April 30, 1978 (Sunday)
Prince: A One-Man Band And A Whole Chorus, Too
by Tim Carr
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 – 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 crated 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.”