Podcast: 40 Years of For You

Podcast: 40 Years of For You

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

dance / music / sex / romance is fast approaching its third year, so to celebrate, we’re going…backwards? That’s right, to mark the 40th anniversary of Prince’s debut album, I thought now was the perfect time to go ahead with an idea I’ve been toying with for a while: our own sub-series of review podcasts looking at each of Prince’s albums in isolation.

I’m doing this for a few reasons. First, it’s a way to bring those of you who have been listening to the podcasts but not reading the blog into the loop on my chronological Prince project–and also a way for me to work through some of these albums before I can get to it with my glacially paced writing schedule.

Second, I’ve known from the beginning of this project that if I really wanted to do Prince’s catalogue justice, I would need to incorporate more voices and perspectives than just my own. We all have our biases and blind spots, and as a Prince fan I am acutely aware that one person’s sentimental favorite can be another’s unlistenable mess (and vice versa). That’s why I asked my friends Harold and KaNisa, both of whose encyclopaedic knowledge of Prince’s career dwarfs my own, to join me. I think you’ll find that our tastes and opinions both intersect and diverge in a lot of interesting ways, which allowed us–and hopefully, will allow you–to take a different perspective on some of these songs and the context in which they were created.

I hope you enjoy this new approach to an album that remains underappreciated in Prince’s catalogue. If you do, I hope you’ll subscribe to the podcast on your streaming app of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play), and if you’re so inclined, leave a review! No matter what, thanks for listening, and see you again soon.

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Still Waiting

Still Waiting

(Featured Image: Sam Cooke by Michael Ochs, 1959.)

In late 1979, an interview with Prince appeared in the African American teen magazine Right On! The interviewer, Cynthia Horner, was one of the up-and-coming artist’s earliest champions in the media, yet even she was not spared the usual quirks of his interactions with the press; to her growing exasperation, Prince spent most of the article deflecting her questions with flirtatious evasions. But then, just as Horner seemed about to give up and asked him the hoariest teen-mag question in the book–does he have a girlfriend?–Prince gave a response that feels disarmingly real: “I had one but she left me. I wrote some songs about it on the album.” At her expression of disbelief–“Do you know how many young ladies would love to fill her shoes?”–he replied,  “That’s why she left me” (Horner 1979).

It’s perhaps a tribute to Prince’s growing facility as a pop songwriter in 1979 that I never suspected the songs of love and heartbreak on his second album were inspired by real women; they feel much too universal in their vagueness, like the dozens of songs for imaginary girls by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. And yet, Prince suggested to Horner–and the various biographies agree–that several of his songs from around this period were inspired by his early girlfriend, Kim Upsher. Upsher, you might recall, was probably Prince’s first “serious” relationship; when he moved into his house on France Avenue in Edina, she was the one who helped decorate and made it feel like a home, rather than a glorified studio space. Due to the deliberate fudging of Prince’s age around this time, she’s often assumed to have been his high-school sweetheart; biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, however, have clarified that they didn’t begin dating until around the time he signed to Warner Bros.–though he did apparently nurse an intense crush for her in high school, while she was seeing his close friend Paul Mitchell (Hahn 2017).

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Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

(Featured Image: Prince and André Cymone, 1980; photo by James Tarver, stolen from prince.org.)

Like its predecessor, Prince’s second album was recorded almost entirely solo, with the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist also serving as his own producer. Also like the first album, however, the self-aggrandizing liner note credit “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince” was a slight exaggeration. Just as he had on the For You sessions, Prince’s bassist and longtime musical partner André Cymone accompanied him to California–along with his second most veteran bandmate, drummer Bobby Z. And while their full contributions to the album are unclear–they’re listed in the liner notes as “Heaven-sent Helpers,” whatever that means–it does seem that André played a significant role in shaping one song in particular: the second track–and, in early 1980, second single–“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?

Years later, after André had left the band and revealed his contributions to this and other Prince songs, his old friend did give him some credit–albeit with his usual mix of deflection and pique. “He sang a small harmony part that you really couldn’t hear,” Prince explained to Rolling Stone’s Neal Karlen, but a “typo” kept him from receiving any credit. “I tried to explain that to him, but when you’re on the way up, there’s no explaining too much of anything. People will think what they want to” (Karlen 1985). Charles Smith, Prince’s and André’s former Grand Central bandmate, offered an alternative explanation: “Prince started shaping the second album when he moved to the house on France Avenue,” he told biographer Per Nilsen. “I watched Prince and André do the work for the album, ‘Bambi,’ ‘Still Waiting,’ and all that stuff. André came up with the end of ‘Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?’ and a lot of the bass lines were André’s” (Nilsen 1999 54-55).

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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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