Since the official release of “Moonbeam Levels” in November 2016, the Prince fan community has been clamoring for more unreleased music. The results to date, however, have been more of a trickle than the flood many would prefer. Last June’s deluxe Purple Rain reissue got mixed reviews from the hardcore for its track selection and 2016-ized mix (just for the record, I liked it). Since then, there have been rumors of a remastered edition of Prince and the Revolution’s August 1983First Avenue debut, an expanded version of 1999, and an official release of Prince’s final “Piano & A Microphone” shows at Paisley Park–none of which have come to fruition. It was only with the single release of “Nothing Compares 2 U” this April that the drought showed any real signs of ending. Shortly thereafter, representatives of the Prince Estate (whatever that means at this point) announced two full-length projects featuring unreleased material: one from the Warner Bros. years and coming this September, the other of more recent vintage and premiering, at least initially, on TIDAL in 2019.
While the latter project remains a mystery, today–the 60th anniversary of Prince’s birth–Warner and the estate finally revealed what to expect from the former: a long-circulating collection of 1983 piano rehearsals, cleverly retitled Piano & A Microphone 1983. For better or worse, it’s on brand with the posthumous releases we’ve seen to date: tasteful, collector-approved, and dating from the 1982–85 zenith of Prince’s primacy in the pop market. It’s so on brand, in fact, that for the first time in the last 18 months of Prince releases, I actually caught myself feeling a slight tinge of disappointment. The Vault has been open for almost two years; isn’t it about time we got something that hasn’t already leaked?
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.