with that goddamn accent, I have to admit that his passive-aggressive back-and-forth with Prince’s “waiter” character is capable of coaxing a smile out of me, as well. The bottom line is, “Chili Sauce” is far from the last so-so track that would make it onto an album solely because Prince thought it was funny; so we may as well enjoy it on those terms.
(As evidenced by the numerous quotes above, I relied more than usual on Duane Tudahl’s Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984. If you’re a fan of this blog, it comes with my highest recommendation; it’s not only an essential resource for writers like myself, but also a shockingly great read on its own terms. Now that I’m finally knee-deep in the Purple Rain era, you’ll be seeing a lot more citations from it in the future. And, while I’m plugging Duane’s work, keep an eye out for his next volume on Parade and Sign “O” the Times, due this June!)