Roundup: Ephemera, 1977-1978

Roundup: Ephemera, 1977-1978

(Featured Image: Prince by Robert Whitman, 1977.)

I’m not gonna lie, folks: this “chapter” of the blog wasn’t always easy to get through. I mentioned before that For You is my least favorite album of Prince’s “classic period,” and his outtakes from that time are, well, outtakes. If nothing else, however, this was valuable training for when I have to trudge through the parts of his discography I like even less; the other day I realized that at some point I’m going to need to spend a couple of months on Carmen Electra’s album, and I promptly broke into a cold sweat.

So, in addition to my usual “thank-yous” for reading, I’d like to also thank my readers for being so patient in the five months (!) between this and the last roundup post. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I feel some burnout on a project that, I’m well aware, will be a part of my life for the next several years. All I can do is continue to do my best and try to do the material justice, even when it doesn’t especially excite me.

And hey, in case you were wondering what songs excited me least, here’s the ranking:

11. 1978 Instrumentals No surprise here: like his home recordings of 1976, Prince’s France Avenue instrumentals are For Devotees Only. But man, what a treat that we get to hear them at all.

10. “Baby, Baby, Baby” Another one for the Devotees Only list: basically just a couple minutes’ worth of Prince strumming and scatting, and yet here I am writing about it 40 years later like it’s the Holy Fucking Grail. If this was just some guy in a coffee shop, it would be unbearable; but it’s Prince, and somehow that makes all the difference.

9. “Donna” A cute, if clearly unfinished little ditty. Also gave me an excuse to share a pretty dope photo of Donna Summer.

8. “Down a Long Lonely Road” The fact that this is ranked so high is proof that I’m being as subjective as possible: it’s barely a song, but what can I say, I like the pure and simple gospel feel. Would have loved to hear this develop into something more.

7. “Make It Through the Storm” I know this is a popular outtake, but it’s not my favorite. Still, an interesting reminder that even in the For You era, Prince didn’t sound quite like anyone else: this is the exception that proves the rule.

6. “Nadeara” I bet he writes songs like this for all the girls.

5. “Miss You” My favorite of the post-For You demos by default: it’s the only one that really holds up as a complete song. Well, with one exception…

4. “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?” This is low-key one of Prince’s best early pop cuts, and it dates back all the way to 1976. Would love to hear the Sue Ann Carwell version one of these days.

3. Loring Park Sessions Would I care about this if it wasn’t by Prince? Probably not; like I said in the original post, it’s perfectly good jazz-funk in the Herbie Hancock vein, but nothing earth-shattering on its own merits. The fact that it is by Prince, though–recorded before his first album!–makes it a fascinating listen. I also feel like I’ve seen someone on the Internet share a link to Prince’s “mind-blowing early jazz sessions” at least once a week since last April, so if nothing else these should be easy to track down.

2. “Just Another Sucker” I never really bothered digging into 94 East before I wrote this blog, so “Just Another Sucker” is one of my favorite new discoveries. It’s no masterpiece, but it would have fit Prince’s self-titled second album like a glove.

1. “We Can Work It Out” As a blogger used to toiling in obscurity, I can appreciate an idea like this: a superbly-crafted disco-funk-pop-rock opus only meant to be heard by a handful of people; an elaborate private joke that could have been a legitimate hit. Oh, and check out the handwritten lyrics! These were acquired late last year by the Minnesota Historical Society; I hope they don’t mind me sharing the image below. I’ve also added it to the original post for posterity’s sake. Gotta love that racy doodle.

I Hope We Work It Out, 1977.
Photo stolen from the Minnesota Historical Society

In case you missed it, I also just wrote a rather lengthy post discussing Prince’s first band and his live debut as a solo artist:

I am You: Capri Theatre, January 5-6, 1979

Finally, here’s a song without a home for the time being. I wanted to write about “Moonbeam Levels,” the first officially-released outtake since Prince’s passing, while it was still relevant. I’m sure I will revise this post by the time we get to 1982 in our official chronology, but here it is for now:

Moonbeam Levels

And of course, it wouldn’t be a roundup post without a snapshot of the ol’ tag cloud:

1978-tagcloud

Next week, we’re finally making the leap into 1979 with a post on one of Prince’s early classics: “I Feel for You.” I’m looking forward to it! In the meantime, remember that you can always see the full chronological index of songs right here.

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Miss You

Miss You

(Featured Image: “Prince Pandemonium” at the Soul Shack in Charlotte, N.C., 1978; from Right On! magazine, photo stolen from prince.org.)

