Book excerpt from Dig If You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God and Genius in the Music of Prince by Ben Greenman
Section One: Man, Music
Chapter 1: Life Can Be So Nice – His Life and Its Beginnings
Beginnings consume us. Or rather, we consume them. We gobble them up hungrily, certain that they will explain all that follows. We break time into segments so that it can be apprehended and, if not overtaken, at least undertaken. And, so, we start with the start of one par tic u lar segment: Prince was born on June 7, 1958. Prince was born. Thats important to remember. In a life fi lled with so many achievements lyrics written, songs sung, instruments played, concerts performedthat they seem to require an army, or a mystical being, we should begin with a reminder that they belong to exactly one person, who arrived on the earth via normal channels rather than descending into our realm from the empyrean plane. Prince lived in music from the fi rst. His mother, Mattie Della Shaw, was a singer. His father, John Nelson, was a piano player
and composer. The two of them, African-Americans in mostly white Minneapolis, floated around the citys jazz scene in the fifties, and for a time Mattie sang with Johns band, the Prince Rogers Trio. Its unclear how or why John thought of his stage name, though royalty was a common theme in jazz nicknames.
Buddy Bolden was known as King Bolden, and there were others: King Oliver, King Watzke, King Kolax. Princes
When he met Mattie, John Nelson had a long- term girlfriend named Vivian. Though he and Vivian never married, he had five children with her, beginning in the late forties and continuing through the late fi fties. Somewhere in there, Johns relationship with Vivian wilted, and his relationship with Mattie bloomed.
Mattie got pregnant. Their baby entered the world, and John transferred the name of his act to that baby: Prince Rogers Nelson.
The world that Prince entered was a fragile one, at least as far as American identity was concerned. Sputnik had launched the previous October, kicking off the space race with the Soviets. The United States was just emerging from the Eisenhower recession, the first major economic downturn since the Great Depression unemployment had soared; steel and auto production had dropped. Minneapolis was at the tail end of a de cade of transformation. In 1950, the city reached the half-million mark in population still an all- time peak but legislation like the Housing Act of 1949 and the Federal- Aid Highway Act of 1956 were pushing population toward the near- ring suburbs and beyond. General Mills, one of the citys industrial anchors, moved out to
Faced with a new family to feed, John took work as a plastic molder at Honeywell, the industrial conglomerate that was the citys largest employer. A daughter, Tyka, was born in 1960. Though the life of a plastic molder was more stable than that of a jazz musician, the marriage was not a happy one. John and Mattie fought frequently, separated more than once, and eventually split; over that period, Prince moved several times, always adjusting to new neighborhoods and new schools, making new friends while trying to keep in contact with the old ones.
Prince was smart and sensitive and a good athlete, but he was also shy and small. Early on, he took solace in music; it had been a source of joy for both his parents and it was a source of joy for him as well. When his mother brought him along to Daytons, a local department store, in the early sixties, he would sneak away
to the musical instruments section. His mother would find him there, a four- year- old, plinking out melodies. In the early sixties, he saw his father perform. It was great, he said. I couldnt
believe it. People were screaming. From then on, I think, I wanted to be a musician. But if his father was inspiring onstage, at home he could be demanding and discouraging. He was so hard on me, Prince told Tavis Smiley in 2009. I was never good enough. It was almost like the army when it came to music . . . I wasnt allowed to play the piano when he was there because I wasnt as good as him. So when he left, I was determined to get as good as him, and I taught myself how to play music. And I just stuck with it, and I did it all the time. And sooner or later, people in the neighborhood heard about me and they started to talk.
Success has many fathers. In April of 1968, a few months before his tenth birthday, Prince went with his stepfather, Hayward Baker his mother had remarried quickly, to stabilize a shaky situationto see James Brown at the Minneapolis Auditorium. Yeah, James told the crowd, I was just a shoeshine boy and Im still one of you; I havent changed. Can you feel it? Prince could.
