Also in semi-related news, my other project Dystopian Dance Party has launched our fifth annual celebration of wet, silky ’80s R&B, Jheri Curl June. If you’re a fan of Prince’s ’80s work, you’ll find a lot to like about the stuff we cover. Check out the podcast kicking of the festivities here:
You should also check in on the blog, as we’ll be posting a vintage Jheri Curl track every weekday this month. Some of them, I’m sure, will be Prince-related. Meanwhile, over here I’ll have an end-of-year-two wrap-up post this week, and then it’s on to our next Prince track, “She’s Just a Baby.”
While Prince was starting work on the album that would become Dirty Mind, 19-year-old Lisa Coleman was in Los Angeles, working on the shipping dock of a documentary film company and teaching classical piano part-time. Lisa, born in the San Fernando Valley in 1960, was as much a product of L.A. as Prince was of Minneapolis. Her father, Gary L. Coleman, was a percussionist for the legendary session team the Wrecking Crew, with credits most notably including the Beach Boys’ 1966 single “Good Vibrations.” When she was 12 years old, Lisa played keyboard in a bubblegum pop band, Waldorf Salad, alongside her younger brother David, older sister Debbie, and another Wrecking Crew kid: Jonathan Melvoin, whose own younger sister, Wendy, would form the other half of Lisa’s longest-lasting creative partnership. The band was a little like the Partridge Family, Lisa later told journalist Neal Karlen, except “we all actually played our instruments” (Karlen 1986). As a teenager, Lisa attended Hollywood High and appeared in a bit part as a teenage pianist in the 1975 made-for-TV drama Sarah T. – Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, starring Linda Blair and Mark Hamill.
According to the official narrative, it was 1979 when Lisa heard from a friend in the offices of Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli that Prince was looking for a new keyboardist. But this date seems off, for a couple of reasons: first, because in 1979 Gayle Chapman was still very much a part of Prince’s band, and there are no other accounts from that period to suggest she was being replaced; and second, because Steve Fargnoli wasn’t made a partner in Cavallo’s and Ruffalo’s firm until 1980. Whatever the year, however, Lisa submitted a tape, and was summoned to Prince’s home in Wayzata, Minnesota for an in-person audition. “When I got to Prince’s house,” she told Karlen, “he sent me downstairs and said he was going to change clothes. There was a piano down there, and I just started playing, trying to relax. I got the feeling he was eaves-dropping at the top of the stairs, so I whipped out my best Mozart. He finally came back downstairs, picked up his guitar, and we started jamming. From the first chord, we hit it off” (Karlen 1986).
Owen Husney’s dismissal from the Prince camp came at a critical juncture in the artist’s career. Prince spent the summer and fall of 1978 assembling a backing group, in hopes of touring behind For Youthe following year. It didn’t go entirely to plan; he wouldn’t embark on his first tour until November of 1979, after recording and releasing a much more successful second album. But the musicians he brought together would nevertheless determine his artistic direction for the following decade: providing the nucleus for the Revolution, the band with whom he would eventually conquer the world.
(Featured Image: Prince recording at Sound 80 (not Moonsound) in early 1977. Photo by Larry Falk.)
Sometime in the spring of 1976, the band formerly known as Grand Central (recently rechristened “Shampayne”) recorded their second and final demo at an eight-track recording studio with an unusually fanciful name. “Moonsound, Inc.” was founded in the early 1970s, in the basement of a rented house on 25th Street and Portland Avenue (Hill 29). Its namesake was a British expatriate advertising agent, recording engineer, aspiring songwriter, and all-around renaissance man named Chris Moon, whose accommodating fees–$15 an hour, clients provide their own tape–made Moonsound a popular destination for Minneapolis’ small but active African American musical community.
The studio, such as it was, moved around town for the better part of the decade: to another basement on Stevens Avenue, and eventually to a large, single-story structure on Dupont, next door to an automotive impound (Numero Group 2013). In between, Moon set up shop in a 1,500-square-foot former hair salon on the south end of the city, near Lake Nokomis. It was at this location where Prince Rogers Nelson would record some of his most important early work; first, though, there was the Shampayne demo.
In an interview with biographer Dave Hill, Chris Moon recalled Shampayne recording “three or four sessions. They’d come in, do the rhythm track one day, then the vocals, and then the mix and so on” (Hill 29). Moon told Per Nilsen that he found the band to be “talented, but not exceptionally talented.” Like Pepé Willie before him, however, he did see “exceptional” talent in their soft-spoken, diminutive, big-haired guitarist. “Prince would normally show up a bit earlier than everybody else, thrash around on the drums a little bit, twinkle on the piano, guitar, bass or whatever,” he said to Nilsen (Nilsen 1999 26). In Debby Miller’s 1983 cover story for Rolling Stone, Moon elaborated: “Prince always used to show up at the studio with a chocolate shake in his hand, sipping out of a straw… He looked pretty tame. Then he’d pick up an instrument and that was it. It was all over” (Miller 1983).
Visit the website of Pepé Music Inc. and you’ll find an entire subpage dedicated to what they call the “Prince Connection.” “We want to set the record straight!” the copy reads, and proceeds to outline the “enormous contributions” made by a man named Pepé Willie to Prince’s success: presenting its claims alongside a large and byzantine flow chart that purports to illustrate “the intimate involvement” between Willie and Prince, but, to be frank, only manages to dramatize a confusing intersection of music industry and family relationships. Yet the “Prince Connection” page also makes a trenchant point about its subject–one that will become something of a recurring theme in the early years of Prince’s musical progression. “No one,” the copy declares, “makes it completely on their own!”
Willie’s own career is a testament to that adage. He made his entrée into the music industry via his uncle, Clarence Collins, a founding member of the Brooklyn Rhythm & Blues vocal group Little Anthony and the Imperials. Willie spent his teen years in New York and Las Vegas in the 1960s, working as a valet and road manager for the Imperials. During those years, he encountered the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, and Elvis Presley; he also learned a little about the business and craft of songwriting. After a stint in the armed forces, Willie then moved out to Minneapolis in the early 1970s and married a woman named Shauntel Mandeville–who happened to be the first cousin of Prince Rogers Nelson.