On April 7th, 1978, 40 years ago today, the debut album of an unknown artist was made public. Well, unknown. To the public he was. Among musicians and, especially, record companies his name was known. The young talent was wanted by many, but Warner Bros. were the ones who were willing to give in to Prince’s demand: he wanted to do it all: Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince.
During the course of 1976 a school band came into the Moon Sound Studios to record a demo. The studio was owned by Chris Moon, a music fanatic from Minneapolis. Moon Sound Studios was a homemade studio where a lot of the local bands made recordings. As did Champagne, the school band. One of the members was a 17 year old boy, named Prince Rogers Nelson. During a break Prince remained in the studio and played drums, guitar, keyboards and bass, all extremely well. He stood out.
Moon was impressed and proposed to work together. Prince would add music to the lyrics Moon wrote. In exchange, Prince could use the studio whenever he pleased. It wasn’t before long, that Prince, who had recently turned 18, got the keys to the studio.
Prince played and sang for Moon. Prince learned how to record and produce by himself, and how to make a demo all on his own. After six months Prince was able to complete an entire studio session by himself. Now, Prince could do it all. An important step within an interesting, varied and exciting career.
Moon also introduced Prince to writing suggestive lyrics. Together they wrote the lyrics to Soft And Wet.
The arrangement went smoothly, until it was time to pick an artist name. Prince wanted it to be Mr. Nelson. Moon however, was convinced he use his unusual first name. The argument was ended when Moon put his foot down. Either the name would be Prince, or the arrangement was no more. Prince caved in.
Prince wanted Moon to manage him, but Moon declined and suggested he find someone else for the job. In the autumn of 1976 Prince went to New York. Armed with a demo under his arm, he was rejected everywhere he went.
“I’ve got the next greatest thing”. Those were the words Moon uttered to Owen Husney. Moon provided Husney with some studio recordings. Husney was impressed with what he heard. All the musicians were obviously highly skilled at their instruments. The material was very original. He wanted to sign the band. Who were they?
Moon advised Husney to sit down first. It was not a band, it was an 18 year old doing it all. But not just the playing. He also wrote all the music and lyrics himself and he had (for the most part) produced the recordings himself as well. Husney couldn’t believe it. He had to have him.
Prince was in New York and tried to interest with record companies. He didn’t have too much luck. Husney had some ideas and suggested to help Prince and manage him. Husney closed his (successful) ad-agency and started his own management company, American Artists, to be able to dedicate his time to Prince full-time. The first thing he did was to raise some money and re-record the original demo’s and shorten the songs. With the money Prince could buy his own instruments and rent an apartment. At the time he was still living in the basement of the home of his friend, André Anderson, the future bass-player for Prince.
The next step was to present Prince at the record companies. The new demo’s were more focused than the previous ones. Husney made a professional press kit: $ 1,500 was spent on 15 kits. The press kit deviated from the norm at the time. It consisted of quotes by Prince, with each quote accompanied by a photo. Where he was from and what he had done before was deemed irrelevant, although his age was pushed back one year. An 18 year old being able to do the things he could do was extraordinary enough, but a 17 year old was outrageous. The presentation did create a mystique around Prince, even before his career took off. The main idea was that the individuality and exclusiveness would garner extra interest.
The press kit American Artists presents Prince:
Click on the individual pages for a larger view.
Husney was not entirely new in the business. He called Warner Bros. stating he had a new artist under his wings which he was to present to the competition (a white lie). Would Warner Bros. be interested in a meet as well? Sure! Eventually five companies were visited: A&M, ABC/Dunhill, CBS, RSO and Warner Bros. The intent was to sign a contract guaranteeing enough budget for Prince to make at least three albums. That was not a big issue. Barring RSO, everyone was immediately convinced of the enormous talent and potential Prince had to offer. The demand that Prince was allowed to produce his own music, was a bridge to far. The deal in itself was highly unique for an 18 year old who had proved nothing yet, but to hand over production duties as well, was out of the question.
Warner Bros. was prepared to put Prince to the test. Prince was flown in from Minneapolis. He got studio time to record one song. Prince went to work and built his song. While at work, many people came and went to see what Prince was doing. Prince didn’t pay attention at all. He was focused on his recording, but all of Warner Bros.’ top producers came by, among which Lenny Waronker, Russ Titelman and Eddie Templeman. They were all impressed: Prince had passed the test.
