Our Teen-Age Virtuoso Is Home To Play At Last

January 5, 1979 (Friday)

The Minneapolis Star

Our Teen-Age Virtuoso Is Home To Play At Last

by Jon Bream

Few people had ever seen the kid perform. But everybody in the local music community was talking about him.

“Hey, have you heard those tapes by that Minneapolis teenager who played all the instruments himself?”

Well, several major record companies heard the tapes and began courting the kid, known as Prince.

Warner Brothers Records signed him in 1977 to a reported three-album, six-figure deal and let him produce, arrange, compose and play all the instruments on his debut record, “For You,” which was released last spring.

Now, almost three years after Prince Nelson began creating a buzz, the local music community and Warner Brothers bigwigs finally will get a chance to see him perform. The extraordinary one-man-band will take the stage as a mere bandleader tonight and tomorrow at the Capri Theatre, 2027 W. Broadway.

“I’m nervous,” Prince said with a sheepish smile. “I’ll be terrified, because it’s gonna take a while to block out the fact there are people out there. I find it extremely hard to perform for people.”

“I think I found it hard to sing and play in front of my band at first,” said the 19-year-old, who has not performed publicly since he left a high school dance-band three years ago. “But now that I got to know them better, it’s really easy now and we all bounce off each other as far as energy goes. I think before I can bounce off the crowd it will take a few songs.”

Prince paused and looked down, displaying the reserve that has, in the past, led him to shun interviews and public appearances. He talks slowly, without a great command of the language. He stops in mid-thought, then suddenly, his big brown eyes peek out under the bill of his cap and he continues in soft-spoken monotone.

“I’m really free and open once I get to know a person. But when I first encounter something, I’m a little laid back and cautious. People constantly call me shy. I don’t feel shy, but I guess I sometimes come off that way to people. Everybody at Warner Brothers has a big impression I’m really quiet. If he doesn’t talk, he probably won’t dance or sing too much. I have to put to rest all those accusations.”

Making the transition from a one-man band to a frontman was difficult at first, but Prince says he’s handing it. “It’s complicated at times,“ he said last week in an interview at the west Minneapolis home where his group rehearses. “It’s fun when you hear it [his music] all come back with someone else’s interpretation. Deep down, I can tell it’s different, but sometimes on the surface it’s better. It’s not just me doing everything, trying to keep my energy level up at all times.”

Onstage, Prince will play different instruments on different songs. He has been working out the arrangements for the past several weeks with the five members of his band.

Like their leader, the other members of the band are young, unknown Minneapolis musicians, some of whom play more than one instruments. The oldest is 23.

Prince spent about four months auditioning local musicians for his group. He was determined to limit his search to local players because he feels there is “a lot of unknown talent here.”

However, he said he feels the local music climate stifles musicians. “There is not a lot of incentive here like there is in Los Angeles,” Prince said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m doing the concert [which is a benefit for the Capri, whose owner hopes to make it into a club]. There could be more clubs and more [variety to] radio stations here.”

Nevertheless, Prince appreciates the quiet of the Twin Cities and goes out of town for excitement. He’s kind of a loner and homebody who prefers to record in his studio and experiment with the couple of dozen instruments he plays.

When he was 5, Prince, the son of a show business couple, composed his first song using two rocks. He says he graduated to bigger rocks and bricks before his writing began to improve and he took up the piano at age 7.

He had one lesson. He never learned how to read or write music, but that didn’t deter his curiosity about instruments. When he was 13, he picked up the guitar. A year later, he began playing drums. The bass, organ, clavinet and an arsenal of synthesizers soon followed.

During those formative years, Prince preferred to make music, rather than listen to it. He stayed at home and learned his instruments. Thus, his childhood was rather introverted.

“I missed out on a lot,” he reflected, “but I don’t regret it. I missed out on socializing. But I get high off playing my music or going to a movie alone. I used to like to play sports, but I had to quit that. I used to want to go to college. I certainly don’t have time for that. At one time, I wanted to get married and I don’t have time for that. I wanted kids, too. But I don’t have time for that, either. I think the things I missed out on, my mind has changed about them. I think I’ve done what I wanted to do in life. In teen-age life.”

Indeed, at 18, Prince became the youngest person ever to produce an album for Warner Brothers.

He spent five months holed up in ritzy recording studios in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Sly Stone and members of Santana stopped by and offered encouragement. Prince was honored, but he already had enough confidence, even though his one-man project ran way behind schedule.

The results have been pleasing, he reports. “For You” entered the top-200 album charts and also scored on the soul and disco charts. His single, “Soft and Wet,” was well received in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston and the Carolinas.

To help promote his album, Prince attended autograph parties in some of those areas. “It was weird,” he recalled. “It was mostly kids from 11 to 20. They were relating to me being so young. There’s been ads in the teen magazines and my age has really come up.”

“The kids would ask me if my real name is Prince, what “Soft and Wet” means, and did I really play all those instruments myself.”