There are conflicting stories about what caused Prince to leave home. Some cite general instability, the wear and tear of too many moves. Others suggest that he was driven away by his mothers sternness, which kept him from hanging out with his friends and bandmates. The most salacious rumor holds that Princes stepfather,
a devout Christian, found him in bed with a girl and promptly kicked him out of the house. What is certain is that Prince left his parents home in his early teens and went to live with the family of his best friend, André Anderson, in the 1200 block of Russell Ave nue. At first, he and André shared a room, but André was far messier, to the point where Prince had to move to the basement.
In that north-side neighborhood, kids streamed from their houses on Saturday morning to play football in the street. Walter Banks, who lived nearby and later became a local radio personality, remembered those games. Prince was that athletic guy. He was unbelievable, Banks said. He had an afro so big, it was more like his afro wore the uniform because his body was so small. He was a little giant within his own right. Prince also played basketball, and played well, a fact that would gain wide currency later on through the release of junior-high-school team photos and (more importantly, and more hilariously) a Chappelles Show sketch. He was quick and funny, though he tended to work out his jokes in advance, in notebooks. He was highly produced even then.
At the end of ju nior high, Prince and André who was now calling himself André Cymone formed a band, Grand Central, with Chazz Smith (Princes second cousin) on drums and Andrés sister Linda on keyboards. Within a year, Chazz Smith was out and a new drummer, Morris Day, was in. Grand Central practiced in Andrés basement, which was still Princes bedroom. Morris Days mother started managing the band, securing them gigs in local high school gyms, community centers, and hotels. Some were even paying gigs, after a fashion. In a late- nineties interview with Mel B. of the Spice Girls, Prince said that the band was compensated with Snickers bars: Thats how we exchanged money back then. It was currency. Grand Centrals main competition
was Flyte Tyme, another group made up of Minneapolis teens. Flyte Tymes repertoire leaned toward soul artists like Al Green and James Brown; Grand Central also incorporated the work of rock and funk acts like Mandrill, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, and even the songs of pop singers like Carole King. The two
bands were on each others radar, and then some; Flyte Tyme would later take on Morris Day as a front man and morph into The Time, Princes greatest side project and one of his worthiest competitors. Jimmy Jam, who was then in a band called Cohesion but would later serve as Flyte Tymes keyboardist, remembered playing in a small combo that backed the junior- high choir. Prince showed up, too, casually wandering over to a guitar and magically reproducing the fuzzed-out solo from Chicagos 1970 hit Make Me Smile. The guitar stunt was impressive, but it was only the start. Jimmy was sitting at the drums, and when he stood up, Prince took his spot. He sat there, Jimmy said, and he killed em.
Prince must have seemed like a perfect subject for a profile in the high school newspaper, and thats exactly what he became, on February 16, 1976. His high school, Central High, was the oldest in Minneapolis, founded in 1860; since 1913, it had occupied a four- story Collegiate Gothic building at Fourth Ave nue South and East Thirty- Fourth Street. The school colors were red and blue, which Prince would later combine to great effect. (The lyrics of the school song, not written by Prince, began, Oh, red and blue, dear red and blue, our hearts are true to you.)
In the school paper, Prince identifi ed as Prince Nelson, senior at Central was pictured in the music room, his wide collar flared beneath his even wider afro. The piece didnt explore his personality, which was shy but playful (André Cymone would later say that every body who really knew him [knew] that he was a funny dude). It didnt mention his participation in a student film, in which he played a shy but playful musician competing with a muscle- bound jock for the affections of a pretty cheerleader the musician failed repeatedly until he learned a secret kung fu move and got the girl. Rather, the piece focused mainly on Princes accomplishments as a musician: he had started playing piano at age seven, guitar when he got out of eighth grade; at the time of the article, he was also profi cient on bass and drums, and he regretted having given up the saxophone, which he had played in seventh grade. He played by ear, though most budding musicians, he advised, should invest in lessons. One should learn all their scales too, he said. That is very important. He did not, the article noted, play in the school band. I really dont have time to make the concerts, he said. After a brief mention of Princes more enthusiastically athletic brother Duane, a member of both the football and basketball teams, the article returned to musical matters. Prince liked the schools music teachers Mrs. Doepke and Mr. Bickham were especially supportive but he felt stranded in Minneapolis. I was born here, unfortunately, he says. I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if theyre good. Mainly because there arent any big record companies or studios in this state. I really feel that if we would have lived in Los Angeles or New York or some other big city, we would have gotten over by now. Still, he was determined not to be marooned. Grand Central, the article concluded, was in the pro cess of recording an album containing songs they have composed. It should be released during the early part of the summer.
It wasnt, though there is evidence that Prince, André, and Morris visited ASI Studios on West Broadway in early 1976 to cut a set of tracks that included 39th St. Party, Lady Pleasure, Youre Such a Fox, Machine, Whenever, and Grand Central. Tom Waits, touring behind Nighthawks at the Diner, his fi rst
live album, played a show at ASI for FM broadcast about a month before Grand Centrals session. Theres no evidence he knew anything about Prince at the time, but a de cade later, he would name him as one of the few popu lar artists who consistently impressed him: Prince is rare, a rare exotic bird . . . To be that popu lar and that uncompromising, its like Superman walking through a wall. Waits also said, Writing songs is like capturing birds without killing them. Triangulate accordingly.
In early 1976, a studio owner named Chris Moon hired Prince and André to record background music for an educational slide presentation. Bespectacled and bearded, Moon was also an aspiring songwriteror rather, a poet in search of songs. He had notebooks fi lled with lyr ics, and he noticed that Prince had a head filled with melodies. He gave Prince a key to his Moonsound studio, and Prince started to rec ord there at night.
At around the same time, Prince struck up a relationship with a veteran R&B musician named Pepé Willie. Pepé Willie came from Brooklyn, but he had spent time in Minneapolis since the early seventies as a result of his on-again, off- again relationship with Princes cousin, Shauntel Manderville. He had first met Prince in 1970 and over the years served as a kind of informal mentor to him. In 1974, back in Minneapolis and now married to Shauntel, he attended a ski party for which Grand Central had been hired as entertainment. He was impressed with Princes progress:
He would take off his guitar and go over to Linda and play the chords on the keyboard he wanted her to play. And Im like, Wait a minute, this guy plays keyboards too? Then he would take Andrés bass and play like he had been doing it for twenty years, playing the funkiest lines.
By the end of Princes time in high school, Grand Central was at a crossroads. For starters, their name had become a liabilitythey were too often confused with Graham Central Station, the popular Bay Area funk band led by Larry Graham, the former bassist with Sly and the Family Stone (and a distant-future collaborator
of Princes). When the band rebranded itself as Champagne, Prince began to distance himself from the group, first to work with a local musician named Sonny Thompson and then, with André, to support Pepé Willie and his group 94 East. Some of Princes earliest recordings date from this period, songs like Lovin Cup, Dance to the Music of the World, and One Man Jam. Prince didnt sing on the tracks and co-wrote only one of them, Just Another Sucker. Still, he was instrumental in the sessions, contributing on guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums.
In the meantime, his partnership with Chris Moon had started to bear fruit. One of their songs, Soft and Wet, became a new favorite in Princes set. It wasnt the crowning jewel of his early catalog, though. That honor was reserved for Just as Long as Were Together, a sparkling demonstration of his singing, playing, and songwriting. Prince put together a demo and briefly went to New York to shop it, without much luck. At the same time, Moon sent the songs to a local music impresario named Owen Husney. Husney had been the lead guitarist of the mid- sixties Minneapolis garage-blues band the High Spirits a forerunner to Twin Cities
groups like Hüsker Dü and the Replacements and he had gone on to work in vari ous aspects of the music business, every thing from catering to advertising. Husney liked what he heard of Princes music, though he thought the songs were too long; most were extended soul- funk workouts designed to showcase all of Princes instrumental skills. Husney felt that they werent going to attract veteran A&R men, and he called Prince with a pitch: he would help shepherd Prince through the process if Prince would come back to Minneapolis and work on the songs. Prince agreed. Husney was instantly impressed by Princes intensity and intelligence,
as he told Kim Taylor Bennett of Noisey:
Ive seen pictures of Little Richard when he was in a band before he was Little Richard. Theyre all sitting around, one of them is looking off right, ones looking off left, ones looking down, and then theres a very young Little Richard, and his eyes are laser focused on that camera. You can see the burning; you can see theres something else. That was the feeling I had about Prince. There was a focus, there was a brilliance of intelligence.
Husney also took note of Princes massive afro, which he dubbed a J7, because it dwarfed the afros of the Jackson 5, which were themselves significant. Husney wanted to get Prince his own apartment and some recording equipment, so he sought out local professionals whom he knew a doctor, a lawyer and signed them up as investors. While Prince set about shortening and sharpening his songs, Husney started to package him for major labels. He created press kits in which he lowered Princes age by a year: what ever he was worth as an eighteen- year- old wunderkind, Husney fi gured, he was worth that much more as a seventeen- year-old. He outfi tted Prince in a three- piece suit to distinguish him against the prevailing fashions, which tended
toward casual dress, jeans and open shirts. He sent out demos not on cassettes but on reel- to- reel tapes, coloring them silver for maximum impact. Fi nally, he played labels off each other: He called Warner Bros., where he knew people through his advertising work, and told them that he had already secured a meeting
with Columbia, which was fl ying him to California, and would be interested in stopping by Warners offi ces while he was out West. He then did the same thing in reverse, calling Columbia and telling them that Warner was fl ying him out but that hed love to stop by and give Columbia a look at his client as well. He ran the game a third time, on A&M Rec ords, and called two other labels for good mea sure, RSO and ABC/Dunhill.
Husneys plan all along was to place Prince at Warner Bros., the most artist- friendly of the labels, and Warner was receptive, though the label wanted to assign him a producer. They suggested Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, and there were some backup ideas as well: Norman Whitfield, Nick Ashford and Valerie
Simpson. Prince put his foot down. It wasnt that he didnt respect their suggestions, but he wanted to make a record that sounded only like himself. Husney understood Princes perspective, but he thought it would be a tough sell. I had the great job of going to the chairman of Warner Bros. and saying that an eighteenyear-
old artist, who has never made an album before, is going to be producing his own album and having complete creative control, Husney later told NPR. I didnt relish that meeting. War-ner agreed to a kind of test. Bring the kid in, they told Husney. Lets see what hes got.
On a summer morning in 1977, Prince was ushered into a Warner studio. He sat down immediately at the drums and created a rhythm track, after which he started in on the bass. As Husney stood in the hall watching, Lenny Waronker came around the corner. Waronker, the head of A&R for Warner, was an industry vet who had produced hits like the Mojo Mens Sit Down, I Think I Love You and signed artists such as Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. Waronker stopped to watch Prince, who had by now moved on to guitar. Husney couldnt read Waronkers expression. Was Warner going to scotch the deal?
They werent. By the time the drum part was recorded, it was clear, Waronker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2004, as part of a tribute to Prince for his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We didnt want to insult him by making him go through the whole pro cess, but he wanted to fi nish. As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor. He looked up and said, Dont 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 eighteen- year- old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me
feel that we shouldnt mess around with this guy.
Warner extended the gangway, and Prince came aboard. In the September 1 issue of the St. Paul Dispatch, the signing was the subject of a short news story. It began with the facts, such as they were (Husneys age deception was not exposed): A just-turned eighteen- year-old Minneapolis youth has signed a six- fi gure
recording contract with Warner Bros. and is scheduled to begin recording his fi rst album today in Sound 80 studios, Minneapolis. The article reviewed Princes bona fi des (he played drums, bass,
lead and rhythm guitar, piano, synthesizers, and percussions, and sang lead as well as all the backups), engaged in some mythmaking regarding his career to date (Prince and Husney pretended that he had not performed yet in the Twin Cities because his ambition was to be a national recording star and he did not
want to wear out his talent in local clubs), and remarked upon the unusual terms of the contract (the grant of full creative control, plus the fact that three albums were guaranteed rather than the customary one or two). The piece ended with an assessment of his prospects:
Do you think Prince will become a star? I know he will, shot back Husney. But after a pause, he said, Maybe I shouldnt use the word star, but I know Prince is a legitimate talent and hell do well.
He was a legitimate talent. He did well. There would be false starts, but they would pass quickly, and once his star began to rise, it went so quickly that it was as if every one else was falling away. Life unfolded in a series of rapidly accelerating moments, a flip- book under times thumb.
Buy Dig If You Will The Picture by Ben Greenman: