Spunky Funk, Soul and One Kid’s Fight for Creative Control: Prince’s For You at 40
In 1978, the year punk began to crumble, new-wave became hip, and Grease was the word, Prince released his first LP – For You. It was a defiant debut from a nineteen-year-old kid come multi-instrumentalist that fused funk, rock, disco and the kind of syrupy ballads you’d expect to hear from Smokey Robinson. As well as playing every instrument on the album’s nine self-composed tracks (save the co-composed ‘Soft & Wet’) this music-driven maven from Minneapolis produced the whole thing too – a tireless mission to ensure every track sounded slick and as tightly-arranged as his own halo-glow ‘fro on the dust jacket sleeve.
During the early years, long before he was signing big-dollar movie deals, dazzling all with splits in heels, or dropping any of the erotically-charged hits that would bring him mass global attention, stories of Prince seizing control of a studio somewhere and laying down every part required to build the bones of what might later become a single, album bite or jam, were rousing only to those lucky to have been exposed to him or his music. Today they are a widely-recognised side to the genius millions still label rock’s greatest star.
Educated reads from biographers such as Matt Thorne, Per Nilsen or Alex Hahn have all dutifully exposed plenty on the purple one’s pre-fame period. But past the fact music always weighed heavy in his life (largely due to the influence of his jazz pianist father), it’s still crazy to comprehend that just a year before writing, arranging, performing and producing what would be his first album, Prince’s experience in the music business extended to just three years of low-key gigs and the odd demo date with bands (such as Champagne and 94 East) known only in his neighbourhood.
While, of course, his raw prowess to play numerous instruments evidently bloomed during this time with these groups, it’s fair to say that Prince’s experience in recording and production in early 1976 was yet to flower. That is, until a chance encounter with a British-born lyricist and producer called Chris Moon threw him an opportunity that would change everything.
Prince had met Moon in the spring of ’76 between takes of a session the latter was recording for one of the aforementioned groups, Champagne, at his own MoonSound studio in downtown Minneapolis. Moved to observe the funky troupe’s most able player in Prince play most of the instruments in the room that day, it’s said that the producer felt compelled to approach the seventeen-year old, and coax him into collaborating on some songs he’d written, in return for free reign of his studio and some pointers in production.
With as little as a nod or one of his standard shy smiles, Prince agreed the deal and was soon attending the 8-track facility most days, working on the tunes of Moon’s and absorbing the technical side of the set-up there. Time soon past, and as the sessions progressed into the summer, so did the writing and recording of some of his own early efforts, and it was here that Moon’s commitment and creative interest in his young protégé’s music began to grow. Not least did the producer co-write the marvellously-moist and funky track ‘Soft & Wet’, but, ultimately, he pulled the best out of Prince to commit to cassette a demo arresting enough to alert the attention of one Owen Husney, then the most successful music promoter, ad man and booking agent in Minnesota.
It’s been widely read and said that, upon receiving that first demo tape from Moon, and recovering from the fact that every song was solely performed by one guy and not some first-call studio band, Husney dropped everything, fast called Prince, appointed himself his manager and made it his mission to procure the young artist a lucrative deal with a major label.
Having effectively put his own businesses on hold, Husney injected a year of hard work and capital into promotion, recording a new pro-sounding demo, and bouncing Prince from state to state to liaise with various labels, eventually to find himself and his ambitious young act at the centre of a bidding war that saw the likes of A&M, CBS and Robert Stigwood’s RSO lose out to the Warner Brothers label, who signed Prince for an astonishing $80, 000, 00 three-album deal in the summer of 1977.
With the ink on the contract yet to dry, and all involved on a triumphant high, Prince cut the celebration period short to start cutting the record. But it was to be a long, laborious process, predominantly owing to Prince’s persistence for complete creative control and label bosses standing in the way of him calling all the shots. Essentially, Prince was stimulated by his peers in acts like Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and George Clinton, not to mention the power invested in them to produce their own music, and insisted that Warner’s award him the same creative control.
But even at a time when the music industry was in full bloom and appeared to be running on unlimited capital and a stream of commercially-viable ideas, the Warner’s team were sceptical about letting a seventeen year-old new artist have complete run of the studio and sole control over the making of their debut album. The demos that sucked them in displayed Prince’s dazzling musicianship and ability to write, but they were still unconvinced he had what they called “record sense”, and whether his skills in the studio could render a lucrative-selling product.
Over the next few months, further feuds, swings in mood, and Prince back-heeling the label’s proposal to have Earth Wind & Fire’s Maurice White produce the record led to the purple wonder agreeing to a single test recording session for both bosses and some of the most proficient producers in town. They were there to witness the wunderkind at work in the studio. And after wowing all, the label finally gave in and granted Prince his wish to produce his debut, but on the strict proviso he worked with an experienced ‘executive’ producer, Tommy Vicari.
Throughout the remaining sessions (most of which were recorded in California due to malfunctions in the Minneapolis-based studio) Prince nearly killed himself perfecting his product. The album took weeks to mix, the recording budget almost exceeded the original budget for three albums, and Prince constantly locked horns with the hired help. But still, he finally managed to commit the record to tape and returned to the chill of Minneapolis and a warm, hero-like welcome.
For You was eventually released to mostly favourable reviews in the spring of ’78, selling around 150. 000 copies in the U.S. It opens with an angelic-sounding title track, a minute-long fanfare made up of over forty layered falsetto vocal takes that Prince was rumoured to have originally sang into a single mic dangling from the ceiling of Chris Moon’s blacked-out studio laying on cushions the floor. The track was described by Prince at the time as almost classical, which alone makes for a daring start to what was essentially a disco-rock funk album spliced with slushy ballads.
Given the period the songs were written and recorded, it’s not surprising that For You now sounds a million miles away from the punchy, Linn drum patterned-pop Prince would later find fame with. But while tracks such as the lubricated lead single “Soft & Wet” and the Moog-heavy ‘In Love’ don’t directly duplicate the disco of the day, they certainly hold an affinity with the time and where the music was going in the late 1970s..
‘Just As Long as We’re Together’ is a funk work-out, supposedly stretched to six minutes to stress Prince’s knack on numerous instruments, all of which are listed on the inside sleeve. It’s pushed along by propulsive drum set and bass groove, some Stevie-style clavinet and a recurring unison keyboard riff (akin to the one in ‘Alphabet St’ ten years after). It also stands as one of the album’s highlights and is sequenced to end an energetic side one, leaving the listener to mostly mawkish ballads like ‘Baby’ (which draws on the subject of unplanned teenage pregnancy) ‘My Love is Forever’(infatuation) and the languid and jazz-felt ‘So Blue’ to dominate side two.
While ballads such as ‘So Blue’, ‘Crazy You’ and ‘Baby’ don’t stand up to some of Prince’s more celebrated slowies in ‘Scandalous’, ‘Slow Love’ or ‘Do Me Baby’, they do serve as soothing reminders of just how effortlessly he could command attention with just his voice and acoustic guitar. as he could with a kick-ass drum groove and high-register axe – which, incidentally, is how this set closes thanks to the all-out, Santana-style screamer, ‘I’m Yours’.
For many early fans especially, For You is an overlooked duet in Prince’s vast and varied catalogue. It’s a determined disc naturally overshadowed by the success of all the biggies released between Dirty Mind and Diamonds & Pearls, but one that clearly displays Prince’s uncompromising versatility – not only as an all-singing, all dancing star in the making, but as a highly-creative musician that, whether under his own name, silly pseudonym or unpronounceable symbol, flatly refused to be pigeon-holed or marketed as one kind of artist.
Often endorsed as “the man that discovered Prince”, first manager Owen Husney took time out from promoting his new memoir Famous People Who’ve Met Me to talk to Mark Youll about his time with Prince, and the twisting chain of events that resulted in the release of For You.
MY: What was it in first Prince demo you heard that convinced you to, not only step away from a hugely successful ad agency and commit yourself completely to getting him signed, but also convince other people to invest in what was an unknown act with no real recording or touring experience?
OH: Well I was a businessman and my musician ears told me that he was special. When Chris Moon brought me that first demo tape I knew they had something amazing. But I could tell from being a musician myself that we would have to re-do the demos. Not that they did a bad job, but because the recordings were limited to an 8-track facility and some of the songs were a little too long. I knew that to get a record deal for Prince and show his talent we would have to give people what we used to call a “cold slap”, which was to have a couple of songs that were killer, professionally recorded and no longer than three minutes in length. What I heard on that initial demo tape had all the meters you have internally clinging to one side telling me to just be patient, throw him into as many good situations as possible, introduce him to a good engineer or studio or people to help him musically and he will grow into something big rapidly.
MY: What was your initial impression of Prince?
OH: There’s that line you cross over where you have the ability to take something to another level and be bold about it, and I liked the fact that Prince was bold and the fact he didn’t take any crap from anyone. I liked the fact he was extremely intelligent too, but most of all I liked the fact he was all about working. All he wanted to do was work. I’ve said this before but if I went down and just rehearsed down in my family basement when I was his age and didn’t come out for a hundred and twenty years I still wouldn’t be as good as he was at seventeen! So, naturally, everything went off in my head to say put your life into this kid. You see, Prince already knew how damn talented he was, and I was convinced, I was one of the converted. I’ve said this before, but if Prince had come over my house that first day and smoked a big joint and lounged on my couch and said “we’ll get around to the music in a minute” I probably would never have managed with him. The fact that he was always ready to work and knew what he wanted was enough to encourage me to fight for him.
MY: How would you describe your personal relationship with him away from the music?
OH: Firstly, I think the thing that happens when people talk about Prince is they picture the icon surrounded by bodyguards and a huge entourage, somebody unapproachable almost. So, it’s important we go back to 1976 when I first him as met a teenager living in the basement of his friend Andre Cymone’s house. My personal relationship with Prince was probably quite different to anyone else’s, besides people that maybe knew him when he was this a very young, venerable guy, albeit with an intellectual capability and a lot of focus and drive. He was then unproven and hadn’t yet had the chance yet to put that focus and drive into forward motion. He was venerable, but only because of his youth and inexperience in the business.
I was kind of like the music man in Minneapolis at that time, because I was a promoter, I had been a musician with a little hit record, I had been a booking agent and before I met Prince and had been privy to working with great artists like Mick Jagger, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Prince needed me then because he didn’t know the ropes of the business. He was pure, raw, incredible talent and I could hear the future of that and I could hear where he was going in the demos and that he was attempting to make a new sound and not just be entirely derivative of the songs of the day. Obviously, once Prince was getting into his second album and beyond, his genius was taking over at lightning speed. He knew enough when we were working together to say that he wanted to produce his own first album even though he’d never made an album before, and I had spent enough time around him and living with him to believe that he could do that. This wasn’t the rant of a prima donna, this was somebody who was thinking far into the future and saying he didn’t want the stamp of anybody else’s music on his brand so to speak. So, our relationship meant he had to listen to me, he had to trust to do the right thing and not get him signed to some local label or sign a stupid deal and so we worked together to make that happen. My relationship with was fifty-fifty, but as we all know once Prince’s career took off he was calling a hundred and ten percent of the shots. I say I’m the man that discovered Prince but that’s kind of a misnomer. Prince kind of discovered himself and he came to me and I just made sure it happened in the right way for him.
The first thing I needed to do was develop a press kit for him, so he had to trust that I would come up with the right image for him to present to the record label. He needed to make a serious demo in a 24-track, state of the art studio with somebody who had done quite a bit of recording. to help construct a demo to present to the labels.
MY: It certainly worked in his favour, but why did you think it was important to present him as aloof and mysterious to the press?
OH: That’s who he was. When I sat him to interview him once for that press kit I started asking him questions to gather information. I asked where he was born, about his mom, what his life at home was like, and he just clammed up, he wouldn’t say anything. But the minute I asked him when it was he first picked up the guitar the floodgates opened. I knew he was a man of few words because his music did the talking, so I figured let’s present him as a man of few words, let’s say nothing on that press kit, let’s just have a picture of him with a guitar. So that’s what I did. I would play people the demos and hand out the press kit that said absolutely nothing and then, invariably, the labels would start asking questions. I knew when they did I owned them, and I could influence them more. With Prince, the music did all the talking. He knew Warner Brothers made him and gave him every opportunity, and I don’t think any other record label would have done that at that time.
MY: What were your thoughts on his breakdown with the label in the ‘90s?
OH: I understand why he went through the phase and wanted to get out of the Warner Brothers deal, but the problem was he has signed to old record model (that still exists today) which means the label record your album and then you pay them back through your royalties. Prince did pay them back that advance something like 700 times over but at the end of the day the label still owned his masters. That’s why it was abhorrent to Prince. He had turned himself inside out, shown all this creativity, payed the record label back like a million times and they still owned everything.
I also understand the other side of that equation because I owned a record label. First of all, the record company is taking a chance on a complete unknown act, no matter how great they think you are. Secondly, they are putting a tonne of money into marketing you, getting you out there and making you international so that’s their thing. They have taken this risk, so most artists still have record labels owning their masters today. The model has not totally changed yet. It’s changed a little because you can now sit in your bedroom and create a great track on your computer, get it out into the world and monetise it. You couldn’t do that then. The artist needed labels. Prince wanted out and didn’t want to be under their control any longer. I also knew Prince well enough to know that he was so prolific it was scary. It’s like it took me five years to write a book but if I was the Prince of books I would be turning out a book a month. The record label was afraid that he would delude his audience by coming out with too much product. And that’s what happened. The audience started to shrink and was making most of his money from touring. So Warners had a point too. They even called me at one point, because I remained friendly with them. It was around that time his wrote ‘Slave’ on his face and I explained to them why it was so troubling to him but then said, “hey I’m going to make you guys feel good, there’s not too many slaves I know that are making twenty million dollars a year” There was a two-way street to that situation.
MY: Long before signing to Warners he was sceptical about labels and even certain management decisions made on his behalf. He also refused to be marketed as a black artist or play the promo game. How difficult did that make your job?
OH: It made it very difficult, but I was keenly aware of something, and that was his music was so damn good. I could tell what he was gonna grow into. If you believe in somebody the way I believed in him my job was only difficult convincing the label that this was how we wanted to operate. He had an incredible confidence and boldness about and he could also deliver. I had witnessed this all before the Warner Brothers people had chance to, so I had to be as bold and confident as him if I was to represent his music. I must say this, Warner Brothers completely allowed him to do everything he wanted to do. They are so into the development of an artist, and I’ve got to give it to (head of A&R) Lenny Waronker when Prince said to him “Don’t make me black”. I was standing there and thought how can you say that? But then it hit me and everybody else that heard the comment. What he was saying was “I make music for everyone so don’t try and pigeon-hole me because you’re gonna lose. If you’re a business you’re gonna lose money”. What I did understand was that he needed to pay attention to his black fanbase. It was black radio that brought him into the consciousness of people. I think later in his career he did tend to walk away from black radio.
MY: It’s also interesting that it was you that suggested Prince write more concise, conventional pop songs but also that you encouraged him to write more “suggestive”, “raunchy” material. Given the graphic/suggestive nature of songs like “Soft and Wet” did you experience difficulties with FM radio play and do you think this affected overall sales of the album?
OH: No, you gotta remember this was the 1970s and we’d been through the ‘60s when Jimi Hendrix had asked us if we were experienced. It wasn’t really until after Prince was releasing stuff like Dirty Mind and Controversy that they started to label albums (with Parental Warning stickers) and part of it was because of Prince. I love the idea of ‘Soft & Wet’ because I thought it was plausible deniability. Saying “Your love is Soft and Wet” could be innocent or your dirty little mind going wherever. The song was borne out of Chris Moon and Prince picked up on it right away. They shared the lyrics on that track and I remember when I first heard it I asked Prince if he could write the lyrics down on some paper for me, which he did. I was thinking if this song is gonna go any further (lyrically) we might have to change it up! It was so walking the line of plausible deniability it was genius. I just wanted it out there!
In terms of sales, first time albums are first time albums and retrospectively it’s much better that an artist takes his or her audience on a journey with them. If Prince had a massive, ten million-seller straight out of the box that could have destroyed him as an artist. Mainly because you can never get that back. If you look at all the everlasting artists for example. The Beatles took us on a journey that eventually wound up with Sgt. Pepper. So did the Stones and Pink Floyd. I think retrospectively there was an angel watching out for Prince because that first album needed to go out there and lay the groundwork about who he was and what he could do. Then he came back with (1979’s) ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and now there was acceptance and his name was on people’s lips. Even if you look back at Purple Rain retrospectively you could never go back and recapture something like that: a hit movie, killer soundtrack and all that incredible writing and singing. Your next album was never gonna be that big, so better it happened then than earlier in his career.
MY: It’s interesting that Warners wanted to promote Prince as the new Stevie Wonder, and yet his real passions musically at that time were mostly white acts like Grand Funk Railroad and Joni Mitchell. Would you say that the music on For You reflect these influences?
OH: Yeah, he loved Grand Funk Railroad, and were one of the first acts that he played me and that astounded me. His love of Joni Mitchell was a product of him hanging out with myself and my then-wife. I was heavily into the black music scene being a musician, but we had a deep appreciation for Joni. You have to remember Minneapolis basically in the beginning had one black radio station called KUXL. Everything else in the town was white pop radio and pop radio would only play black artists if they were big. I think the town had an enormous influence on shaping Prince and a lot of these kids that were musically-inclined: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Andre Cymone, Morris (Day) and the whole school that came out of there. They had a great education and didn’t know it. The probably complained that there was no black radio but at the end of the day they were able to assimilate that certain sound and combine it with the music they were putting out which made it pleasing for everyone.
MY: What are your memories of the recording of the album? I love the story in your book about Prince originally hiring in an orchestra and the story of him lying on the floor on cushions singing the title track into a dangling microphone in a darkened room….
OH: That was Chris Moon’s experience. He had Prince lying on the floor because he couldn’t get the vocals out of him. Prince did not think he had a good voice and he was singing the vocals very softly when they were cutting the demos. When I was meeting with Chris he told me “he thinks he’s got a terrible voice” and I was thinking my god, I wish my voice was that bad! I asked Chris how he got it out of him and he said he darkened the studio and put blankets and pillows on the floor and he laid on it and little by little in the dark he began to feel more comfortable and eventually gave out this great falsetto. According to Chris, Prince got his confidence together to do that. As you know Prince only sang in falsetto for quite a while before he went into his lower register. He then found out that was good too!
What I do remember about the actual sessions is I didn’t want to go to L.A and record. We were supposed to record in Minneapolis because we agreed we wanted to keep all the control ourselves. A lot of people at the label said we needed the advice of the record label, but the fact was we only needed a couple of the Warners people like (chairman) Mo Ostin, (senior vice-president) Russ Thyret and (president and head of A&R) Lenny Waronker. We needed to be friendly with the people that were gonna promote the record but remain insistent about keeping all the control. Not only did we wanna do the first album in Minneapolis I also insisted we do the press kit, the album cover, his promotional material and the radio ads which Prince wrote.
To allow him to solely produce For You all Warner Brothers insisted we do was bring in an executive engineer called Tommy Vicari to oversee the project. He came in from Los Angeles and the studio (in Minneapolis) didn’t work out he wanted to take us back to L.A but I wanted to stay completely isolated from L.A. Plus Prince and I had already been to a studio in Los Angeles when we trying to get the deal together and while he was in there recording (at the request of Columbia records) he was able, on breaks, to grab a soda and walk in on the sessions of major musicians of the day and just sit in there. He told me he didn’t want that going on during his sessions, people sitting and hearing what he was doing.
So, when the studio didn’t work out in Minneapolis everyone agreed with me that we go to the Record Plant in San Francisco. Warners couldn’t believe we were calling the shots like this but Sly Stone and Santana had recorded there, and it was great studio but also still isolated. That kind of set in motion how Prince would operate for the rest of his life.
MY: He confessed to you after its release that he thought For You was “overproduced”, did you agree it was too clean and bereft of mistakes?
OH: I think Prince self-admitted that because he wanted to make a perfect album. Prince wanted to make that first album so perfect it’s like he didn’t wanna leave the studio. He couldn’t let go of it and he even claimed that he tried to make it too perfect. One person he trusted was David Z with vocals because David could get that richness he wanted. You know, I can tell when I’ve heard other artists that play all the instruments. I can hear there was one person doing everything because it didn’t have a richness. Prince did get to a point that when he played all the instruments it sounded like six different people in a band and that was totally amazing.
Finally, how did it feel to witness Prince grow from local hero to global rock star in such a brief period, and in your opinion was his greatest achievement as an artist?
It’s funny, and it’s easy for me to say, but I kind of knew he was headed there. I knew it was only a matter of time because he blew me away with what he could do. He wrote me a letter once where he explained who he was, why he acted the way he did, and he said in that same letter I’d had told him at one point that he would be worth a great deal of money and be around for a long time and I remember that, I knew it. What did surprise me was him to go on to have a hit movie with an amazing soundtrack and get an Academy Award. I knew he would have hits and multi-platinum albums once people caught on but what struck me the most was his ability to grow at an incredible rate. When we made that first album and we went in the studio, it wasn’t that he knew just how a certain knob would affect the EQ. When he was in that studio he absorbed how everything worked. Like right away. He understood the complete recording process. So that’s what surprised me more than anything else.
He was able to record himself and turn great records out. Another surprise I think I had was when he played twenty nights here at the Forum in Los Angeles. This was something like seven years ago and I went to see him and the thing that stuck was this: In his early band Champagne, he was just part of the band. By the time he had his own band he was a front man. Then after he divorced himself from the Revolution he had a serious horn-heavy band behind him and he was way removed. When I saw him at the Forum the band were way behind him and he was way out front, and he had by now divorced himself from the whole thing of being a performer that you watched. He called people up on stage and had almost gone into his Judy Garland mode where he was just out there giving of himself. That blew me away because, quite honestly, he had grown even more than I thought in my wildest dreams when I saw him as a superstar. He had gone beyond that. It was just pure talent. Out there in front, almost alone. I immediately bought two more sets of tickets and went back another two nights.
In the end he did what I always internally felt he should do, and I think there were lots of reasons he did it. Like when he did the piano and mic tour near the end, I always felt earlier on he should have done that because I felt that at some point he had lost a little intimacy with his audience, even though he was spectacular and talented. What people need to know is that Prince turned himself inside out to give us his gift. He was never lazy about it and never held back and that to me is what puts him up there where the air is rare and with artists that only come along every fifty or sixty years…
Owen Husney memoir Famous People Who’ve Met Me is available now Rothco Press