Even as Prince was plotting his next move as a recording artist in mid-1978, relations were souring with the management team that had helped get him signed in the first place. Owen Husney had organized a small promotional tour after the release of For You, to some success: particularly in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a crowd of 3,000 showed up and threatened to overwhelm security. It was a significant enough event to warrant a short news story from teen magazine Right On!, which ran with the headline “Prince Pandemonium in Charlotte.” “That’s when he said he felt like a piece of meat being carried around,” Prince’s cousin and early mentor Pepé Willie recalled to biographer Dave Hill. “But he was high, really high up there, you know? To bring him back down to earth was a real chore” (Hill 45).

Indeed, the 20-year-old’s small taste of celebrity had only left him less satisfied with the progress of his career–and, in what would become another of his determining patterns, he began to vent his frustrations on his management. “Prince didn’t have enough experience to know that this is a really slow process,” Husney later told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “He had been told that he was fantastic so much that he believed that he was really going to be successful straightaway. And when he wasn’t, he was really disappointed. He started to blame Warner Bros. and then he started to blame me… We became very disappointed and started to wear on each other” (Nilsen 1999 49)

Continue reading “Miss You”

Just Another Sucker

Just Another Sucker

(Featured Image: Cover of Just Another Sucker by James Hadley Chase, Corgi, 1974; probably not the inspiration for this song, but who knows. Photo stolen from pulpcrush on Flickr.)

In addition to the music he was recording for himself and his prospective protégés, Prince still managed to lend the occasional hand on sessions for other local artists. He’d helped raise money for his 1976 demo tape by contributing guitar and backing vocals to the Lewis Connection’s “Got to Be Something Here” (later released on their self-titled album in 1979), and had also played and sung on “10:15” and “Fortune Teller”–featuring a young Colonel Abrams on lead vocals!–by his cousin and mentor Pepé Willie’s band 94 East. The latter had been intended for release as the group’s first single, but a change in management at Polydor Records resulted in 94 East being dropped in mid-1978. Pepé and singers Marcy Involdstad and Kristie Lazenberry were understandably upset; but Prince, Willie later claimed to Minnesota Public Radio’s the Current, “was more upset than anybody.” With the help of André Anderson–another beneficiary of Willie’s tutelage, from his time in Grand Central–he resolved to “go back in the studio and record more songs with Pepé” (Renzetti 2016).

The resulting sessions took place at Sound 80, with Willie on percussion and keyboards, André on bass, and Prince, as was his wont, on everything else. Two of the three tracks recorded, “Dance to the Music of the World” and “Lovin’ Cup,” received no formal songwriting input from Prince–though the former, an instrumental, does feature some fiery synthesizer and guitar licks by the 20-year-old virtuoso. It’s the third track, however, that’s the real gem: “Just Another Sucker,” the only song in either the 94 East or Prince catalogue to bear a “Willie/Prince” songwriting credit.

Continue reading “Just Another Sucker”

I’m Yours

I’m Yours

(Featured Image: At Unique Records, San Francisco, 1978; photo stolen from Noisey.)

There’s a famous story, originating with former Warner Bros. executive Lenny Waronker, about the 1977 test session in Los Angeles where Prince first demonstrated his ability to self-produce. “As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor,” Waronker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004. “He looked up and said, ‘Don’t make me black.’ I thought, ‘Whoa!’ He said, ‘My idols are all over the place.’ He named an array that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me feel that we shouldn’t mess around with this guy” (Star Tribune 2004).

It’s important to note that, when Prince asked Waronker not to “make him black,” it was less an expression of internalized racism than one of pragmatic frankness. As we’ve noted before, Prince was acutely aware of the hypersegregated nature of the pop music market in 1978–not least because his own hometown of Minneapolis was among the most musically segregated in the country. His desire to be a “crossover” artist was fed in part by his vaunting ambition, of course, but also by the simple fact that if he didn’t break out of the R&B charts, his own city wouldn’t play him on the radio. So from the beginning, he struggled against being pigeonholed as an “R&B” (read: Black) artist.

The trouble was that “making Prince black” was the only way Warner Bros. knew how to sell him. When For You was released on April 7, 1978, the label struggled to get it reviewed in mainstream (again, read: white) publications; the only consistent national coverage came from African American-oriented teen magazines like Right On!Soul Teen, and Black Beat. To be fair, some of the blame for Prince’s initial failure to cross over rested with his material: as many reviewers have observed, despite Prince’s protestations and aside from a few unusually muscular guitar parts, the majority of For You fits squarely in the Black soul and funk traditions. With one key exception, that is: the very last track, “I’m Yours.”

Continue reading “I’m Yours”