At a recent autograph party and disco dance in North Carolina, however, Prince didn’t have much of a chance to talk to his fans. He said about 3,000 kids showed up and after about 20 minutes, the crowd rushed the stage. Amid the hysteria, Prince departed and Warner Brothers representatives just passed out posters of him.

Back home, the budding recording star is removed from that kind of commotion. He doesn’t have to listen to Warner Brothers’ overblown build-up, look at record-store posters or read the write-ups in teen magazines and black publications.

“I try not to listen to that,” Prince said. “People expect you to be an egomaniac because of who you are. The way I am now, I was always. I suppose if I lived in California and rode in limos and had people waiting on me hand and foot, I could change. I’m not into all that.”

Although he may be removed from the west coast record business mania, Prince is not without his pressures in Minneapolis. He recently parted with his manager, Owen Husney, who had been his mentor and benefactor for more than two years. Husney declined to comment but Prince said the split was for personal reasons. The musician said he has arranged to “take care” of his business affairs.

Prince’s booking agency is setting up a brief concert tour this winter and spring. Agents for such performers as Ashford & Simpson, Santana and Chaka Khan have expressed interest in having Prince appear as their opening act.

After his tour, Prince expects to return to the studio to record his second one-man album. He hopes the disk will be an improvement over “For You,” but he doesn’t feel pressured.

He often thinks big, but he speaks with a soft-spoken confidence.

“I do what I want to do,” he said, “otherwise, this business will kill you. It [success] will happen if it’s supposed to. I don’t worry about it too much. What it all boils down to is nothing means nothing except love. As long as I got that, I don’t need money. If I went broke, it wouldn’t faze me. Love and music. As long as I got that, everything’s cool. Everything.”

Prince

May/June 1978

The Insider

Prince [title possibly incomplete or incorrect]

by Jeff Schneider

Prince believes in magic the kind you work at because it’s laying there inside you like a wand without an arm to wave it – and he’s been busy practicing his magic since he was seven, banging out Jazz and Blues songs on the piano. He was raised in South Minneapolis with his three brothers and four sisters. His dad, billed as Roger Prince, was a swing-band leader. His mother worked on and off as the band’s lead singer. When he was in the seventh grade at Bryant Junior High he joined a local dance band called Grand Central. Around the time he and the rest of the members were ready for a change of schools (Central High) they changed the band’s name to Shampayne. By the time Prince was 13 he was comfortable with a bass or a lead guitar. A year later he began working on the drums with a Magnus Chord Organ, a clavinet, and an array of synthesizers following the beat of his magic in the making. A formal musical education didn’t have much influence in that magic. Prince says as he recalls his school days, “I took one piano and two guitar lessons while I was in school. I wasn’t really a model student. I didn’t want to play the funky stuff music teachers used and I couldn’t read music. It would always end up that the teacher would go through his thing, and I’d end up doing mine. Eventually they just gave me an A and sent me on my way.”

“By the time I was a sophomore, school had gotten to be a real drag. I was getting further and further into making music. The more I found myself entertaining at local gigs during the night, the more I hated the thought of going to school in the morning.”

“But later on, there I was seventeen, a graduate and still frustrated. I felt that I had to keep going after the music but didn’t know how long I’d be able to do it and eat too. I did know that I wanted something more than nine to five.”

Frustration and the going-nowhere-in-a-hurry blues trapped Prince in a case of the ’Midwest Lethargism’ syndrome. He was struck with the affliction’s common symptoms. First you begin viewing the scene as lethargic. This lethargy soon spreads to your scene until you just know that the only way anything’s gonna pop is if you get the hell out to where the action is. Destination choice is another predetermined characteristic of the affliction. You only see apples or oranges in your dreams. Prince chose the Big Apple because an older sister, Sharon, lived there.

“The only way I can relate to that period, is that it was part of a search,” Prince admits.

“While I was living with Sharon I got hooked up with a woman producer who was always busy pitching her own angles. She was only looking at me as a singer, the kind that opts for the silk capes, high heeled shoes and white Cadillacs. You know, somebody who dresses and sings the same part – a nice dresser and a sweet singer. I tried to explain that even though I didn’t have the key to the recording industry, that I knew myself and that I knew for sure what I would and wouldn’t do for that Key. I told her I never considered myself a singer. I saw myself as an instrumentalist who started singing out of necessity. I don’t think I ever got through, but I tried explaining, that to me, my voice is just like one of the instruments I play. It’s just one thing I do.”

Two years ago Prince was just another 16-year-old musician with a band. The drummer’s mother managed it, arranging as many school gigs and club appearances as she could. Today he’s an 18-year-old studio soloist who just may be sitting on the largest debut recording offer ever to be approved by Warner Brothers Records. Direction from Prince’s new manager, Owen Husney, a three-song demo tape and an awe-inspiring amount of talent landed a bottom line that reputedly ran into six figures.

