Lisa

Lisa

(Featured Image: Lisa–and André–on the Dirty Mind inner sleeve, 1980; © Warner Bros.)

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 Wayzata, 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).

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Podcast: It’s Time Someone Programmed You – Leah McDaniel on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

Podcast: It’s Time Someone Programmed You – Leah McDaniel on the Salford Purple Reign Conference

(Featured Image: The infamous “Prince’s Women” cover, Rolling Stone, April 1986; photo by Jeff Katz.)

For the third installment of my miniseries on the University of Salford’s interdisciplinary Prince conference, I’m talking to Leah McDaniel (née Stone), a businesswoman, world traveler, and lifelong Prince fan. Her paper was on the eternally unsettled question of whether or not Prince was a feminist; we reflect on that question, as well as the contrast between his artistic warmth and his sometimes-chilling approach to interpersonal relationships, and why even Prince at his worst was still better than R. Kelly at his best.

If you’re frustrated that we don’t issue a final verdict, come back in a few months, when I plan to host a round table discussion on the “was Prince a feminist” debate (and almost certainly still won’t offer a definitive answer). In the meantime, you can check us and our way-improved new logo out on all the major podcast services (iTunes/Stitcher/Google Play). Your reviews and subscriptions on your service of choice would be a big help in getting us more visibility. As always, thanks for listening–we’ll be back with another episode by the end of next week!

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Hard to Get

Hard to Get

(Featured Image: The “Spandex kids” backstage at the Roxy Theatre, November 26, 1979. Back row, L to R: Tim Devine, Warner Bros. product manager; Lou Wills, West Coast promotion/Black music marketing; Cortez Thompson, national promotion director/Black music marketing; J.J. Johnson, KDAY Los Angeles radio; Bobby Z. Middle row, L to R: singer Randy Crawford, Prince, Mo Ostin, Matt Fink, Gayle Chapman. Bottom row, L to R: André Cymone and the disembodied head of Dez Dickerson.)

By August of 1979, with a new management team, a second album of material, and untold hours of rehearsal under their belts, Prince and his band were ready for a second chance at live performance. Rather than scheduling another tryout date in Minneapolis, however, Warner Bros. staged a pair of private showcases for label reps and media at Leeds Instrument Rentals in Los Angeles. This time, drummer Bobby Z told biographer Per Nilsen, the band was “a hundred times tighter and Prince was a hundred times more confident.” “His aura was just incredible,” Marylou Badeaux, at that time a marketing exec in W.B.’s “Black Music” division, told Nilsen. “I walked out of there feeling I could move mountains for this… I think most Warner Bros. people walked out of there feeling they had encountered something very special” (Nilsen 1999 59).

Along with the increased confidence and polish came a whole new look for the group. The ramshackle, aesthetically mismatched crew from the Capri Theatre in January had “morphed into the Spandex kids,” guitarist Dez Dickerson recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “We were trying to dress as outrageously and outlandishly as we could” (Star Tribune 2004). Their new, cohesive image–glam rock meets porn chic–was calculated and deliberate; early in her tenure with the band, keyboardist Gayle Chapman remembered coming to Prince’s house and seeing him “videoing a woman modeling in a leather jacket with her breasts hanging out. He was working out how things came across on screen and starting to blur the line between his reality and his fantasy” (Azhar 14). This transformation was further reflected in the music, with a much heavier emphasis on the “rock” side of Prince’s funk-rock equation.

The missing link, for both approach and execution, was a 12-day, full-band recording session in July 1979 at Mountain Ears Sound Studios in Boulder, Colorado. It’s unclear exactly what Prince intended to accomplish with the project, which circulates under the name “the Rebels.” Curiously, Jay Marciano, the Colorado concert promoter who recommended the studio, recalled the idea originating with one of Prince’s handlers, Perry Jones: “Perry wanted to pull more rock-oriented music out of him,” Marciano told Nilsen, and “wanted to get Prince away from Warner’s influence. He said, ‘I need to find a place that will give me some studio time and then, if it is any good, I’ll take the tapes to WB and get them to pay for the sessions” (Nilsen 1999 58). But Prince had been toying with the idea of cutting a side record with his backing musicians for almost as long as he’d had backing musicians in the first place. I really like working with this band,” he told Martin Keller of the Twin Cities Reader soon after their Capri Theatre debut, “and I’m gonna do an album with them where everyone writes and I’m just there playing with them” (Keller 1979). 

