My recent run of guest appearances on Prince: Track by Track has taken me out of my comfort zone, into some albums that I frankly don’t care much for. But now we’ve finally reached Crystal Ball, allowing me to return–however briefly–to the warm embrace of 1986. But first, Darren Husted and I had to address the elephant in the room that is Crystal Ball’s disastrous 1998 release. As I note, there may be a lesson to be learned in this for those who want Prince’s estate to be run “the way he would have done it.” Listen to both episodes below:
I’ll be back on Track by Track to discuss another epic from Crystal Ball later this month; before then, you can expect another track or two from Controversy. It’s taken some time, but I’m finally getting back to the grind!
As we discussed last week, Prince responded to his scuppered 1979 tour plans in characteristic fashion: by throwing himself even further into his work. Pepé Willie, his cousin by marriage–and, at the time, his informal manager–recently recounted a story from around this period to Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow. “One night, at around 10:30, I tried to call Prince and I didn’t get an answer,” he said. “So I went over to his house, because he wasn’t far from where I lived, and I see his car parked in front of his house. I rang the bell, knocked on the door and I didn’t get no answer. Then I hear this little tapping sound, and I went around to the side of the house and I peeped through the basement window, and Prince was down in the basement playing drums. I mean, he was wailing away. And this was after 12 hours of rehearsing. It was just unbelievable. So I had to tap the window in-between the drum beats so he could hear me, and then he came to the door and we talked. But after that experience, I had said to myself, ‘Gee, no wonder why he’s so good. This guy practices all the time’” (Grow 2016).
In addition to the non-stop rehearsals, Prince also wasn’t above picking up a session gig or two. In February of 1979, Tony Silvester from soul trio the Main Ingredient (of “Everybody Plays the Fool” fame) contacted Willie with an opportunity: he was producing an album by Pepé’s old employers, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and needed musicians. “I told him, ‘Look, I got two musicians who can play everything,’” Willie recalled to biographer Matt Thorne (Thorne 2016). So Willie, Prince, and André Cymone left for Music Farm Studios in New York, where they cut a handful of backing tracks in a one-day session. Silvester and the Imperials didn’t end up using them–though two of the songs they recorded, “If You Feel Like Dancin’” and “One Man Jam,” would later show up on the 94 East compilation Minneapolis Genius. Of more historical significance, however, were the personal demos Prince and André squeezed in at the end of the session: including one song, “I Feel for You,” that would become one of Prince’s enduring classics.
In his recent cover story for Rolling Stone, reporter Brian Hiatt writes about what would become his final visit to Prince’s Paisley Park complex, in January of 2014. At one point, he describes standing in front of a mural “where a painted image of Prince, arms spread, stands astride images of his influences and artists he, in turn, influenced” (Hiatt 2016). Among the “influences” depicted in the mural are the usual suspects from Prince’s Grand Central days–Sly and the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Grand Funk Railroad–as well as Chaka Khan.
Indeed, Prince and Chaka go way back. In his teen years, he’d been “a fan and a fanatic, too, because I used to run home and see everything she was on,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1998 (Pendleton 1998). According to biographer Jon Bream, the apartment where Prince lived around the time of his signing to Warner Bros. had “45 rpm records nailed to the wall next to a poster of Chaka Khan” (Bream 1984). During the recording of his 1978 debut album For You, he would listen to records by Chaka and her group Rufus to get in the right mood for his vocal sessions; “He absolutely loved that girl,” assistant engineer Steve Fontano recalled to biographer Per Nilsen (Nilsen 1999 37). At one point, Prince even lured Chaka to the Record Plant by pretending to be Sly Stone over the phone. When she showed up, he later remembered, “I was so in awe of her I couldn’t speak, so she listened to me play for a little while, then she left” (Pendleton 1998).