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Prince Track by Track Presents Stevie Wonder Classics: End of Year Roundup

As I mentioned on Twitter last week, I’ve been having kind of a rough time this month on the health front; this, combined with a year-end crunch at my day job, is the reason why there was no new blog post last week. It’s also the reason why I haven’t gotten around to posting these links, my last two appearances on Darren Husted’s miniseries of track by track podcasts on Stevie Wonder’s “classic era”:

Prince Track by Track Presents
Stevie Wonder Classics:
“Bird of Beauty”

Prince Track by Track Presents
Stevie Wonder Classics:
“I Wish”

Doing this miniseries was a little bit of a leap of faith, as (and I’m afraid this is probably evident from the episodes) I’m definitely not as knowledgeable about Stevie Wonder as I am about Prince. I don’t think all of my appearances rank among my best work (though the “I Wish” episode is solid evidence of my ability to riff at great length on the ill-fated Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West and its soundtrack), but I hope that each was at least worth a 20-minute or so listen.

In any case, as the Stevie Wonder miniseries is now nearing its end, this marks my last appearance on one of Darren’s podcasts for the foreseeable future. I want to thank him for having me on Prince: Track by Track so many times over the last couple of years. And now, I must return to my own solitary toil: I’m not going to promise any specific dates, but I’m still planning on getting you “Lady Cab Driver” and “1999” before the New Year. Until then!

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Ephemera, 1981-1982

Purple Music (Welcome 2 the Freedom Galaxy)

It’s difficult to pin down when the color purple took on the deep significance it would come to hold in Prince’s universe. The reference to a “purple lawn” in his 1976 song “Leaving for New York” was an interesting piece of trivia, but it felt more like an early attempt at Joni Mitchell-esque lyrical impressionism than the genuine birth of a motif. It wasn’t until much later, after the pastel pinks and blues of 1979’s Prince and the stark monochrome of 1980’s Dirty Mind, when the color began to show up in earnest. The album cover for 1981’s Controversy featured a lavender font, with Prince sporting one of his trademark studded trenchcoats in a matching color. And of course, at some point after he moved into his house on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen, Prince had the exterior painted from its original cream color to an electric purple.

Whether the color’s importance to Prince was a recent development or a long-simmering fixation, it was on his fifth album that he finally shared it with the world. 1999 is rife with lyrical references to purple: it’s the color of the title track’s apocalyptic sky; the “rock” he invites listeners to “take a bite of” in “D.M.S.R.”; the “star in the night supreme” to which he compares his lover in “Automatic”; the promised “love-amour” and the “high” he craves in “All the Critics Love U in New York.” The artwork, too, is dominated by purples of all shades: from the deep royal purple of the background to the phallic, red-tinged shades of the lettering, to the cool violet tones of the inner sleeve photo of Prince with his backing band. Yet not even this veritable explosion of purple makes as clear a statement as another song, recorded on May 22, 1982 and titled simply “Purple Music.”

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Prince Track by Track Presents Stevie Wonder Classics: “If You Really Love Me”

I know, this isn’t what you want from me right now–but I recorded this podcast with Darren Husted of Prince: Track by Track fame a couple months ago and I wanted to share it here for anyone who might be interested. If you’ve listened to any of my appearances on Track by Track, this will be familiar territory–with the obvious exception that we’re talking about Stevie Wonder, an artist with whom I am less familiar than I am with Prince, but who I obviously still appreciate on account of my functioning ears:

Prince Track by Track Presents
Stevie Wonder Classics:
“If You Really Love Me”

If you enjoy this, there’s more on the way: I’ve already recorded an episode for each of Wonder’s albums from 1972’s Music of My Mind to 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life. Also, while we’re on the subject of stuff I’ve done recently that is only vaguely Prince-related, my other project Dystopian Dance Party released a podcast the other week about George Clinton’s 2014 memoir Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?, co-written by Prince book author Ben Greenman (and if you remember my review of said Prince book, rest assured that this one is better):

Dystopian Book Club vs. George Clinton’s Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?

That concludes my shilling for this week! The next time you hear from me, it will be with a full post for “Purple Music.”

Categories
1999, 1982

Little Red Corvette

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).

Categories
1999, 1982

All the Critics Love U in New York

Prince’s Los Angeles sojourn in January 1982 concluded with–and was likely scheduled around–the ninth annual American Music Awards, held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 25. He attended as a guest, not a nominee: the “Soul/R&B” category, for which he would have been nominated, was led by old-guard artists like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson–as well as his rival of two years prior, Rick James.

Since the conclusion of the Fire It Up tour in May 1980, Prince’s and James’ career fortunes had diverged in unpredictable ways. Prince, as we’ve seen, had become a critics’ darling, trading the commercial success of his second album for the underground credibility of Dirty Mind and Controversy. James, meanwhile, had faltered with the flaccid Garden of Love–the album he’d allegedly recorded with a synthesizer stolen from Prince–but bounced back with the following year’s Street Songs: a masterpiece that finally made good on his “punk-funk” credo while leapfrogging his one-time usurper on the charts. Prince may have won 1980’s “Battle of the Funk,” but at the AMAs it was beginning to look like he’d lost the war, with James nominated for three awards–Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist, Favorite Soul/R&B Album (which he won), and Favorite Soul/R&B Single for “Give It To Me Baby”–plus a proxy Female Artist nomination for his protégée, Teena Marie.

It’s thus intriguing that only a few days before the awards, on January 21, Prince recorded a song that both satirized and propped up his critics’ darling status, while also lightly mocking the cultural rivalry between L.A.–home of Sunset Sound, Warner Bros., and the AMAs–and its older, snootier cousin to the East, New York City. The song, one of the highlights of his fifth album 1999, was called “All the Critics Love U in New York.”