I’m Yours

I’m Yours

(Featured Image: At Unique Records, San Francisco, 1978; photo stolen from Noisey.)

There’s a famous story, originating with former Warner Bros. executive Lenny Waronker, about the 1977 test session in Los Angeles where Prince first demonstrated his ability to self-produce. “As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor,” Waronker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004. “He looked up and said, ‘Don’t make me black.’ I thought, ‘Whoa!’ He said, ‘My idols are all over the place.’ He named an array that was so deep in terms of scope of music that for an 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me feel that we shouldn’t mess around with this guy” (Star Tribune 2004).

It’s important to note that, when Prince asked Waronker not to “make him black,” it was less an expression of internalized racism than one of pragmatic frankness. As we’ve noted before, Prince was acutely aware of the hypersegregated nature of the pop music market in 1978–not least because his own hometown of Minneapolis was among the most musically segregated in the country. His desire to be a “crossover” artist was fed in part by his vaunting ambition, of course, but also by the simple fact that if he didn’t break out of the R&B charts, his own city wouldn’t play him on the radio. So from the beginning, he struggled against being pigeonholed as an “R&B” (read: Black) artist.

The trouble was that “making Prince black” was the only way Warner Bros. knew how to sell him. When For You was released on April 7, 1978, the label struggled to get it reviewed in mainstream (again, read: white) publications; the only consistent national coverage came from African American-oriented teen magazines like Right On!Soul Teen, and Black Beat. To be fair, some of the blame for Prince’s initial failure to cross over rested with his material: as many reviewers have observed, despite Prince’s protestations and aside from a few unusually muscular guitar parts, the majority of For You fits squarely in the Black soul and funk traditions. With one key exception, that is: the very last track, “I’m Yours.”

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For You

For You

(Featured Image: For You, 1978; photo by Joe Giannetti, © Warner Bros.)

The contract Prince signed 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. 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 the Earth, Wind & Fire leader wasn’t a good fit for his debut: “He had analyzed their 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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Just as Long as We’re Together

(Featured Image removed at request of rights holder.)

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).

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My Love is Forever

My Love is Forever

(Featured Image: Prince in his first press kit, 1977; photo stolen from Nate D. Sanders Auctions.)

Sessions for Prince’s second demo at Sound 80 commenced on December 29, 1976 and lasted through the remainder of the winter. This time, a total of six songs were completed: new versions of “Soft and Wet,” “Baby,” “Jelly Jam,” “Make It Through the Storm,” and “Love is Forever”–now renamed “My Love is Forever”–plus a brand new song, “Just as Long as We’re Together.” Just like with the earlier sessions at Moonsound, however, the final demo was limited to only a few tracks. Per Nilsen’s The Vault reported the tape as consisting of “Baby” and “Soft and Wet,” with “Make It Through the Storm” “as a ‘back-up’ if record company executives wanted to hear more” (Nilsen 2004 16-17). According to a recent auction listing, however, at least one configuration seems to have featured “Just as Long as We’re Together,” “Jelly Jam,” and “My Love is Forever.”

princedemo
Photo stolen from Nate D. Sanders Auctions

In addition to the demo tape, Prince’s management also prepared a luxe press kit to distribute to labels in Los Angeles. “We attacked it all first class, ’cause if we went in as just the average Joes, it wasn’t gonna look like a first-class effort,” Owen Husney recalled to biographer Dave Hill. “We spent 1,500 dollars on fifteen press kits… The usual press kit has clippings, and stories about your mom, and all the other bands you played in. All I did was have a picture of Prince on the cover. It said, ‘American Artists Presents Prince’, and inside there was just five sheets. And on those sheets there was just one picture, and one quote from Prince above each one” (Hill 40). The minimalist presentation had the additional effect of playing up Prince’s enigmatic air, which remained a cornerstone of his public persona for the duration of his career. “[T]here was a mystery about him even then,” Husney told NPR’s Audie Cornish shortly after Prince’s death in April. “And so as a manager I noticed that, and I was able to just make that a part of who he was in all of our publicity and everything going forward. We did a first press kit with him that said very little, because Prince said very little. Because his music does the talking” (Cornish 2016).

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