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Roundup: Prince, 1979

Roundup: Prince, 1979

(Featured Image: Back cover of Prince, 1979; photo by Chris Callis, © Warner Bros.)

Well, here we are: another album’s worth of posts complete. I’d always preferred Prince’s second full-length to its predecessor, For You, but I rediscovered it in a big way while writing about it for this blog. Critical consensus tends to cite 1980’s Dirty Mind as the moment when the pieces all fell into place, but I’d actually argue that it happened here first: whatever it is you like about Prince, you can find it on his self-titled 1979 album. Unless what you like about Prince is Tony M’s raps, I guess. You’ll have to wait about 12 years for those.

Anyway, here’s how I rank the songs, at least at the moment. Feel free to let me know your own rankings in the comments:

9. “With You” The one weak spot on an otherwise pretty damn stellar album. If he’d replaced this with, say, “Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?,” we’d have nothing but hits on our hands.

8. “When We’re Dancing Close and Slow” For the record, there’s a big gap between this and “With You”; I gave other songs an edge just because I prefer burners to ballads. A gorgeous, dreamy, arty slow jam, brimming with potential for even better things to come.

7. “Still Waiting” Prince at his most R&B-classicist. Like I said in the original post, it doesn’t hold up quite as well against later songs in this vein, like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?”; but it’s heartfelt and expertly crafted, and it really came alive in concert.

6. “Sexy Dancer” I used to think this song was dated because “disco”; now I listen to it and it just feels ahead of its time. Early electronic music, from Frankie Knuckles to the Egyptian Lover, owes a lot to “Sexy Dancer.”

5. Bambi” Yes, yes, the lyrics are so un-P.C., but the headbanger in me can’t resist that sledgehammer of a riff. Prince’s Grand Funk worship has never been so gloriously evident.

4. “I Feel for You” Maybe the most head-slappingly obvious shoulda-been-a-single in Prince’s discography. Chaka’s version is great, of course, but “I Feel for You” was pure pop-soul perfection from the start.

3. “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” Speaking of shoulda-beens, the fact that this wasn’t a hit in early 1980 blows my mind, and is a testament to the absurd level of segregation (not to mention homophobia) in the music industry at the time. It’s arena-level power pop that out-Bostons Boston, but it missed the Hot 100 because the guy wailing on his guitar looked “ethnic” and dressed “queer.” Disco Sucks sucked.

2. “I Wanna Be Your Lover” Predictable choice, I know, but it’s just so goddamn good. Prince’s first major hit, and his first absolute classic song. That’s worth celebrating.

1. “It’s Gonna Be Lonely” Now, for a less conventional choice: I know I said I prefer burners to ballads, but I fucking adore this song. I don’t even have that much to say about it, specifically; it’s just so wonderfully Prince. One day, I want to listen to this song the way it was meant to be listened to: in a bubble bath, surrounded by caged doves.

As you can see, the tag cloud has shifted significantly from last time:

1978-tagcloudtagcloud-1979

André Cymone is still Prince’s most important collaborator, but L.A. is starting to catch up with Minneapolis as the center of his universe. That, of course, will change very soon. And hey, here’s a piece of data that might only be interesting to me. I was worried I was writing less about the tracks on Prince than I was about For You, so I went ahead and ran the numbers: average post length was 1,383 words for the former, 1,379 words for the latter. Guess we have ourselves a sweet spot.

I have to say, I’m super excited about the coming weeks, and if you’re reading this now, I hope you’ll stay on board. Next week, as I mentioned yesterday, we pick up with the Rebels side project; then it’s on to one of my all-time favorite records, the aforementioned Dirty Mind. And somewhere in there, I’ll be working in another experiment in alternate history, plus reviews of the new books by Ben Greenman and Mayte Garcia. This April, for obvious reasons, is a sad month for Prince fans; but we’re also lucky, because he’s left us such a wealth of material to remember him by.

I’ll see you next week for a new, “proper” post. In the meantime, here’s the Spotify playlist, if that’s your kind of thing: