Prince: A One-Man Band And A Whole Chorus, Too

Two summers ago, Chris Moon, the proprietor of Moon Sound Inc., a recording studio in south Minneapolis, had written what he felt was salable original material. He recorded the songs with just an acoustic guitar, as a demonstration tape for his studio, but when he played them back he realized he needed a piano player to "sweeten" them.

Moon had previously recorded tapes by a local group, Champagne, which featured a 16-year-old musician, who not only was good but would play the piano for not too much money. Moon gave the kid a call, and he accepted. After the pianist had laid down the keyboard track, he asked Moon if he wanted some bass on the song.

"Sure, but I don't want to pay for a bass player", Moon said.

The kid went into the studio and laid down a perfect bass line...then he put some drums on the tape...added an electric guitar lead line...and finally went in and put down some multiple tracks as a backup singer.

A slightly dazzled Moon edited the material and took the finished tape to his musician-manager friend Owen Husney to see what the thought about it.

"Not bad. Who are they ?" Husney said.

"It's one 17-year-old kid," Moon replied.

Maintaining his cool, straightening his tie, and squeaking in a high voice, Husney managed to ask, "Who ?"

"Prince".

Prince - no mast name, no first name, no "the ," just Prince - was born in south Minneapolis on June 7 1959, the son of a swing-band leader who used the stage name Roger Prince. His mother was the lead singer of the band. At the age of 7, Prince took up the piano.

"Around the time I was 8," he said in an interview, "I had pretty good idea what the piano was all about."

"I had one piano lesson and two guitar lessons as a kid. I was a poor student, because when a teacher would be trying to teach me how to play junky stuff I would start playing my own songs. I'd usually get ridiculed for it, but I ended up doing my own thing. I can't read music. It hasn't gotten in the way yet. Maybe it will later, but I doubt it."

While in the seventh grade at Bryant Junior High, Prince joined a local dance band, Grand Central, which he played with until he was 16. (The group changed its name to Champagne when the members moved over to Central High School.) At 13 he had picked up the guitar. At 14 he was practicing daily on a drum kit. The bass followed naturally, as did an assortment of keyboard instruments - first a Magnus Chord Organ, a clavinet, and finally an army of synthesizers.

When Husney first heard the tapes, Prince has moved from Minneapolis to live with his sister in New York. Husney called him there, offered to be his manager and called him back back to Minneapolis to make some professional 'demo' tapes at Sound 80 Studios, where he discovered how a fully equipped recording studio worked and had a field day with the studio's battery of synthesizers. His demo tape was very professional and impressive indeed.

Husney took the tape to the West Coast to peddle it to the major record companies. The Tape sold itself. Husney said every major record company was knocking on his door, wining and dining and offering him bids. "I meant, it was amazing. Herb Alpert (the A of A&M) was calling my office directly."

Husney and Prince decided to go with Warner Brothers Records, which reportedly offered the now 18-years-old a six-figure contract, a three-record deal and allowed Prince to produce his own debut album. He is the youngest person ever to have produced a Warner Bros. album.

"Prince - For You" is the title of the album. Besides producing the album, he composed and arranged its nine songs and played every instrument and sang all the vocal parts on each song.

On the record, Prince plays the studio as if it were a musical instrument - as much so as any of the 27-or-so instruments he plays on it. Overdubs and multitracks bend together into a shimmering, lushly produced whole. A conglomeration of synthesizers creates the illusion of a full orchestra on some tracks, a horn section on others and a quizzical, simple serpentine organ line on others. There's a little of everything here, even some blues buried deep down under all the jazz and pop and funk and rock and...

The album opens with Prince singing against 45 other vocal tapes of himself - a Niagara of voices cascading and intertwining over and around each other in a dreamy, romantic melody. It closes with a hard-rocking fireball titled "I'm Yours ," wherein Prince shows that his guitar playing need not cower beneath his synthesizers. Three clean lead guitar lines a la Carlos Santana, all distinct and all cooking, wind around each other, jump from track to track (he knows how to use the studio) and wind up into a final, fiery fade-out.

And there are seven songs sandwiched between those two, too, varying vastly in mood, instrumental arrangement and musical genre. They are mostly love and lust songs, sung softly and carrying a big beat.

"I wanted to make a different-sounding record," Prince said last week while sitting in Husney's Loring Park office. "We originally planned to use horns, but it's really hard to sound different if you use the same instruments. By not using horns on this record, I could make an album that would sound different right away. So I created a different kind of horn section by multi-tracking a synthesizer and some guitar lines." "I got hip to polymoogs (polyphonic-two handed-synthesizers) when I was here working at Sound 80. I liked them a lot then. I was trying to get away from using the conventional sound of pianos and clavinets as keyboards, as the main keyboards, so I thought I would try to use that as the main keyboard on a few songs - and it worked. I think the main reason artists fall when they try to play all of the instruments is because, either they can't play all the instruments really well - there is usually a flaw somewhere - or they don't play with the same intensity each track. It's a hard project to do, but you have to pretend each time that this is going to be your only track and that you're the only guy who's going to play that instrument. So every time you go into the recording booth, you have to play like it's your only shot. If you do that, what you end up with is a whole band that is playing with the same intensity."

What Prince ended up with was indeed a very intense pop-funk band...er... "I don't like categories at all," Prince said, reeling at the mention of a label for his music. "I'm not soul and I'm not jazz, but everyone wants to call me one or the other. The Bee Gees aren't called soul. They're pop or something. Whatever it is to whoever is listening to it is what it is. It's hard to categorize the record, so I try not to use any categories at all. There is not one categorization that all of the tracks can fall into. Some are funk, some hard rock and roll, others like "For You" could be classical, you know?"

What makes all them "Prince" ?

"It's hard to say. I guess it's just the basic sound. It's hard to classify Earth Wind & Fire, for instance, but you can always tell it's them when you hear them. It's not a brand of music, it's a group sound, identity of their own. If you want EW&F, you just go out and buy them. Maybe my voice, or just my total sound, who knows ? It is my album."

Now Prince, who says he doesn't want his real name known "because it's too hard to remember," is putting together a band to take with him on a national tour to promote the album.

"So far I only have a bass player, Andre Anderson from Champagne," Prince said. "I'm going to New York to audition some people. I'm going to have two keyboard players on stage and have a lot of synthesizers. I'm not sure who I'll have on stage. Right now I have to try to figure out who's going to fit. I have to try and create a personality group. I'm looking forward to going out on the road ; I like performing."

Will he bring any horns or woodwinds with him on the road ? "Well, I'm going to pick up a flute pretty soon."

Youth Signs 6-Figure Record Contract

A just-turned-18-year-old Minneapolis youth has signed a six-figure recording contract with Warner Bros. and is scheduled to begin recording his first album today in Sound 80 studios, Minneapolis.

Known only as Prince, the youth is reputed to have signed one of the largest contracts ever for a new act.

Owen Husney, Prince's personal manager and president of American Artists, Inc., a management company, said Warner Bros. was selected over two national recording companies interested in Prince - A&M and Columbia.

Prince plays a number of instruments and sings, but has not been seen in performance in the Twin Cities, the explanation being that "his ambition was to be a national recording star and he did not want to wear out his talent in local clubs."

Husney, also president of the advertising agency The Ad Co., and a former concert promoter, said he has been working with Prince for about a year. Husney, Prince and David Rivkin, an engineer with Sound 80, produced the demonstration tape that was used to gain Prince the recording contract.

Rivkin and a Los Angeles recording engineer will work on the album, 90 per cent of which will be done by Prince alone, according to Husney.

"He plays all the instruments - drums, bass, lead and rhythm guitar, piano, synthesizers, and percussions. And he sings lead as well as all the backups," said Husney. Prince also composes and arranges.

Under the agreement with Warner Bros., Prince will be album producer, meaning he will have artistic control, which is rare in the recording industry for a performer so young and new in the business. Also unusual, according to Husney, is the fact that Prince's contract calls for a guaranteed three albums, when most agreements guarantee only one or two LPs.