The debut LP entitled Prince-For You established enough firsts in its own right to humble a limo-load of market-proven recording artists. “For You” is the first debut album ever to be completely controlled by the artist and his management. Prince was granted control of production, performance, composition and arrangement. On the LP, the Minnesota artist practiced what the contract preached. He arranged the material which — with the exception of “Soft and Wet” – he had created. In Warner Brothers’ Record Plant located in Sausalito, California this 18-year-old, 16-track neophyte stepped in and put down nine solid tunes — single handed. A previous studio merger had yielded the demo which had stimulated his lenient agreement. This time a developed conception emerged. Nine major league tunes — with lush instrumentation and enough multitrack voice dubbing to prompt the Divine Miss M into polishing her bugle.

Ironically. while Prince was in New York unsuccessfully explaining the magic he wanted to come across in a production to an unyielding producer, some of that same magic he’d left behind in Minneapolis was casting spells and lighting up wands on its own.

Before his eastern migration, Prince had gotten a call from Chris Moon, the owner of Moon Sound Inc., a recording studio in South Minneapolis. Moon had remembered the black dude on piano who had played with Shampayne in a previous session. Now he had a demo tape that needed a solid piano track tor icing. He knew Prince could easily handle the job and that he’d get an economical billing to boot.

After the pianist had added the keyboards he picked up a bass and suggested that it would also be an asset to the tape’s sound. Moon agreed, but added that he hadn’t planned on paying for a bass player too. While a mesmerized Moon sat behind the control panel, the kid from Shampayne laid down a tight bass line. Then he put the bass aside and pounded out a drum track, added an electric guitar lead line and finished by feeding the studio ’s recorders with multiple backup vocal tracks.

A short while after Moon had edited the tape, he asked the proprietor of The Ad Company at 430 Oak Grove to give it a listen. The agency ’s owner, Owen Husney had been through the corridors of the music industry. He’d done everything from local and national promotion to artist management over the years, and Moon was sure he’d recognize Prince’s unlimited potential when he heard the tape.

“That’s pretty good, who are they?”, was Owen’s initial response. While Moon explained that the “they” being referred to was one, and that the “one” hadn’t any positive commitments for the future, Owen’s eyes grew the size of record discs (color them platinum).

A phone call later and Prince was on his way back to the city of lakes; without the company of his silk pitching New York manager . . .

Owen and Prince became fast comrades. As it became apparent to Prince that he’d finally found a manager who would work with him instead of against him, the music began to flow. “I knew whatever had to be done for Prince had to be first class,” Owen stated. “If we went to L.A. or anywhere else to score a recording deal. we weren’t just going to go out there and phone record execs from our hotel room.” “The best support I could offer was to give Prince the confidence he needed to keep on doing it.”

A demo tape was cut at Sound 80 studios. The event, the young artist’s first long-term studio stay, created a bond between man and music-machine that isn’t likely to be broken. “For me, there’s nothing like working in a recording studio. It’s satisfying. It’s like painting. You being with a conception and keep adding instruments and laying tracks down. Soon, it’s like the monitors are canvas. The instruments are colors on a palet, the mikes and board are brushes. I just keep working it until I’ve got the picture or rather the sound that I heard inside my head when it was just an idea.”

Owen admits that Warner Brothers had a slight edge in negotiations due to friendships he had cultivated at the Southern California base. “But we were approached by everybody, and we considered each proposal.” Owen goes on to explain that although A&M and Columbia were more than a little interested in the 18-year-old Minnesota virtuoso, Warner Brothers showed the most positive interest in Prince’s music itself.

“We were wined and dined by a lot of companies, but when everybody else was talking gifts and bonuses, the people at Warner Brothers were actually listening to the demo.”

Owen also recalls an incident in the negotiations during which the duo demanded the unprecedented latitude that the final agreement out lined. “Naturally, their first reaction was sure, doesn’t everybody nowadays want to have complete control?”

After a visit to a studio where Prince displayed his creative expertise first hand, Warner Brothers was convinced. Complete control could be granted on the debut disc. A three-year, three-album contract was signed.

Owen says, “I made a point of not hassling Prince while he was working at the Record Plant. They’d go in at 7:00 P.M. and usually end up staying until sunrise. He kept the pace, five, sometimes six days a week for five months. Periodically he’d give me a tape so I could keep abreast of his progress, but otherwise he handled it himself.”

Currently, Prince is back in the Twin Cities, working on soundproofing his basement so the neighbors aren’t bothered as he jams the night through. He’s not star-struck over the recent airplay he’s been getting all over the country, but confesses that hearing one’s own tunes on the radio is altogether another kind of adventure.

“I was driving down the street in my Datsun the first time I heard it,” he says. “It wasn’t that I couldn’t believe it, it’s simply that my heart dropped to my knees.”

He’s also enthusiastic about taking his show on the road. That is, as soon as he assembles it. “Andre is a musician friend of mine from the days of Shampayne. He’s the only definite member of my touring group so far. Andre is a lot like me; he eats, and sleeps his music and that’s the only kind of people I want with me on that stage. I’m planning to add 6 or 7 people, a couple of keyboardists, a rhythm player and a percussionist. I’m looking for a big stage sound so I’d like to find people who can sing, too. During the performances I guess I’ll play guitar because that will allow me to move. It would be great if I could strap a piano around me too.”