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.

Categories
Ephemera, 1975-1976 Lacunae Roundup Posts

Roundup: Ephemera, 1975-1976

Hi, everyone! In an effort to break up the flow of this blog a bit, I’d like to insert the occasional “Roundup” post whenever we come to the close of a particular phase of Prince’s musical career. So, now that we’re officially finished with 1976 ephemera and moving into For You territory, here are the songs so far. And hey, since everyone loves a totally subjective ranking–this is the Internet, is it not?–I’ll give them to you in ascending order of my personal preference:

9. Home Recordings, 1976 These probably shouldn’t even be on the list, as it’s a little unfair to consider them “songs.” What can I say, though, I dig some of ’em.

8. “If You See Me (Do Yourself a Favor)” Sorry, Pepé; Prince’s and Jesse’s versions both blow yours out of the water.

7. Moonsound Instrumentals The first time I posted this, I thought the legitimately funky “Jelly Jam” was recorded at Moonsound; it wasn’t, and as a result these recordings have dropped a bit in my esteem. Still, they show promise.

6. “Nightingale” Historically interesting and poignant, but so very twee.

5. “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” More sexist than sexy, but also sort of endearingly dorky. It’s nice to know that at least 17-year-old Prince wasn’t smoother than 31-year-old me.

4. “I Spend My Time Loving You” Like “Nightingale,” this one’s a little on the twee side, but the vocal and guitar performances are moving beyond Prince’s years.

3. “Leaving for New York Like I said in the post, probably Prince’s most musically accomplished song to date. I slept on this one for ages, then I listened to it in the car and it just came alive. A sublime indication of a blossoming talent.

2. “Rock Me, Lover” It’s slight, sure, but like I said in the article, it offers a valuable glimpse of Prince’s future as a more feminist (or at least submissive) brand of lover. As teenage masturbatory fantasies go, I’ll take this over “Don’t You Wanna Ride?” any day. Also, great discussion with writer Jane Clare Jones in the comments.

1. “Sweet Thing” To be perfectly honest, this is the only song we’ve discussed so far that I really go out of my way to listen to. A beautiful, delicate cover version that I may even prefer to the original by Chaka Khan and Rufus. On a more personal note, this was the post that made Chaka retweet me and blow my blog the fuck up (at least for a couple of days). For that reason, it will always have a special place in my heart.

Also, let’s not forget the two introductory posts that fill in a few early gaps in Prince’s recorded oeuvre. I obviously can’t rank these because I haven’t heard any of the songs (though I’m sure the one of five-year-old Skipper banging rocks together was dope):

Funk Machine: Prehistory, 1965-1968
Sex Machine: Grand Central, 1973-1976

Tomorrow, we continue with the next chapter of our journey: the series of studio recordings that ultimately resulted in Prince’s first album. If you’ve been rocking with me so far, I mean this sincerely: thank you so much. The response to this blog–especially these early, obscure entries–has honestly been beyond anything I dared to hope for. It’s so gratifying to hear from people who enjoy what I’ve been doing. Just stick around, because it’s going to get better.

Categories
Ephemera, 1975-1976

Nightingale

We’ve already mentioned in passing how Prince’s celebrated musical heterogeneity–that genre- and race-agnostic blend of funk, soul, rock, and pop influences that would come to be known as the “Minneapolis Sound”–was at least in part a product of unique historical and geographic circumstances. It may be hard to believe today, when radio playlists are as standardized as they are irrelevant, but broadcasting in the pre-Clear Channel era was a highly localized industry. This not only made it possible for your proverbial Alan Freeds and Wolfman Jacks to wield an influence as tastemakers in their respective territories, but it also created a highly segregated musical landscape based on the perceived demands of regional audiences–which, let’s face it, often translated to the racist preconceptions of the advertising industry. In the business parlance of the times, an area populated primarily with White listeners was known as a “vanilla market.” And, with a mere 1.7 percent African American population as of the 1970 census, the Twin Cities were about as “vanilla” a market as they came.

What this meant, essentially, was a paucity of the kind of urban Black radio on which most of Prince’s peers from the rest of the country were raised: as biographer Dave Hill put it, “the people who controlled the airwaves of Minneapolis and St. Paul virtually declared that blacks did not exist” (Hill 18). The one station in the area that regularly played music by African American artists, KUXL, only broadcast from sunrise to sundown–keeping in mind that in the dead of winter, that could mean as early as 5:30 p.m.–and even then, it was predominantly a gospel station. Prince thus grew up on a musical diet that was a lot closer to what one might imagine for a White artist of his generation, tuning in after hours to the “progressive” FM rock station KQRS. “KQ after midnight, that was the bomb station,” he recalled to Minnesota Monthly in 1997. “That’s where I discovered Carlos Santana, Maria Muldaur, and Joni Mitchell” (Keller 1997). And if that sounds like an odd list of favorites for a Black teenager in the mid-’70s, their influence is clearly borne out in Prince’s music.