No one will reveal Prince's last name, but Husney said his father was a jazz bandleader who used the stage name, Prince Rogers. His mother, said Husney, was a singer. They named their son Prince. According to an article in the Minnesota Daily last April, Prince began playing piano at 6, guitar at 13, bass soon after that, and had mastered drums at about 14.

His music has been described as "sweet, funky, disco soul."

The first album is scheduled for release next January, said Husney. "After that, we'll get together a good band of musicians from the Twin Cities and elsewhere and go on the road."

Do you think Prince will become a star? "I know he will," shot back Husney. But after a pause, he said, "Maybe I shouldn't use the word star, but I know Prince is a legitimate talent and he'll do well."

Prince

The American recording industry isn't exactly glutted by musicians from Minneapolis. The few who do make it big internationally, like Leo Kottke and Michael Johnson, are firmly embedded in the acoustic folk tradition that defines the Minneapolis music scene.

With the flowering of the sophisticated, well-equipped Sound 80 recording studio, all that may change, however. Acts as diverse as Cat Stevens and KISS have recorded there, and local bands like Lamont Cranston are cutting albums. Clearly, Minneapolis is beginning to break free from its folk-oriented roots.

If he makes it, the most atypical local star to come out of Sound 80 will be a multi-talented [18-year-old] prodigy from North Minneapolis who plays any instrument you hand him, sings with a crystal pure falsetto that would have put the young Michael Jackson to shame, and goes by the name Prince. No last name, and please, no "the" prefix. Just Prince.

If you haven't heard of him yet, you're not alone, though you may have danced to rough mixes of his songs (without knowing it) at Scotties. Right now, Prince is probably the best-kept musical secret in Minneapolis, known mainly to local session musicians and recording studio habitu├ęs. The reason he's not already a well-known local performer is simple: ambition. This kid wants to be a major national recording star, and the way to do that is not to wear out your vocal cords at the Tempo night after night. A smart, anxious [18-year-old] isn't going to sit still for a lecture about paying dues, either. He's got his program pretty well worked out, and the wheels are in motion. From where he and his manager are sitting, it's only a matter of time.

Prince is making an obvious effort to hide his impatience the night I visited him during a recording session at Sound 80 a few weeks back. The WAYL [radio] Strings were trying to lay down a not too difficult track that Prince had written, and the 16th notes were coming out like mush. They plugged away for about an hour when Prince very politely told the conductor to change the 16th notes to quarter notes. This done, he slumped down in his seat, looking dissatisfied and slightly annoyed. "We won't be able to use that. I hate wasting time. I want to hear that song on the radio."

It's a little startling, hearing this from a teenager, albeit an extraordinarily talented and self-possessed teenager. But when you begin playing piano at six, guitar at 13, bass soon after, and finally master the drums at 14, your time schedule gets pushed forward a bit.

Prince was spotted playing in a high school band by Chris Moon of Moonsound, another, smaller local recording studio. His excellence was immediately apparent, and Moon began collaborating with him in the studio, putting together tapes. With several songs in the can, Prince headed for New Jersey to find fame and fortune by way of Atlantic Records. The people of Atlantic, though impressed, suggested that his sound was "too Midwestern"--whatever that means. Others, notably Tiffany Entertainment, a company owned by basketball player Earl Monroe, made offers which Prince apparently could refuse, because by winter he returned to Minneapolis.

Things got back on the track in December when Prince's tapes made such a big impression on former Twin Cities promoter Owen Husney that Husney decided to come out of comfortable ad agency anonymity to manage Prince. Together, they've spent the entire winter in Sound 80, polishing the production on the three or four songs they intend to present to all the major labels in [Los Angeles] next week. Husney is confident about Prince's chances for a contract, citing the capriciousness of the record business as the main roadblock. With typical managerial optimism, he says, "If he isn't [signed], it'll be because somebody's wife burned the eggs that morning."

