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Ephemera, 1975-1976

Home Recordings, 1976

“Guess how many times I’ve changed addresses,” Prince asked at one point in a 1979 interview with Cynthia Horner of the African American teen magazine Right On! “Twenty-two times!” (Horner 1979) His typically charming, almost childlike delivery made it seem like an amusing anecdote; for what it’s worth, it was also probably an exaggeration. But beneath the wide-eyed ingénue act, he was revealing something profoundly sad about himself. For about six years during his childhood, Prince’s living situation was unstable at best; at worst, he was functionally homeless.

The period of instability ended around the same time that Prince formed his first band, thanks to the same catalyst: André Anderson, whose mother Bernadette took him in around 1974, and with whom he lived until after he signed with his first manager in late 1976. It was at the Anderson household where Prince made his earliest home recordings, at the ages of 17 and 18. But it was during his proverbial “wilderness period” when he established the fierce independence and drive–as well as the distance from others–that would define his professional life for decades to come.

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Ephemera, 1975-1976

If You See Me (Do Yourself a Favor)

Visit the website of Pepé Music Inc. and you’ll find an entire subpage dedicated to what they call the “Prince Connection.” “We want to set the record straight!” the copy reads, and proceeds to outline the “enormous contributions” made by a man named Pepé Willie to Prince’s success: presenting its claims alongside a large and byzantine flow chart that purports to illustrate “the intimate involvement” between Willie and Prince, but, to be frank, only manages to dramatize a confusing intersection of music industry and family relationships. Yet the “Prince Connection” page also makes a trenchant point about its subject–one that will become something of a recurring theme in the early years of Prince’s musical progression. “No one,” the copy declares, “makes it completely on their own!”

Willie’s own career is a testament to that adage. He made his entrée into the music industry via his uncle, Clarence Collins, a founding member of the Brooklyn Rhythm & Blues vocal group Little Anthony and the Imperials. During his teen years in the 1960s, he worked as a valet and road manager for the Imperials in New York and Las Vegas, where he encountered the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Elvis Presley; he also learned a little about the business and craft of songwriting. After a stint in the armed forces, Willie then moved out to Minneapolis in the early 1970s and married a woman named Shauntel Mandeville–who happened to be the first cousin of Prince Rogers Nelson.

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Lacunae

Sex Machine: Grand Central, 1973-1976

In the fall of 1972, André Anderson walked into the new student orientation at Bryant Junior High and locked eyes with a kid who reminded him of himself. “I didn’t know any of these people, and they just looked weird,” he told Wax Poetics in 2012. “I looked down the line, and I saw this kid and I thought, ‘He looks cool.’ I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, how you doin’? My name is André.’ He said, ‘My name is Prince.’ I said, ‘What are you into?’ He said, ‘I’m into music'” (Danois 2012).

André was into music, too. He played horns, guitar, and bass; Prince played piano and guitar. In addition to their mutual talent, both teens were mutually ambitious: André later recalled to Billboard magazine how he “started talking about how [‘]I’m going to be this[’]. And he’s [‘]yeah, me too[’]. Next thing you know we became best friends.” They went back to John Nelson’s house, where Prince was living at the time, and jammed; Prince showed off his expertise with the theme songs from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Peanuts. That same day, they learned of a weird coincidence: André’s father, Fred Anderson, used to play in the Prince Rogers Trio with Prince’s father John. Pretty soon–“maybe within the week or month,” according to André–he and Prince had formed a band of their own with Prince’s cousin, Charles Smith (Cymone 2016). The group went through the usual teen-band assortment of quickly-discarded names–“the Soul Explosion,” “Phoenix” –before finally settling on “Grand Central.”

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Lacunae

Funk Machine: Prehistory, 1963-1968

The earliest known Prince song has no title…or lyrics, or a melody. It was just a rhythm, supposedly banged out on a pair of rocks by five-year-old Prince Rogers Nelson–or “Skipper,” as he was more commonly known–soon after he saw his father’s band perform in 1963. Just as few details are remembered about the second earliest known Prince song–except for the fact that it involved larger rocks (Ro 4). Even the third earliest known Prince song has been lost to memory. All we know is that Prince was seven when he wrote it on the family piano, and that it was called “Funk Machine”–though even that much is questionable, as the likely earliest musical reference to “funk,” Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway,” was released in 1967, two years after “Funk Machine” was supposedly written.

All of these stories may well be apocryphal; knowing Prince, who often played fast and loose with the facts of his life in recounting them to the media, they probably are. At the very least, it’s likely that these earliest compositions stretched the definition of what one might reasonably consider a “song” (though, who knows–maybe “Rock Jam #2” would later be resurrected as the drum machine pattern from “1999”). The point of such tales, however, is to establish a more fundamental fact: that Prince, more or less from his first memories, was saturated in the act of music-making. “Music is made out of necessity,” he wrote in 1992. “It’s a fact of life. Just like breathing” (Prince 1992).