It was the fall of 1978 and I was in Jimmy’s Music World in downtown Brooklyn. Having recently rewired my collecting impulses from baseball cards and comic books to LPs and 45’s–that’s vinyl albums and singles for you young ‘uns–I was looking for some product to play on my new Onkyo stereo component system. I was leafing through the R&B bin when I began to pay closer attention to the music on the in-store speakers.
The song was an uptempo pop-soul confection highlighted by the lead singer’s wispy falsetto. Curious, I went to the male cashier stationed by the store’s exit and asked about the music playing. “Oh, that’s ‘Soft And Wet’ by this new guy Prince,” he said while pointing to the back of the store. “It’s over there.” I found the album in question: For You. The price was $2.88. Worth a gamble, I thought. I took the album back to the cashier. He rung it up. I gave him three singles. He gave me back my change and the LP in a plastic bag. “They say he’s only eighteen,” he said as I walked out the door. (Years later, I found out Prince’s press people had shaved two years off of his actual age to make his debut seem even more impressive.)
That was my introduction to Prince Rogers Nelson, a supreme artist whose musical influence became so pervasive that critics invented the term “The Minneapolis Sound” after his birthplace to describe the electronic funk-rock-pop musical hybrid he created. (We folk in da hood just called it Prince shit.) He was a sublime singer, who not only produced, arranged, composed and played most of the instruments on all of his albums but did the same for labelmates The Time, Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, Sheila E., The Family, Tamara & The Seen, Jesse Johnson and Jill Jones. And that’s not counting acts like Ready For The World, Rockwell and The Jets who aped his sound to get their hits or Phil Collins who blatantly copped the hook from “1999” for “Sussudio.”
Prince also penned hit songs–many under pseudonyms–for other artists such as “Manic Monday” for the Bangles, “Nothing Compares 2 U” for Sinead O’Connor, “I Feel For You” for Chaka Khan, “Round And Round” for Tevin Campbell, “Kiss” for Tom Jones and “Sugar Walls” for Sheena Easton. (The diminutive dude had more writing aliases than W.C. Fields.) He also provided quality backdrops for many of his personal idols such as the aforementioned Khan, Mavis Staples, Larry Graham and Miles Davis. Unlike his rival and contemporary Michael Jackson, Prince managed to triumphantly branch out to film with 1984’s Purple Rain. The latter’s worldwide success enabled him to direct his next three features: Under The Cherry Moon, Graffiti Bridge and the wonderful concert film, Sign ‘O’ The Times.
Even early in his career, before he donned the neo-Victorian garb and staked permanent claim on the color purple, Prince understood the power of image and fashion. Who could forget in 1980 the outcry over the B&W cover of Dirty Mind with Prince wearing a coat, a scarf and a fully locked & loaded Speedo? Toss in the five-foot-three Prince’s ever-present high heels, carefully coiffed hair and makeup and ever-wiggling butt–he was the first male artist to brag about having a fine ass–and you had the most sexually ambiguous performer Black music had known. That’s why when he asked his listeners “Am I Black or White?/Am I straight or gay?” on the title cut of his 1981 album Controversy, they honestly didn’t know. More importantly, so deep was the personal connection he had formed with his fans they didn’t care either. They– we–just loved him.
I say we because I am one of those fans. His music–especially his Santana-influenced guitar solos–and his voice resonated with me like few others . Perhaps it was because he was a fellow Gemini who could musically capture my multitude of moods. Like any true Twin, Prince could and would careen from track to track, from elation to desolation to divine inspiration. This man managed to perfectly sum up my teens in “Uptown;” my twenties in “Dance Music Sex Romance;” my thirties in the Stevie Wonderish “Anotherloverholenyohead;” and my forties with “Better With Time.” And then, after decades of warming my heart with ballads like “Adore” and “Diamonds And Pearls,” finally broke it with the news on April 21st that he had died just two months from his 58th birthday.
Now I’d like to say that I knew Prince was a genius from the get-go but that would be a lie. I played For You a couple of times, thought it was okay and then relegated it to the ever-growing stack of albums in my closet. But I liked it enough that when I spotted his next LP on sale the following year in Alexander’s–the imaginatively entitled Prince–I immediately picked it up. (For $2.99!)
The considerable artistic growth from For You to Prince was apparent from the opening track, “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” Since the days of doo-wop, falsetto was used in R & B to reflect a romantic yearning. In addition, high-pitched sweet-voiced soul singers like Little Anthony, Smokey Robinson, Eddie Kendricks and the Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins Jr. projected an ethereal innocence. Not Prince. He was the first sexually aggressive falsetto. (Like Teddy Pendergrass on helium.) Where they were subtle, Prince was blatant. He wanted to get laid six ways to Sunday and wasn’t gonna be denied.
Also undeniable was the music. With his use of synths throughout his sophomore effort on tunes like “I Feel For You” and “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad,” Prince–the one man band–ushered in a new age of electronic funk. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the LP’s six-minute version of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” where the last three minutes plus is a pure jam. It’s no wonder Prince became renowned for writing songs with references to masturbation. The reason the album Prince still works today is because it captures the joy of one man playing with himself.
Grief can make a man do bewildering things. Being the Prince fanatic that I am, I would have thought I’d be playing his albums non-stop. After all, I have just about all of his–ahem–official releases. Yet, I can’t listen to any them. I get –and this really surprises me–too emotional. I can’t watch his movies and Purple Rain has been on almost non-stop on cable since the day he died. I can watch the tributes by other performers on YouTube–both Bruce Springsteen and Jennifer Hudson & the cast of The Color Purple tore up “Purple Rain”– but not his videos. I just can’t.
But there is one exception: that eponymous second LP. I couldn’t understand why for days. It isn’t my favorite Prince record. Depending on what hour you ask me, that might be Purple Rain or the Latin-influenced Emancipation or Sign ‘O’ The Times or Parade or….you get the point. But, late last night, it finally hit me. Have you ever seen a movie on television and then suddenly realize, hey, I got my first kiss from fill-in-the-blank at such-and-such theatre in blankety-blank year? And then you get a warm feeling from the memory. It’s almost as if you’re reliving it as you reminisce about it. Well, I realized that’s how I feel about that Prince disc. Yeah, he made far better albums. Works that I just fucking–reference intended–adore. But that LP takes me back 36 years. That record is the record of the time I fell in love with Prince. And every time I play it, we are both young again and the romance starts anew…