As listeners are no doubt aware, next week will be a big one for Prince fans in Minneapolis: Monday through Wednesday is Prince from Minneapolis, the second-ever (and first in the States) academic symposium devoted to papers about Prince; then, from Thursday to Sunday, Paisley Park will open its doors for its second annual posthumous Celebration event. I will be there for both, so I thought now was the perfect opportunity to talk to Stuart Willoughby, whose book Minneapolis Reign: A Guide to Prince’s Hometowndocumented his own trip to last year’s Celebration 2017. Stuart and I had a really fun conversation, which will hopefully give everyone else out there planning their own pilgrimages some pointers about where to go and what to do in Prince’s hometown.
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One of the most fascinating things about the 1981 debut album by the Time is the way that, if you listen to the tracks in a certain order, you can practically hear the band’s classic sound take shape in real time. As we established in the last post, however, “Oh, Baby” was not an example of that classic sound. Morris Day, the group’s drummer turned lead singer, was still tentative in the role, his voice too strained to sell a seductive ballad.
“Girl,” the second and (blessedly) only other ballad on The Time, is not an improvement–if anything, it’s worse. Morris sounds whiny and adenoidal, like a teenage boy whose voice is in the middle of changing. Prince’s backing vocals–even more audible here than on the rest of the album–hit a piercing, dog-whistle tone in the chorus that cuts through the rest of the mix like a knife, and only gets more annoying the more you turn down the volume. Morris, meanwhile, just gets louder: as on “Oh, Baby,” he starts the song at a whimper and ends at a bellow. The whole thing feels like bad karaoke, an impression that is only enhanced by the bland, lifeless arrangement. It’s the weakest Prince song since “With You,” but without even that track’s competent performance.
During the lull between the first and second legs of the Dirty Mind tour, Prince’s relationship with publicist Howard Bloom began to bear fruit. Bloom had been hired by Prince’s manager Bob Cavallo at the end of 1980, in advance of the artist’s first headlining tour. Their goal was to finally achieve what Prince had been trying to do since 1978: break out of the music industry’s R&B “ghetto.”
Bloom, as he would be the first to proclaim, was the right man for the job. At the time, he told biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, “it was incredibly unhip for any white person to work with a black artist. There was a wall, and it was segregation to the nth degree” (Hahn 2017). But Bloom, a white man of Jewish descent, had a reputation for flouting this segregation: “I was considered the leading ‘Black’ publicist in the music industry,” he recalled to K Nicola Dyes of the Beautiful Nights blog. “I worked with more Black acts and I learned more about Black culture than anybody else in the PR field” (Dyes 2014). Bloom, then, was one of the few in the music industry who took notice after Prince’s second album went platinum without ever “crossing over” from the R&B charts. Now, all he had to do was harness his client’s obvious star power, and make it impossible for the rest of the world to ignore.
Despite a strong start on the East Coast, the Dirty Mind tour lost momentum in the Southern states. Dates in Charleston, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, and Memphis saw disappointing ticket sales, failing to attract the mainstream R&B audience who had seen Prince open for Rick James earlier in 1980. Only in Detroit–where he, astonishingly, nearly sold out the 12,000-seat Cobo Hall–was Prince building a substantial audience.
Meanwhile, according to drummer Bobby Z, the album sales just “kind of sat” (Nilsen 1999 74). The machinations of P.R. mastermind Howard Bloom, brought on by Prince’s management at the beginning of December, had not yet taken hold. After a final date at Chicago’s Uptown Theatre (no relation), the tour ground to a halt; for the third time in his brief career, Prince’s attempt to get out on the road had been vexed, and he was sent back to Minneapolis to lick his wounds.