How much basis is there for this optimism? A great deal, I think. For one thing, Prince has two valuable gimmicks going for him--his age and his versatility. Not only does he play every instrument on the Sound 80 tapes, he also does all the vocal tracks and has written and arranged all the songs himself. It's a prodigious feat, made all the more impressive by the fact that he's self-taught. Although his father was a jazz musician, Prince insists that he didn't actually teach him anything, nor did they play together very often. He seems to have gotten the ability by osmosis.

Another strong point is the obvious commercial appeal of his sound. It's sweet, funky disco soul, but I'll de-emphasize the "disco" because the arrangements are more sophisticated and inventive, less formulaic than the simplistic repetitiveness one associates with disco. His use of a driving synthesizer on one song, "Soft 'n' Wet" is traceable to Stevie Wonder, and his phrasing derives a little from Rufus' Chaka Khan. If he hasn't totally transcended his influences, he certainly has assimilated them convincingly.

The development of this pop sound troubles Prince a little. He has spent his adolescence around good musicians and understands the value of respect. Ideally, he says, he would like to record jazz on one label under a pseudonym and the pop stuff on another label.

Finally, there is Prince's personal appeal. As a performer, he should have little trouble. Not only can he jump from instrument to instrument, but he's the kind of cute that drives the boppers crazy. He's not adverse to choreography, but draws the line at spins. "I get nauseous," he explains.

In an interview situation, he's quiet, even aloof, with a sly sense of humor and a quick, intelligent smile. You get the feeling that not even at gunpoint would this kid make a fool of himself in public. Before I talked to him, his manager assured me he didn't use drugs or alcohol and wouldn't jive with me. I actually believe the former, but not the latter. Jive takes many forms, and this cool [18-year-old] has it down to a subtle art.

After the recording session everyone went out to Perkins for coffee. Tired of having to act twice his age for the elderly WAYL gang, Prince ordered a milk shake and began adding things to it--ketchup, blueberry syrup, honey, steak sauce, coffee, jam, salt and pepper. He ordered the waitress over to the table and handed her the concoction.

Opening his large brown eyes even wider, he said, "I think there's something wrong with this. It tastes funny." The worried waitress asked what it was supposed to be and hurried over to the manager, who formally apologized and took it off the bill. Prince brought off the whole scene with a royal aplomb befitting of his name.

What a relief. Earlier in the studio, I was sure he was a clone, constructed in the back rooms of Owen Husney's ad agency. Prince is a real live kid, packed with talent, but basically normal and mischievous. Besides his music, that was the nicest surprise of the evening.

Nelson Finds It 'Hard To Become Known'

"I play with Grand Central Corporation. I've been playing with them for two years," Prince Nelson, senior at Central, said. Prince started playing piano at age seven and guitar when he got out of eighth grade.

Prince was born in Minneapolis. When asked, he said, "I was born here, unfortunately." Why? "I think it is very hard for a band to make it in this state, even if they're good. Mainly because there aren't 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."

He likes Central a great deal, because his music teachers let him work on his own. He now is working with Mr. Bickham, a music teacher at Central, but has been working with Mrs. Doepkes.

He plays several instruments, such as guitar, bass, all keyboards, and drums. He also sings sometimes, which he picked up recently. He played saxophone in seventh grade but gave it up. He regrets he did. He quit playing sax when school ended one summer. He never had time to practice sax anymore when he went back to school. He does not play in the school band. Why? "I really don't have time to make the concerts."

Prince has a brother that goes to Central whose name is Duane Nelson, who is more athletically enthusiastic. He plays on the basketball team and played on the football team. Duane is also a senior.

Prince plays by ear. "I've had about two lessons, but they didn't help much. I think you'll always be able to do what your ear tells you, so just think how great you'd be with lessons also," he said.

"I advise anyone who wants to learn guitar to get a teacher unless they are very musically inclined. One should learn all their scales too. That is very important," he continued.

Prince would also like to say that his band is in the process of recording an album containing songs they have composed. It should be released during the early part of the summer.

"Eventually I would like to go to college and start lessons again when I'm much older."