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Ephemera, 1979-1981

Rough

Prince, as we’ve discussed, had been harboring ambitions to write and produce for other artists since virtually the moment he signed to a record label himself. But after his partnership with Sue Ann Carwell and his “ghost band” the Rebels both fell through, his focus turned by necessity to his own music. It wasn’t until after the release of Dirty Mind that Prince shifted gears back to his budding Svengali ambitions, and plans for a new protégé act began to take shape.

At first glance, it seems strange that Prince would be so intent on fostering other artists at this early stage in his career. There was, of course, the issue of his prolificacy; as the non-LP single release of “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)” demonstrated, he was already beginning to write and record more quality music than could be contained by his own albums. It’s also a matter of record that Prince was a fan of Taylor Hackford’s 1980 film The Idolmaker: a dramatization of the life of rock and roll promoter and manager Bob Marcucci, who had discovered, groomed, and promoted teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In retrospect, however, the most compelling rationale for Prince’s Svengali streak comes from one of his earliest collaborators, David “Z” Rivkin. The way Rivkin tells it, Prince wanted to be at the center of a “scene” in Minneapolis, so he made one in his own image: “he said, ‘It’s better if there’s a lot of people doing the same style, because that way it looks like a movement,’” Rivkin recalled to author and researcher Duane Tudahl. “He said, ‘I want to have an army going forward[,] that way no one can deny it’” (Tudahl 2017 344). Just as he’d done with the “Uptown” mythology, Prince was inventing the conditions for his own success.

Categories
Ephemera, 1979-1981

Gotta Stop (Messin’ About)

Prince’s adoption of a punk aesthetic in late 1980 and early 1981 was, as we’ve seen, an act of calculation; it would be a mistake, however, to assume that it was only that. For one thing, Prince’s New Wave songs were simply too good to have been born of strategic considerations alone. For another, as his cousin Charles Smith recalled, the artist was a known fan of “the whole English scene… He’d always been into David Bowie and that kind of stuff” (Nilsen 1999 72).

So it stands to reason that when Prince made his way to punk’s epicenter, London, in June of 1981, his P.R. approach combined thinly-veiled opportunism with genuine homage. He promoted his one-off date at the West End’s Lyceum Ballroom with a pair of high-profile magazine interviews: one with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, and the other with Chris Salewicz, whose tenure at NME alongside writers Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill had helped frame the discourse around British punk. Warner Bros. even took the opportunity to release a U.K.-exclusive single in advance of his visit: a distinctly New Wave-flavored outtake from the Dirty Mind sessions called “Gotta Stop (Messin’ About).”

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Ephemera, 1979-1981

Everybody Dance

During the lull between the first and second legs of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s relationship with publicist Howard Bloom began to bear fruit. Bloom had been hired by Prince’s manager Bob Cavallo at the end of 1980, in advance of the artist’s first headlining tour. Their goal was to finally achieve what Prince had been trying to do since 1978: break out of the music industry’s R&B “ghetto.”

Bloom, as he would be the first to proclaim, was the right man for the job. At the time, he told biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, “it was incredibly unhip for any white person to work with any black artist. There was a wall, and it was segregation to the nth degree” (Hahn 2017). But Bloom, a White man of Jewish descent, had a reputation for flouting this segregation: “I was considered the leading ‘Black’ publicist in the music industry,” he recalled to K Nicola Dyes of the Beautiful Nights blog. “I worked with more Black acts and I learned more about Black culture than anybody else in the PR field” (Dyes 2014). Bloom, then, was one of the few in the music industry who took notice after Prince’s second album went platinum without ever “crossing over” from the R&B charts. Now, all he had to do was harness his client’s obvious star power, and make it impossible for the rest of the world to ignore.

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Ephemera, 1979-1981

Broken

Despite a strong start on the East Coast, the Dirty Mind tour lost its momentum when it hit the Southern states. Dates in Charleston, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, and Memphis saw disappointing ticket sales, failing to attract the mainstream R&B audience who had seen Prince open for Rick James earlier in 1980. Only in Detroit–where he, astonishingly, nearly sold out the 12,000-seat Cobo Hall–was Prince building a substantial audience.

Meanwhile, according to drummer Bobby Z, the album sales just “kind of sat” (Nilsen 1999 74). The machinations of P.R. mastermind Howard Bloom, brought on by Prince’s management at the beginning of December, had not yet taken hold. After a final date at Chicago’s Uptown Theatre (no relation), the tour ground to a halt; and, for the third time in his brief career, Prince was sent back to Minneapolis to lick his wounds.

Categories
Ephemera, 1979-1981

Lisa

While Prince was starting work on the album that would become Dirty Mind, 19-year-old Lisa Coleman was in Los Angeles, working on the shipping dock of a documentary film company and teaching classical piano part-time. Lisa, born in the San Fernando Valley in 1960, was as much a product of L.A. as Prince was of Minneapolis. Her father, Gary L. Coleman, was a percussionist for the legendary session team the Wrecking Crew, with credits most notably including the Beach Boys’ 1966 single “Good Vibrations.” When she was 12 years old, Lisa played keyboard in a bubblegum pop band, Waldorf Salad, alongside her younger brother David, older sister Debbie, and another Wrecking Crew kid: Jonathan Melvoin, whose own younger sister, Wendy, would form the other half of Lisa’s longest-lasting creative partnership. The band was a little like the Partridge Family, Lisa later told journalist Neal Karlen, except “we all actually played our instruments” (Karlen 1986). As a teenager, Lisa attended Hollywood High and appeared in a bit part as a teenage pianist in the 1975 made-for-TV drama Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, starring Linda Blair and Mark Hamill.

According to the official narrative, it was 1979 when Lisa heard from a friend in the offices of Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli that Prince was looking for a new keyboardist. But this date seems off, for a couple of reasons: first, because in 1979 Gayle Chapman was still very much a part of Prince’s band, and there are no other accounts from that period to suggest she was being replaced; and second, because Steve Fargnoli wasn’t made a partner in Cavallo’s and Ruffalo’s firm until 1980. Whatever the year, however, Lisa submitted a tape, and was summoned to Prince’s home in Orono, Minnesota for an in-person audition. “When I got to Prince’s house,” she told Karlen, “he sent me downstairs and said he was going to change clothes. There was a piano down there, and I just started playing, trying to relax. I got the feeling he was eaves-dropping at the top of the stairs, so I whipped out my best Mozart. He finally came back downstairs, picked up his guitar, and we started jamming. From the first chord, we hit it off” (Karlen 1986).