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. Willie spent his teen years in New York and Las Vegas in the 1960s, working as a valet and road manager for the Imperials. During those years, 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.