Contract and recording
Thus, a contract was drawn up and signed between Warner Bros. and Prince. The biggest contract ever for an unknown artist. The contract was rumored to be a $ 1,000,000 deal for three albums, all of which he could perform and produce himself.
Immediately following the signing, recordings on his debut album commenced. Tommy Vicari was appointed as an engineer by Warner Bros. Recordings were initially started at Minneapolis studio Sound 80. However, the studio was deemed unfit by Vicari. Concerned that Prince would get too distracted in Los Angeles, Husney opted for The Record Plant in Sausolito, California. Husney and his wife moved to California for the duration of the recordings. A house was rented where the Husneys lived with Prince.
Early on during the project Prince had made all of Tommy Vicari’s knowledge his own. Prince wanted to dump Vicari. Despite objections by Husney, Prince stood his ground. And, once again, Prince got his way. Vicari is mentioned in the liner-notes as ‘executive-producer’. From now on, Prince decided whom he would work with on his albums and projects.
Initial recordings took place from October 1st to December 22nd, 1977. In early January of 1978 overdubs were made and the album was mixed.
According to his contract Prince was granted a budget of $ 180,000 for studio costs on his first three albums. After recordings on his debut were done $ 170,000 of that amount was already spent. For the next albums Prince developed a much quicker way of recording and working. This would evolve into the typical Prince way: record (and finish) one song a day.
The album seems to have been made just to prove that Prince really was the wonderboy everybody saw in him. All of the 27 instruments used on the album, are played by Prince. A fact that is stated explicitly on the cover. Obviously, the text Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince stands out. It was to grow into the trademark and quality seal for all Prince music.
But, did the album actually show that something special was happening here? He was called the new Stevie Wonder, but that was more based on the wonderboy image (writing, playing, producing everything himself), than on the quality of the actual songs. The album does contain some interesting and good songs, like For You, Just As Long As We’re Together and the fantastic Soft And Wet. The first ingredients for what was to be called the Minneapolis Sound, were already there in the last two. Soft And Wet, of which the lyrics were written by Prince and Chris Moon, points towards the sexually charged material that would follow later on.
The album opens with the impressive For You, an a-capella song, in which Prince stuns vocally. The awe stems from the knowledge that he did it all just by himself, including the production. This was the first song Prince sent out into the world. I think it was a deliberate choice.
The next song is okay, but nothing really special. The third song, on the other hand, is.
Soft And Wet
Prince’s very first single, released on his 20th birthday, June 7th, 1978.
Hey, lover, I got a sugarcane
That I wanna lose in you
© 1977, Prince & Chris Moon
The song gives a first taste of the later Minneapolis Sound, the genre that would be utilized on a lot of 1980’s productions and which launched and maintained the careers of producer team Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The, sexually charged, subject is (very) obvious. Lyrically the song points towards the direction Prince was headed in the near future and would culminate on his third album, Dirty Mind.
Soft And Wet is the first classic Prince song, that still sounds fresh today.
Rest of the album
The rest of the album is okay. Just As Long As We’re Together also rises above the average. Particularly the jam that closes the song. That’s just great Prince funk. But it doesn’t take away the disco vibe of the rest of the album, lacking distinction. The last song is a funk/fusion song, where Prince showcases his immense guitar skills.
Is this album the ultimate debut? No. Is it bad? No. It’s a nice album that is heavily influenced by disco. More than was to be expected. Around the time Warner Bros. was still not sure whether they would let Prince produce his own albums, they suggested Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White. Prince wouldn’t have it, because he didn’t like the new direction Earth, Wind & Fire went into: too much disco…
As stated before, the album seems to have been made to prove that Prince was very special. The result however, doesn’t really do that. Prince wanted it too much, perhaps. The album sounds too produced and slick. When Prince realized it could all be more loose, it immediately turned around; the music became more direct and adventurous. The point was proven with the next album Prince.
And yet, the album does hold some classic Prince ingredients. Soft And Wet being the prime example. This holds true for Just As Long As We’re Together as well, and particularly the instrumental part. Both give some clue as to the direction in which Prince was headed, the Minneapolis Sound.
All songs written by Prince, unless stated otherwise.
- For You
- In Love
- Soft and Wet (Prince and Chris Moon)
- Crazy You
- Just As Long As We’re Together
- My Love Is Forever
- So Blue
- I’m Yours
All vocals and instruments by Prince.
