(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.”
Continue reading “I’m Yours”
(Featured Image: Guy Bourdin, from Spring 1978 Charles Jourdan campaign.)
The sessions for Prince’s debut album at the Record Plant went from October 1 to December 22, 1977, with overdubs completed at Sound Labs in Los Angeles, early January 1978. The project began smoothly enough: “It took Prince a couple of weeks to sort of warm up to us, but after that we got along really cool,” assistant engineer Steve Fontano later recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “He absorbed things and learned very quickly… I think he was impressed with the set-up. It was a very professional studio with a 24-track and platinum records on the wall” (Nilsen 1999 36-37). As we discussed a few weeks ago, Prince had grudgingly accepted the appointment of Tommy Vicari as an “executive producer” to supervise the project; he was a quick study, however, and exercised full creative control. “The situation didn’t allow Tommy to be an opinionated producer,” Fontano told Nilsen. “And Prince is not the kind of artist who asks, ‘Well, what do you think?’” Vicari “may have made suggestions like ‘why don’t we try this?’ or maybe done an edit, something of that nature,” but his role was ultimately limited to “making sure everything was recorded properly… and put on tape in a professional manner” (37).
But as the sessions continued, Prince’s perfectionism became an obstacle. “He wanted everything to be just right,” his manager at the time, Owen Husney, said to Nilsen. “He was into it totally. I remember David Rivkin having conversations with Prince saying, ‘You know, your vocals are too on. The harmonies are too exact. You’re spending too much time to make the album perfect. Don’t make it perfect’” (Nilsen 1999 37). In a 1981 interview with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, Prince agreed with this assessment–though, characteristically, he laid much of the blame on Vicari’s shoulders. “He was supposed to help out and cut corners…basically teach me the studio,” he recalled, “but he didn’t. So I took a long time to do the album…it was pretty painstaking.” Later in the interview, however, he admitted his own role in the “painstaking” process: “I wanted to make it good, and bereft of mistakes, and in the process it took a long time to make… It was a perfect record, and um, I don’t know, it was too scientific, I guess” (Sutherland 1981).
Continue reading “So Blue”
(Featured Image: Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn in Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus, 1959; © Criterion Collection.)
Side One of For You opens with the title track, followed by “In Love” and “Soft and Wet.” On track four, Prince shifts gears for his first officially-released ballad: a jazzy, contemplative, acoustic guitar-driven sketch of a song called “Crazy You.”
It’s likely, of course, that “Crazy You” is somebody’s favorite track on the album, but I can’t imagine that’s a common sentiment. The song just isn’t designed that way; it’s made to melt into the background, serving as a short palate cleanser between the exhibitionistic single cuts “Soft and Wet” and “Just as Long as We’re Together.” Its structure is wispy, elusive: a single verse over a spare arrangement that just sort of disappears into the ether once it’s done. In many ways, it sounds more like a demo than a lot of the actual demos Prince recorded in 1977.
Continue reading “Crazy You”
(Featured Image: 1978 promotional poster; © Warner Bros., photo by Prince Poster Collector.)
During the course of this blog, I’ve already made a couple of passing references to the “Minneapolis Sound”; so I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about what that much-discussed label entails. At its most basic level, the Minneapolis Sound is a form of post-disco dance music rooted in R&B, with synthesizers replacing the traditional soul/funk horn section. Prince didn’t “invent” the style, strictly speaking; as we’ve seen (and will continue to observe), plenty of others helped along the way, from Pepé Willie to André Cymone (née Anderson) to Chris Moon and Owen Husney to the Lewis Connection–whose keyboard player Pierre Lewis, you might recall, was the one who lent Prince his first Oberheim Four Voice so he could synthesize those traditional horn parts in the first place. There’s a great collection on Numero Group called Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound that documents the genre’s early progression–including some early songs Prince actually played on, like the aforementioned “If You See Me” by 94 East and the Lewis Connection’s “Got to Be Something Here.”
What we can attribute primarily to Prince was the formal codification of the Minneapolis Sound as a genre, which he did by simply bringing it to a national audience and turning it into a marketable (and lucrative) style for others to reproduce. But even this process didn’t happen overnight. Case in point: “In Love,” the second track of his 1978 debut album For You, which sounds both exactly like vintage Prince–i.e., the “Minneapolis Sound”–and like something completely different.
Continue reading “In Love”