(Featured Image: Marylou and Prince, 1979; photo from Moments… Remembering Prince by Marylou Badeaux.)
This is the last d / m / s / r podcast of 2017, and I have to say we’re going out on a high note. It was my honor and privilege to speak with Marylou Badeaux: a former Warner Bros. executive who worked closely with Prince for his 17 years with the label, and the author of the newly-released memoir Moments… Remembering Prince. You can probably tell that I was a little nervous at the beginning of the conversation, but we warmed up quickly and had a great chat about Prince and his relationship with the label that, for better or worse, defined his era of peak artistic achievement.
Now, I have one last item of business to conduct before the podcast goes on holiday break. There are actually two winners of my contest for iTunes and Stitcher reviews–one for each platform. The first is Louise Be, for her eloquent and incredibly flattering review on Stitcher; the second is Mafalda Taborda, who not only left a very nice review on iTunes, but was also the first person to review the podcast on any platform. Louise and Mafalda, if you’re reading and/or listening to this, please email me and let me know which of the two recent Prince books you would prefer me to send: Marylou’s Moments, or Duane Tudahl’s Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions. And for everyone else who participated–and those who didn’t!–thanks for making the first year of the dance / music / sex / romance podcast such a pleasure to put together. I can’t wait to see where things go in 2018.
(Featured Image: The mass seduction begins; Prince at Cobo Hall, Detroit, December 1980. Photo by Leni Sinclair.)
As we’ve noted before, when Prince began recording in the spring of 1980, he had no specific project in mind. “The previous albums were done in California, where they have better studios,” he told Andy Schwartz of New York Rocker. “I’d never wanted to do an album in Minneapolis” (Schwartz 1981). But after less than a month of work, he’d decided that his new “demos” were good enough to release as his next proper album. “I was so adamant about it, once I got to the label, that there was no way they could even say ‘we won’t put this out,’” he told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. “I believed in it too much by that time” (Wilen 1981).
Prince’s resolute belief in the album that would become Dirty Mindplayed like a repeat of the bold position he took during the making of For You. But without an Owen Husney in his corner, this time even his management needed to be convinced. Prince brought his home recordings to Los Angeles to play for Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli. As he recalled to Schwartz, “They said, ‘The sound of it is fine. The songs we ain’t so sure about. We can’t get this on the radio. It’s not like your last album at all.’ And I’m going, ‘But it’s like me. More so than the last album, much more so than the first one’” (Schwartz 1981). The managers “thought that I’d gone off the deep end and had lost my mind,” Prince told Chris Salewicz of New Musical Express. It was only after some “long talks” with the artist that they finally relented (Salewicz 1981)–with the caveat that he have the tapes remixed at a professional studio.
(Featured Image: At Unique Records, San Francisco, 1978; photo stolen from Noisey.)
There’s a famous story, originating with former Warner Bros. executive Lenny Waronker, about the 1977test session in Los Angeles where Prince first demonstrated his ability to self-produce. “As I was walking through the studio, he was on the floor,” Waronker told the Minneapolis Star Tribunein 2004. “He looked up and said, ‘Don’t 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 18-year-old kid to say what he said was amazing. That, as much as anything, made me feel that we shouldn’t mess around with this guy” (Star Tribune 2004).
It’s important to note that, when Prince asked Waronker not to “make him black,” it was less an expression of internalized racism than one of pragmatic frankness. As we’ve noted before, Prince was acutely aware of the hypersegregated nature of the pop music market in 1978–not least because his own hometown of Minneapolis was among the most musically segregated in the country. His desire to be a “crossover” artist was fed in part by his vaunting ambition, of course, but also by the simple fact that if he didn’t break out of the R&B charts, his own city wouldn’t play him on the radio. So from the beginning, he struggled against being pigeonholed as an “R&B” (read: Black) artist.
The trouble was that “making Prince black” was the only way Warner Bros. knew how to sell him. When For Youwas released on April 7, 1978, the label struggled to get it reviewed in mainstream (again, read: white) publications; the only consistent national coverage came from African American-oriented teen magazines like Right On!, Soul Teen, and Black Beat. To be fair, some of the blame for Prince’s initial failure to cross over rested with his material: as many reviewers have observed, despite Prince’s protestations and aside from a few unusually muscular guitar parts, the majority of For You fits squarely in the Black soul and funk traditions. With one key exception, that is: the very last track, “I’m Yours.”
(Featured Image: Guy Bourdin, from Spring 1978 Charles Jourdan campaign.)
The sessions for Prince’s debut album at the Record Plant went from October 1 to December 22, 1977, with overdubs completed at Sound Labs in Los Angeles, early January 1978. The project began smoothly enough: “It took Prince a couple of weeks to sort of warm up to us, but after that we got along really cool,” assistant engineer Steve Fontano later recalled to biographer Per Nilsen. “He absorbed things and learned very quickly… I think he was impressed with the set-up. It was a very professional studio with a 24-track and platinum records on the wall” (Nilsen 1999 36-37). As we discussed a few weeks ago, Prince had grudgingly accepted the appointment of Tommy Vicari as an “executive producer” to supervise the project; he was a quick study, however, and exercised full creative control. “The situation didn’t allow Tommy to be an opinionated producer,” Fontano told Nilsen. “And Prince is not the kind of artist who asks, ‘Well, what do you think?’” Vicari “may have made suggestions like ‘why don’t we try this?’ or maybe done an edit, something of that nature,” but his role was ultimately limited to “making sure everything was recorded properly… and put on tape in a professional manner” (37).
But as the sessions continued, Prince’s perfectionism became an obstacle. “He wanted everything to be just right,” his manager at the time, Owen Husney, said to Nilsen. “He was into it totally. I remember David Rivkin having conversations with Prince saying, ‘You know, your vocals are too on. The harmonies are too exact. You’re spending too much time to make the album perfect. Don’t make it perfect’” (Nilsen 1999 37). In a 1981 interview with Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker, Prince agreed with this assessment–though, characteristically, he laid much of the blame on Vicari’s shoulders. “He was supposed to help out and cut corners…basically teach me the studio,” he recalled, “but he didn’t. So I took a long time to do the album…it was pretty painstaking.” Later in the interview, however, he admitted his own role in the “painstaking” process: “I wanted to make it good, and bereft of mistakes, and in the process it took a long time to make… It was a perfect record, and um, I don’t know, it was too scientific, I guess” (Sutherland 1981).