“Don’t make me black.” Prince told Lenny Waronker, head of the Artist and Repertoire (A&R) department of Warner Bros. At that time the music world in the US was still heavily segregated. The charts were divided up in pop, rock, country and r&b. The latter contained the ‘black’ music. Radio stations were programmed along those lines as well. Minneapolis, Prince’s hometown, is situated in one of the ‘whitest’ states in the US. If Prince didn’t become a so-called ‘crossover’ artist, it meant his music would hardly be played and heard on the radio in the town he lived in.
Despite the request, Warner Bros. had difficulty getting Prince published in the mainstream (‘white’) media. The album did contain a lot of soul and funk. Too much anyway to appeal to the mainstream. I’m Yours was the only exception. That has some heavy guitar work and is rock influenced.
Nevertheless, the album fared pretty good. At some of the ‘in store’ visits the reception Prince got was so intense, that they had to be cut short, due to safety issues.
Forming a band
Of course, a very important way to promote, is by touring and performing. Prince had to put together a band (annoying, since he could do it all himself). In 1978 Prince went looking for musicians.
The first choice was easy: friend André Anderson on bass. Anderson was rechristened André Cymone. Next on the list was a drummer. That position went to Bobby Rivkin, rechristened Bobby Z. He was followed by keyboard player Gayle Chapman and guitarist Desmond D’Andrea Dickerson, rechristened Dez Dickerson. The band was completed in November of 1978 with the addition of a second keyboard player: Matt Fink, better known as Dr. Fink.
The band had turned into a black/white male/female company, following the along the lines of Sly & The Family Stone. This was a deliberate choice. In 1983 Prince told Rolling Stone magazine: “I always wanted a band that was black and white. Half the musicians I knew only listened to one type of music. That wasn’t good enough for me”. This is also fueled by Prince’s desire to ‘crossover’. Musical diversity translates into diversity within the band.
Manager Husney slowly but surely lost contact with Prince. By the time the band was formed Prince was left virtually without management. he had to direct and ‘educate’ the band himself. Even though he was still very young, he drilled the band relentlessly. Day in, day out. Rehearsals lasted over 12 hours. And no slacking, the performances had to be at the top of everyone’s ability all of the time.
January 5th, 1979
Op January 5th, 1979, the very first solo Prince concert took place at the Capri in Minneapolis. Not much is known about the show. Of the setlist only the songs For You, Soft And Wet, So Blue and Just As Long As We’re Together were verified. legend has it, that Prince was extremely shy and watched his musicians more than giving attention to the audience. However, local journalist Jon Bream wrote in his review: “the show clearly indicated he has extraordinary talent”.
A good introductory performance for the January 6th show. The day of the second show, which was the one that counted. Warner Bros. representatives were present and witnessed a show which was heavily marred by technical issues. The show was halted several times, sometimes for a long period of time and Prince seemed clueless about what to do.
Prior to the show Jon bream interviewed Prince: “Everybody at Warner Bros. has a big impression that I’m really quiet. ‘If he doesn’t talk, he probably won’t sing or dance too much.'”. Prince set out to annihilate the impression. Instead, Warner Bros.’ hesitations were confirmed. Warner Bros. decided not to fund an upcoming tour. Warner Bros. was advised to organize a our only after another album and many more rehearsals.
The first Prince solo-tour was organized in November of 1979. By that time, the band was more than ready. Prince had just released his second album. It sold really well and provided some solid hits.
For You was an important step for Prince, the unknown wonderboy from Minneapolis. His name was propelled into the world. He had a contract, a band and the first (positive) attention. Just two years later, Prince had developed into the most important innovator of the 1980’s. Thanks to Warner Bros. who provided Prince with enough opportunities to develop himself.
Prince in Minneapolis 1977 image: craveonline.com
Moon Sound Studios image: moonsoundstudios.com
Prince recording, 1977 image: nightflight.com
Prince 1976 image: pinterest.com
Prince persmap images: natedsanders.com
Prince – Contract 1978 image: prince4life.nl
The Record Plant – Sausalito image: wikipedia.org
Prince – For You image: essence.com
Prince – For You – Inner sleeve image: ultimateclassicrock.com
Prince – For You – Ad image: diffuser.fm
Prince – In store, 1978 image: prince.org
Prince – First Concert 01/05/1979 image: onbekend
Prince at the Capri 1979 image: mpsmag.com