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Alternate Timelines

André Cymone, Godfather of the Minneapolis Sound: A Retrospective from an Alternate Timeline

Note: Following last month’s post on “Do Me, Baby,” I knew I wanted to give André Cymone another, proper sendoff before he disappears from our pages until 1984. So, here’s the latest in my series of thought experiments, imagining an alternate reality in which André, not Prince, was the Grand Central member who went on to greater solo success. For anyone just dropping in, the idea here is to bring attention to the web of contingencies that shaped Prince’s career; to shake up our sense of inevitability and offer a glimpse at one of the many possible alternatives had things gone even slightly differently. It’s also, in this case, an opportunity to reevaluate Cymone’s legacy beyond his friend’s deceptively long shadow. As always, have fun and don’t take this too seriously. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week!

For a brief but significant period in the 1980s, the cutting edge of R&B and pop could be found in the unlikely locale of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Known as the “Minneapolis Sound,” this unique hybrid of funk, rock, and nascent electronic and New Wave styles emerged almost organically from the Twin Cities’ small but vibrant Black communities in the late 1970s. It thus wouldn’t be fair to give a single artist credit for “inventing” the genre; but the fact remains that when most music fans think of Minneapolis, one man in particular comes to mind. I’m talking, of course, about André Cymone.

Categories
For You, 1978

For You

Prince’s contract with Warner Bros. stipulated that he deliver his first album to the label within six months. But before he could begin work, there were a few issues that needed to be addressed: specifically, the executives at W.B. remained wary of giving full production responsibilities to an unproven teenager from Minnesota. “Warners basically said, ‘We know he’s talented, we know he can play the instruments, we know he can write songs, but does he have record sense?’ Those are distinct areas,” Prince’s then-manager Owen Husney told biographer Per Nilsen. “The question was, ‘Does he have the ability to make a record that will sell?’” (Nilsen 1999 35)

Warner wasn’t sure, so they did what any record label would do in their situation: they hedged their bets. In an odd echo of Columbia’s earlier, failed strategy, W.B. chairman Mo Ostin tried to convince Prince to work with an experienced star producer: Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. But not even the superior White brother could dissuade the 19-year-old phenom from his ambitions. Prince, according to Husney, wrote a lengthy note laying out the reasons why White wasn’t a good fit for his debut: “He had analyzed [Earth, Wind & Fire’s] music and felt it wasn’t going anywhere in the eighties… He didn’t want that. He felt it was going to pigeonhole him. So I called back Mo and I said our decision was still ‘no.’ We wanted to be self-produced” (Nilsen 1999 35).

In the end, Husney and Ostin settled on a compromise–once again, following the earlier negotiations with CBS almost to the letter. Warner flew Prince back out to Los Angeles, under the pretext of offering him some free studio time. As he worked, however, the label sent producers and executives to surreptitiously observe his process: including head of A&R Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman (best known at the time for his work with Randy Newman), Gary Katz (producer of Steely Dan), and Ted Templeman (the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, et. al.). “He thought some of these people were janitors,” Husney claimed to Nilsen. “They were all walking in and out of there. Prince had no idea who the heck it was” (Nilsen 1999 35). But the ruse worked, and in the artist’s favor: Waronker and Templeman in particular were impressed, and agreed that Prince should be allowed to self-produce. “You could not only tell there was talent but there was a vision,” Waronker later recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He went out and played guitar, then overdubbed drums. By the time the drum part was recorded, it was clear. We didn’t want to insult him by making him go through the whole process, but he wanted to finish” (Star Tribune 2004). With Warner Bros. sufficiently convinced, Prince became the youngest producer in the label’s history.

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Ephemera, 1977-1978

We Can Work It Out

In the three-sided bidding war that ignited over Prince in Los Angeles, Warner Bros. held the edge. As noted last time, Prince’s manager Owen Husney had a prior association with Russ Thyret, at that time the label’s Vice President and Director of Promotion. Husney told biographer Dave Hill that he considered Thyret “a friend and a man of heart” (Hill 41). “While everybody was wining, dining, giving us lunches, and promising us homes in Beverly Hills, Russ was the man who took us back to his house, sat on the floor, and talked music with us,” he later elaborated to Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “And in the back of my mind I was always going toward Warner Bros., because of Russ” (Nilsen 1999 33).

Sure enough, it was with Russ, and Warner, that Prince ultimately signed on June 25, 1977. Personal connections aside, the decision made sense. Warner had a reputation in the industry as an artist-friendly label: its chief executive, Mo Ostin, encouraged a culture of receptiveness to artists’ creative development that would have been appealing to Prince and his management, who insisted on not only a long-term deal, but also the ability for Prince to produce his own records. On the latter point, as we’ll discuss next week, Ostin would need a little convincing; but he was willing to invest a considerable amount of time and money in Prince, and that was most important. “Columbia would only give him a two-LP deal, so we decided that we would give him a three-LP deal because we believe[d] in him so strongly,” Ostin recalled to Billboard earlier this year (Aswad 2016).

The actual dollar amount of the contract Prince signed with W.B. has been disputed, and indeed exaggerated: in his interview with Hill, for example, Husney called it “a multi-million dollar deal,” with an initial sum “well into six figures” (Hill 41). The truth, as Nilsen reported it, was quite a bit more modest: an $80,000 advance, with an additional $225,000 if Prince delivered three albums within 27 months. There was also a second option for renewal, entitling the artist to a quarter million for another two albums, delivered within one year. The promised recording budget for the initial, two-year period was $180,000: $60,000 per album. It was, according to Warner Bros. representatives, the biggest recording contract to date for a solo artist–with the exception, randomly, of Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter (Nilsen 2004 18).

Categories
For You, 1978

Just as Long as We’re Together

In early April, 1977, Owen Husney and Gary Levinson flew with Prince to Los Angeles, armed with their new press kits and a fully-formed persona for their artist. Most dramatically–and, for future biographers, confoundingly–the managers fudged the date of Prince’s birth, passing him off as a year younger than he really was. “I knew if he was worth so much at 18, he was worth that much more at 17,” Husney later explained to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In all aspects of their presentation, Husney and Levinson took pains to set themselves apart from the competition: “L.A. at that time was jeans; open, untucked shirts, and cowboy boots,” Husney recalled. “We were all wearing three-piece suits; we had one made for Prince, too. And we sent the tape on a silver reel” (Star Tribune 2004).

Much as Chris Moon had done for Prince in New York, Husney also engaged in a little subterfuge to get their foot in the door. “I lied my way in everywhere,” he told biographer Per Nilsen. He started with Russ Thyret, Vice President and Director of Promotion at Warner Bros., with whom he’d had a previous business association: “I said to Russ, ‘Listen, CBS is flying us out for a presentation on this kid that can play all the instruments. He’s 17 years of age. Do you want to take a meeting with him?’ And he said, ‘Sure!’” Only then did he get an appointment with CBS–by informing them that he was being flown out by Warner. “And then I called A&M Records, ‘Listen, CBS and Warner Bros. are flying us out. Would you like to be part of this presentation?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, well, call us when you get here’” (Nilsen 1999 32).

In the end, Prince and American Artists met with five labels in L.A.: Warner, CBS, A&M, RSO (home of the Bee Gees), and ABC/Dunhill. Of those five, the first three put in serious bids–but all were taken aback, to varying degrees, by the extravagant terms proposed by this semi-professional Midwestern management team and their teenage client. As Husney put it to biographer Dave Hill, “We wanted three albums, because it was gonna take that long for him to develop. We wanted him to be his own producer, and to play all the instruments.” A&M, Hill wrote, “stalled on the three-album commitment” (Hill 41). For the others, Prince’s demand to produce his own work was the sticking point. “Not one of the labels wanted him to be his own producer,” Husney said to Nilsen. “They felt that he was just a young kid who had to learn. And I kept saying that I wanted him to be his own producer, and everybody said, ‘Gosh, you’re crazy’” (Nilsen 1999 32).